New museum plans to tell story of Midwest Orthodox immigrants

Saturday, September 1, 2001

TOPEKA, Kan. -- The Bible has a black cover and is worn, like a lot of them kept in families for several generations. Family births and deaths are recorded on the inside front cover, too.

The first inscriptions -- like the text -- are in Arabic, made by Lebanese immigrants to the Kansas City area. As the family remained longer in the region, the inscriptions became English.

The Bible is borrowed from its owners and has found its way to a narrow red-brick row house a few blocks from the state Capitol, between a tire shop and a branch of the Topeka YMCA.

Inside, renovations of the once-crumbling row house are nearly complete. The Heartland Orthodox Christian Museum is scheduled to open today.

"These immigrant communities are about 100 years old," said Victoria Foth Sherry, the museum's director. "Really, you have communities reaching the point where they say, 'We need to tell our story."'

The museum will tell the story of Russian, Serbian, Greek and Lebanese immigrants to the Midwest, particularly the Kansas City and Wichita areas.

Immigrant influx

Hundreds emigrated to Kansas during the first three decades of the 20th Century.

According to federal census figures, the number of Kansas residents born in Russia grew from 9,800 in 1890 and peaked at more than 14,000 by 1910. There were only a few Greeks in Kansas in 1890; by 1910, the census counted more than 1,400 residents who were born in Greece.

Lebanese residents settled in the Wichita area and parts of southwest Kansas. Serbians emigrated to Kansas City, drawn like others to meatpacking and railroad jobs.

They practiced in a tradition that is neither Catholic nor Protestant.

Bishops from the East -- Greece and what is now Turkey, Russia, the Balkans and the Middle East -- had begun to separate from the Roman church during the 5th century. The break became permanent in 1054, when those bishops refused to recognize the pope as more than the first among equal prelates.

Preserving traditions

Orthodox immigrants brought with them rich religious traditions, including Easter-time processions and the custom of sponsors holding brass crowns over the bride's and groom's heads during a wedding.

One piece in the museum's permanent collection is an embroidered purple shroud, used in Holy Friday processions marking the death and burial of Christ.

Made in the 1920s and imported from a monastery in Greece, it features depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary and Joseph of Arimathea on pieces of canvas woven into the fabric.

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