by Jane Foncea
In 1977, the same year the first Star Wars movie debuted, St. Symeon the New Theologian Orthodox Church was established as part of the Diocese of the South of the Orthodox Church in America. Just as Star Wars opened movie-goers’ eyes to a world unlike their own, St. Symeon Orthodox Church provided Birmingham residents with a new entry point into the Orthodox Christian tradition. Unlike the ethnically-centered community at Holy Trinity – Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral, this new parish would draw people from many ethnic traditions. To best understand the unique presence the church brings to Birmingham’s religious life, one must look at the development of the Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church in America, and St. Symeon’s history and current activity in Birmingham.
History of the Orthodox Church
The Orthodox Church considers itself the incarnate expression of the Lord Jesus Christ’s presence in humanity’s history. Orthodox Christians see the Orthodox Church as the only true preservation of the church started in the time of the apostles. Beginning with the day of Pentecost and the Holy Apostles, the first Christian communities, led by the early saints, were the start of the Orthodox Church. Between AD 325 to AD 787 seven Ecumenical Councils defined the center and boundaries of Orthodox Christian life– particularly concerning the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. During the first millennium, the Eastern and Western churches grew apart due to language differences, cultural differentiations, and various political events. The final divorce between the two traditions in 1054, referred to as the Great Schism, was over church authority. The Western Christians held that the bishop of Rome, commonly called the Pope, as successor of the Apostle Peter was the unique representative of Christ on earth. Eastern Christians rejected this Roman notion of papal authority and held that only Jesus Christ had the authority and right to be the head of the church. Emphasizing the autonomy of local bishops and their unity through shared faith and communion of the sacraments—not a pope—Eastern Christians continued their practices independent of Western Christians.
Development of The Orthodox Church in America
The traditions and beliefs of Eastern Christians grew in Russia, the Middle East, the Balkans, and much of Central and Eastern Europe. It is due to vast missionary expansion that the Orthodox Church grew and has a worldwide presence today. The Orthodox Church of America is the direct result of missionaries and other Orthodox Christians migrating to the United States. In 1794, an assembly of Russian missionaries settled on Kodiak Island in Alaska. At that time Alaska was a Russian territory. As the number of native Alaskan converts to Orthodoxy grew, Bishop Innocent started to visit the United States. In 1864, New Orleans became home to the first Orthodox parish established in United States. The initial Orthodox parishes in America were characterized by multi-ethnic congregations, typically made up of Greeks, Slavs, and Arabs, and multi-lingual services, conducted in Greek, Slavonic, and English. By the early 1900s, numerous parishes were started throughout the United States and nearly all were united under the North America diocese—intricately linked to the Russian Orthodox Church administration. However, in 1917, the Russian Revolution started and the North American diocese lost much contact with the Church in Russia. This eventually led to North American parishes organizing into separate dioceses. The multi-ethnic characteristic of early Christian Orthodoxy found in North America began to dissolve. Ethnic groups separated and established their own new dioceses under the head of their homeland’s Orthodox church.
As parishes in the United States became distinguished predominantly by ethnicity, nationality- the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America took efforts to promote inclusivity by changing its name to the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) in 1970. The OCA’s name change mirrored the multi-ethnic unity of the Orthodox Church when is initially came to North America. The OCA emphasized the need to reunify the Orthodox churches. Regardless of background, there is a shared Tradition, shared hope in Jesus Christ, and shared gospel mission amongst all in the Church. Today, the OCA continues to emphasis unity and evangelism—not ethnicity.
The Orthodox Church in America: Birmingham, AL
In 1977, a group of second- and third-generation Russian and Greek-Americans, in addition to other Orthodox converts, founded St. Symeon—Birmingham’s first, and only, parish of the Orthodox Church in America. The few members began by meeting in a bank’s spare room and then renting space from Catholic congregations— St. John Bosco, today known as Our Lady of La Vang, and St. Alice in Edgewater, no longer an active church. St. Symeon did not purchase their own building until 1987. Located at 3101 Clairmont Avenue, in Birmingham’s Lakeview district, the congregation met in a building that originally served as the Clairmont Reformed Baptist Church that they renovated to be congruent with Orthodox worship. The congregation utilized this space for over 20 years. In that time, the church installed a striking, large mosaic on the building’s front wall that could be seen driving down 32nd Street. Made in Italy, the mosaic was a replica of the mosaic Theotokos of St Theodore found in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. When St Symeon finally finished paying off their mortgage in 2007, Archbishop Dmitri commissioned the church with the statement “Now, you build a proper Orthodox Church Building” (“Our Temple”, n.d.).
Fulfilling this mandate, St Symeon Orthodox Church presented a preliminary site plan to the Birmingham Design Review Committee in January of 2013. This plan included a traditional Orthodox church orientation with the altar at the east end of the church and the entrance at the west end. Their church would honor their history by including both a Russian-styled onion dome near the entrance and Greek-styled saucer dome over the crossing. Whereas the former Baptist church came with pews that were moved to the walls, there was no permanent seating in the new temple.. Finally, St. Symeon would have a new, much larger, Orthodox-style church honoring of their tradition.
St Symeon hired project manager Dan Fritts of LIVE Design Group to help make this a reality. Due to the design requirements, several variances from the city’s building codes had to be requested—specifically concerning parking and the location of the structure—and thus, the case had to be passed to a subcommittee for review. A month later, the Birmingham Design Review Committee granted preliminary approval of the site plan. The church provided a budget of $900,000 and quickly began construction. By February 2015, the church was built, and they held their first services in the new building.
As it is the only parish of the Orthodox Church in America in Birmingham, many of their members drive thirty to sixty miles multiple times a week to attend St. Symeon. The majority of St. Symeon’s congregation is made up members who converted to the Orthodox faith—a minority “are ‘cradle’ Orthodox of Russian, Romanian and Greek backgrounds” (“About Our Community”, n.d.). While clearly having devoted members, St. Symeon’s members do not reflect the large ethnic diversity of Birmingham. This is largely due to the predominantly white communities surrounding the parish’s location. Fortunately, St. Symeon Orthodox Church has taken action to better engage with the Birmingham community. The last two years the church has hosted a Food and Culture Fair. Opening their church doors, they invite the city of Birmingham to come learn more about their multi-ethnic emphasis and history, to hear the significance of the iconographic murals in the church, and to attend their pop-up multi-ethnic marketplace. While St. Symeon’s congregation is not outwardly indicative of ethnic inclusivity, its desire to invite the community inside its doors and to share its culture provides a much-needed resource to expand the view and mind of Birmingham locals.
St. Symeon Orthodox Church
Address: 3101 Clairmont Ave, Birmingham, AL 35205
Congregation Organized: 1977
Current Site Opened: 1987
Affiliation: Orthodox Church of America
“About Orthodoxy.” n.d. St. Symeon Orthodox Church. https://www.stsymeon.com/about_orthodoxy.
“About Our Community.” n.d. St. Symeon Orthodox Church. https://www.stsymeon.com/about.
A Monk of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, ed. 1986. “The Holy Orthodox Church: Her Life and Teachings.” In These Truths We Hold. South Canaan, Pennsylvania: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press.
Alexei, Krindatch, ed. 2011. “Orthodox Church in America.” In Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Churches, 1–7; 68–71. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
Boyer, Bobbie. 2019. Interview with Martha Bains. Birmingham, AL. Oct. 12.
“Data USA: Birmingham, AL.” 2017. Data USA. 2017. https://datausa.io/profile/geo/birmingham-al/#demographics.
“Food and Culture Fair.” n.d. St. Symeon Orthodox Church. https://www.stsymeon.com/stsymeonfoodandculturefair.
Kelsey, Stein. 2015. “Car Crashes into St. Symeon Orthodox Church, a Week after Congregation Moves to New Building.” ALl.com, February 8, 2015. https://www.al.com/news/birmingham/2015/02/car_crashes_into_st_symeon_ort.html.
“Our Temple.” n.d. St. Symeon Orthodox Church. https://www.stsymeon.com/temple.
Matusiak, John,. n.d. “A History and Introduction of the Orthodox Church in America.” Orthodox Church in America. https://www.oca.org/history-archives/oca-history-intro.
“St Symeon the New Theologian Orthodox Church.” 2018. BHAM Wiki. March 4, 2018. http://www.bhamwiki.com/w/St_Symeon_the_New_Theologian_Orthodox_Church.
“St. Symeon the New Theologian Church , Alabama.” n.d. Orthodox Church in America. https://www.oca.org/parishes/oca-so-bhmssn.
Stan, Diel. 2013. “Birmingham Design Review Committee Approves New Church Building in Lakeview, Demolition of Red Mountain Homes.” AL.com, February 27, 2013. https://www.al.com/business/2013/02/birmingham_design_review_commi.html. Stan, Diel. 2013. “St. Symeon Orthodox Planning New Church Building (Updated).” AL.com, January 9, 2013. https://www.al.com/businessnews/2013/01/st_symeon_orthodox_planning_ne.html
Jane Foncea ’20 is a Micah Fellow and religion major from Knoxville, Tenn.
Published November 7, 2019.