MONONGAHELA – On an unusually balmy winter day for Southwestern Pennsylvania, a small group of Orthodox clergy, deacons and faithful gathered at the Monongahela Aquatorium for a special service to bless the Monongahela River.

The Rev. John Parker, pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Donora, organized Saturday’s event as an extension of the feast of Theophany, which commemorates when Christ was baptized in the River Jordan.

“During Theophany, we bless water in our churches, followed by a blessing of the homes of the Orthodox faithful,” he said. “Throughout the world, it is also a tradition for many Orthodox churches to go to the nearest bay, lake, river, or stream to have a blessing of the waters. For instance, back at my former home parish in Colorado, we would go to the Continental Divide, where we would carve a little table out of the snowbank and plant ice crosses in the snow. When the crosses melted, the blessed water would flow in all directions. We thought it would be wonderful to start this tradition here in the Mon Valley.”

Parker held a 45-minute service at the aquatorium, where he was assisted by the Rev. Stephan Gresh from Belle Vernon and several deacons. The Rev. John Joseph Kotalik from Canonsburg led a choir comprised of Orthodox Christians who represented a wide variety of Orthodox churches from the area.

Before the service concluded, Parker and Gresh threw crosses sanctified with holy water into the Monongahela River.

“In some places in Russia, the clergy throw a cross into a lake and it is a tradition for the people to swim out and race to retrieve the cross,” said Parker. “We didn’t think it would be safe to do something like that here this time of year, so we opted to toss ice crosses into the river. Gresh also threw out his wooden cross, which was retrieved back to shore with a fishing line.”

Parker hopes to continue this tradition each year following the feast of Theophany.

“We welcome all Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike to join us for future blessings of the Monongahela River,” he said. “We all join in prayer, asking God to bless and sanctify the water that sustains us in our daily lives. Everyone is also welcome to visit our churches and learn more about our faith.”

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