Sts. Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church:
A Living Parish
Parishes are living things. They must learn to adapt and thrive in new and challenging environments, or they simply wither and die. Healthy parishes grow, they mature, they evolve, they re-invent themselves to meet the changing needs of their people and their communities. They embrace change. They can look and feel very different from one point to the next. Parish life is the product of a subtle and complex interplay between the parishioners, who give shape and form to the body, and the priest, who provides direction and care for the soul. For ninety years, since 1927, Sts. Cyril and Methodius has changed, grown, matured, and evolved.
We are certainly not the church we were ninety years ago when a small group of predominantly Russian immigrants first gathered together to worship. Meeting in private homes, or at St. John’s Episcopal Church on 26th and Mineral, they struggled to bring a parish to life. Finally, in 1927, Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church was formally incorporated by the State of Wisconsin and organized as a parish of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in America – the forerunner of the current Orthodox Church in America. Through the dedication and commitment of the first Parish Council – Moisey Svishoff (the first Council President), Efin Semutkin, Arkip Satonin, Emil Ushakov, Victor Cevan, John Kostuck, Joseph Eshkevich, and Paul Chernish – and with the spiritual guidance of the first permanent priest, Fr. Nicholas Lezak -- the parish took possession of the existing property at 2505 South 30th Street.
Today, only one person of that original founding group survives: Mrs. Jerena Serio. Jerena, who is now 91 years old, was but an infant when the parish was founded in 1927. May she enjoy many and blessed years!
The early years of Sts Cyril and Methodius were difficult. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Wisconsin and Milwaukee hard. People lost their jobs, their homes, and, in some cases, their families. This was especially true of immigrants, most of whom were employed in some of the hardest hit industrial and manufacturing sectors of the economy. Nevertheless, despite the odds, the parish purchased the house next door to the church to serve as the rectory, as it still does. On May 29, 1940, in less than fifteen years, they fully paid off the mortgage, taking free and clear title to the entire church property.
Since its founding in 1927, twenty-two priests have served at St. Cyril and Methodius. Of these, our current pastor, Fr. Thomas Mueller, has by far served the longest – thirty-three years. This stability of leadership has been vitally important to our parish life. With the appointment of Fr. Simeon Johnson in 1981, English became the standard liturgical language of the parish – the first Orthodox church in Milwaukee to do so. This change to English language usage was no insignificant event, for it opened our parish to a rich and vibrant mix of peoples and cultures. It was our first step to becoming the multicultural parish we are today. Truly, coffee hour, with a stunning range of ethnic tastes and aromas, would never be the same again!
1984 and 1985 were momentous years for Sts Cyril and Methodius. First, in 1984, Fr. Thomas Mueller and his family moved to Milwaukee to become the new pastor. Second, using the resources brought by the parishioners of Holy Protection Orthodox Church, which merged with Cyril and Methodius in the 1970s, a new addition was added to the church, doubling its size.
Since that time, Sts Cyril and Methodius has transformed itself again and again, making it virtually unique in the Diocese of the Midwest and in the Orthodox Church in America. True to our immigrant origins and heritage, the parish has opened its arms to Orthodox peoples of all races and nations. Many are immigrants, and many are the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Over the years we have been blessed by people from across Europe, Asia, and Africa. We have been, and in many cases still are, Russians and Romanians, Poles and Germans, Canadians, Okinawans, African-Americans and Icelanders. We are Ukrainians and Serbs, Albanians and Arabs, Bulgarians and Greeks, Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Indians. In our faces you could see, quite literally, the diversity and unity of Orthodoxy that spreads from Addis Ababa to Vladivostok.
But we are more than just an immigrant spiritual haven. We have also been a beacon that has brought many people to our door and has opened Orthodoxy to them. Many of our parishioners are converts to Orthodoxy.
Sts. Cyril and Methodius has taken its message into the community. We provide clergy and other support for Holy Theophany Chapel in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, and we have conducted campus ministries at both Marquette University and at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. For years we have been active members of MICAH, the Milwaukee Inner-City Churches Allied for Hope and we are committed to working for social justice in Milwaukee. We have operated an after-school program for neighborhood children and have regularly volunteered at the Red Cross Women’s Shelter and at food pantries. We even built a special “tot lot” on the church grounds for the neighborhood children who can’t get to a regular park. Our annual Block Party brings many of our neighbors, most of whom are Hispanic or African-American, to the church for a day of hot dogs, fun, and fellowship. We are proud to say that Sts. Cyril and Methodius has become a force for peace, community, and Christian witness in our corner of Milwaukee.
In addition, our parish has developed a sophisticated theological life. Our Sunday School program works with children from pre-school through high school. The appointment of Fr. Alexander Golitzin to the theology faculty at Marquette University some years ago had a major impact on the parish. Fr. Alexander, who is now an Archbishop, was attached to our parish and is now bishop of the Diocese of the South. As a professor of theology, he attracted a number of young men and women interested in Orthodox scholarship to the university. Many of them joined our parish during their student years in Milwaukee and have enriched our understanding of the faith. At least five of these students have become priests, and six are currently faculty members at a variety of colleges and universities – one each at Marquette, the University of Dayton, Wright College in Chicago, and Concordia University in Montreal, and two at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Finally, our parish has been exceptionally blessed to be the site of no fewer than nine ordinations to either the diaconate or to the priesthood, in addition to Fr. Alexander’s elevation to the episcopacy. We are very proud to say that at our 90th commemoration liturgy on September 10th, 2017, His Grace, Bishop Paul, ordained Fr. Dn. Brian Bodien to the priesthood. Can there be a more fitting tribute to those immigrant founders of nearly a century ago than these ordinations? To Deacon Brian, and to all of the others, we say with love and pride “Axios!”
Parishes change and grow. They live and breathe, and are born and re-born over and over again. We at Sts Cyril and Methodius are proud of our past and confident in our future.
Dimitri D. Lazo, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of History