By TOM CHESEK
At 1p tomorrow, one of Red Bank’s best-kept cultural secrets is scheduled to step into public view, bringing with it a millenium of tradition.
A procession of worshippers and local dignitaries led by the the Very Reverend Archpriest Serge Lukianov will leave St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church at 15 Pearl Street carrying brilliant banners and icons. They’ll file past the Rite Aid and Dunkin’ Donuts, cross West Front Street past the crisply corporate Hovnanian Enterprises headquarters to the foot of Maple Avenue for a blessing of the waters ceremony that will culminate with the release of white doves over the Navesink.
The rite is an integral part of the Orthodox observance of the Feast of the Epiphany each January 19, commemorating the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, as well as the appearance of the dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit.
For Lukianov and his congregation, however, the occasion also marks something of a rebirth; a re-entry into the mainstream of a 53-year-old community that had all but dwindled into extinction as recently as a year ago.
To the thousands of drivers who snake southbound on Route 35 as it traces its often baffling way through town, the modest white structure with the tiny onion-dome spire might scarcely rate a sidelong glance. But there’s a lot of history in the 1910 building that’s served as home for both the original Pilgrim Baptist Church (it was right here where a young fellow named William Basie first performed music in public) and, for more than half a century, St. Nicholas Church and its schoolhouse for primary-grade children.
Historical pedigree notwithstanding, church membership had dwindled to a scant ten people by 2006, with a building that was in need of serious maintenance and a rector who did his best to administer to the needs of the small congregation between full-time duties in his Ocean County home base.
Lukianov, a fifth-generation cleric and a 40-year resident of the Jersey Shore, was reassigned from his longtime position at St. Alexander Nevsky in Howell to troubleshoot the situation in Red Bank.
“It’s difficult to find a full-time priest for such a small parish,” says Lukianov, who took over administration at St. Nicholas in November. “The bishop assigned me to, essentially, resurrect the parish.”
In just a matter of weeks, and with the help of several of his former parishioners in Howell, the new rector got busy writing a new chapter in the venerable church’s history. He’s seen to some crucial structural repairs, installed new paintings and frescoes within the building’s ornate interior, and even re-introduced two sets of pews that were among the building’s original furnishings. (Russian Orthodox services are traditionally conducted with the congregation standing).
Services, now held regularly on Saturdays and Sundays, are presented both in English and in the Eastern European dialect known as Church Slovenic. And after just two months on the job, Lukianov found himself conducting services to groups numbering between 50 and 75 people.
Members of the Lukianov family, while continuing to reside in Howell, have joined the Red Bank congregation, with sons Nektary and Peter serving respectively as choirmaster and as administrator of the church’s all-new website, which boasted more than 4,000 hits in its first two weeks online. A staff of support clergy assists in the weekly services, and plans are on the boards to erect a new sign designed to be visible from Route 35.
While Lukianov hopes to “start a new tradition in Red Bank” with Saturday’s blessing of the waters, the ceremony dates back centuries in Russia, where, as the priest points out, “they’ve got real winters, compared to the kind we’ve had around here in recent years.” While it’s customary for clergy and parishioners to saw through the thickly frozen surface of local rivers or lakes and stand in the frigid currents as they remove samples of the blessed waters, such “Polar Bear Club” style activities are strictly optional here on the muddy banks of the Navesink.
Saturday’s activities are scheduled to feature the participation of Mayor Pat Menna and members of the town council. The nearby Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on River Road has offered use of its hall for a post-ceremony luncheon.
With the thousand-year-old Russian Orthodox Church having made a spectacular comeback in the post-Communist era, and the Synod of Bishops in New York (headquarters of what was formerly the “exiled” wing of the church) having made an historic reunification with the mother country in May 2007, the church has assumed a central role in the lives of its 21st century congregation, many of them recent arrivals to the region from Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia and Georgia, says Lukianov.
“There’s no work to be found at home, so people come here to this beautiful country, leave their children back home and become so, so lonely,” he says. “To be able to talk to a priest and hear a service in their language it’s like an island within a strange place.”