Troubled flock keeps the home fires burning

Author: John Latimer
Date Published: 01/07/2005

Members of Lebanon’s only Serbian Orthodox congregation are still struggling to recover from an incident that rocked its foundations more than two years ago, when its priest pulled a gun on the president of its church council.

Because they follow the Julian calendar, today is Christmas for members of the Holy Resurrection of Christ Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church. But Christmas Mass at the tiny church in the 100 block of East Weidman Street won’t be celebrated by a Serbian Orthodox priest; instead, a Greek Orthodox priest from Lancaster will lead the service.

“Things aren’t back to normal. But we are trying,” said Fred Pantelich, council president.

Pantelich was at the middle of the controversy that erupted in December 2002 when then-priest Filip Velisavljevic pulled a gun on him during an argument in the basement of the church’s social hall. The two had been arguing over control of the church’s finances. A struggle ensued, and the gun went off, superficially wounding Velisavljevic in the foot.

Velisavljevic, who had been pastor of the church for 15 years, was convicted of simple assault and reckless endangerment. He completed a six-month sentence in the county prison, but he is currently serving 23 months probation after pleading no contest in July to charges that he defrauded the church out of almost $4,500 in self-employment tax payments over a three-year period.

The legal aspects of the case may have been resolved, but the church issues linger, said Pantelich. Members of Holy Resurrection have been trying to change their diocesan affiliation after leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Metropolitanate of New Gracanica Diocese of America and Canada ordered them to disband their church council in the wake of the shooting incident. The congregation refused, voting instead to separate itself from the Chicago-based diocese.

The congregation has been in limbo while trying to join a new diocese, Pantelich said. And they have been without a priest, because there are so few available. The church has carried on, with lay leaders and an occasional retired priest performing services.

Last night’s Christmas Eve Mass was conducted by the Very Rev. Father Srbobljub Jockovich, pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Steelton, the closest Serbian Orthodox congregation to Lebanon. After worshipping inside the small but beautifully ornate chapel, the congregation gathered in the courtyard outside, where Jockovich recited prayers as Pantelich bent to light a small pin oak branch representing the Yule log.

The ceremony is an annual tradition that, last night, helped maintain the thread connecting the 88-year-old church to its better days. Pantelich said the church will continue to conduct its own services until the congregation is restored to its former strength.

“We are keeping the bells ringing and the candles burning,” he said.