I first met St Anna as a young convert to Orthodoxy. I had little practical experience in the faith and knew even less about the tradition of miraculous icons and relics. My parish priest gave me a great gift when he took me to a small Russian church near the museum in Philadelphia for the celebration of St Anna’s day.
I still remember the procession around the block in the mid-summer heat: Senior clergy, who looked so imposing in all of their priestly attire, carried St Anna; a choir of mostly women’s voices chanted the Canon. Police had blocked the street, and the locals were, oddly enough, unfazed – for them it was one more bizarre event in the life of a city.
With the great crowd of people gathered there, and with my little faith, I failed to rouse one meager prayer before the icon at the veneration. How strange it is that not even ten years later, she would be riding in the passenger seat of my car! Stranger still, the whole weekend seemed like an answer to a wordless prayer from all those years ago.
A seminarian family from St Tikhon’s was kind enough to bring the icon to St Gregory’s. Normally the greeting of a miraculous icon is an occasion for all the grandeur of the Church’s liturgical tradition. But she arrived early, as planned, so that we would be able to start the service promptly. There were just enough of us to sing, ring the bells, and light the candles for her. The dedicated group of workers who arrived early were given a great blessing: time alone with St Anna before the crowd came.
By sunset the town of Glen Gardner had become our parking lot! Visitors from St Anna’s Greek Orthodox Church in Flemington and St Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Hampden were eager to visit with their patron. Others from Holy Trinity in Randolph, Saints Peter and Paul in Manville, and St John’s in Alpha filled in the gaps.
When His Eminence arrived, the temple was so full that latecomers were standing in the stairwells. I wondered whether the floor would hold all of us!
The service was prayerful, bright, energizing. We were fortunate to have experienced singers to keep the responses moving. I will remember it as “time standing still”, one of those experiences where we come into contact with the depth and beauty of the liturgical life of the Church.
After the anointing was over and the clergy had unvested, we brought St Anna down to the fellowship hall. In the confusion and excitement after the service, emissaries had been sent, and the food was blessed two – some say three! – different times. Hearing about this reminded me of the jubilation of Paschal Matins, which sometimes causes us priests to make the simplest of mistakes, altar boys to run into each other, and the choir to skip over words.
Vespers in the evening proved to be more intimate than Friday’s event. Just as we had finished and were about to leave, however, a young woman came in who had obviously rushed to get to us in time to see St Anna. What a blessing it was to have another reason to serve a short molieben!
Visiting clergy and old friends came to be with us for Liturgy and visit with St Anna. The church was full again, and we had just enough oil leftover to anoint those who hadn’t been able to come on Friday.
Refreshments were prepared by a small army of volunteers. The plan seemed like overkill at first, but the ladies were right – as always – and there was just enough food for the crowd.
Friends, visitors and visiting clergy made for a long coffee hour – perhaps one of the greatest joys for a parish priest, because it is a sign of a healthy community when the people are reluctant to leave. St Anna was there with us, filling the agape meal with peace.
After Liturgy, St Anna traveled to a former Roman Catholic convent in Phillipsburg which is being renovated to become a maternity home. Joan and Arlene, the founders of Life Choices, met us there, and after serving a short molieben in the chapel on the third floor, we took the icon through the rest of the building, singing her tropar and blessing the four corners.
St Anna also visited two nursing homes, two residences, and a hospital on Sunday afternoon. When you are given the opportunity to guard a miraculous icon, it shouldn’t be wasted!
After one more visit, I was on my way back to St Tikhon’s to return St Anna and prepare for my afternoon class. After taking her to her chapel, I went to the bookstore and spoke with Father Sergius about our travels. “She loves to get out and visit; she’s alive!” It was so matter-of-fact for him, and why not? After seeing how St Anna was received with joy and thanksgiving by everyone we saw, I understood perfectly what he meant.