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Yokoff begins each day praying in his dimly lit chapel, the walls covered with icons and banners. He recites prayers in 15th century Slavonic (the liturgical language of the Russian church), prostrates himself and silently reflects. He does not celebrate the Eucharist.

“Like the early Christian desert hermits, we do not receive communion,” he said. “Instead, we try daily to open our hearts and minds to receive Jesus.”

My October visit to Erie coincided with a rare event, the baptism of Yokoff’s second grandchild. The ceremony began in the early hours of the morning with the lighting of the incense burners, candles and votive lights. Prayers were chanted and responses rejoined by the small community. The baptismal font was then blessed and the godparents instructed.

A visiting nastavnik then clasped his large hands around the bewildered baby’s face and bottom. He plunged the three-month-old child into the frigid water – not once but three times. A laughing Yokoff said afterwards, “We grab them by the head and stick them in the water!”

At the reception which followed, a sense of excitement filled the room. Family members chatted about past baptisms, children were eager to feast and the kitchen buzzed with activity. The drowning shock for the child proved exhausting; he lay asleep in his bassinet.

The Old Belief community in Erie is far from asleep. Though its numbers are dwindling – many are moving south for jobs – the community is as active as it was in the beginning. Five years ago, a younger nastavnik petitioned the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile to ordain him as a priest, and permitted to retain the ancient rites, he and half of the community were reunited with Orthodoxy. But Yokoff and the others remain steadfast in Old Belief.

Meanwhile, as Erie’s Russian-American community seeks to preserve its unique culture, Soviet Russians are aspiring to revive these same traditions and beliefs.

“God has arranged this,” Yokoff said quietly. “I have lived to see Christianity return to Russia.”

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Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.



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Tags: Cultural Identity Russia Emigration Soviet Union