LDS-Dominated Utah County Gets Its First-Ever Orthodox Christian Church – ‘Utah Is a Very Ripe Mission Field’

Metropolitan Joseph consecrates Saint Xenia – a Payson congregation that has tripled in size and now has its own parish.

(Isaac Hale | Special for The Tribune) Metropolitan Joseph, head of the Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of Antioch of North America, along with clergy and members of the congregational process around the church during a dedication service for St. Xenia Orthodox Church in Payson on Saturday, July 16, 2022.

Believers from across Utah and beyond recently gathered to participate in the dedication of the first Orthodox Christian church in Utah County.

Located in a county dominated by Latter-day Saints, the Payson building — with its iconic onion domes and traditional frescoes — symbolizes the fruits of the state’s steady growth of faith, according to the pastor of the newest parish. .

St. Xenia Church opened its doors to worshipers in November 2020. Since then it has operated as a second campus of Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Christian Churchlocated in downtown Salt Lake City.

That changed on Saturday, July 16, when Metropolitan Joseph, head of the Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of Antioch in North America, “baptized” the structure as an Orthodox church, establishing it and its followers as their own separate parish.

(Isaac Hale | Special for The Tribune) Four-month-old Theodora Gammo is held by her mother, Gabriela Gammo, as she kisses a painting of Jesus Christ while they and the congregation participate in worship during a consecration service for Saint Xenia Orthodox Church in Payson on Saturday July 16, 2022.

Father Justin Havens is the pastor of St. Xenia Church. A convert to the faith from Protestantism, Havens previously served as a pastor in Salt Lake City. Being present for the dedication of an Orthodox church “is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said, noting that it had been seven years since Metropolitan Joseph had visited Utah.

“Relics Work Miracles”

(Isaac Hale | Special for The Tribune) Benjamin Havens, 12, center, reads as he participates with priests, deacons and subdecacons in a dedication service for St. Xenia Orthodox Church in Payson on Saturday July 16, 2022.

About 200 attendees were present for the dedication, which included a triple procession around the building to symbolize, Havens explained, that “it is set aside.”

“Once it’s consecrated,” he said, “it can never be anything again – it can’t be sold.”

Sacred relics – pieces of bone from two saints, one from the 4th century and the other from the 20th century – were later buried in the church altar used to serve the Eucharist, along with a scroll containing the names of all those who contributed to the construction and creation of the parish.

(Isaac Hale | Special for The Tribune) Murals are pictured during a dedication service for St. Xenia Orthodox Church in Payson on Saturday, July 16, 2022.

“We think relics work miracles and are very powerful,” Havens said. “People come from all over the country for this.”

Saturday also saw the blessing of what Havens said was Beehive State’s first Orthodox Christian cemetery. Adjacent to the church, it will serve the entire Orthodox Christian community of Utah.

A vision realized

(Isaac Hale | Special for The Tribune) Metropolitan Joseph, head of the Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of Antioch of North America, along with clergy and members of the congregational process around the church during a dedication service for St. Xenia Orthodox Church in Payson Saturday, July 16, 2022.

It was Havens’ idea to build a new church in Payson.

“People thought I was crazy,” he said, citing the city’s relative remoteness just a few years ago. But the father of 10 was undeterred: “I had a vision.”

This vision encountered some obstacles, mainly financial.

“We don’t have any real rich people in our community,” Havens said. The mere act of buying the property required parishioners to “save and save”.

“Everyone,” he said, “bled for ownership.”

Then came the challenge of raising funds for the building itself.

“I was walking around the property saying my prayers asking God for help,” Havens recalled. And the Almighty was not the only one he asked. “I was begging and marketing everywhere.”

(Isaac Hale | Special for The Tribune) Metropolitan Joseph, head of the Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of Antioch in North America, washes and dries the sacred table with other clergy during a consecration service for St. Xenia Orthodox Church in Payson on Saturday July 16, 2022.

Raising the stakes was the fact that, in the Orthodox Christian tradition, a church cannot be consecrated until it is paid for.

In the end, Havens managed to get “big out-of-state donors”, some of whom weren’t even members of the faith, to cover the construction costs. There was even room to hire an Orthodox Christian fresco painter from Serbia, a man named Aleksander Zivadinovic, to paint the interior.

“He’s one of the best in the world,” Havens said, adding that it’s “rather rare” for new churches to feature frescoes – despite being deeply rooted in the tradition of the faith.

“A very rich missionary field”

(Isaac Hale | Special for The Tribune) The congregation takes part in worship during a dedication service for St. Xenia Orthodox Church in Payson on Saturday, July 16, 2022.

If there was one part of the process that never got Havens and his team into trouble, it was working with city officials.

“Payson bent over backwards to help us build this church,” he said. Havens attributed this attitude of goodwill to the community’s “seriousness” about the faith. Utahns, and especially those who live in Utah County, he said “understand the need to worship God.”

Havens suggested that this focus on faith was one of the reasons for the growth of Orthodox Christianity he has witnessed in recent years. According to the pastor, Payson’s “nascent” group of worshipers has tripled in size since the building’s doors opened in the fall of 2020.

About half of them, he estimated, are recent converts, the “vast majority” of whom were previously members of Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Havens believes this is partly related to similarities between Latter Day Saint and Orthodox Christian traditions, including an emphasis on marriage, children, and what he calls “traditional living.”

In his experience, former Latter-day Saints arrive with the “skeleton” of a belief system that “embodies when they discover orthodoxy.”

“Utah,” he said, “is a very rich mission field.

(Isaac Hale | Special for The Tribune) Metropolitan Joseph, head of the Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of Antioch of North America, along with clergy and members of the congregational process around the church during a dedication service for St. Xenia Orthodox Church in Payson Saturday, July 16, 2022.

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