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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

STAR column: A Miraculous Icon

While researching my book, Philadelphia Architecture, I met with several Eastern Orthodox and Catholic priests in Northern Liberties to bone up on the history of area churches. One notable contact was Archpriest Father Mark Shinn of Saint Andrew’s on 5th Street.

When I met Father Shinn he told me that he converted to Orthodoxy years ago after a period of soul searching. Fr. Shinn’s story impressed me. I find that people who have a ‘conversion’ experience after a period of doubt have insights about faith that most other people lack.

Like most Orthodox (and Eastern Catholic) priests, Fr. Shinn is traditional when it comes to clerical dress. His long grey beard and black cassock are signature trademarks in the neighborhood. During my visit to St. Andrew’s in 2005, Fr. Shinn walked with me into his office but took time along the way to bow and cross himself before a series of icons. These prayerful gestures impressed me as being unselfconscious and authentic.

I’m thinking of St. Andrew’s because when I was in Helsinki, Finland several weeks ago, I had the good fortune to visit the Orthodox Cathedral there where I met a monk who could have been Fr. Shinn’s double. Although not a priest, Timo Mertanen had a special devotion to the monastic life and talked about going to the only Orthodox monastery in Finland in a few years to study for the priesthood. Brother Timo also followed Fr. Shinn’s routine when, as we walked around the cathedral, he bowed and crossed himself before certain icons.

To those unfamiliar with Eastern Christianity, whether Orthodox or Catholic, I suggest you visit one of these churches and have a look. Better yet, try to attend an English-speaking Divine Liturgy, whether at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral or at Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox church. (Saint Andrew’s services are in Old Slavic.) If you’re anything like me and admire tradition, you’ll find much to admire in these ancient rituals. And if you’re lucky, you might even find it difficult to go back to your plainer, more modern form of worship.

When I visited Saint Andrew’s I asked about the many icons in the church. I wanted to know if there were old icons or icons that were considered miraculous. By miraculous, I meant icons that shed tears or blood or that “help” in unexplained healings.

In Philadelphia there’s already one such icon, the icon of Saint Anne, the Mother of the Holy Virgin Mary. Although this modern icon was commissioned in 1998 for a convent in Jerusalem, it ended up in the Orthodox church of Our Lady, The Joy of All Who Sorrow, on North 20th Street. In 2004 the icon began to stream myrrh, or liquid streams and droplets. The flow continued for 3 years and increased on feast days. This icon is famous throughout the Orthodox world.

In Helsinki, I asked Brother Timo if his cathedral had a miraculous icon. He told me the story of the famous miracle-working Mother of God of Kozelchan icon that parishioners had decorated with precious gems and mementos in thanksgiving for answered prayers. The icon, however, was stolen by robbers who broke into the cathedral one night. The thieves wanted the icon for its gold and silver, not for its healing properties, since healings and theft are incompatible. The icon has not been recovered.

In 2005, I asked Fr. Shinn if Saint Andrew’s had any miraculous icons. I was hoping for a sensational story but none was forthcoming. Icons don’t become miraculous just because you want them to.

Philadelphia, of course, could use many powerful miraculous icons since the all too human forces here seem incapable of doing the simplest things like clearing the streets of snow or making Septa run on time.

While we’re at it, we could also use a divine hand to help change the weather. “We could use any kind of help,” as an old timer said to me one night at the Front and Girard Avenue trolley stop.

My story ends on a high note. As I was saying good-bye to Brother Timo on the other side of the world, I asked if there was an icon I could purchase as a memento of my visit. Brother Timo then handed me a 6”x 5” replica of the miracle working icon, sans the jewels, that had been stolen.

“It’s yours, no charge,” he said, “but get an Orthodox priest to bless it.” Of course I thought of Fr, Shinn and Saint Andrew’s. Perhaps I’ll get down there one of these days.

I’ve positioned the treasured icon in my house by the front window so that it’s “close” to the street. The street, of course, leads to Center City and to the world beyond, “places” that could use a miracle.

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