ST. GEORGE – At the end of 2019, members of the Orthodox Christian community in southwestern Utah found a meeting place thanks to an anonymous benefactor who provided them with a small chapel in downtown St. George. Two years later, this community outgrown the original chapel and gained a full-fledged priest rather than having one coming and going from out of town for services.
That priest is Father Thomas Hernandez, who began celebrating services at Saint George’s Orthodox Church in his new premises at the end of October.
“It happened by the hand of God,” Hernandez said as he spoke to St. George News in early December of the circumstances that had brought him to the area.
For Hernandez, a former Reform Baptist who converted to the Orthodox faith in 2011 and was subsequently ordained a priest in 2017, his father moved to the area and needed a helping hand as he is older and is in poor health.
“So as I came to help him, I asked a friend of mine, Father Justin Havens, who is a priest in the Salt Lake City area, if the church here needed help. He put me in touch with the priest who was in charge of this parish, Father John Finley, and I started coming every two months and serving the church until finally it became evident by the will of God, and I was assigned here as the first priest – founding pastor – in September.
Prior to his assignment to St. George, Hernandez served as an assistant priest at St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church in Riverside, California.
Before Hernandez and his family came to southern Utah, the local Orthodox Christian community had gathered in a small 800 square foot building in St. George. The place where they met was a Christian Science building at one point, but was eventually purchased and donated to the Orthodox community by an anonymous source in 2019.
Like St. George and the region in general, the Orthodox community grew and they needed a new place to meet.
Church members “searched and searched” for a new, larger space that they could rent, but the “amount of space to rent here is minimal,” Hernandez said.
“By the will of God we were able to acquire this place,” he said, referring to the 2,400 square foot unit in a shopping mall at the Texas Roadhouse Restaurant at 2654 Red Cliffs Drive in St. George. where members of the faith now meet for weekly benefits.
The new location will serve as a gathering place for Orthodox worshipers until a new Byzantine-style Orthodox temple planned for the Carol Canyon area in Washington City is built. Design work is currently underway, with the overall project potentially taking three years or more, Hernandez said.
For now, regular attendance at St. George’s Orthodox Church is in their 40s, the priest said, although he has noticed new visitors every weekend since services began at the new location on the 31st. October.
The church has further growth potential in the surrounding area as it is the only Orthodox church between southern Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, which also places the parish in a unique position, Hernandez said.
“We are in a beautifully unique position to serve all the Orthodox who live in this region,” he said. “We are all one body. We are here to serve all who want to obtain the kingdom of God.
As for those who have questions about who or what the Orthodox Christian Church is, members of the faith consider her to be the original Apostolic Church.
Orthodoxy shares its origins with the Roman Catholic Church until the schism of 1054 and other subsequent events that led to the East-West split. As such, manifestations of the Eastern Orthodox faith do not recognize the Catholic Pope or elements of the faith considered to be contrary to Orthodoxy’s view on the Trinity, Hernandez said.
There is also no central earthly authority that oversees the Orthodox faith, Hernandez said, adding: “There is a central figure – Jesus Christ.”
The church in general is decentralized. Bishops and other church leaders will meet in councils to determine the rule on matters of doctrine and various other matters.
The Orthodox Church also venerates icons depicting religious figures such as Jesus Christ, the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary with Jesus as a baby), John the Baptist, apostles and saints, and notable events and festivals from the Scriptures.
There are different versions of Eastern Orthodoxy in the world such as Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc., but overall it is considered to be one Christ-led church.
“A lot of people get lost in Greek or Russian, or this and that,” Hernandez said. “We are all one church. “
St. George’s Orthodox Church itself is part of the Archdiocese of Antioch in North America. Antiochian Orthodoxy has its origins in the ancient city of Antioch where Christ’s followers were first called Christians in the Bible. It also became one of the original five patriarchates, or major religious centers, of the ancient Christian church. The other centers included Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople before the Great Schism.
“It’s a beacon of the kingdom of God, a beacon of light, and it’s here for everyone,” Hernandez said, speaking of Orthodox Christianity in general.
Those wishing to learn more about the St. George Orthodox Church and obtain the hours of service, visit the church’s website here. The church is located at 2654 Red Cliffs Drive in St. George.
Father Thomas Hernandez can also be contacted directly at 951-322-5523, or by email at [email protected].
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