In heart of Bible Belt, Russian Orthodox church far from ordinary

Posted: Friday, August 09, 2002

BROOKSIDE, Ala. (AP) -- The Rev. Benedict Tallant seems like a typical Alabama preacher with his GMC pickup truck and slow drawl, yet the three-armed cross and onion-shaped copper dome on his little brick church stand out in the Bible Belt.

Tallant -- Father Benedict to parishioners -- is pastor of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, the oldest patriarchal Russian congregation in the South.

Just as Roman Catholic churches report to the pope in Rome, tiny St. Nicholas is under the auspices of Alexy II, head of the church in Russia.

''Our patriarch is in Moscow,'' Tallant said.

That's a long way from Brookside, a town of about 1,400 people some 20 miles north of Birmingham.

The church was organized in 1894 for Slavic immigrants who came to Alabama to work in area coal mines. The mines played out years ago, but a half-dozen of the congregations remain.

''Most families had up to 10 kids,'' said Helen Slatsky, at 80 the oldest active member at St. Nicholas, which has about 70 members and averages 30 people for its Sunday service.

Slatsky's parents immigrated from Slovakia in the early 1900s. Her life today is a mix of the Old World and the New: Two icons hang on a wall above her TV, while a miniature University of Alabama football helmet decorates a tabletop.

The congregation has changed through the decades. While the church cemetery is filled with tombstones bearing family names including Bobyarchick, Krofchick and Yarchak, the current church roll includes people named Buzbee, Davis and Beck.

''We've got a McCracken -- a good Russian name,'' joked Tallant.

Tallant, who grew up in nearby Walker County, attended both Baptist and Methodist churches before converting to the Russian Orthodox church. Ordained in 1962 after completing a home-study course, he has been at St. Nicholas ever since.

While St. Nicholas maintains many traditions dating back to its earliest days as an immigrant congregation, the church -- like many other Russian churches abroad -- has adapted as its first generation died away, to be replaced by Americans.

Icons adorned with English words hang near the Royal Doors, which lead to the enclosed altar area. The liturgy is in English with a touch of church Slavonic, an Old World ancestor of modern Russian. ''We haven't had a full Russian liturgy since one family went back to Moscow'' around 1998, said Tallant.

The church still has a few Russian-speaking members, but most speak English only. The granddaughter of immigrants, Elizabeth Beck sings in the choir and helps maintain the liturgical calendar. She went to Russia with a group last year to get a taste of her church in its native land.

''I enjoyed the language and the churches being so beautiful. We are very small,'' she said.

St. Nicholas looks much the same today as in its earliest days.

Built in 1916 after one church was destroyed by a tornado and a second by fire, the temple sits on land donated decades ago by U.S. Steel, which employed many of the immigrant miners.

The 86-year-old church originally was all wood, with a tongue-and-groove ceiling and painted walls. Members paneled the interior in dark wood after Tallant arrived, and brown bricks were added to the exterior.

The old parsonage was converted to a parish house, where Sunday school lessons and other events are held. A food festival held each November draws hundreds of people, many of whom buy nesting dolls and other Russian items purchased through a wholesaler.

St. Nicholas belongs to the smallest of the three Russian heritage denominations in the United States, called the Patriarchal Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States of America.

It has 32 congregations, while the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia has 177 and the Orthodox Church in America has 721.

There are a just handful of Russian heritage churches in Alabama. Consequently, St. Nicholas has experienced problems through the years because of unfamiliarity with its heritage and practices.

Teenagers who didn't recognize the Orthodox cross have called members devil worshippers, Tallant said, and one young man referred to St. Nicholas as the ''communist church'' because of its Russian roots and the old Soviet Union.

''I said, 'Son, you're showing your ignorance of both religion and politics. This church was persecuted by the communists,''' said the priest.

Such slights are rare today, according to Tallant. The church regularly has visitors, and the small sanctuary gets crowded on Easter and other special days.

''We can pack 'em in here,'' he said.

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