Believers from across Utah and beyond gathered recently to participate in the consecration of Utah County’s first Orthodox Christian church.
Located in a county dominated by Latter-day Saints, the Payson building — with its iconic onion domes and traditional frescoes — symbolizes the fruits of the faith’s steady growth in the state, according to the pastor of the brand-new parish.
St. Xenia Church first opened to worshippers in November 2020. Since then, it has operated as a second campus of Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Christian Church, located in downtown Salt Lake City.
That changed Saturday, July 16, when Metropolitan Joseph, leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, “baptized” the structure as an Orthodox church, thereby establishing it and its congregants as their own separate parish.
Father Justin Havens is the pastor of St. Xenia Church. A convert to the faith from Protestantism, Havens previously served as a pastor in Salt Lake City. To be present for the consecration of an Orthodox church “is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said, noting that it had been seven years since Metropolitan Joseph last visited Utah.
‘Relics work miracles’
About 200 attendees were present for the consecration, which included a triple-procession around the building to symbolize, Havens explained, that “it’s being set aside.”
“Once it’s consecrated,” he said, “it can never be anything again — it cannot be sold.”
Sacred relics — pieces of bone from two saints, one from the fourth century and the other from the 20th — then were entombed into the church’s altar used for serving the Eucharist, along with a scroll containing the names of all those who contributed to the building and parish’s creation.
“We believe relics work miracles and are very powerful,” Havens said. “People come from all over the country for this.”
Saturday also saw the blessing of what Havens said represents the Beehive State’s first Orthodox Christian cemetery. Adjacent to the church, it will serve Utah’s entire Orthodox Christian community.
A vision realized
It was Havens’ idea to build a new church in Payson.
“People thought I was crazy,” he said, citing the city’s relative remoteness even just a few years ago. But the father of 10 was not deterred: “I had a vision.”
That vision met a few obstacles, chiefly funding.
“We have no real rich people in our community,” Havens said. Just to buy the property required parishioners to “scrimp and save.”
“Everyone,” he said, “bled for the property.”
Then came the challenge of raising the funds for the building itself.
“I would walk around the property doing my prayers asking God” for help, Havens recalled. And the Almighty wasn’t the only one he asked. “I was begging and marketing all over the place.”
Raising the stakes was the fact that, in the Orthodox Christian tradition, a church cannot be consecrated until it’s paid off.
In the end, Havens was able to secure “big out-of-state donors,” some of whom weren’t even members of the faith, to cover the construction costs. There was even enough to hire an Orthodox Christian fresco painter from Serbia, a man named Aleksander Zivadinovic, to paint the interior.
“He’s one of the best in the world,” Havens said, adding that it’s “pretty rare” for newer churches to feature frescoes — despite their being deeply embedded in the faith’s tradition.
‘A very rich missionary field’
If there was one part of the process that never gave Havens and his team any trouble, it was working with city officials.
“Payson bent over backwards to help us build this church,” he said. Havens attributed this willing attitude to the community’s “seriousness” about faith. Utahns, and especially those living in Utah County, he said “understand the need to worship God.”
Havens suggested this focus on faith as one reason for the growth of Orthodox Christianity he’s witnessed during the past few years. According to the pastor, the “fledgling” group of worshippers in Payson has tripled in size since the building’s doors opened in fall 2020.
About half those, he estimated, are recent converts, the “vast majority” of whom previously were members of Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Havens believes some of this has to do with the similarities between Latter-day Saint and Orthodox Christian traditions, including the emphasis both place on marriage, children and what he called the “traditional life.”
In his experience, former Latter-day Saints arrive with a “skeleton” of a belief system that is “enfleshed when they find Orthodoxy.”
“Utah,” he said, “is a very rich missionary field.”