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Holy Trinity Orthodox remains a diverse, vibrant faith community after 100 years

Fathers (from left) Thomas George, Timothy Sawchak, and Michael Medis prepare for Holy Communion on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, during the Divine Liturgy at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Overland Park.
Fathers (from left) Thomas George, Timothy Sawchak, and Michael Medis prepare for Holy Communion on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, during the Divine Liturgy at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Overland Park. Special to The Star

To commemorate its 100-year journey as a church family, Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Overland Park marked its centennial with a celebration on October 7-8. Founded in 1917 by Russian immigrants, the original church was located in the Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood known as Strawberry Hill and was known as “the church on the Hill.”

“This event not only celebrates 100 years of parish history but also our faith back to Old Testament times and our connection to the saints,” Father Timothy Sawchak, the church reverend, said. “This history is an ancient family album, and our church and members today are all part of this album.”

Following Russian tradition, the original parishioners intentionally built the Strawberry Hill church where they lived, so that church would be woven into the fabric of their families, neighborhood, and social life.

Although services were spoken in Russian until the 1970s, the original membership was, and is today, internationally diverse. Many of the church’s current members have belonged to the church for decades.

“I came and met my husband, Alex, on Strawberry Hill,” said Dora Stankewsky, who has been a member for over 70 years. “We were married in the church and had four children, who were baptized in the church. Every important family passage happened in this church.”

After surviving the 1942 bombings in Berlin, Stankewsky and her family were sponsored by a family in Kansas and immigrated to the United States.

“Everyone who came here was running — running from Lenin, Stalin, Hitler,” Stankewsky said. “We didn’t speak English. We didn’t have a car. We were lifted up in this church and wanted to be as close as possible to each other.”

Father Sawchak carries this tradition of caring and family into the church’s culture today.

As with previous reverends, he interacts with each member individually. He knows about their life, understands their struggles, and shares equally in their joys and sorrows.

“My struggle is that I can’t be in all places at all times,” Sawchak said.

While the church remained a close community for decades, it closed for two years in the early 1970s as the result of dissension among its members. In 1972, under the leadership of a new reverend, Father John Platko, the church was reunified and reopened.

“Father John was the healer after we splintered,” said Connie Way, parishioner and member of the church building committee. “He also took the services from Russian to English. He recognized that, in order for the church to grow, services needed to be in English.”

During the last 100 years, the church survived — and even thrived — through lean times by hosting festivals to raise funds for building maintenance and other needs.

“Festivals got us through some pretty rough times,” said Ellene Way, who joined the church in 1972.

When Father Platko arrived and brought the church back together, the property had been neglected, so members held a Russian street festival — really, an eclectic mix of dancing, music, costumes, and international foods that reflected the church’s diverse membership — to raise money for repairs.

Baked goods and other foods sold at festivals were a significant source of income and perhaps best reflected the church’s international membership with Ethiopian, Lebanese, Slavic, Greek, and Russian cuisine. Some of the favorite church-related memories for Way and Stankewsky include cooking together.

“Kneading bread, you get to know each other and become family,” Way said. “You make that commitment to each other and the church. We are there for one another.”

After the church reopened in the 1970s, membership increased and the congregation outgrew their Strawberry Hill location.

Two decades later, a gift bequeathed to the church opened the door for a new location to be built.

“Building and moving to the new church was a huge decision,” Sawchak said. “When we made the decision, we made a commitment not to leave anyone behind. If they couldn’t drive, we made sure they were all given rides to services.”

Not only did the members trek from the old church to the new one, the physical history of the church was preserved and brought to the new building.

After the final service inside the Strawberry Hill location in 2001, Father Platko gave each member something to take home and care for until the new location opened.

During the first service in the new church on Palm Sunday in 2002, members presented the items they had safeguarded during the two-year construction process. The chandelier from the narthex, the bell from the tower, and several other iconic pieces from the Strawberry Hill location were installed at the new church.

Today, Holy Trinity Orthodox Church has 170 adult members and 120 members under the age of 18, a membership that remains as diverse as 100 years ago with members from around the world alongside local converts from other faiths.

While celebrating its first 100 years, Holy Trinity also looked toward the future.

Sawchak said that current members, including those who were part of the old church, have always been forward-thinking about what the future, even if that means making difficult decisions.

“We do what is needed to be done,” he said, “so that the church will grow and thrive.”

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