MYRTLE BEACH – “Wisdom, be attentive!” With those words, Father Conan Timoney held up an ornate gold-covered Book of the Gospels and walked around the altar at St. Andrew Church in Myrtle Beach on Sept. 9.
This was the beginning of the “Little Entrance,” part of the Eastern Rite Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine-Ruthenian tradition.
Father Timoney, pastor of a Byzantine Catholic church in Maryland, celebrates the Divine Liturgy three times a year for the Grand Strand Byzantine Catholic Fellowship.
The group offers Byzantine Cath olics in Horry, Georgetown and other counties a chance to worship together and reconnect with traditions they celebrated in childhood.
The idea for the fellowship came from a chance meeting in early 2004 between Jean Wirth of North Myrtle Beach and Elizabeth Moehringer of Conway. Wirth received a copy of a Byzantine Catholic newspaper addressed to Moehringer by mistake and mailed it back to her.
They were thrilled to discover their shared religious heritage, Moehringer said. Wirth was raised in the Roman rite but had Byzantine Catholic family members, while Moehringer is a native of Slovakia who moved to the United States in 1948.
Wirth proposed the idea of forming a Byzantine community. With the help of other volunteers, they succeeded in holding the fellowship’s first Mass at St Andrew in 2004. The Divine Liturgy is also held at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in North Myrtle Beach, and St. Michael Church in Garden City. Social gatherings, including meals of traditional Eastern European foods, are held after each Mass.
“God works with us in everything,” Moehringer said. “I was asked once during a seminar what I wanted to do in life, and I said I would like to build a church. In a way that’s what we’re doing here — building the Byzantine community.”
Byzantine/Ruthenian Catholic churches are common in areas of the Northeast where many Eastern European immigrants settled, especially in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Many trace their roots to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine and Poland. The seat of the Byzantine Catholic Church in the United States is in Pittsburgh, and it is in full communion with Rome.
The majority of Byzantine Catholics who move to South Carolina join a Roman-rite church because there are no Byzantine churches in the Diocese of Charleston, Wirth said. The closest are Epiphany Byzantine in Atlanta, and Sts. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine in Cary, N.C.
Attendance at the three liturgies ranges from 20 to about 70 or 80, Wirth said.
“I’ve been pleased with the fellowship right from the beginning,” she said. “We have a good following and people are enthused about what we’re trying to do. The goal is to get more people involved.”
Some key differences between the Byzantine and Roman rites are:
n The celebrant faces the altar during most of the service;
n The sign of the cross is made from right to left;
n The priest distributes the Eucharist with a golden spoon;
n The Eucharist is unleavened bread instead of a flat wafer;
n A host is dipped in the blood of Christ and placed on the recipient’s tongue;
n There is no instrumental music during the Byzantine liturgy;
n Most of the service is sung or chanted, including the readings and the Gospel, and the priest and a cantor lead the chants.
Moehringer studied to be a cantor while she lived in New Jersey, and leads the singing with Myrtle Beach resident Ed Mayernik.
“It’s good to go back to your roots,” Mayernik said. “Singing at these liturgies keeps me close to the way of worship I learned as a child.”
Religious icons also play an important part in Byzantine worship. Fellowship volunteers carefully set up appropriate icons in front of and around the altar for each liturgy.
Ollie and Jean Guthrie of Calabash, N.C., were instrumental in starting the group. The retirees from Pittsburgh attend St. Brendan the Navigator in Shallotte, N.C., just over the state line.
“We missed the Byzantine rite when we got down here — all the holidays, the special traditions,” Mrs. Guthrie said. “We were very fortunate to meet Jean Wirth and the others who wanted to keep those traditions alive here.”
Guthrie said he hopes the continuing influx of retirees and families from Byzantine strongholds in the north will eventually create enough demand to establish a full-time Byzantine church along the Grand Strand.
The Byzantine Catholic fellowship’s next Divine Liturgy will be held in January.
For more information about the Byzantine Church visit www.byzcath.org; or visit the official site of the ecumenical patriarchate at www.ec-patr.org.