Serbian Orthodox Church in Detroit works to keep alive its traditions

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The Rev. Zivan Urosev, parish priest at St. Lazarus Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Detroit, stands in front of a display of 44 paintings in front of the altar

By Niraj Warikoo

Free Press Staff Writer

With its golden dome soaring 70 feet above East Outer Drive near 8 Mile in Detroit, St. Lazarus Serbian Orthodox Cathedral has been the center of Serbian religious life in Michigan for almost 100 years.

And as it gets ready to celebrate Christmas on Sunday night and Monday, the church is looking to its future as it seeks to keep new generations engaged with tradition.

A few years ago, the church was facing financial challenges as members left for parishes in the suburbs. But St. Lazarus is now secure after setting up a stewardship system that encourages greater involvement from lay members and making the payment of yearly dues optional, said its president, Michael Balow. The house of worship, which has about 270 adult members, is hoping to get back congregants who may have left for more modern churches and also attract newcomers looking for a more traditional church experience.

“We’re trying to get them to come home to the Mother Church” of Serbian-Americans in Michigan, Balow said.

There are four other Serbian Orthodox churches in southeastern Michigan — in Monroe, Warren, Troy and Ecorse — all of which trace their roots to St. Lazarus in Detroit. They and Orthodox churches of other ethnicities — Egyptian, Russian, Ethiopian among them — will mark Christmas on Monday because they follow the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West.

At St. Lazarus this weekend, you’ll hear congregants greet each other with ” Hristos se rodi (Christ is born),” the traditional Serbian greeting for Christmas. About 2,000 are expected to attend services and festivities at the church. The highlight is the burning on Sunday evening of tree branches, known asbadnjak. It symbolizes the wood that shepherds brought to burn so that the newborn Jesus could be warmed.

St. Lazarus in Detroit is named after a 14th-Century Serbian ruler who was killed in battle with the Turks. Started in 1915 near Serbian-American communities in Detroit, the church is now in its third building, this one erected in 1967. Its Byzantine interior is striking, with tall stained-glass windows and a massive wall of 44 religious paintings near the alter known as an iconostasis. Serbian motifs decorate the church, about 25% of each Sunday service is spoken in Serbian, and the church teaches Serbian language, history, music and dance.

There are about 190,000 Serbian Americans in the United States, according to U.S. census figures. Balow, whose grandfather was once a priest at St. Lazarus, estimates there are about 40,000 in Michigan.

While “we’re proud of being Serbian, we’re more proud of being Orthodox Christians,” said the church’s priest, the Rev. Zivan Urosev.

“The faith is more important than the language, customs, tradition,” he said in his office Friday. “The cross is at the top, the (Serbian) flag at the bottom.”

Contact Niraj Warikoo: nwarikoo@freepress.com or 313-223-4792.

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January 5, 2013 · 9:49 pm

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