Lima is in the northwest quarter of the state of Ohio, between Dayton and Toledo on Interstate 75. The metropolitan area that centers on Lima has a population of over 155,000 people. In or near Lima are Ohio’s largest lake, the Neil Armstrong Space Museum, Ohio State University’s largest branch, Ohio Northern University, Lima Technical College, The University of Findlay, Northwestern College, Bluffton College, and Winebrenner Seminary. Lima’s cost of living and affordable housing provide an excellent place for families to establish roots. While the area is saturated with Roman Catholic churches and every Protestant denomination, the people of Lima had no Orthodox witness to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, until now.
In February +1995, Dayton St. Paul the Apostle Church sent over 150 letters throughout the Lima area to seek interest in starting an Orthodox Mission. Simultaneously (in fact the very day His Grace received notice explaining those letters), Father Mark Hodges was meeting with Bishop JOB to discuss future ministry and mission opportunities. At that meeting, His Grace mentioned that Lima might be a possible place of ministry. A negligible response to the Lima letters left things at a standstill, until…
In November +1995, Fr. Daniel Rentel, Dean of the newly created Columbus Deanery, unexpectedly received an inquiry into Orthodoxy from the Lima area. In response, he encouraged contacts be pursued and Vesperal services be conducted.
A plan was quickly set up to meet people in homes, visit area campuses, meet area pastors, contact journalists, and to search for a fitting place to meet and worship. It quickly became clear that there was strong interest in an Orthodox Mission. Finding a place to meet, however, proved more difficult. Just as we were about to give up on meeting before Christmas, an area Episcopal priest introduced himself by saying, “I’ve been praying for an Orthodox Church in Lima for five years now.” His church rented its chapel area for our use. We immediately began planning our first “Advent” Vesper service and sending out invitation flyers.
On December 21st, +1995, thirty-four people gathered to worship the Triune God at an Advent Vesperal service, held at Christ Episcopal Church in Lima. Most attendees were not Orthodox, but were interested seekers. There were also several Orthodox faithful, from Greek and O.C.A. backgrounds.
The Diocese of the Midwest funds for mission efforts allowed us to produce an introductory pamphlet, “For Our Visitors,” and an easy-to-follow Vespers booklet, with all music included, as well as to worship with beautiful icon prints of Christ the Light and the Mother of God and Child. With Vesper words and music in hand, nearly all attendees –Orthodox and not-yet-Orthodox– sang out with joy. The personal interest and positive spirit which overflowed that evening was an appropriate beginning for the Orthodox Church in Lima.
A second, “Epiphany” Vespers was planned. Everyone who had expressed any interest was called. We also sent out Orthodox Icon Christmas cards and another invitation flyer. Unfortunately, the day before we were to serve Vespers, our facility became unavailable! We quickly arranged to meet in the Lima Civic Center. Maps were drawn up and people set in place to direct folks, who made it just fine. On January 4th, +1996, after one of the worst blizzards in area history, twenty-four people braved unbearable conditions to worship at that Epiphany Vesperal service.
From those services, a core group of dedicated seekers emerged. This group met at least weekly throughout 1996 for a thorough catechism, building relationships and learning never-before-heard Orthodox prayers. The Deanery-wide picnic was held in Lima. Fr. Gordon Walker spoke at the Lima Civic Center in August. Fr. Thomas Mueller, overseer of missions for the diocese, visited us in November. By December, Father Mark and Donna and their children (Joshua, Sarah, Elesha, Daniel and Caleb) moved to Lima and a full schedule of liturgical services were begun at the Lima Y.M.C.A.
In February +1997 we had our first baptism, Father Mark and Donna’s newborn, Hannah. In June and September of that year, two were Baptized into Christ and seven Chrismated with the Holy Spirit. By December we had outgrown the Y.M.C.A. and moved into our own rented facility, a small office suite in downtown Lima. In March +1998 we had another baptism, and in July another precious member was added through Holy Confession and ecclesial Marriage, as well as her two children were Baptized into Christ and His Church. September saw another two adults Chrismated into the Faith of the Apostles.
In January +1999 His Grace Bishop JOB granted us “Mission” status and named us “Saint Stephen the First Martyr.” By June of that year we found a larger facility, still in downtown Lima, where we worshipped until very recently. In August +2000, Father Mark and Presbytera Donna’s seventh child, Benjamin, was baptized. In April +2001, a 20-year-old non-Christian completed one year of catechism and was Baptized into Christ. December saw Father Mark’s parents (a former Baptist pastor), anointed with holy Chrism and welcomed into Communion. We adopted August Second as our “Nameday,” the day St. Stephen’s relics were transferred, and we celebrate by blocking off our street and inviting all to karaoke singing, dancing, food, games, and fun.
St. Stephen’s is very active in community-wide events, such as “First Night” 1998 & 1999 activities on New Year’s Eve (giving brief “tours” of our church and selling ethnic pastries), and the Lima Christmas Tree Festival (covered with icons!). In February 1999 we were chosen as the “Church of the Week” at our local, popular Christian radio station. They broadcast our Divine Liturgy live, including the sermon inviting all listeners to “Come Home to True Worship.” The following week an abbreviated Matins service was broadcast each morning, also featuring a brief sermon on holy Orthodoxy. St. Stephen’s also hosts monthly visitations to two local nursing homes. Our annual Great Blessing of Waters at the huge Lima reservoir always gets a lot of media attention. Other events we’ve sponsored include concerts (the Russian touring group Archiglas, and Dana and Sue Talley), a Holiday Craft Bazaar, and horseback riding for men and boys. Father Mark helps lead the National Day of Prayer and gives singing concerts to area youth groups. He has served on the boards of area, regional and state Right To Life organizations, and his Orthodox Study Group for clergy taught the true Faith to three area Protestant pastors. Father is also involved in all area clergy organizations, at which he has initiated Orthodox discussions and reinforced Trinitarian theology. He has preached the Faith openly at well-attended joint community services. In +2000 he was voted President of Lima’s largest ministerial association, guiding 53 Christian groups closer to the Truth for over a year.
God Himself is powerfully at work in Lima. In November +2000 we were honored to have Charles and Jane Omuroka, an Orthodox evangelist from Kenya, Africa, come to St. Stephen’s and share with us. His message was encouraging and inspiring. While praying afterwards, one member who had had serious medical problems died, literally. For several minutes he stopped breathing, his heart stopped and he had no pulse (as attested to by an attendant nurse), and his eyes became fixed and dilated. To the amazement of those around him and to the glory of God, after about fifteen minutes the fervent and persistent prayers of Kenyan Orthodox evangelist Charles Omuroka revived him! His first words were to thank Charles for “bringing me back to life.”
In recent years, we have faithfully celebrated all the American Saints’ feastdays (Sts. Herman, Innocent, Tikhon, Raphael, Alexis, Jacob, Peter, Juvenaly, Alexander, John Kuchurov, John Maximovich, and Nicholas of South Canaan), honoring them and beseeching their help in establishing Orthodoxy in Lima. Most recently, we have Chrismated attorney Richard Allen, His Grace Bishop JOB tonsured our faithful servant Bill Almy as the Reader Basil, and Father Mark and Presbytera Donna have adopted a five-year-old autistic boy named Micah.
We were deeply saddened by the falling asleep of our beloved Jerry Stemen, whom God raised from death and then graciously allowed to live for two and a half years, and be able to see his only child marry. It was Jerry’s dream and prayer that God allow him to live long enough to walk his daughter down the aisle, and he did. Three months later, in January +2004, Jerry fell asleep in the Lord at home. Then we were hit with another disappointment: In March of 2004 we were abruptly informed that the building we had been renting for four and a half years had been sold without our knowledge, and we had to vacate immediately. One week after Pascha, we moved all we had to share a church building with a Lutheran group, and seven months later to a Disciples of Christ group’s chapel room. In our urgent search for a place to pray, everything we found was either too small or way too expensive. Reluctantly, we agreed on a temporary solution: to build a garage kit on a parishioner’s property, and use it for corporate prayer… THEN, almost miraculously, two small parcels of prime real estate — in an excellent location for growth — were donated to us, so we would be able to worship on our own land! Our people worked hard and we raised funds to begin building a small, one-room chapel.
In November of 2005, we began worshipping at our new little church, with great thanksgiving to God! We are growing in our commitment to one another and to the Lord.