When Twelve Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church came into existence a century ago, the surrounding neighborhood was as Greek as the church.
"Most of the streets around here were Greek," said the church's current priest, the Rev. Timothy Sas, as he sat in a comfortable room in the Pratchios House, across the parking lot from the church at 632 E. Second St.
"The two or three blocks around here, very seldom did you come across a person who was not Greek," he said.
The neighborhood, in Duluth's medical district, is far more ethnically diverse today. But the church, in which Greek was spoken exclusively until the 1970s, also has grown more diverse.
"The physical building, the icons, the traditions are the same," said Cathy Medich, 58, who is part of one of the church's long-established families. "But the membership is different."
In fact, a quick count a couple years ago determined that there are now people from 25 ethnic backgrounds in the parish, said church member Patra Sevastiades, in an email.
The church has 67 enrolled households and a typical Sunday attendance of between 80 and 100, said Sas, a Romanian native who came to Twelve Holy Apostles in September 2004. On Easter or Christmas, it might hit 150.
Those numbers represent growth. A couple Sundays ago, when a snowstorm hampered travel, only about 40-50 people made it to church, Sas said. But that would have been a good turnout 14 years ago.
'It surrounds you'
What is it that attracts 21st century people from various cultures to a church steeped in 4th century rituals?
"There's so many colors and all the icons and it's just - beauty is everywhere," said Alisyn Friederich, who first came to Twelve Holy Apostles with her husband, Jeffrey, and son Alexander a year and a half ago.
"I mean, it just envelopes you; it surrounds you," Friederich said. "The music. There is no organ, no instruments; it's all just singing. ... And then the incense, the smells. It triggers - it's almost as if you're transcended to another place for a short time."
The Friederichs, with different church backgrounds, had been searching for a church that seemed like a good fit for years when Jeffrey Friederich started to look at the Orthodox faith online, Alisyn said. What they learned attracted them, and Jeffrey followed up, asking Sas questions via email. The family got a literal taste when they visited the church's Greekfest in July 2016, and then attended a service.
Alexander, now 12, said his first impression was of "a lot of blue on the wall" and a lot of icons. He quickly came to like the Orthodox worship experience.
"I'm not bored during any part of the service," he said. "There's always something to do, and I like the prayers."
If that seems like a surprising "like" from a 12-year-old, Alexander explained that they are sung, not said, and, "I think they sound very pretty."
But not very short. Explaining the "churching" ceremony, in which a newborn is introduced to the congregation at 40 days, Sas said a specific prayer is inserted in the liturgy. "It's a short prayer, not even 10 minutes," he added.
Not even 10 minutes is a short prayer?
"Yes," he said, and laughed. "We live in a world that is addicted to briefness. Unfortunately."
The Friederich family was not just drawn to the worship service, Alisyn said. She likes to feed people, and she was excited when she learned about the Philoptochos Society, a women's organization in the church that cares for the poor.
Her family also liked the church's sense of family, she said. "The church doesn't teach you to be a family. You are a family."
That is something 89-year-old Helen Medich, Cathy's mother, has experienced all her life. The youngest of three sisters, Helen never knew her mother, who died when Helen was 3 months old. Her father, Christ Andrews, never remarried and raised the three girls, she said, but not really on his own. Other women of the church stepped in and taught them needed skills, such as the all-important pastry-baking.
Her father, a restaurateur whose businesses included the Main Tea Room in the Alworth Building on Superior Street, would feed the church's many bachelors. There were more Greek men than Greek women in Duluth in the early days, Sas said. The men had started coming in the 1880s and '90s for railroad and forestry work.
For their part, the bachelors pooled their money to donate one of the three spectacular chandeliers that adorn the church's nave - the portion of the building where worship takes place.
Helen Medich said she remembers leaving old Central High School at the end of the school day and walking with her Greek and Jewish friends to their respective places of worship for language and religious instruction.
Even when she was growing up, Cathy Medich said, the people of the church were "all Greeks. What I would say is, at least when I was growing up, the church, they were all family. There were my uncles and aunts and my cousins."
'It's home now'
Organized on March 15, 1918, the congregation took up residence in what had been a Jewish house of worship, Temple Emanuel. The present structure was built in 1957 on the same site.
The evolution from an all-Greek church has come over time. Sas said his way was paved by his three immediate predecessors, including one who was Danish, "who began moving the parish into being more and more American."
Sas was born in the Romanian city of Timisoara to a family that was active in the Orthodox faith. His father was a priest, and the family fled Romania when Sas was a young boy to escape the Communist government's persecution. After spending a couple of years in a Swedish refugee camp, the family relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. After completing college and seminary he moved to the Twin Cities for graduate school. Ordained in 1999, he is married and has four daughters.
"I had no intentions of staying in Minnesota, but this is where we are, and it's home now," Sas said.
Although the church may be Americanized in some ways, it holds tight to its traditions, Sas said.
"The service I serve on Sunday is the same service that's been served since the fourth century."
But it's not the traditions themselves that draw people, he said.
"More than half of our congregation at this point are people who ... have found Orthodox Christianity by seeking something," he said. "When people seek a spiritual home, a church, they don't look for incense. They don't look for bells. They don't look for any of these externals. People seek to be given an enrichment to their soul."
Alisyn Friederich said she has found the Orthodox faith to be about tradition "in every sense, in every way that you can imagine."
But there's something else her family noticed in the fellowship hall after the service the first time they attended Twelve Holy Apostles, she said.
"All kinds of people came up. 'Oh, who are you?' 'How are you doing today?' " she recalled. "They were so incredibly friendly, and I told my husband that day, 'I think the friendliest place in Duluth is this church.' ... I mean, they truly care."
If you go
Twelve Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church is hosting a number of events and services next weekend to mark the founding of the congregation on March 15, 1918. All events are free and open to the public.
- 7 to 8:30 p.m. - "The Surprising Discovery of Timeless Truth: Orthodox Christianity," talk by the Rev. Barnabas Powell, Somers Hall, College of St. Scholastica
- 6 p.m. - Salutations (Akathist Hymn), Twelve Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church, 632 E. Second St.
- 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. - Spiritual renewal event: "Taming the Passions: Timeless Wisdom for Orthodox Living." Powell discusses his journey to Orthodoxy. A light lunch will be provided. Twelve Holy Apostles
- 5 p.m. - Great Vespers, St. George Serbian Orthodox Church, 1216 104th Ave. W.
Sunday, March 18
- 8:30 a.m. - Orthos (Matins)
- 10 a.m. - Divine Liturgy. Lunch to follow. Both at Twelve Holy Apostles
- 5 p.m. - Lenten Vespers, St. Basil of Ostrog Serbian Orthodox Church, 543 Sixth St. SW, Chisholm