65. The Wonderful Works of Saint Nicholas, Part Three – Two more Stories from Midwest America

1 Michigan City, Indiana

Early on Saint Nicholas Day 1996, Father Elias Warnke and Reader Timothy Tadros entered Saint George Church, Michigan City, to be greeted by a sweet fragrance like roses which got stronger as they went into the church. As they checked to see where it was coming from, they looked at the icon of Saint Nicholas on a stand on the analogion and saw 3 glistening streams of liquid running off his forehead.

You can read the full story here:

http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/history-myrrh-streaming-icon/

Myrrhstreaming icons of Saint Nicholas are rare. Last week I mentioned 3 others. With the more common weeping icons of the Theotokos, the myrrh streams from her eyes. But as with Saint Nicholas himself, the myrrh from his icons has come from his body.

The icon at Michigan City was not an original. It was a reproduction printed on paper, laminated and glued to a board – made by the monks at Saint Isaac’s Skete in Boscobel, Wisconsin, who because it was an imperfect copy had put it in the reject bin.  Father Elias had picked it up because it was free. The myrrh was coming off or through the plastic laminate. There could be no imaginable natural or human cause. Only 3 people had keys to the church, and besides all could see the myrrh flowing off it.

As is the usual practice, Father Elias exorcised the icon just in case, for the devil can work wonders, too. The myrrh kept coming. There were healings: A woman diagnosed with untreatable cancer, told she had 2 years to live, was desperate because she was raising her little orphaned nephew alone. After being anointed with the myrrh, her doctor said that to his amazement the cancer was gone. A man took myrrh home and anointed his wife who had been bedridden for 2 years; he left and came back to find her in the kitchen fixing dinner. A woman was apparently cured of chronic alcoholism. Why does all this happen? Don’t ask. Nobody knows.

2 Cedarburg, Wisconsin

Let me tell you how our Saint Nicholas Church, Cedarburg, Wisconsin, came to be. This is not the story of how a group of people started a church. This is the story of how Saint Nicholas started a church.

To the right is what it all came to. This is our Saint Nicholas Church building, which was a Lutheran church from 1891 till 1989, prayed in for almost a hundred years before we bought it. Someday maybe we’ll get a dome on the tower, but for now we’re working on “orthodoxifying” the more important interior.  

This account includes 1 personal Saint Nicholas “miracle” which led to our founding, and also some mysterious inexplicable events – but to us who experienced it, it all feels like a miracle, a “wonder of Saint Nicholas”.

Much of what follows involves me. I share it not so you’ll pay attention to me, but so you can hear what Saint Nicholas of Myra did for me and for us. Give the glory to God and holy Nicholas.

My fascination with Saint Nicholas

It began in those long ago days when I was a boy and Santa Claus was still often called Saint Nicholas. I remember asking my mother, “How long has Santa Claus been around?” She, a Protestant who didn’t know much about Saint Nicholas, answered, “Forever I guess”. That was my first inkling of eternity, the first time I tried to imagine “forever”. I think it set the course of my life – and it came from Saint Nicholas, in his Santa Claus disguise.

In my search for the authentic Church, I became Episcopalian for many years. There I found out about the real Saint Nicholas. We celebrated Mass on Saint Nicholas Day, and on the Sunday after we would have someone dress up in bishop’s vestments and collect toys for poor children, trying to emulate the blessed saint. So I had a Saint Nicholas connection before I became Orthodox.

Saint Nicholas appears.

Then I came to know Saint Nicholas personally. This happened while I (not yet Orthodox) was attending a conference on Crete in 1985. The old stories say that just to look into the face of Bishop Nicholas was to know joy and the love of God. I first saw the face of Saint Nicholas when we went to visit Bishop Irenaeus of Kastelli, in the far west of Crete. His face was radiant with sweetness, good humor and love, and I could see how his people loved and treasured him. That night I wrote in my trip journal, “Remember that face”. 2 weeks later in a shop near the cathedral in Athens I saw Bishop Ireneaus’ face again in an icon of Saint Nicholas. Later I came to realize that it was the other way around: Saint Nicholas is the model for Orthodox pastors, and it was Bishop Irenaeus who looked like Saint Nicholas. I had to have that icon, that face. I spent more than I intended and brought the icon home. I hung it on the wall of my Episcopal church and knew enough to put a candle beside it, but I had yet to discover how icons and saints work.

One day a woman from the church said to me, “Have you noticed how his expression changes?” I answered, “No…” But I began to watch, and sure enough. I don’t mean the paint moved – it didn’t – but sometimes he would be in a happy mood, other times stern or thoughtful. I can’t explain it. Someone suggested I was just seeing my own state of mind in the icon, so I checked that out. At times our moods would agree, and at other times I’d be happy and he would be not pleased, or vice versa. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. All this time I had been thinking and studying and praying and had come to know in my heart that I needed to be Orthodox. (As to why, that is yet another story which I won’t go into here.) I didn’t know how to do it: We had a daughter in college to support and a son approaching college age, and we couldn’t see how I could afford to start all over again. Besides, my wife suspected I was just having a mid-life crisis. And besides that, I loved the people in my church and didn’t want to abandon them. I had been talking to people one on one about Orthodoxy, wishing somehow I could interest them in Orthodoxy, with little success. “But we’re not Greek”, they would say. Some had a lot more than that to say!

Saint Nicholas speaks.

One evening I came back from an Episcopalian clergy meeting very aware that I didn’t belong there any more. I needed so badly to be Orthodox. I was  just at my wits’ end. I went to stand before that icon of Saint Nicholas. You can see I was catching on to icons: I had developed a relationship with Saint Nicholas – or as I realized later, he had drawn me in to himself. I was feeling so weary and demoralized. I looked at him, and for the first and only time (I’ve never been able to see it again) he looked smug, so pleased with himself, like the cat who swallowed the canary, as they say. And I “lost it”. I don’t know if I spoke aloud or not, but I got angry. I said to him, “How can you be so smug while I’m so miserable?” And then – and again I don’t mean I heard words; it wasn’t like that – he told me that Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church was coming.  I didn’t have to worry about it, and if I just didn’t get in his way it was going to happen. I know I stood there with my mouth hanging open. And now he had given me courage not to give up.

Strange Happenings

Not long after that, while I stood in awe before a weeping icon of the Theotokos at Saint Nicholas (only later did I realize the significance of that) Albanian Orthodox Church, Chicago, I found my voice to go back and start speaking publicly about becoming Orthodox. My clergy friends thought I had lost my mind: “Why are you tearing up such a beautiful parish?”

A number of “strange” things happened during the period that followed. Just 1 example: In the summer of 1988 I badly wanted to go to a Mission and Evangelism Conference in Santa Barbara, California, sponsored by the Antiochian Archdiocese, but felt I just didn’t have the money to spare. I had told this to no one, not even my wife. After a Thursday morning Mass, a parishioner (who is now a member of Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg) came up to me and said, “I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I’ve been praying and I have to do it.” She handed me an envelope which contained almost exactly the amount of money I needed to go to the Conference. And there I met Father Peter Gilllquist (memory eternal +) who became my guide into the Orthodox Church.

I won’t say that I entirely took Saint Nicholas’ advice. Over the next few years, I did worry from time to time, actually a lot. Especially when just after Easter 1989 my Episcopalian bishop fired me for promoting Orthodoxy. But in my heart I knew what was happening. Saint Nicholas finally was doing for me what I didn’t have the guts to do for myself. He was pushing me out of the Episcopal Church and into the Orthodox Church. The time had come. I said I would leave my old church, but only if I could take that icon of Saint Nicholas with me. My parishioners had no problem with that! And I should add that, after I signed on the dotted line agreeing to resign, my Episcopalian bishop (may he rest in peace +) was very kind to me in every way, including financially.

Saint Nicholas keeps showing up.

That summer, a small group of us from my former church contacted the Antiochian Archdiocese and got permission to try to form a mission. In September 1989 His Grace Bishop Antoun (memory eternal +) came out to found our mission church. We were quickly joined by some cradle Orthodox. We began with about 30 people.

3 years later when we had grown big enough we submitted 3 possible names for our church to His Eminence Metropolitan Philip (memory eternal +), and he chose Saint Nicholas Church, of course.

Father Thomas Hopko (memory eternal +) *, then at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, who knew we were getting started but not of our connection with Saint Nicholas, sent us a relic of a saint which was Saint Nicholas, of course.

  • Lord, have mercy. All these good people departed now. I feel like “I alone am left to tell you.” 

We purchased our church building from the Lutherans and, eager to get out of the dingy basement where we had been meeting, decided to move in on the next major feast day – which turned out to be Saint Nicholas Eve, of course, in 199 

I discovered by experience that when I turn to Saint Nicholas for help, things happen. When I am in trouble he gets me out of it. Once when we suddenly had a major problem that I feared could tear up the church, I bribed him, I gave him $50 for a candle! and within an hour the issue was resolved. Some years later I was thinking that we founders were getting older, and we were not picking up any young families, and I was tempted to worry. Then I remembered I had been told not to do that, so I said casually “Holy Nicholas, we need some kids around here.” Within a couple of weeks, young families began to arrive, and we soon had a crowd of them, and as their children grew up others have joined us.

We have always had enough money. We have never had to leave a bill unpaid. I have been supported full time since our founding. This little congregation of about 220 people has been able to give probably $600,000 (a double-tithe off the top each month) to the Archdiocese and to charities. When we have needed money, it often arrives in very unexpected ways. How to explain it? One of our treasurers coined a term for it: the “Saint Nicholas Factor”, which still kicks in regularly.

We have attracted wonderful people who, in the spirit of Saint Nicholas, give generously in every way. We have had no factions, very few arguments, much forgiveness, so much peace and love and joy and good humor – just like Saint Nicholas. And no heretics. If there were I trust Saint Nicholas would show up and punch them out.

We didn’t do this.

We’ve worked hard, God knows. But we feel, as I have felt from before the beginning, that this genuinely is Saint Nicholas’ Church, not only in name but in reality. He has truly been in charge here. And that now-much-kissed icon I brought back from Greece 33 years ago has a place of honor on a stand just inside our church, so he is the first thing people will see as they enter.

This was not my doing. This was not our doing. Looking back, I really think that about the year 1985 (earth time) the Lord Jesus said to Saint Nicholas, “We need an Orthodox Church on the north side of Milwaukee”, and  Nicholas said to the Lord, “I’ll work on that Olnhausen fellow”.

Or maybe it was before 1985. Long before. My wife and I were at Milwaukee Irish Fest a few years ago. My maternal grandfather was Irish, a Collins. We saw a chart giving the origins of Irish family names, so I looked up Collins. It read, “Collins, derivative of Nicholas”. Once again I stood with my mouth open. Has Saint Nicholas had all this in mind from long before I was born?

So that is our story. It is not as dramatic as some of the others. We’ve had no myrrh-streaming icon and our only traveling icon was the one  I carried home with me from Greece. Our only “miracle” happened to me, privately – plus a few other inexplicable events. But I have no doubt that it was by the intervention of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra, that Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church, Cedarburg, Wisconsin, came to be and still is. And to us it has truly been a wonder.

So, generation after generation, the wonderful works of Saint Nicholas continue.

Next week: 6 Thoughts about Pentecost – Parts 1,2,3

 

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