Inside the 'utter insanity' of a tiny Saint John church's biggest celebration

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church on Dorchester Street in uptown Saint John might be tiny, but it has a big personality.

For Eastern Orthodox Christians, Easter is 'the biggest day of the year in our calendar'

At the Service of the Resurrection, the priest lights either a candle, a series of three candles, 'or, if you’re young and brave like myself, two sets of 33 candles,' said Rev. Andrew Allain, pictured. It's all part of Great and Holy Week, observed this week by Orthodox Christians. (Submitted by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church)

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church might be tiny, but it has a big personality. 

Sunday is Pascha — or Easter — for Orthodox Christians around the world, who use the Julian calendar to set the date for the holiday.

The pint-size Saint John church hosts its massive celebration this weekend, a week after Roman Catholics and other Christians.

St. Nicholas, which seats only 40 people, was constructed by the Greek community in Saint John more than 65 years ago. Today, the congregation is a diverse mixture of nationalities and Eastern Orthodox traditions. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Leading up to Pascha are seven days of special services, processions, meals and traditions known as Great and Holy Week. 

The Saint John church has been the hub for Great and Holy Week celebrations in New Brunswick for decades. 

The holiday is "the pinnacle of the life of the Orthodox Church," said Rev. Andrew Allain.

The celebration is "utter insanity," the parish priest said. "It pours out onto the streets."

As many as 100 people attend Pascha services at the tiny St. Nicholas church. (Submitted by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church)

Tiny church, big legacy

St. Nicholas church was built by Greek immigrants to Saint John in 1952 at 33 Dorchester St.

With narrow stained-glass windows and a rounded copper dome, the sanctuary seats just 40 people.

"At that time, [the Greek community] was very poor,' Allain said. "They went around door to door collecting money and had other fundraisers and were fortunate enough to find the plot of land on Dorchester Street."

The Greek community finished building the church on Dorchester Street in 1952. (Submitted by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church)

The church has become a lasting monument to the role of Greek immigrants in the cultural life of Saint John.

"This is the oldest Greek Orthodox parish in New Brunswick and the only one with its own church building at this point," Allain said.

Rev. Andrew Allain is the parish priest of the church. At age 27, he is one of the youngest Greek Orthodox priests in the country. (Julia Wright / CBC)

While many of the traditions — like the key role of iconography, the veneration of saints, and choral music — are similar to Catholicism, the churches are separate from one another.

Allain conducts services in Greek and English, as well as Russian and Old Church Slavonic, the language used by the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe.

Lilies decorate the altar at St Nicholas for the Paschal season. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Processions, lamb intestine soup

Holy Week starts March 31, called Lazarus Saturday, and runs until Pascha on April 8.

During the Paschal season, Greek Orthodox Christians greet each other with "Christ is Risen!" ("Χριστὸς ἀνέστη!" in Greek)  to which the other person responds,"Truly, He is risen!" ("Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!")

On Good Friday, which was April 6 this year, women of the church decorate an elaborate wooden bier called the epitaph, or tomb, which is covered in fresh flowers. Members of the congregation carry it in a procession down Dorchester, Carleton, and Coburg streets, bringing it to the front of the church. A richly embroidered velvet cloth bearing an icon of Christ's burial is also brought in the procession and placed inside.

Traditional Pascha sweetbreads sit in a basket at the church. (Submitted by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church)

On Saturday, at the stroke of midnight, the church is kept in total darkness as the priest lights either a candle, a series of three candles, "or, if you're young and brave like myself, two sets of 33 candles," said Allain.

After lighting their own candles from the fire, members of the crowd spill onto the sidewalk to hear a Gospel reading.

According to the Slavic tradition, the priest also blesses Easter baskets containing food given up for Lent: kielbasa or sausages, horseradish sauce (or haroset), eggs, butter moulded into the shape of a lamb, and wine, eaten after the service, as well as kulich, a sweet bread with white icing.

Fresh flowers are placed by an icon of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of the church. (Julia Wright / CBC)

After church ends at midnight or 3 a.m., the Greeks "will make probably my least favourite Greek dish — one that I refuse to have in my household," said Allain, referring to magiritsa, a soup made with lamb intestine and romaine lettuce.

On Sunday, Allain said, "whenever we finally wake up — either in the morning or afternoon as the case may be" — everyone partakes of a Paschal meal of lamb.

Dyed-red eggs, called kokkina avga in Greek, are also eaten to symbolize rebirth and the blood of Christ.

Rev. Allain lights a candle at the tiny church on Dorchester Street in Saint John. Pascha, or Easter, is the biggest holiday of the year for Orthodox Christians. (Julia Wright / CBC)

All are welcome

As with most traditional churches, times are changing for St. Nicholas.

"There have been ups and downs," Allain said. "The economic situation here in Saint John has sort of cleared us out of the next generation of Greeks who would be attending.

"A great many of them find work outside the city, they attend university, and a lot of them have no plans to come back."

A candlelight service during Great and Holy Week at St. Nicholas. (Submitted by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church)

But recently, Allain said, the decline in the Greek population has been "balanced somewhat from immigration."

St. Nicholas has found its ranks unexpectedly swelling with newcomers to Saint John from Russia, Ukraine, Serbia and Ethiopia.

The tomb or epitaph, pictured, is decorated with fresh flowers and carried in a procession through the streets on Good Friday. (Submitted by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church)

An influx of Romanians in New Brunswick to work in the aquaculture industry has led to the founding of a Romanian Orthodox Mission by another priest, Rev. Cezar Pelin.

"God willing, the Romanians will be building [their own church] within the next few years," said Allain.

As many as 100 people are expected to attend this year's Pascha celebrations, Allain said.

"It's the biggest day of the year in our calendar."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Julia Wright is a reporter based in Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.