At a glance

The Byzantine Catholic Mission of Portland

8261 S.E. Clatsop St.

(503) 777-1814

Divine Liturgy (Mass): Sunday 10 a.m., Saturday 5 p.m.

Size: 45 worshipers

Religious Education: Two catechism programs, one in Ukrainian and one in English, weekly adult Bible study and religious education class

Established: 1986

By Jenny Schroedel

Of the Sentinel

A small blond girl tucked in her father's arms gazes over his shoulder at an icon of St. Nicholas on the wall.

In front of her Father Kurt Burnette, the pastor of the Byzantine Catholic Mission of Portland since March 1, swings a censer before a large icon of Christ. As the bells on his censer jingle, incense curls toward a low ceiling, and 30 faithful sing an exuberant chorus of 'Lord have mercy.'

This 12-year-old parish worships in a beautified garage marked by an onion dome and cross perched on its roof.

Ukrainians, Bosnians, Romanians and Americans come together here to celebrate a liturgy that is timeless and transcendent.

'The thing that strikes me is that this is absolutely familiar and yet totally new,' says Beth Wells, a visitor who normally attends a Roman-rite church.

Tony Sarsam, who came to this parish in 1990 while it was still meeting in St. Patrick's Church downtown, was a part of the planning process which led to the purchase of the current property in 1992. The property is complete with the garage-turned-sanctuary and a small house for the priest. Sarsam says that while gaining the property was an important step for the parish, the defining issue has been getting its own priest.

'Father Kurt is the type of priest who wants to be there for the people,' Sarsam says. 'His philosophy is, 'Tell me what you need and I'll do it.' '

Sarsam's wife remembers when their 17-month-old daughter Kamila was sick for three months. Father Burnette anointed her, and she was cured.

The Sarsams, who are quick to point out Father Burnette's gifts in teaching and his preaching ability, also say that he has an incredible sense of humor.

When he first came to this parish this spring, he sent a letter to every parish in his eparchy (diocese), seeking donations for his struggling parish. In response to their generosity, he promised to send an autographed picture of the parish dog, Theodora.

The Sarsams say that ever since that letter went out, checks have been arriving in the mail.

Father Burnette was ordained in 1989 and is a Texan by birth. He served for nine years at St. Nicholas Parish in Fontana, Calif., where he taught mathematics at the University of California at Irvine.

Currently he teaches a Bible study every Wednesday night, attracting about 10 parishioners. The parish, which is about two-thirds Ukrainian, is starting a Ukrainian catechism to educate the Ukrainian children in their first language.

Nastia Andrukhiv, a 16-year-old parishioner, came to the Byzantine mission in September with her family. They were the first Ukrainian family to arrive at the parish and have helped to bring several more Ukrainians.

Andrukhiv says that the community is strong. When the parish considered having a separate Ukrainian and English Liturgy, the Ukrainians decided against it. 'If you have two liturgies, you separate the community,' Andrukhiv says.

In each service, however, the Our Father is said in both languages, and a few hymns are sung in Ukrainian.

Andrukhiv says she enjoys Father Burnette's preaching. 'When you sit there in the church and listen to him, it really makes sense,' she says.

The parish, located on an orphaned section of Clatsop near 82nd Avenue, is in a struggling low-income neighborhood. Parishoner Sarah Tamiian says that the neighborhood might be the main reason that the parish is so small.

But this location offers the parish an opportunity. Father Burnette reaches out to neighbors by hiring them to do work around the property. Neighbors sometimes visit him just to talk.

Judy and Tony Sarsam say that their 17-month-old daughter Kamila enjoys the parish services, which are full of motion and noise. Kamila loves to kiss the icons, to make full-body prostrations with her nose to the floor during Lent, and take Communion from a gold spoon. She can even make her own tiny Eastern version of the sign of the cross, from right to left.

The experience of Kamila marks one significant distinction between the Eastern and Western liturgies, Judy Sarsam says. 'In the Roman Mass the most solemn times are when it's quiet, but in the Eastern Liturgy, the most solemn times are when the people are singing, the censer is shaking, and the bells are ringing,' she says.

For the past 12 years, this parish, founded by Father Joseph Stanichar, mitred archpriest in Seattle, has been hosted by St. Patrick and St. Anne Parishes. It has been served by a variety of priests, including Father Frank Knusel, Father Michael Miles from the Baker Diocese, and Father Michael Durka from Olympia, Wash. 'It has taken a lot of effort to keep that parish on the map,' Father Stanichar says.

In the Pacific Northwest, the Byzantine-rite Catholic Church is growing slowly and steadily. Mission parishes founded in the '70s and '80s are becoming established. People are drawn to this mystical and ancient worship, Tony Sarsam says 'It's a wonderful opportunity to see the church the way it was 1400 years ago in terms of its liturgy and traditions,' he says.

A variety of people have studied their way into the faith, says Father Stanichar. Describing his own discovery of the church, Father Michael Durka says, 'I was not dissatisfied with the West, but I just gradually fell in love with the East.'

The Byzantine Catholic Church has its roots in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Near the end of the 16th century, some Orthodox leaders in Poland and the Austro-Hungarian empire chose to reunite with the Catholic Church because the government was Roman Catholic, and because the Orthodox wanted a share in the superior education received by the Roman Catholics.

The split between Catholics and Orthodox is generally pegged at 1054, but had been building because of theological, linguistic and cultural differences over centuries.

At the union of these Eastern rites with the Western Church, the Orthodox who came into full Communion with the pope retained their beliefs and distinctly Eastern way of worship.

In their countries of origin, married men may become Byzantine Catholic priests, and the church appoints its own bishops. In the United States, candidates for the Byzantine Catholic priesthood are required to be celibate.

A Vatican II document, the Decree of Eastern Catholic Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 1964), urged the Eastern Catholic Churches to remain faithful to their liturgy and traditions.

The Byzantine liturgy is noted for its ancient heritage and fidelity to traditions of the early Church. It is marked by a deeply symbolic ritual and the use of icons, which are images of the saints and of feast days of the church that are intended to serve as a window to heaven, and to help worshipers connect with the people and events of their faith.

The liturgy celebrated on a Sunday morning in a Byzantine-rite Church is the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

This Liturgy goes back more than 1,500 years and was brought to Constantinople from Antioch by St. John Chrysostom.