In 1977 Archbishop Dmitri of blessed memory, then Bishop of Hartford and New England,was asked by his brother bishops of the Orthodox Church in America to take responsibility for the few OCA churches then extant in the South. Born in Texas, Bishop Dmitri had a zeal to bring Orthodox Christianity to his native South. Father George Gladky of blessed memory, pastor of the Church of Christ the Saviour in Miami, had founded several churches in Florida, and the Bishop blessed him to plant churches throughout the region. The two chose several likely cities for their first efforts; Jackson, Mississippi,was not among them.
But Drs. Frank and Vickie Kulik of New York had recently moved to Jackson and yearned for an English-language Orthodox Church here. They persuaded Fr. George to give Jackson a try. Frank called everyone in the telephone book with an “Orthodox name” and placed ads in the newspaper to attract anyone who might be interested. Fr. George and Bishop Dmitri served several services here in the first few months of 1977 in the downtown Holiday Inn (now the Marriott) and at the Kulik home in Jackson.
Among those who came were Carl and Anna Fisher of blessed memory, who became pillars of Holy Resurrection until they moved to Virginia in 1987; Kitty Khalaf, our long-time Treasurer; Dr. Onssy Anis of blessed memory, with his wife Victoria and their children; Albert Saad; and Norman and Leslie Wood. Another who came was the future Fr. Paul with his wife Sissy and their children Wisdom, Mary, and Margaret. He was then the Rev. Norval Yerger, pastor of the Episcopal Churches in McComb and Magnolia, Mississippi. He had become interested in Orthodoxy through a seminary classmate, Fr. Joseph Hirsch of blessed memory. Yerger had also met Fr. Thomas Hopko of St. Vladimir’s Seminary; Fr. Thomas suggested to his old friend Frank Kulik that he call Yerger.
By Pascha 1977 the Yergers were ready to embrace Orthodoxy. On June 13 Fr. George and Fr. Joseph came to Jackson and baptized the youngest Yerger, Margaret, and chrismated the rest of the Yerger family and two other adults in the Kuliks’ carport. Also in attendance at that service were the future Fr. John Henderson, his wife Janet, and other leaders of the group that eventually became St. Peter’s Orthodox Church in Madison. They had seen the newspaper ad and this was their first Orthodox service.
Fr. Paul, Matushka Sissy, and their children then left for New York, where he studied under Fr. Hopko, and the Jackson group began to hold reader services weekly in the Millsaps College chapel. Fr. Paul was ordained priest in New York on September 3. 1977, by Bishop Dmitri. The Yergers then returned to Mississippi and regular Divine Liturgies began in mid-September, often with over 30 people in attendance. This group included the Kuliks, Joe and Kitty Khalaf and their sons Bassam of blessed memory, Randy, and Nader; the Fishers, Charles Haddad and his wife Vivian of blessed memory, Onssy Anis of blessed memory and his family; Albert and Margaret Saad; Dorothy Porter, Ann Slack, and Tom Waggener.
Millsaps Chapel could not host us permanently, however, and finding a place to meet was difficult. We met for a while in the waiting room of a medical clinic (which we almost set on fire), then in the Youth for Christ center on Manhattan Road in north Jackson, where we served our first Pascha services in 1978. Among the visitors on Manhattan Road was Jud Farmer, who “visited” another twenty years before being chrismated in 1997.
After several unsuccessful attempts to buy property, in September 1978 we leased a small space in an office building at 180 Sheppard Road in north Jackson. This became our church for two years, and gave a feeling of stability after a year of setting up church out of suitcases. Fr. John Zanidachis, then pastor of Holy Trinity and St. John the Theologian Greek Orthodox Church, helped us build an iconostasis. We began to accumulate all the things Orthodox like to have in Church, thanks to “hand-me-downs” from generous churches elsewhere. A notable gift was a beautiful crystal chandelier from Frank Gillis of Baltimore of blessed memory. David Varnado, who had been Fr. Paul’s parishioner in Magnolia, was chrismated here, along with Leslie Mabry.
On Sheppard Road Fr. Nick Saikley of blessed memory, pastor of St. George’s Church in Vicksburg, was the first of our frequent guest speakers. Over the years speakers have included Fr. Thomas Hopko (four times), Fr. Peter Smith of Atlanta, Mother Alexandra of blessed memory, Fr. Sergei Glagolev (twice), Mother Christophora (twice), Fr. Joseph Hirsch of blessed memory, Fr. Roman Braga of blessed memory, Fr. Andrew Tregubov (twice), Fr. Stephen Freeman (twice), Fr. Dimitri Cozby, Mother Magdalena, Fr. Jacob Myers of blessed memory, Father Jon Braun, Fr. Peter Gilquist of blessed memory, Dr. H. Tristram Englehardt, Fr. David Rucker, and Fr. Patrick Reardon (some of these were joint events with St. Peter’s Church). They have attracted seekers and stimulated our own people.
We still consider it a miracle that in August, 1980, in a time of very tight money, we were able to get a loan and buy a building that perfectly met our needs: a large old house in Clinton right at the Interstate, even already converted into a church by Presbyterians. The Fishers already lived in Clinton and several other members eventually located here. The original note on the Clinton property was signed by Fr. Paul, Fr. George Gladky, Carl Fisher, Leslie Mabry, David Varnado and Lynn Green. (Kitty Khalaf was in Syria at the time.) If the bankers knew how many church loans Fr. George guaranteed at the same time and how few assets he had, they would have gasped, but I never heard of his having to pay one off! Five years later the Yergers bought a house just down the street.
The newly-acquired building had a kitchen and a place to eat, so we were able to have more fellowship and Church School, and we began to have more visitors. Jonah Ford was chrismated at Pascha 1982, along with Norman Wood, who became our choir director, and his family. Under his leadership, and blessed by several strong singers, our choir has gained a reputation over the years as among the best in the Diocese. We even had a visit from Metropolitan Theodosius in July 1982, and that year we commissioned our first hand-written icons by Fr. John Matusiak.
In March 1987 most of us drove 35 miles to St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Vicksburg for a historic event: the reception into Holy Orthodoxy of St. Peter’s Church, now in Madison, and St. John’s Church in Memphis. Father Paul was privileged to serve with Bishop Antoun and Fr. Nick Saikley and assist in chrismating some 100 people.
Throughout our 35 years one of God’s greatest gifts to Holy Resurrection has been the support and fellowship of the other three Orthodox Churches in the area. From the beginning St. George’s and Holy Trinity and St. John welcomed us warmly; Fr. Nick Saikley in particular was a special friend. As we have mentioned, members of the community that would become St. Peter’s Church were present at our first services and in many ways we helped “birth” them into Orthodoxy. We frequently hold joint events, such as blessing the Ross Barnett Reservoir at Theophany, and Paschal Vespers. In the early nineties Charles and Vivian Haddad, who operated the Centre Deli in downtown Jackson, offered to feed all the priests monthly, and ever since the pastors of these four churches have stayed in touch by a monthly lunch at local restaurants.
In several stages we enlarged our worship and dining space within the house-church by removing interior walls; it’s a wonder the house still stands. But by the nineties we had done as much of that as we could and still were crowded, especially at meals after services, which are normal at Holy Resurrection. We’ve always had lots of children and somehow they take up more space than adults. In 1987 we bought more land adjacent to the Church, and in 1990 we engaged a local architect to plan a Temple. The cost to build it, however, was much more than we had planned and it was impossible to scale it down to our means. By 1995 we were very disappointed and crowded, and after much struggle and prayer decided to build a simple parish hall and defer building a temple until we could do it right. Builder Earl Lawson, father of our member Al Lawson, helped us build a spacious and attractive hall that enhanced our life together. The hall freed up space in the house, enabling us to enlarge our worship space.
Fr. Andrew Tregubov, one of the finest iconographers in this country, was a guest speaker in 1998 and we decided to have him do new larger icons for the iconostas. He is still our main iconographer; the iconostasis and all the large murals in our Temple are his work.
From the start a sizable proportion of the congregation drove 80 miles or more to worship here; this has become normal for us. By 1999 we had three households in the McComb-Magnolia area of Southwest Mississippi. For more than twenty years David Varnado and Jonah Ford had driven 80 miles every weekend to attend Church here. In 1995 David had married the former Edie Lundy (the first wedding held in our Clinton Church) and now had a growing family. In 1999 the McComb members began to hold weekly reader’s Vespers in the Varnado home. The purchase in April, 2002, of a small church building in central McComb gave a visible base for mission there.
At Theophany 2001 the four Orthodox Churches of the Jackson-Vicksburg area celebrated our first annual outdoor water blessing at the Ross Barnett Reservoir. We still do this every year.
The most important event of the last ten years was our move to new buildings in 2007. We had always hoped to build a traditional style Orthodox temple on our property, but we did not succeed. One day a member noticed that the Mount Salus Presbyterian Church, only a mile down the street, was for sale. It was a gracious traditional Protestant red-brick church built in the 1950s, with a two-story classroom and office wing and a hall with a dining room and kitchen and more classrooms. The gently curved ceilings of the church building would lend themselves very well to iconography. Because our old property was at an interstate exit, we sold it for more than the new property cost, and with generous donations and a mortgage we were able to renovate it extensively. We felt that the Lord did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Another miracle was that our whole community agreed on it and we moved with unanimity. It was thrilling to make a procession from the old church to the new, down the street through Mississippi College, singing, with robes, incense, icons, and banners. The new property was recognizable as a church and seemed to enable more people to try us out. We grew more rapidly and attracted a wider age group, including some parents of our members. We named our Parish Hall for Archbishop Dmitri and our office and classroom wing for Father George Gladky.
From early years we have operated a bookstore, at first in a corner of our house church. It was managed first by Matushka Sissy, then by David Varnado, and now by Katherine Clark. At our new property it got a large attractive space of its own, first in the classroom building and now next to the dining room, with lots of books, icons, recordings, crosses, and all the Orthodox “stuff” not easily found in Mississippi. We never expected it to make money, but through the years it has helped many seekers, some of whom came to get books before they ever came to church.
A big event of 2007 was that Christ the Saviour Mission in McComb got a resident priest. This was the aim of our efforts there, but it also meant that about a quarter of our active members, including some of our most committed and generous ones, no longer attended Holy Resurrection. But by God’s providence within a couple of years our Clinton attendance and contributions were back to what they were before.
From the beginning of our Church Fr. Paul supported himself by secular work; the last 22 years he worked with information technology at Mississippi Baptist Health Services. In general this worked well here. It has freed him and his family from financial anxiety and enabled the Church to do more with its limited resources. But as we grew in numbers the Church needed more of his time, and he was able to leave Baptist in 2008.
We started out as a congregation of young people and buried only two members in our first 25 years. But the last ten years were saddened by the repose of many beloved members. In 2012 we learned that Tony Varner, one of our most loved members, was diagnosed with ALS. From then until his repose in October, 2014, many of us were involved in visiting him and his family, participating in the annual ALS Walk, and being inspired by his cheerfulness and courage.
We are blessed that our new church property is next door to the Clinton Cemetery, which dates from about 1800. Many of our departed members are now buried there within sight of the church. On Holy Friday night we make the procession with the Epitaphios through the cemetery past their lighted graves, a very moving event.
Especially hard for us was the retirement of Archbishop Dmitri in 2009 and his repose on August 28, 2012. With Fr. George Gladky, he planted Holy Resurrection and he ordained Fr. Paul to serve here. He was the only bishop most of us knew and was like a father to us, always encouraging us, believing in us, and here to help when we had any troubles. May the Lord grant him the Kingdom of Heaven.
Often people attribute the remarkable growth and success of the Diocese of the South to Archbishop Dmitri’s having grown up a Southern Baptist and thus being able to communicate well with Southern Protestants. Certainly this was a factor. He always said he never disparaged the Baptists, because they taught him to love the Lord and love the Scriptures, and he was deeply grateful for it.
But he learned another very important teaching from the Baptists and not from the Orthodox: tithing. From the beginning he taught it, and at our second Diocesan Assembly in 1979 he secured agreement that members of parishes and missions would be asked to donate a proportion of their income to the parish and the parish would tithe its income to the Diocese, avoiding any per-capita “dues” or other assessments. Holy Resurrection has followed this practice; we pay all our normal operating expenses from what our own members give; we give a tenth of all our income to the Diocese and they send an appropriate proportion to the OCA. We avoid fund-raisers and gimmicks. And over these 40 years the Lord has provided for whatever we needed to do.
Matushka Sissy Yerger fell asleep in the Lord unexpectedly on October 7, 2015. At Holy Resurrection she was the first choir director, bookstore manager, janitor, and everything in between. She was involved in everything that happened here and cared passionately about it. She was a confidante of many. We still miss her.
From the beginning we have had many “born” Orthodox of Middle Eastern backgrounds and a few of Slavic backgrounds, but mostly we were a “convert” Church, in that most of our members came to Orthodox Christianity as adults; indeed most were brought into Orthodoxy here. They have come mainly from conservative Protestant backgrounds, because that’s what most people in central Mississippi are, although we have attracted some of almost every religious background. Beginning in the mid-nineties we have become more diverse, with people from Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Greece, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Moldova, Egypt, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Ethiopia and elsewhere.
Most of our converts have been Christians from other traditions who were attracted to Orthodox theology or worship. In recent years we are receiving many who did not come for theological reasons, many who were not reared in any church, but who found help and comfort for personal needs and struggles in their lives in the worship and fellowship of the church. It is a special joy to see the Lord’s work of healing in this.
Being a “convert Church” means growth is slow, as almost every new member must take time to be convinced of the truth of Orthodoxy and be instructed, usually a year, before membership. For most of our history we have been a youthful group, with many people in their twenties and thirties. But many young people we bring into the Church soon move elsewhere to continue their education or pursue careers. We try to regard this as part of our mission; many people who first encountered or embraced Orthodoxy at Holy Resurrection are now active members of other Orthodox Churches all over the country. Two members have embraced the monastic life: Peter Luckett is at the Monastery of the All-Merciful Saviour, Vashon Island, WA, and Jimmy Gekides, now the Monk Moses, is on Mt. Athos.
We have attracted people of many different backgrounds with different expectations for the Church, and this history would not be complete without mentioning that a few times in our 40 years we have experienced conflicts which resulted in some of our most active members’ leaving our community. These were especially painful because we are a very close group. Archbishop Dmitri was especially pastoral at such times, urging us not to be discouraged but to press on in spite of losses. And God’s grace and mercy have been active in that some of those who left us have returned and been reconciled, and others have become active members of other Orthodox Churches. We have been blessed with peaceable and loving leaders and parish councils and few conflicts.
The following words were written as we celebrated our tenth anniversary in 1987, and form just as fitting a conclusion now: The real story of Holy Resurrection Church or of any church cannot be told by dates and buildings and objects. Much of it cannot be told at all. It is written in the hearts of men and women, many of whom have moved on, many of whom were never even members, who heard a word, saw an icon, made a confession, received a few dollars for a sandwich, lit a candle, found a friend, lived through a Cross, or in some other way were able to experience God’s love because this Church was here. For this reason and not because we have accomplished something do we give thanks for this Holy Church. May it be a seed growing secretly, to bring forth fruit in That Day.