ST. GEORGE – In late 2019, members of the Orthodox Christian community in southwest Utah found a place to meet thanks to an anonymous benefactor who donated a small chapel in downtown St. George. Two years later, this community grew out of the original chapel and got its own priest instead of having one who shuttled back and forth from outside the city for services.
This priest is Father Thomas Hernandez, who has been holding services in the Orthodox Church of St. George at its new location since the end of October.
“It was done by God’s hand,” said Hernandez when speaking with St. George News in early December about the circumstances that brought him to the area.
For Hernandez, a former Reformed Baptist who converted to Orthodox in 2011 and was ordained a priest in 2017, his father moved to the area and needed help because he is older and in poor health.
“When 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 needed help here. He put me in contact with the priest who was leading this ward, Father John Finley, and I began to come and serve the Church every few months until it finally became apparent by God’s will and I was installed here as the first priest – Founding pastor – in September. “
Prior to being assigned to St. George, Hernandez served as an assistant priest in St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church in Riverside, California.
Before Hernandez and his family came to southern Utah, the local Orthodox Christian community met in a small, 800-square-foot building in St. George. Where they met was once a Christian Science building, but in 2019 it was purchased from an anonymous source and donated to the Orthodox community.
Like St. George and the entire region, the Orthodox community grew and they needed a new meeting place.
Church members “looked and searched” for a new, larger space to rent, but the “amount of rentable space here is minimal,” said Hernandez.
“By God’s will we can acquire this place,” he said, referring to the 2,400 square foot unit in a mall adjacent to the Texas Roadhouse restaurant on 2654 Red Cliffs Drive in St. George, where believers now gather for weekly services.
The new location will serve as a gathering place for Orthodox believers until a new Byzantine-style Orthodox temple is built for Carol Canyon in Washington City. Design work is currently ongoing, with the overall project potentially taking three or more years, Hernandez said.
Currently, regular attendance at St. George’s Orthodox Church is in the mid-1940s, the priest said, although he has noticed new visitors every weekend since services began on October 31.
The church has potential for additional growth from the area as it is the only Orthodox church between southern Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, which also gives the congregation a unique position, said Hernandez.
“We are in a wonderfully unique position to serve all of the Orthodox who live in this area,” he said. “We are all one body. We are here to serve everyone who wants to gain the kingdom of God. “
As for those who have questions about who or what the Orthodox Christian Church is, members of the Faith consider them to be the original Apostolic Church.
Orthodoxy shares its origins with the Roman Catholic Church up to the schism of 1054 and other subsequent events that led to the east-west divide. As such, manifestations of the Eastern Orthodox Faith neither recognize the Catholic Pope nor elements of the faith that contradict Orthodoxy ‘s view of the Trinity, Hernandez said.
There is also no central, earthly authority overseeing the Orthodox faith, said Hernandez, adding, “There is a central figure – Jesus Christ.”
The Church is generally decentralized. Bishops and other church leaders will meet in councils to set rules on doctrinal issues 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, the apostles and saints, as well as notable events and festivals from the Scriptures.
There are the different versions of Eastern Orthodoxy around the world such as Greek, Russian, Serbian and so on, but overall it is viewed as a Christ-led church.
“Many get lost in Greek or Russian or in this and that,” said Hernandez. “We are all one church.”
The St. George Orthodox Church itself is part of the Antiochene Archdiocese of North America. Antioch Orthodoxy has its origins in the ancient city of Antioch, where the followers of Christ were first named Christians in the Bible. It also became one of the original five patriarchates, or major ecclesiastical centers, of the ancient Christian church. Other centers included Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople before the Great Schism.
“It is a beacon of the kingdom of God, a beacon of light, and it is for everyone,” said Hernandez of Orthodox Christianity in general.
Those interested in learning more about St. George’s Orthodox Church and service times can 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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