A few Sundays ago, Daniel and Maria Mackay watched as priest David Lubliner immersed their 5-month-old daughter, Lucy, in the holy water of the baptismal font at St. John the Wonderworker Church, welcoming her and two other infants as the newest members of Eugene’s Serbian Orthodox congregation.
Fascinated children and smiling adults – many of the men bearded and the women wearing long skirts and babushkas – looked on as godparents swaddled the dripping babies in thick terry towels and whisked them away to be dressed in post baptismal finery for the remainder of the three-hour service.
For the Mackays, Lucy’s baptism was at once a further link in their connection with the local congregation as well as a poignant step toward separation, at least for a time, from their relationship with it. The couple – her birth name was Nancy Suryan, but she began using Maria as a given name when she became Serbian Orthodox in 2003 – married at St. John the Wonderworker on July 15, 2007.
Now, the early August ritual, followed by a sumptuous lunch, also served as a farewell to Daniel Mackay, garbed one last time in the richly ornate gold-and-white vestments of his position as deacon among the church’s clergy.
A few days later, he packed the family car with belongings and his black Labrador, Sister, and began a cross-country drive to Pennsylvania to begin studying for the Serbian Orthodox priesthood.
After a few days visiting relatives in the Portland area, Maria and Lucy flew east to join him.
If all goes as planned, the young family could return in a year or two, if Father David, as Lubliner is known to his congregants, wishes to retire and Bishop Maxim, who presides over the Serbian Orthodox Church in the western United States, wishes to install Mackay as priest – called “protopresbyter” in Serbian orthodoxy – in Lubliner’s stead.
“Priests serve in obedience to the bishop, who is the God-given leader of the local church – his job is to pastor the whole diocese,” Mackay said. “Any decision is up to him.”
However, “There is a tradition in some places of pastors coming from the local congregation, so I have hope that it might be possible,” he said.
Like other orthodox branches, the Serbian Orthodox Church traces its lineage to the early Christian church, originally called the Holy Catholic Church and sited in Rome, then relocated to Constantinople in the mid-fourth century. In 1054, a schism over papal authority led to the split of the church into the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religions. Although similar in many respects, the orthodox churches vest their authority in the eastern church patriarchs, although they don’t consider them to be infallible, as Roman Catholics do the pope. They also allow their priests to marry.
The Serbian Orthodox Church became an independent branch of orthodoxy in 1219.
The religious world has called to Mackay, who turns 36 later this month, since childhood.
“His mother told me that at his first communion (in the Roman Catholic Church), he said he wanted to be a priest, and he went and talked to the priest about it,” Maria Mackay said. “And we still have the chalice that he asked for as a Christmas gift when he was only 6 or 7.”
The appeal of the church occurred “in different stages,” Daniel Mackay said. “When I was a child, I loved the whole pageantry of the church, the life in it. But at 18, I took a trip to Alaska, and that’s where I had my first truly spiritual experience.”
It had nothing to do with church, he recalled. Rather, “It was a deep sense of peace, and it lasted for about nine months. My relationship to everything – family, friends, the normal dramas of life – changed, and I didn’t feel so much subject to those things.”
He also felt “a real sense of love, unconditional love, that just settled over me,” Mackay said.
His next catharsis came when he was 22 years old, after his continued quest for spiritual peace had taken him to a Hare Krishna temple, a synagogue, personal meditation, even back to the Roman Catholic faith of his childhood.
“But nothing made complete sense to me until I visited a Russian Orthodox monastery,” he said. “I experienced the same peace there that I had in Alaska, and I finally met people there who understood what that was about – they were already so much deeper than that.”
He knew he had found the spiritual quality he had been seeking. “It proceeds from the heart,” Mackay said. “I had been trying to pursue spirituality intellectually, but now I know it is a God-given gift.”
For the next several years, he considered entering monastic life, but he never could bring himself to make the decision to withdraw so completely from the world.
About a decade ago, he began thinking seriously about the priesthood and went to Lubliner for advice.
“When I first talked to him, he told me, ‘It’s better to be a good Christian than a bad priest,’ so it was important for me to wait until I knew exactly what was right for me to do,” Mackay recalled. “We talked and talked, and he counseled me in terms of both vocation and spiritual growth.”
That included being able to make a living, regardless of his decision about the priesthood, since most small congregations would not be able to support a priestly household.
But Lubliner gave full support to Mackay’s line of study at the University of Oregon, where he completed both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in English literature and became an instructor.
“I did all this with Father David’s blessing,” Mackay said.
In the meantime, another piece of his life fell into place when he met his future wife at a church in Portland four years ago.
“We met at church,” Maria Mackay recalled. The two hadn’t crossed paths in Eugene because they attended different churches, but “a friend of mine who knew us both suggested that we meet,” she said. “He was up in Portland, and we were introduced at my (childhood) parish church.”
By then, she’d been orthodox for three years, “so I gave him the choice of calling me either Nancy or Maria, and he started calling me Maria right away,” she said. “Since I’ve been in Eugene, I’ve been introducing myself as Maria everywhere, although my parents and old friends still call me Nancy.”
Daniel Mackay believes that his earlier inability to commit to monastic life happened because he was meant to meet Maria and follow a different path.
“God had us meet when the time was right,” he said. “Everyone in our lives has seen that from the beginning.”
For her part, Maria Mackay, who has worked for local school districts as a speech pathologist, said she’s excited about his pursuit of the priesthood and her role in his future. As the wife of a Serbian Orthodox priest, she would become the congregation’s popadija (pronounced poe PAH dih yuh), although “as the wife in a young family, I probably wouldn’t take on as many duties as some others would be able to do,” she said. “But once he becomes ordained, that’s what I will become.”
In the Serbian Orthodox Church, ordination doesn’t necessarily occur as the result of a specific academic curriculum or length of time in seminary, she said.
“The time that someone is ordained depends on knowledge and need. A person isn’t ordained just to be ordained – there must be a need for service.” Likewise, a person with the proper knowledge and spiritual bent can become a priest without a degree if the need for a priest arises, she said.
Whether need and intellectual preparedness coincide to bring the couple back to Eugene will be God’s will, both agree, but given their emotional connections with the church, its congregation and the community, they hope they will receive the call to return.
With its bright onion domes and rich terra cotta walls – not to mention its unusual name – St. John the Wonderworker stands out not only for its architectural presence in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood but also for being one of only three Serbian Orthodox Churches in Oregon.
The area has two other orthodox churches, St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Eugene, which Maria previously attended before meeting Daniel, and St. Brendan’s Church of the Culdees Celtic Rite Orthodox in Springfield.
St. John the Wonderworker seems to have earned its name, under Lubliner’s leadership. The congregation purchased the site of the old Icky’s Teahouse in 1997 and began the Herculean effort of cleaning up and reconstructing the building and its grounds to create a place of worship. Lubliner said at the time that volunteers from the congregation carted off 125 cubic yards of all kinds of junk, drug paraphernalia and human and other waste.
The church’s namesake, also known as St. John Maximovich, is a modern-day saint, born in 1896 in Russia but of Serbian parentage on his father’s side. Baptized Michael and called Vladika by family and friends, he attended a military academy and became a lawyer but always preferred spiritual study.
After his family fled Russia for Yugoslavia during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, he studied for the priesthood, taking the name John. He became a bishop in 1934 and went to Shanghai, where he unified the Serbian, Greek and Russian orthodox communities and oversaw completion of a major unfinished cathedral.
As archbishop in 1948, when Communists took control of China, he persuaded the United States to accept orthodox refugees from China. In 1951, he returned to western Europe, then went to San Francisco in 1963, where he again unified discordant groups in order to complete the Cathedral of the Most-Holy Theotokos, the Joy of All Who Sorrow.
Stories of his life ascribe many miracles of recovered health to him throughout his adulthood. John Maximovitch died in 1966 while on a trip to Seattle; he is interred in the cathedral in San Francisco. He became St. John the Wonderworker in 1994 during glorification ceremonies in San Francisco.