Orthodox Christians in Southern Utah gain new home, priest as community grows

ST. GEORGE — In late 2019 members of southwest Utah’s Orthodox Christian community found a place to gather thanks to an anonymous benefactor who provided them with a small chapel in downtown St. George. Two years later that community outgrew the original chapel and gained a priest all their own rather than having one that commuted back and forth from out of town for services.

Father Thomas Hernandez by the iconostasis of the St. George Orthodox Church in St. George, Utah, Dec. 7, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

That priest is Father Thomas Hernandez, who started holding services at the St. George Orthodox Church at its new location at the end of October.

“This came about by the hand of God,” Hernandez said as he spoke to St. George News in early December about the circumstances that brought him to the area.

For Hernandez, a former Reformed Baptist who converted to the Orthodox faith in 2011 and was later ordained to the priesthood in 2017, his father has moved to the area and needed a hand as he is older and is in ailing health.

“So as I was coming to help him, I asked a friend of mine, Father Justin Havens, who is a priest up in the Salt Lake City area, if the church here needed any help. He got me in contact with the priest who was in charge of this parish, Father John Finley, and I began to come every couple of months and served the church till eventually it just kind of became evident by God’s will, and I was assigned here as the first priest – founding pastor – in September.”

Before being assigned to St. George, Hernandez served as an assistant priest at St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside, California.

In this file photo, the former home of the St. George Orthodox Church building on 100 East in St. George, Utah, St. George, Utah, Sept. 4, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Prior to Hernandez and his family coming to Southern Utah, the local Orthodox Christian community had met in a small, 800 square-foot building in St. George. Where they met had been a Christian Science building at one point, yet was eventually bought and donated to the Orthodox community by an anonymous source in 2019.

Like St. George and the region overall, the Orthodox community grew and they needed a new place to meet.

Members of the church “searched and searched” for a new, larger space they could lease, but the “amount of leasable space around here is minimal,” Hernandez said.

“By God’s will, we able to acquire this place,” he said, referring to the 2,400 square-foot unit in a shopping center by the Texas Roadhouse restaurant at 2654 Red Cliffs Drive in St. George where members of the faith now gather for weekly services.

During worship services at the St. George Orthodox Church in St. George, Utah, Nov. 21, 2021 | Photo courtesy of David Bartosiewicz, St. George News

The new location will serve as the gathering place of the Orthodox faithful until a new, Byzantine-style Orthodox temple planned for the Carol Canyon area of Washington City is built. Design work is currently underway with the overall project possibly taking three or more years, Hernandez said.

For now, regular attendance at the St. George Orthodox Church is in the mid-40s range, the priest said, though he has noticed new visitors each weekend since services began at the new location Oct. 31.

The church has potential for additional growth from the surrounding area as it is the only Orthodox church between southern Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, which also puts the parish in a unique position, Hernandez said.

“We’re in a beautifully unique position to serve all Orthodox who live in this area,” he said. “We’re all one body. We’re here to serve anybody who wants to obtain the kingdom of God.”

As for those who have questions about just who or what the Orthodox Christian Church is, members of the faith consider it to be the original apostolic church.

During worship services at the St. George Orthodox Church in St. George, Utah, Nov. 21, 2021 | Photo courtesy of David Bartosiewicz, St. George News

Orthodoxy shares its origins with the Roman Catholic Church until the Schism of 1054 and other subsequent events led to the East-West split. As such, manifestations of the Eastern Orthodox faith do not recognize the Catholic pope or elements of the faith considered at odds with Orthodoxy’s view of the Trinity, Hernandez said.

There is also no central, earthly authority that oversees the Orthodox faith, Hernandez said, adding, “There is a central figure – Jesus Christ.”

The church in general is decentralized. Bishops and other church leaders will meet in councils to determine rule on questions of doctrine and various other matters.

The Orthodox church also venerates icons depicting religious figures such Jesus Christ, the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary with Jesus as a baby), John the Baptist, the apostles and saints and notable events and feasts from scripture.

There are the various versions of Eastern Orthodoxy around the world such as Greek, Russian, Serbian, and so on, but overall, it is seen as one church guided by Christ.

Inside the iconostatsis of the the St. George Orthodox Church, St. George, Utah, Dec. 7, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“A lot of people get lost in the Greek or the Russian, or this and that,” Hernandez said. “We’re all one church.”

The St. George Orthodox Church itself is a part of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. Antiochian Orthodoxy draws its origin back to the ancient city of Antioch where Christ’s followers were first called Christians in the Bible. It also became one of the original five patriarchates, or major church centers, of the ancient Christian church. The other centers included Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople before the Great Schism.

“It’s a beacon of the kingdom of God, a beacon of light, and it’s here for everybody,” Hernandez said, speaking of Orthodox Christianity in general.

Those anyone who would wants to learn more about the St. George Orthodox Church and get the service times, visit the church website here. The church is located at 2654 Red Cliffs Drive in St. George.

Father Thomas Hernandez can also be contacted directly at 951-322-5523, or by email at [email protected].

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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