Hidden away in the Yokayo Valley of northern California, St. Peter Eastern Catholic Mission offers nothing to attract the worldly eye. There’s a small parking lot, a field of weeds, and a nondescript white-stucco building that could use a fresh coat of paint. The only outward sign to mark the latter as a church is a small golden rooftop Byzantine cross.
And yet, inside this little church, the feeling is always of having stepped into another dimension. Sunlight streams through the east window. Joyful psalmody fills the air. Breathtakingly beautiful liturgy can last three to four hours.
And at the center of it all: a relic of the true cross, a tiny splinter lovingly surrounded on a recent Sunday morning by a wreath of fresh sweet basil and red carnations.
It’s impossible for a million ordinary words to describe the experience, yet one Word explains it all. For everything good, true and beautiful in this little Catholic church comes entirely as a free gift from God.
In response, some worshipers journey to this remote little mission on Sundays from hundreds of miles away. One woman commuted 240 miles weekly from San Francisco for more than a year to worship God at St. Peter’s before moving to Ukiah to attend daily services. A couple drives with their four small children on weekends from Sacramento, a round-trip distance of 350 miles. Other parishioners commute weekly from Santa Rosa, 60 miles away.
“We are becoming geographically a very far-extended congregation,” St. Peter’s pastor, Father David Anderson, told approximately 70 people who gathered June 7 to celebrate Divine Liturgy and to mark the 10th anniversary of the mission’s founding. “A significant development for us is that more than half our parishioners now live outside the Ukiah area,” Father Anderson said.
A Monastic Beginning
The fact is, no adult in St. Peter’s congregation was born into an Eastern-rite Catholic family. Many come from various Protestant backgrounds: Episcopalian, evangelical, Calvinist, Lutheran and others. But whatever their previous persuasions, converts have found a home here, united by the one unbroken faith historically handed down from the apostles through the Church Fathers. Cardinal John Henry Newman, who will be beatified next year, wrote: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” The diversity of believers now restored in solidarity at St. Peter’s reveals the truth of Cardinal Newman’s insight. Everyone agrees: It is good for us to be here.
New parishioners often first hear about St. Peter’s when attending Father Anderson’s classes on the history of the liturgy. In his meanderings, he has taught classes throughout northern California and even as far away as Australia. He does not view his teaching as something he does as some sort of “private agent.” Rather, he regards his teaching as “an overflow of the life of this parish,” saying it “would not happen were it not for the fact that we are united in this church. Everything we do outside of the liturgy proceeds from it.”
The seed for St. Peter’s began to germinate in 1998, when a handful of Catholic families were attending services at Mount Tabor, an Eastern Catholic monastery situated up a narrow winding road in nearby Redwood Valley. When the families’ needs for baptisms, weddings and pastoral counseling began to disrupt the monks’ prayerful silence, something plainly had to be done. One day, five people who had been worshipping at Mount Tabor were seated around a picnic table in one family’s yard. As they discussed their concerns about the disruptions of monastic life developing at Mount Tabor, the idea of starting a mission church seemed to be the solution.
Bishop Michael Wiwchar, then-eparch of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Chicago, lost no time in blessing the plan for a new mission. He helped in every step of the venture. It was Bishop Wiwchar who invited Father Anderson to come to the area to get the mission started. The first Divine Liturgy was celebrated June 6, 1999, in one family’s home. Nineteen adults and 14 children were present.
The small band of worshippers soon moved on to another family’s home, and then into a parishioner-owned winery barn. The 100-year-old barn was sweltering in summer, frigid in winter. Parishioners arrived for Christmas services dressed for skiing. “People would sing matins with balls of fog coming out of their mouths. The suffering was magnificent — very Christian, good for growth,” recalls Father Mark Shuey, a former parishioner who became a priest and now serves as pastor of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Mission in Raleigh, N.C.
In 2001, with sincere gratitude for the eparchy’s generosity, St. Peter’s was able to acquire three and a half acres of farmland in Ukiah (pop. 15,500). An old storage building for trucks and farm vehicles was slowly renovated into a white-stucco structure that today houses the mission.
Living the Liturgy
The Divine Liturgy is received at St. Peter’s not just as one more duty to rush through so one can “get on with things,” but as the heartbeat of the Church, an astonishing gift from God to be treasured. Wonderstruck by the reverently joyful services at St. Peter’s, pilgrims often remark that it’s plain the liturgy is the center of people’s lives here. This is as it was meant to be. For Father Anderson says, “Liturgy is not to be distanced from life. Liturgy is the image of life.”
Subdeacon Nathaniel Slinkert suggests people are drawn to St. Peter’s “because they recognize our services present a stark contrast to the empty routine this world has to offer.” As the joyful celebration unfolds, worldly cares melt away, and worshippers find themselves on a journey from the clock-watching angst of this world into the fullness of time of the new creation. As Christ renews time, human rhythms jangled by the frenzied pressures of modern life are soothed and restored to peace and harmony with God and with neighbor. Emphasizing the “richness of the faith expressed in worship and song,” Slinkert observes, “the daily celebration of the holy services at St. Peter’s offers an abundant feast to all who desire the fruit of divine gladness.”
Although much effort has obviously gone into beautifying St. Peter’s services, Father Anderson continually reminds worshippers that man is invited to the liturgy not to perform some ancient and colorful ritual, but to participate in totality — mind, soul, heart and body — in the very life of God. At St. Peter’s, people experience a clarity about life the modern world has lost. Through the liturgy, they live the intuitively compelling truth that man is first and foremost a worshipping being who becomes joyful only when he is in right relationship with the one true God who created everything.
(From National Catholic Register, January 2010. Photos courtesy of Leslie Smyth.)