Driving past the small wooden structure on Hicksville Road in Seaford, it appears at first glance that it could be almost anything. A preschool, perhaps, or a church of some kind — Pentecostal? Lutheran? On closer inspection, the sign matching the building’s chocolate-brown trim proclaims in gold letters that it is St. Gregory of Nyssa Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church.
The church bears none of the distinctive features of a typical Orthodox church building: no domes, arches or mosaics adorn it exterior. This isn’t surprising, since before it was chartered under its new name, the church was an Episcopal parish and day school.
The Rev. Andrew Gromm, the pastor since 2014, said he knows little of the building’s history. But for the past 38 years, it has served a growing Carpatho-Russian parish that now numbers some 60 families from Seaford, Wantagh and other Nassau County communities.
Gromm did not intend to be a priest, although, he said, his mother predicted his eventual path when he was 8. Born in Ottawa, Ill., he studied German and geography at Western Illinois State College and spent time in Germany before returning to the U.S. to teach German and geography. “I taught about every grade, from kindergarten to high school,” he said. Raised in the Roman Catholic Church, he spent several years exploring Protestantism before being received into the Orthodox Church at age 38.
“I read the Baptists and the Anabaptists, the Methodists,” Gromm said. Eventually, he found his way to Orthodox writers. “They were saying the same things as the [early] church fathers,” he said, the wonder still evident in his voice. As he continued his reading, he felt the call to become Orthodox growing stronger. And as he continued to read after his reception into the church, he realized it was only the first of several calls.
Finally, in his mid-40s, he entered the church’s Christ the Savior Seminary in Johnstown, Pa., where he was ordained to the priesthood by Metropolitan Nicholas (Smisko) in October 2009.
St. Gregory is Gromm’s second parish. Immediately after ordination, he was assigned to St. Michael’s, in Youngstown, Ohio, where he served for six years.
Like Gromm, a large portion of his parish consists of converts to the faith. “It’s maybe 40 percent,” he said. And the church also serves as a hub in the local community, hosting, among other activities, weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Gromm is assisted by his wife, Pani Yoanna. (“Pani” is the Carpathian word for wife.) The spouses of Orthodox priests have an important role in the parishes and are accorded great respect. Pani Yoanna works as an accountant in addition to helping in the church. The couple has a son, Yusen, 29, who is also a bookkeeper/accountant.
The Carpatho-Russian Church is technically part of the Greek Orthodox Church, although the American diocese is autonomous, electing its own bishop, Gromm explained — currently the North-Carolina-born Metropolitan Gregory (Tatsis) of Nyssa, the first American-born hierarch to hold the office.
In an environment of declining church attendance and membership, the 60 families at St. Gregory’s represent a respectable number, but numbers are still a concern to Gromm. Asked about his goals for his parish, he was unequivocal: “We need to reach out to more people, to grow our membership.”
A student of the early church, Gromm was impressed by its rapid growth. The modern church attracts many converts, but many of the so-called cradle Orthodox — those born into the church — only show up on the most important feast days.
“We need to get our message out to more people,” he said, “but we also need to help our own parishioners deepen their understanding,” whether by Bible study or study of the liturgy. But fitting church into people’s schedules, which also include family activities from sports to cheerleading to scouts on Sundays, can be tough.
His jurisdiction has only seven parishes in the entire New York area and 75 nationally. With an estimated 50,000 members in the U.S., the church cannot afford to lose many more before it loses critical mass. And St. Gregory’s also supports a preschool and has a budget many times bigger than other larger local Orthodox churches. That leaves little room for shrinkage.
The Carpatho-Russian Church has a long history. “We’ve been Orthodox for more than a thousand years, even before Russia,” Gromm said. No one is certain how the church began, but many believe it was founded in the ninth century A.D. by followers of Saints Cyril and Methodius, two evangelists who were sent out from Constantinople to preach to the so-called pagan lands surrounding Byzantium.
“They went everywhere,” Gromm said of the two. “They were like St. Paul.”
Gromm clearly has a deep love for his church and all it teaches. Despite the odds, he is optimistic. “We’re survivors,” he said.