CONWAY- The white building with a wooden cross on the front along S.C. Hwy. 90 may look simple from the outside, but open the doors and you will see a reflection of a special Catholic heritage.
Gilded icons and images of the Blessed Mother and Jesus hang on the walls. A gold table and altar sit at one end of the room. And on Sundays and some weekdays, you can hear a priest and small congregation chant the songs and psalms of the Byzantine Mass, also known as the Divine Liturgy.
This is Blessed Basil Hopko Mission, the only place in South Carolina where Byzantine Catholics worship together.
Over the past seven years, members have lovingly transformed a former three-car garage into the cozy, quietly beautiful place that doubles as worship and social space for the small fellowship of about 30 members.
Most Byzantine Catholics in the U.S. have roots in Eastern European countries such as the Ukraine, Hungary and Slovakia. The Byzantine Catholic Church is in full communion with Rome and the seat of the national church is in Pittsburgh.
The mission outside Conway is the result of more than 12 years of work and prayer that started with a meeting of two women in 2004. Jean Wirth of Myrtle Beach and Elizabeth Moehringer of Conway, who were both raised in the Byzantine tradition, wanted a chance to experience the Divine Liturgy again. At the time, there was no place in South Carolina that offered it.
They located other Byzantines who had moved to the area and contacted Father Conan Timoney, pastor of a Byzantine church in Baltimore. He originally visited the Grand Strand three times a year to offer the liturgy at area churches.
The Blessed Basil Hopko location at 3059 S.C. 90 opened in 2009 with permission from Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone and the bishop of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, N.J. The eparchy donated the funds to purchase the property and members have been paying it back over the years.
Now Father Timoney makes the trip to Conway at least once a month to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Visiting priests take over for him when he is up north. Many of them stay in a house located at the front of the mission property, which was fully furnished by members of the congregation.
“This mission is just another aspect of the global Church, another facet of the Catholic community,” Father Timoney said. “Byzantine Catholics feel comfortable going to Roman rite churches, but this gives them a chance to worship in their tradition. It’s a dedicated group of people. The people are so involved they keep things moving when I’m not here. I like to say all I have to do is walk in and start singing!”
Edward Mayernik of North Myrtle Beach is one of the mission’s dedicated volunteers. He and his wife Jan Mayernik, originally from New Jersey, were two of the founding members. Now Mr. Mayernik handles bookkeeping, serves on the altar during liturgies, and performs numerous other duties.
“I’ve enjoyed being part of the process of watching this mission grow,” he said. “I grew up in this rite, with the Byzantine culture, so I have a vested interest in the mission’s success. The next key thing for us is to eventually get a full-time priest who could offer Sunday liturgies.”
On a recent Wednesday, Father Lewis Rabayda, a priest from Pennsylvania, offered the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, a celebration held on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. During the liturgy, the congregation chants many psalms together and communion is given with bread and wine that have been consecrated in advance.
After the liturgy, regulars and visitors shared a meatless dinner at a long table. Byzantine Catholics abstain from meat on both Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent.
Mrs. Wirth said the social meals take place after every liturgy and are an important way to help new people feel welcome.
“We’re growing slowly, but the progress is in the right direction,” she said. “The important thing is we want people here and we want them to stay. We try to make it a friendly place in every way.”
Father Timoney will celebrate the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts at 5 p.m. March 17, and a Divine Liturgy and Blessing of the Easter Baskets will be held at 5 p.m. March 29, the Tuesday after Easter, which is also known as “Bright Tuesday” in the Byzantine tradition.
Photos by Christina Lee Knauss