EAST MANATEE — Lots of Manatee County churches had Christmas Eve services Wednesday, but only one had someone from the fire department standing guard in the back.
Ten members of St. Mark Orthodox Christian Church attended the first service ever in its new sanctuary. They sang joyously during their Nativity of Christ service on Morgan Johnson Road, as East Manatee Fire Rescue inspector Cece Hartsfield stood “fire watch” over them.
Hartsfield was there, looking out over the handsome, lifesize, icons that are part of Orthodox churches, because the brand-new church hadn’t gotten approval for its fire alarm and was operating on a temporary certificate of occupancy, Hartsfield said.
“In situations like this, I’m here to be the eyes and ears,” Hartsfield said.
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Hartsfield’s presence didn’t seem to interfere at all with the mood of St. Mark congregation members, who had waited three years for the big moment of singing from The Divine Liturgy of The Holy Orthodox in their new $1.5 million sanctuary.
Members were so thankful that Hartsfield granted their temporary occupancy status that they embraced her as one of their own.
“We prayed someone would hear our prayers and pleas,” said long-time member Nadya Golubov.
The church members met for years in a small house at 3415 Ninth St. E., Bradenton. Their last service there was February 2005. From there they moved into rented space at Christ Episcopal Church on Manatee Avenue.
But nothing can take the place of a brick-and-mortar sanctuary, said Sunnie Beardsley, who attended the first service with her daughters, Angelique, 9, and Chloe, 2 1/2.
“We’ve waited so long,” Beardsley said.
“This is what a real church is supposed to look like.”
The foundation for St. Mark was poured on Dec. 20, 2006, said Father John Chudik, the church’s leader.
The walls went up in early 2007, but then the church sat dormant, church members said.
Church members said things finally picked up and there was talk about a Christmas 2007 opening, but that deadline was missed. Other dates missed this year due to various issues included Easter in April, Pentecost in June, Dormition in August, the beginning the new Orthodox church year in September nd Protection of the Virgin Mary on Oct. 1, Chudik said.
The contractor on the job is Larry Arrasmith of Palmetto, Chudik said.
“One of the big issues is that no one in this area had built an Orthodox church,” Chudik said. “Those that built St. Barbara’s in Sarasota were no longer available.”
But a lot of those painful memories are washed away now, Beardsley said.
“I’ve been going to this church since I was 5, so this is wonderful,” Beardsley said.
A call to Arrasmith was not immediately returned.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7917