A few weeks ago we were contacted by someone from the St Nicholas Center (http://www.stnicholascenter.org) asking if they could use some photos I had taken of the church my wife is attending, Millville N.J.‘s St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic. Of course I said yes. But then my correspondent asked if I could take pictures of another church she had heard of: St Nicholas Old Believer’s Church. It’s on the other side of Millville from our St Nick’s, on an ancient road that dead ends in woods. We had to visit.
The Old Believers have a fascinating history. They were Russian Orthodox Christians who refused to comply with liturgical changes mandated by the Patriarch and Czar in the 1650s. As usual, there was a lot of politics involved, with the Czar wanting to cozy up with the Greek Orthodox to ally Russia against the Muslim Ottomans, etc., etc. The theological charge was that the Greek traditions were the standard and Russian differences latter-day innovations to be stamped out (more modern research has found the Russians actually were closer to the older forms, but no matter: what the Czar and Patriarch want, the Czar and Patriarch get). The old practices were banned, beginning hundreds of years of state-sponsored persecution for the “Old Believers.” The survivors scattered to the four corners of the Russian empire and beyond, keeping a low profile wherever they went.
The Old Believers have a fascinating fractured history. Because their priests were killed off in the seventeenth century, they lost their claims of apostolic succession – the idea that there’s an unbroken line of ordination from Jesus Christ himself. Some Old Believers found work-arounds or claimed a few priests were spared but the hardcore among them declared succession over, signaling the end times and the fall of the Church. They became priestless Old Believers – so defensive of the old liturgy that they were willing to lose most of the liturgy. They’ve scattered around the world, often wearing plain dress and living in isolated communities.
The Old Believers church in Millville has no signs, no website, no indication of what it is (a lifelong member of “our” St Nick’s called it mysterious and said he little about it of it). From a few internet references, they appear to be the priestless kind of Old Believers. But it has its own distinctions: apparently one of the greatest iconographers of the twentieth century lived and worshipped there, and when famed Russian political prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn visited the U.S. he made a point of speaking at this signless church on a dead end road.
* Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Believers
* Account of US Lithuanian Bespopovtsy communities: http://www.synaxis.info/old-rite/0_oldbelief/history_eng/nicoll.html
* OSU Library on iconographer Sofronv (PDF): http://cmrs.osu.edu/rcmss/CMH21color.pdf
* Solzhenitsyn’s 1976 visit: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2057793/posts