Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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A treasure trove centuries in the making

LIGONIER, Pa. - Azzie Akel's wedding dress isn't a typical white lace confection. It's much more spectacular.

Azzie's father hired four Constantinople seamstresses to create a gown of deep-purple velvet, trimmed with gold and silver embroidery and beads. The simple veil is overlaid with a web of gold with dangling copper coins surrounding the edges.

The wedding took place in the Antiochian Orthodox church in Homs, Syria, in 1859. Her gorgeous gown, good as new, is all that remains of Azzie Akel.

Her dress became an Akel family heirloom, and traveled with her descendants over five generations of immigration and resettlement.

Azzie's dress now stands at the entry of a new $2 million Antiochian Heritage Museum at Antiochian Village Christian Conference and Retreat Center. The "spiritual oasis" for Arab Christians is in rural Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, near the community of Ligonier, about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

"The lady who donated the dress - Azzie's great-great-great granddaughter, who's now an elderly lady herself - she cried when she told me about her grandmother's wedding," said the Rev. Timothy Ferguson, curator of the new museum. "It was as if she was there. It's that human element, the stories behind the items in the display, that really make this place resonate. These aren't just museum-quality items. They're precious things that real people made good use of."

There's a household oil lamp, with wick-trimmer, snuffer, and other matching implements hung on chains like ornaments. It's Syrian, donated by a Johnstown, Pa., family. There's an embroidered thawb, a women's caftan. It traveled here from Palestine, via Greensburg, Pa.

On the floors are handmade rugs; the walls are hung with banners and garments, and showcases include metalwork, intricate wood-and-pearl mosaics, vestments of silk and camel-hair, and breathtaking jewelry.

The personal items extend to religious devotions: One display shows "campaign icons," tiny, 200-year-old paintings of patron saints taken into battle in soldiers' pockets.

There's a 13th-century glass cameo pendant, marvelously preserved, with the Mother of God image pressed into its surface. The only drawback here is the lighting - when light passes through the cameo, it glows purple. But laid on its back in a showcase, it's a dull black, just a little worn.

A miniature fold-out wooden triptych is backed with mica. Peer near and see Jesus healing a blind man and raising Lazarus from the dead.

"It was clearly used as a devotional item," Father Timothy said. "The edges are worn down from 300 years of people holding it, touching it, praying with it held in their hands. It's dear that way."

The walls are lined with fine icons gathered from all over the Orthodox world: Greek, Russian, Carpatho-Rus, lettered in Cyrillic or Arabic or Greek, some shiny with gold leaf and silver fittings, others battered and faded. One still wears "ex votos," nailed-on medallions shaped like hands and legs. These are metallic thank-you's, testimonies to miraculous cures or answered prayers.

Many of the Russian icons on exhibit were given by Metropolitan Archbishop Philip Saliba, head of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in North America. Antiochian Village is his brainchild, he said, and the new museum is the crown on more than 30 years of fundraising and expansion.

The Antiochian Orthodox Church dates to the beginning of Christianity. Its claims are impeccable: the Book of Acts says Antioch, a Meditteranean trading center in what is now Turkey, was the first place in the world where Jesus' followers were called "Christians."

There are more than 200,000 Antiochian Orthodox in the United States. Three of their 250 churches and missions are in the Toledo area, including St. George Cathedral in Toledo, St. Elias Church in Sylvania, and St. Catherine Mission in Ann Arbor. Most came to the United States in the first decades of the 20th century, so the original immigrants are almost gone now. Their children are now grandparents, and many are concerned with preserving their ethnic culture someplace outside the confines of the church walls.

"Some of our churches are like museums," the archibishop said, "no matter how many beautiful things we take out of them, we still have so much. This [museum] gives non-Orthodox people an opportunity to discover them."

Curious connoisseurs who won't darken a church door can come to the museum, he said, and not worry about where and when to bob their heads or bow their knees.

"This is beauty, and beauty is universal, for everyone," he declared, opening his arms. "Christ came to transcend all these barriers we put up. This is not a place for only Antiochian, only Orthodox, only Christians. It's a place for everyone. We want all to feel welcome here."

It's a philosophy he said extends out to Antiochian Village itself.

More than 200 years ago, Scots Presbyterians gathered on this hilltop to worship beneath the trees, led by circuit-riding preachers. They later established one of Westmoreland County's first churches, as well as the inevitable cemetery. The hilltop became Camp Fairfield, a Presbyterian summer retreat.

Meantime, Presbyterian missionaries founded a university in Beirut, Lebanon. Church leaders there became fast friends with the local Antiochian Orthodox ministers.

"The Presbyterians are considered our sister church," Archbishop Philip said. "In the early '70s, when I was serving a church in Cleveland, I began looking for a quiet, beautiful place to bring the young people of our church … Ohio was so flat. I wanted Western Pennsylvania, for its hills and trees. And here were all the Presbyterians, too!"

By then the Presbyterians owned four camps in the area, and agreed to sell the 400-acre tract in Fairfield Township for $350,000. In years since the Antiochian Archdiocese has spent more than $20 million on an ambitious three-phase building plan that now includes 100 guest rooms and 13 meeting rooms on three floors. The new wing adds a 143-seat auditorium, a rare book room, a 21,000-volume Easthern theological and cultural library, and a three-gallery museum space. It's become the heart of the denomination in North America, drawing members from all over the continent for summer camp and annual celebrations, councils, and meetings.

"Our [guest] rooms don't have televisions. We come here to meditate, read, rediscover one another," the archbishop said. "This is our little piece of heaven."

The Scottish settlers' cemetery is still intact. And in the past 20 years a new Antiochian Village graveyard has become the final resting place for Orthodox divines from all over America, including Bishop Raphael Hawaweeny, a certified saint originally buried in Brooklyn, New York in 1915 and moved to Antiochian Village in 1988. Several brooches, crosses, and a silver Gospel cover found in his coffin are on display in the art museum.

"This has been a holy place for hundreds of years," said spokesman Denise O'Neal. "We have a lot to share."

And what's on display in the new museum is just the start.

"We have a collection of 700 to 800 artifacts and artworks, so we can change the displays every six months and host traveling exhibitions from other museums and institutions," O'Neal said.

Through September, a show of 40 drawings and prints by Lebanese poet/artist/philosopher Kahlil Gibran is on loan from Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rebekah Scott is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.

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