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St. Stephen the Protomartyr Orthodox Church celebrates 50 years in Unity

| Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
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Members gather for one of the first services at St. Stephen’s Orthodox Church on Susan Drive in Unity in 1964. The church, which was founded and organized in 1963, celebrates its 50th anniversary Aug. 23.
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The original altar at St. Stephen’s Orthodox Church in Unity was hand carved, said Mary Urchek, 82, of Derry Township, who is one of the original members from when the church was founded in 1963.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Religious icons a St. Stephen's Orthodox Church in Unity on Aug. 8, 2013.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
A religious icon at St. Stephen's Orthodox Church in Unity on Aug. 8, 2013.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
A crucifix at St. Stephen's Orthodox Church in Unity on Aug. 8, 2013.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Tony Joseph at St. Stephen's Orthodox Church in Unity on Aug. 8, 2013.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Frank Calabrese of Darlington reads the epistle every Sunday at St. Stephen's Orthodox Church in Unity.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Derry Township residents Mary Urchek (left) and her sister-in-law Jane Urchek are longtime members of St. Stephen's Orthodox Church in Unity. Mary has been a member since 1963, Jane since 1969.

Frank Calabrese, 73, of Darlington twisted cotton wicks on Thursday for the oil lamps inside St. Stephen the Protomartyr Orthodox Church in Unity.

The small white church with the tall gold cupola — packed with 99 people for a wedding in June — will celebrate its 50th anniversary Aug. 25.

“We're small here, but we get along so well,” Calabrese said.

A photo of the church under construction in 1963 has a car hood ornament watching over the grounds.

“It looks like the angel is looking at the site of the church,” said Mary Urchek, 82, of Derry Township, who has attended the church since its founding.

Among those photos, Urchek also has baptisms, dinners and picnics from over the years.

“I just love my church,” she said. “I love God first, I love my family, and I love my church family.”

The church was formed as families from St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church in Bradenville opposed “Latinization” changes and wanted to continue to celebrate more orthodox traditions.

“It just means ‘true' or ‘unchanged,' so I don't know why people are so afraid of the word,” said Urchek, who still says her prayers at home in Slavonic.

Most of Divine Liturgy is celebrated in English, and the parish accommodates Christmas celebrations on Dec. 25, following the Julian calendar, and Jan. 7, following the Gregorian calendar.

“We didn't want to follow the pope; we wanted to follow the patriarch,” Urchek said. “I guess when I die, nobody will be as stubborn as I am.”

The Rev. Tony Joseph, 74, is the 13th priest since the church's founding, serving its about 60 members full-time.

The church is “flourishing” compared with some others, he said, since the diocese, based in Johnstown, stationed him there in March.

About 20 families celebrated liturgy in the Latrobe Armory beginning Nov. 10, 1963, before the church construction was completed on April 1, 1964.

The church still houses the original bell, which was blessed during that year's Easter services, but a steeple was replaced with the current cupola designed by Urchek's son, David.

Spaghetti dinners, bingos and summer picnics have been celebrated in the adjoining social hall, and the church still holds Sunday school classes for about eight children each week.

Calabrese, who reads the Epistle during the church service every week, helps buy the wine for Communion and candles to stand near the iconostasis.

He's glad the church has remained mostly unchanged in the past 50 years when the world around it has changed so much, but that doesn't mean he hopes for it to remain stagnant.

“There's a couple of us here that keep saying, ‘If we ever hit the Powerball, we want to build a new church,' ” Calabrese said, especially somewhere more visible than the location on Susan Drive.

In the history of the orthodox church, founded nearly 1,000 years ago, a gold anniversary is a “blink of an eye” in the sight of God, Joseph said.

Urchek is glad for the recognition by the diocese.

“It's not that 50 years is a lot,” she said. “It's just that we worked so hard to get it.”

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or sfederoff@tribweb.com.

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