Dn. Nicklas Ordained to the Holy Priesthood

     On St. Thomas Sunday I had the humbling privilege of being ordained to the Holy Priesthood by His Beautitude Metropolitan Jonah in the Cathedral of St. Seraphim in Dallas, Texas. It was not only a special day for me personally but a special day for St. Basil Mission as its first priest.     It was the culmination of literally most of my adult life and a confirmation of our calling to mission work in Western Oklahoma. As I began seminary in 2009 and saw my first ordination at St. Tikhon’s I realized without reservation that as beautiful and special as it was to be ordained to the holy priesthood in the seminary community amidst friends and family – for me there was no question that if God granted me this (it was far from certain!), I had to be brought into this life of service in the place where my blessing to serve would come from. And that it should be among the clergy that I will serve with in this part of the diocese and at the hands of our Metropolitan – who holds such a special place among the faithful of St. Seraphim’s.

      And yet the thought of my children and friends from Portland and my brothers from seminary not being with me on this day was sad. (Interestingly, Dallas is almost perfectly between Portland, Oregon and So. Canaan PA – each equally difficult and expensive to reach!). And so as the time approached I prepared myself spiritually and emotionally to be at peace with their absence.

It turns out I didn’t have much to prepare for. As the time drew near I was elated to learn my beloved spiritual father and mentor Fr. Nicholas Letten was planning to attend. It had not occurred to him – as it did me – that being a mere 86 years old was a barrier to the rigors of air travel, long services and an unfamiliar bed. I had the unparalleled joy of e having him lead me around the altar after Fr. John Anderson – the priest who had been my ‘contact and confessor’ in the years I had been visiting St. Seraphim’s during visits to my family over the last ten years.

And not only did Fr. Nicholas make the journey but also the priest that brought  me into the Orthodox Church – that catechized and baptized me (who fittingly was the third priest to lead me around the altar): Fr. Matthew Tate. It was from his parish (the Church of the Annunciation) and with his blessing – that I served with Fr. Nicholas and Barbara at Holy Apostles Mission.

The depth of my relationship with Fr. Matthew is equaled by my connection with his wife Theresa – my Godmother, friend and ‘thick and thin’ supporter in my ministry in Oklahoma. Having her there was simply wonderful. As if this were not enough my dear friends Connie Shank (the widow of Fr. David Shank of blessed memory who with Fr. Nicholas made the day possible), also made the trip, as did Ruth Burkett – my friend and ‘matins co-struggler.’ They truly  represented (and to me, validated) my life and struggle in the Church and our calling to this new work in Oklahoma.

     The greatest surprise came from my daughter Lucia. She has been part of the work of St. Innocent’s Academy in Kodiak, Alaska for over a year and had no means to get to Dallas – and at the end of our time in seminary (and Bev in nursing school) left us unable to help. However by God’s providence (and the generosity of a frequent flyer friend of the academy), she surprised me (almost killed me actually) at my sisters house when I arrived in Dallas.

In addition to having Lucia there (and of course Bev and Allie {Auggie} who took time away from studies and made the long drive from OK), I was greatly blessed to have Karen and Adam make the journey from Oregon to be with me as well. Karen is the widow of my beloved brother (and best friend) Ned, and Adam is their oldest son and truly like a son to me. We share a double bond of being family and one another’s support and consolation in the loss of my brother that even after 7 years is still very painful.

Adam can be seen above in the background (in front of Fr.’s Nicholas and Matthew) in this very special picture of me being greeted for the first time as a priest by my father – Ned. Everyone in my family attributes the human side of my calling to the priesthood to my beloved, departed mother Nina. Who like so many mother’s was the one responsible for my spiritual formation as a boy. In a palpable way, the day was about my Mom as much as it was about me. That’s what my Dad is telling me in the picture: “your Mom would have so loved to see this Nicky.” I replied -“She’s seeing it Dad.”

My Mom’s memory and presence was also felt by my sister Pam, who with her husband Ben and daughter Loren, not only attended the service but also provided lodging for our entire family and hosted our family and friends at their home. It was beyond hospitable, it was what our very traditional Italian Mother would have done…as such it was a great tribute to her memory.

To round out the day – making it in my mind a perfect experience of the kind only God can bring, three of my brothers (it’s simply inaccurate to call them friends or classmates) from St. Tikhon’s Seminary made the effort to be with me as well. Each had said when I learned I was to be ordained on St. Thomas Sunday in Dallas that they wanted me to come, but being at the end of our three years – and virtually all of us also at the end of our  financial ropes – I thought  it was a sweet gesture but that they wouldn’t be able to do it…And factoring in ‘Italian guilt’ felt that they shouldn’t do it.

But come they did. To anyone familiar with St. Basil Mission Dn. Joel Wilson will be immediately recognizable. He co-founded the mission with me (this website is just a fraction of his contribution) and with his wife Tessi and their children, (his son Liam/Michael is my Godson) remains a huge part of the work – and our lives.

In addition to Dn. Joel, Andrew Temple  and Todd Mokhiber also made the trip. As many of you know, I lived at seminary as a single man in the dorm while Bev remained in our home in OK and attended nursing school. Andrew and Todd made my life not only livable and tolerable but enjoyable – to the extent it could be. Unfortunately Andrew stepped out before I could get a shot with him – but these pictures with Dn. Joel and Todd (in my view) say it all.

As true brothers and co-strugglers whatever happens to one in a real way happens to the other – good or bad. I think you can see (I certainly can) from both Dn. Joel and Todd – this day wasn’t ‘my day’ it was ‘our day.’

That as we shared one another’s pain, frustration and fears – day in and day out for years –  it was only natural to share one another’s joy. Even if, as in their case, that meant sacrificing in order to be part of my joy.

     I shared with these men parts of my life and feelings over the last three years that in ‘normal life’ is very rarely – if ever – done. At the end of our seminary life, just a day or so before we graduated, we went for an overnight camping trip and talked into the night. As we reflected on all that we learned and experienced, especially for Andrew, Todd and me, the difficulty of living with what always felt like a complete lack of privacy with much younger men (and at times very difficult men) – we came to accept and be thankful that God had used all of it (every last bit of it) to forge us to Himself and to one-another.

The other thing we came to realize at the end of seminary, as all of us considered ordination or having been recently ordained, was that we were never going to be worthy. A fact I think the Church presumed for us before we knew it ourselves. What we came to realize – and what I think was hoped we would realize – was that we could be, and must be instead, willing. That to the extent we were willing to change (having discovered this was God’s real reason for bringing us to seminary), we would, to the same extent, be willing to serve.

…The joy these photographs reveal is not the joy of  accomplishment or honor but the joy of knowing (as men struggle so deeply to know), that future service to God, like the change we’ve experienced – is not going to kill anything that doesn’t need to die.