Being new to the region, if not to the religion beat, many of my assignments have enabled me to discover new areas of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Earlier this week I was able to visit the Laurel Highlands for the first time -- and definitely not the last time.
I was there on a cool but beautiful afternoon for the burial of the nation's longest-serving Orthodox bishop, the Antiochian Metropolitan Philip Saliba. He was buried at Antiochian Village, the camp and conference center in Westmoreland County whose founding he oversaw as part of his mission to transplant and extend the immigrant church in American soil.
While I was there, I saw a relative rarity in these parts: the tomb of a saint. The Antiochian Orthodox honor their first American bishop, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, and after Metropolitan Saliba's burial in a small, shaded cemetery at Antiochian Village, several stopped by St. Raphael's tomb to pay respects.
St. Raphael came here in the late 19th century under the auspices of Russian Orthodox bishops to help organize the Arab Christian immigrants who were arriving in North America -- fleeing Ottoman persecution and seeking better economic opportunity.
Most of them were Orthodox. When they got here they worked hard to build churches and sacrificed. It was the Russian Orthodox Church that was trying to care for them."
Russian Orthodox prelates arranged to bring Raphael here and eventually ordained him a bishop.
"His story is remarkable because he basically set it as his mission to find every Middle Eastern Orthodox person in North America," said the Very Rev. George Kevorkian, pastor of St. Ignatius Church in Englewood, N.J., and hierarchical assistant for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. "Wherever they were, he sought them out by train, by horse carriage; he walked. There's a story that's told that when he got somewhere in the Midwest by train rather than going to sleep he went wandering asking everybody he saw are there any Arabic-speaking people in the area who are Christians, and he found three and spent the rest of the night talking to them, assisting them. That's the heart he had. We call him the shepherd of the lost sheep of North America, because without his ministry, who knows what would have happened to those people?"
By the time of his death in 1915, there were 29 Antiochian parishes in North America. There are now about 275, according to the church, many launched under the recent half-century tenure of Metropolitan Philip.
Among those visiting his tomb on Monday were the Rev. Gregory Murphy of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Geneva, N.Y. -- a parish founded by St. Raphael.
Father Murphy said St. Raphael was known not only as a "good shepherd" but also a "peacemaker."
"There are stories that he would go into a community and maybe families were not getting along with each other, and he worked out their problems," said Father Murphy, a convert to Orthodoxy. Speaking after Metropolitan Philip's burial, he said the church has long had "these great saints that came up organically. ... We see one today, maybe in the making."