Orthodox Church archbishop visits Durango parish

Leader says church reflects America’s immigrant roots

Archbishop Benjamin Peterson of the Orthodox Church in America, left, was a guest Sunday morning at the Holy Prophet Elijah Mission, lead by the Rev. Father Benjamin Huggins, right. Enlargephoto

JENNAYE DERGE/Durango Herald

Archbishop Benjamin Peterson of the Orthodox Church in America, left, was a guest Sunday morning at the Holy Prophet Elijah Mission, lead by the Rev. Father Benjamin Huggins, right.

The Holy Prophet Elijah Mission in Durango on Sunday closed its weekly service with a special guest: Bishop Benjamin Peterson, the Archbishop of San Francisco and the West of the Orthodox Church of America.

About 16 people attended the service in the Main Mall. The mission is led by the Rev. Benjamin Huggins.

Peterson said he oversees churches and missions – 65 total –in 10 western states, and that duty brought him to Colorado.

“It’s a family of churches,” Peterson said. “Basically, of the eastern part of the Mediterranean: Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, Serbia, Romania, and the middle East: Lebanon, North Africa and Egypt.”

He said it was united with the Roman Catholic Church until 1054, when they split in the Great Schism. In North America, it began with a Russian mission in 1794 in Alaska. Currently, there are about 1.2 million members of the church in the U.S.

Peterson said a diversity in the church is reflective of America itself.

“America is a country of people who have immigrated from all kinds of places,” he said. “Our church reflects that. I’m Scottish and Swedish, the Dean of my church is Japanese. Some of the parishioners are Russian, Ethiopian – all kinds of people – that’s what America is. That’s what we’re about.”

One of the oldest Orthodox parishes in the United States is in Calhan, Colorado, Peterson said, founded by Czechoslovakians a hundred years ago.

He described the sect as conservative, but one that adapts.

“You have to keep expressing ancient truth in new ways that are accountable in 2000 years of Orthodox history,” he said, “yet relevant in terms people will understand.”

Huggins welcomes the calling. Arriving in Durango last July, the Durango School District 9-R special education teacher and his wife, Lauren, a registered nurse, saw an opportunity for the parish in the region. They briefly congregated in an old cabin near Lemon Reservoir before establishing a new home.

“Our hope is that we grow, and this is a good, central meeting place for us,” Huggins said.

“Durango is a very spiritual place,” he said. “You see all of the churches on Third Avenue, and you see Tibetan prayer flags on porches.”

Originally from Colorado Springs, Huggins attended seminary in Pennsylvania.

“We wanted to be back in Colorado,” he said, “to be able to come to a place that doesn’t have a very large congregation.

“People find fulfillment and healing,” he said. “And that’s what I have found in it.”

bmathis@durangherald.com