SNOHOMISH — A business park is an unlikely place to find the home of an ancient faith. Yet to enter St. Thomas Orthodox Church, just west of Avenue D in the Bonneville Business Park, is to experience a worship space that transcends time.
The Orthodox faith is as old as Christianity itself.
There are icons of Christ, of Mary with the baby Jesus, and of the apostles, traditionally painted with gold leaf and egg tempera. To Orthodox Christians, icons are known as “windows to heaven.” There is the fragrance of incense, used during the Orthodox liturgy. And there are no pews. During Orthodox worship, the congregation stands.
“There’s definitely a difference between this and a rock ’n’ roll church,” said the Rev. David Sommer, the priest at St. Thomas since its start 12 years ago. The church now has 84 members, Sommer said Wednesday.
The Russian Orthodox Church, including St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Seattle, will celebrate Christmas on Sunday — or Jan. 7 each year. That’s in accordance with the Julian calendar, which predates the Gregorian calendar. Sommer said that many Orthodox churches once celebrated the Nativity on Jan. 7, but that in 1923 many in the United States changed to Dec. 25.
At St. Thomas and many Orthodox churches, Sunday will mark the Theophany of the Lord. It is the observance of Jesus’ baptism, Sommer said. After his church’s 9:30 a.m. Divine Liturgy on Sunday, the feast day will be celebrated with a water blessing at Blackmans Lake in Snohomish.
Roman Catholics on Sunday will celebrate Epiphany, the visit to the Christ child by the Magi, wise men from the East. The eve of Epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas, or Twelfth Night.
Aspects of the Orthodox Christian Church may be familiar to Catholics, including some prayers and parts of the worship service. Yet there are certainly differences. Sommer, for instance, is married with five children, ages 6 to 18.
“We are allowed to marry before ordination,” said Sommer, 43, who was raised in the Orthodox faith and is the son of a priest.
His wife Heather Sommer is an iconographer. She has painted icons for St. Thomas Orthodox Church, St. Andrew Orthodox Christian Church in Arlington, and the dome of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Kansas City, Kansas.
Her father, the Rev. A. James Bernstein, was Jewish before converting to Orthodox Christianity as a teenager. Author of the book “Surprised By Christ,” Bernstein has been a priest at St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Brier.
A “Welcome!” brochure available at the Snohomish church calls the Orthodox Church “America’s best-kept secret.” Worldwide, it says, there are some 225 million Orthodox Christians, more than a million of them in the United States. Sommer said his church is part of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. “Our church is stationed out of Los Angeles,” he said.
From a small start, with just a dozen members, the Snohomish church has grown and now plans to move from its rented space. There’s now a horse barn on property it owns, but the hope is to build a church. Sommer said he’s working with the county on building plans.
Sommer offered a brief history of the early church: “There were five main centers of Christianity in the early centuries — Rome being one,” he said. The others were Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople (now Istanbul). Ruins of the ancient Greco-Roman city of Antioch, sometimes called the “cradle of Christianity,” are near today’s Antakya in Turkey.
“All the bishops were equal,” said Sommer, who attended Orthodox seminary in Pennsylvania. According to his summation, the early split in Christianity came when the bishop of Rome decided he was “more equal than the others.”
With the ancient traditions of his faith, Sommer said his world is somewhat outside mainstream modern life.
“This is my regular outfit,” he said, pointing to his long black cassock, a flowing garment worn by Orthodox priests. “I wear this to Murphy football games,” he said. “Our kids know they’re different, but it’s all they’ve ever known.”
Sommer and his wife have home-schooled their children, but in recent years their kids have attended St. Michael Catholic School in Snohomish and Archbishop Murphy High School, also a Catholic school, near Mill Creek.
St. Thomas Orthodox Church, he said, has members from many backgrounds — Romanian, Russian and Syrian, but also American.
“A lot of our converts come from Protestant backgrounds,” Sommer said. “They came seeking a traditional faith grounded in 2,000 years of history.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; email@example.com.
St. Thomas Orthodox Church is at 1309 Bonneville Ave., Suite D, Snohomish. It is part of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Worship times and other information at: www.orthodoxsnohomish.com/