St. James Orthodox celebrates new home in Modesto's Maze Boulevard church

Members of St. James Orthodox Church are thrilled with their recent purchase of the former Maze Boulevard Christian Church property.

"We've gone from about 1,930 square feet to 17,000 square feet," said Ryan Swehla, a St. James member. "It was kind of a leap of faith."

The church will hold an open house May 30 featuring tours of the church, a guest speaker explaining the Orthodox faith and a few vendors with traditional Orthodox items, such as beeswax candles, religious woodwork and icons of saints.

St. James began as the Orthodox Christian Mission of Modesto in 1998. About 20 people began meeting in a storefront office in Frontier Village on Standiford Avenue.

In 2003, the congregation was renamed St. James and hired its first full-time priest, Father Thomas Zell. He could be a poster child for the congregation. Raised as a Baptist, he had just completed his seminary training in the 1970s and was looking for his first assignment as a Baptist minister when he began running into evangelical Christians who were searching for their church roots.

"I was captivated by what I encountered," Zell said. "The question they were asking is, 'What happened with the church after the New Testament?' They found out there was a great continuity through the centuries."

That original church, begun after the death and resurrection of Jesus, eventually had five "headquarters": Jerusalem, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. But in 1054 A.D., there was a schism in the church, resulting in the Roman Catholic Church and the pope in Rome on one side, and the Orthodox church, with four patriarchs as leaders, on the other.

Congregation of converts

Many Orthodox churches, such as the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Modesto or the Serbian Orthodox Church in Angels Camp, are mostly comprised of one ethnic group. Not St. James, said Joseph Tanguay, a Canadian native and retired Orthodox priest who helps at the church. Like Zell, Tanguay grew up in other denominations and converted to Orthodoxy as an adult.

"A lot of our congregation are converts from Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians," he said. "We have people here from Iraq, from Syria, from just about every denomination from the Protestant churches. We're not a cradle Orthodox church, like a Greek or Russian one. Most of the people who join St. James are people who were frustrated in where they were at for whatever reason. You'll never hear us put down another church in any way. But we all found fulfillment in the Orthodox Church."

Orthodox churches in general belong to one of four groups, each with its own patriarch. St. James follows the Antioch line, with its roots in the ancient church in Turkey. According to tradition, the Antiochian Orthodox Church was founded by the apostle Peter in 34 A.D. It was in Antioch that Paul and Barnabas departed for missionary journeys (Acts 13:1).

There are many similarities between Catholic and Orthodox beliefs and traditions, Zell said.

"There was an original church, and whether East or West, it was together until the 11th century," he said. "We share the same saints, the same martyrs. Roman theologians would look to Eastern theologians, and the other way around."

But major differences are there, too, he added. The original schism was over Rome's claim to a universal papal supremacy.

"Orthodoxy really never had the view that one person, the pope, was the do-all and end-all of the church," Zell said.

And whereas Vatican II brought the end of most Latin Masses and created other changes in worship, Zell said Orthodoxy has kept its original worship style.

"If anything, we are traditional to a fault," he said.

"We share the same sacraments, and yet we really took those basic tenants on an entirely different path. For example, we both have holy orders -- priests, bishops and deacons. But we have married priests. Celibate priesthood came into the church later, through the West. We've never believed in that.

"Bishops cannot be married. That's always been the case. And I know why. Our bishop covers all the way from Eagle River, Alaska, to Los Angeles. He's always gone, always on the road. It would be very difficult for a married man to have that position, just on a practical basis."

Steady growth

Over the years, the St. James congregation expanded, both in size and in the building space it occupied. It now has between 60 and 75 members.

"We just kept adding neighboring storefronts when they became available," Swehla said.

With its lease at Frontier Town ending, the church began looking for a permanent structure. It heard about the Maze Boulevard property -- although it never was officially on the market, the congregation there went through a church split over theological issues similar to those in other mainline denominations. Many people left, and the remaining group of 25 or so decided to sell the property and move to a smaller location.

St. James bought it for $800,000, "below what it was worth," Swehla said. The Maze Boulevard Church also sold its low-income senior housing behind the church, but to another buyer.

The deal between the two churches was a pleasant transaction, both churches said.

"Things just worked out really well for both of us," said Marvee Borek, a member of the Maze Boulevard church, which now meets as New Covenant Church.

"We're so blessed," Zell said. "We have the opportunity now to grow. To move from a little shopping center location behind a delicatessen to a place where we can invite people and grow is thrilling.

"The (Maze Boulevard church) people were so gracious to us and bent over backward for us. We now have a church that seats about 250 people and a Sunday school building and another building on the property. It's wonderful. It's heavenly."

Zell said the upcoming open house is a way to celebrate the move with the community.

"Most importantly, we wanted to let everyone share in our joy," he said. "We want to introduce people in the community to the church. We want to show people Orthodoxy from the inside out."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or

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