Founded in 1981 in the basement of an Ann Arbor church, St. Vladimir Russian Orthodox Church moved to a former garage at 9900 Jackson Road a few years later. A parishioner made a small “onion” dome of wood and Bondo to mark its new use, and another of the traditional Orthodox domes tops a 2006 addition. Even so, the plain white building east of Dancer Road is easy to miss.
No one is likely to miss the congregation’s planned new church: they are currently raising money to build a colorful, seven-domed structure that will rise like a landmark above the stretch of I-94 between Chelsea and Dexter.
Father Gregory, St. Vladimir’s priest for the last sixteen years, says that, with about 300 congregants, the church has already outgrown the 2006 addition. The new members are split about equally between recent immigrants from Russia and nearby countries and Americans with no ethnic connection to the faith.
“Diversity is a strength of this parish. It’s a very good thing,” he says. “At Easter we held a midnight vigil that lasted several hours while we read the Acts of the Apostles in as many languages as we have in the parish.” This year, thirteen languages were represented: Latin, Greek, Romanian, Armenian, Uzbek, English, Church Slavonic, Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish, German, French, and Polish.
The inside of the present church is much more elegant than the outside would suggest, filled with elaborate candelabras, incense burners, an oriental rug, and fresh flowers. The walls are covered with icons–paintings of religious scenes and figures–from around the world, most of which are gifts from members. “We try to engage all the senses,” explains Father Gregory. “Parishioners see the iconography, hear the choir, smell the incense, and see the candles.” As in all Orthodox churches, the altar is at the east end, facing the dawn, a symbol of Christ.
The Russian Orthodox services follow the example of Jesus in Solomon’s Temple as much as possible. Worshipers stand (“it helps them focus,” explains Fr. Gregory), although people are welcome to sit on the pews that line the walls if they desire or need to. When not in use for worship, the same area is used for fellowship meals, which take place after every service, and Sunday school.
Weekly services are conducted in Russian and English, with one all-English service a month. The church’s voicemail message gives information in both languages. Fr. Gregory, although descended from Russian immigrants, didn’t grow up speaking Russian: he learned the language at U-M and became more fluent when attending Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, New York, where the instruction was in Russian.
The congregation hired Robert Latsko, a specialist in Russian Orthodox Church architecture, to design the new church. In addition to architecture, Latsko has a degree in theology from St. Vladimir’s seminary in New York.
So far, only the external design has been decided. Fr. Gregory plans to devote this summer and fall to planning the inside layout with his congregation, explaining “we want to take advantage of different perspectives.” They will also seek input from neighbors and from Lima Township, their local government.
The estimated cost for the new church is a little over $4 million. They’ve already raised $1 million with gifts from about 20 percent of the congregation. In the next year Fr. Gregory would like to get the rest of the church to contribute, which would give them more leverage to seek funding from other people and institutions.
The construction timetable will depend on how quickly the money can be raised. “It would be great if the church was done by 2016, in time for our thirty-fifth anniversary,” says Fr. Gregory then adds, cautiously, “I don’t know if that’s realistic or not.”