Conversions are commonplace at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lowell.
The Bowers Street church, built in 1879, originally served French Canadian Protestants before it was turned into an Orthodox Christian house of worship.
Its pastor, the Rev. Leonard Faris, converted from Catholicism to the Antiochian Orthodox sect in his youth. The congregation includes a number of recent converts, as well as Orthodox-raised immigrants who brought their faith to their new country.
Yet the granite and red-brick church has survived long enough to be among a handful of Massachusetts sites recently earning a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The June 10 listing, congregants said, is a recognition of the Arab Christians who founded the church almost a century ago and helped contribute to Lowell's former glory as an industrial powerhouse.
"Most of our people are from Lebanon or Syria," said Chakeep Skaff, a Lowell native and a church goer at St. George's. "Now some are Jordanians, some Egyptians. My parents are from Lebanon. But at the time there was no Lebanon. It was part of Syria."
The administrator of the Lowell Historic Board, Stephen Stowell, said the listing on the National Register was in line with the city's push to expand historic preservation efforts outside downtown, where old textile mills have been transformed into apartments in recent years, spurring economic growth.
"In Lowell, preservation really sets the stage for so much of the city's planning and economic development and marketing efforts," he said.
Antiochian Orthodoxy is a Middle Eastern form of Christianity on par with Greek, Russian, and other Eastern Orthodox churches. The name derives from Antioch, an ancient metropolis and early center of Christianity in what is now southeast Turkey. Many Lebanese and Syrian immigrants who came to Lowell in the 1880s were Antiochian.
"Some worked in the mills, but most of them went out on their own as peddlers," said Skaff. "They sold to the area farmers. They carried on their backs dry goods, clothing, household goods."
In 1917, Skaff's parents were among a group of Middle Eastern immigrants who pooled their savings and bought the Bowers Street church built by Huguenot Protestants, who were by then moving out of Lowell, and created St. George's.
As many as 300 families belonged to St. George's congregation at the peak of its membership, during the years following World War II, said Faris. Now the congregation has about 100 families.
Descendants of the church's founders still make up the bulk of parishioners, but new immigrants from the Middle East and American-born converts to the faith also belong. Faris, who has been at St. George's for seven years, speaks Arabic, English, and Greek during services. The blending of the three languages offers something for every group, he said, from the old folks who still know Greek to the new folks who speak Arabic as their first language and English for everyone else.
Faris, 58, who grew up in Lawrence, learned Arabic from his Lebanese grandmother, who was Antiochian Orthodox. Although raised Catholic, at age 21 he felt called to convert to his grandmother's faith, he said. Twenty-four years later, after working for the Internal Revenue Service for years, he became a priest.
"I used to go with her to church on Sunday," Faris said. "I loved the ceremony, all the liturgical things. My parents were fine with it. As long as I was going to church, they were happy."
St. George's might have shrunk since its heyday, but the Antiochian Orthodox Church is growing in the United States on the whole. There are some 260 Antiochian parishes in North America today, said Faris, up from around 70 parishes in the late 1960s. The Diocese of Worcester and New England has nine churches in Massachusetts, including St. George in Lawrence, and one in Pawtucket, R.I., according to the diocesan website.
The church attracts newcomers, said Faris, because it is inclusive. It permits the Roman Catholic Mass to be said as well as the Eastern, or Byzantine, rites.
"We're liberal in the sense that we do a lot of evangelizing," said Faris, who came to St. George after a stint at the church in Pawtucket.
The Orthodox faith also often appeals to believers seeking a fundamentally conservative church. Many new Antiochian priests are former Catholics or Episcopalians who believe their churches have strayed from their original missions, Faris said.
One of the congregation's converted members, Paul Durst said he felt drawn to the church's old traditions. A combination of a near-death experience when he was a Marine serving in Iraq a few years ago and an interest in the Orthodox spirituality in Russian novels led the 25-year-old Merrimack, N.H., resident to join St. George's in December.
"It maintains the early church more," he said. "It has not done the innovation the Catholic Church has. It has stuck to the older tenets."
Many Orthodox Christians view the doctrinal changes decreed by various Roman Catholic popes over the years, from proclaiming the Virgin Mary's assumption to heaven to papal infallibility, as deviating from Jesus Christ's original intentions for the church. The complex differences have often resulted in Catholics and other Christians misunderstanding and then ignoring Orthodoxy, Durst said. He said being listed on the National Register might raise St. George's profile and lead others to explore the richness of the Antiochian faith.
"The Orthodox church is overlooked," he said. "Most people think in the dichotomy of Protestant-Catholic. But the Orthodox really see the division as between East and West."
Faris, Skaff, and other church leaders want to memorialize the past, but they also decided to research the church's history and assemble an application for placement on the National Register because they wanted St. George's to be eligible for state and federal preservation grants. It's expensive to maintain the building, they said.
Ten years ago, St. George's spent $250,000 for repairs to the church, said Skaff, who sits on the parish council. Four years ago, the congregation spent $35,000 on a new ventilation system. Last spring, an interior renovation of the church and restoration of its murals and precious icons cost $70,000. Congregation members covered those costs through donations, but that fund-raising is reaching its limits, said Faris.
Brian McNiff, spokesman for the Massachusetts Historical Commission, said the church's listing on the National Register was virtually assured once the state approved the nominations in March.
The listing is in keeping with Lowell's efforts to preserve its history as a center of the American Industrial Revolution, Stowell said. In 2005, the City Council voted to create eight historic districts outside downtown. St. George's is near, but not part of, the Acre neighborhood district, so putting the church on the National Register expands the area officials can cite as historically important, Stowell said.
Many of Lowell's old factories have been added to the National Register or included in historic districts. Preserving St. George's is important to keeping alive the full picture of the history of labor in the city, said Stowell, adding that mill employees' places of work are important but it's also crucial to preserve where they were baptized, married, and buried.
"Being on the National Register doesn't necessarily mean someone famous slept there or was born there or a famous battle took place there," he said. "Sometimes it's just that a building represents what a community finds important."
John Dyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.