By Alexander Aboutanos
WHITING, Ind. — When I reflect on my life, I’m often baffled by the clarity of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. This past summer was a prime example.
It was spring in Rome and I hadn’t yet decided what to do for the summer. A friend visiting The Lay Centre recommended that I apply for an intensive course in Ancient Greek at the University of Chicago. I applied, I was accepted, and I committed to going. But where would I stay?
I remembered my friends, Lay Centre alumna Laura Ieraci and her husband, Father Andrew Summerson, who live a mere 40-minute drive outside Chicago, in the small town of Whiting, Indiana. Father Andrew is the administrator of St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church, which is part of the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, Ohio.
I contacted Laura to ask if they knew someone in the area with whom I could stay for the summer. After a few weeks, to my surprise, they offered me a room in the rectory with them. I was thrilled!
I am from the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch, one of the 24 sui iurischurches that comprise the universal Catholic Church. Therefore, I was so thankful for the opportunity to be submerged fully in Eastern Catholic life and to shadow a married Eastern Catholic priest, allowing me to discern my own call in the church. Following The Lay Centre lifestyle, we agreed that I would study, serve at the altar, help with small projects around the parish, and contribute to the household expenses.
I distinctly remember when I first stepped into St. Mary’s. After driving 10-plus hours, I pulled into the church parking lot. Father Andrew and some parishioners were in the church praying Vespers. When I walked through the doors, I was immediately stunned by the beauty of the church and the majesty of the Byzantine chant.
I’m thankful that St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church is so beautiful and is devoted to authentic chant, because this beauty helped my prayer life to grow and flourish. That Vespers service was the first of many hours spent in prayer this past summer, as this parish inspired me to pray longer and with greater love for Christ.
During my stay, I felt that I was truly a son of the parish. I was welcomed with open arms and I grew so close to the church community that I got teary eyed on my last night in Whiting. We made nut roll together — an Eastern European pastry — to sell as a fundraiser at the town festival, laughed over snacks at the post-liturgy social hour, and exchanged wisdom about Christ. I was particularly inspired by the unwavering dedication of the elderly members of the parish. St. Mary’s was their childhood church and, after 50-plus years, they weren’t going to miss a Sunday Divine Liturgy.
The rectory was a hearth of life for me. Such a supportive home was very much needed due to the intensity of my course at the University of Chicago. I had five hours of class and a quiz daily. After a mentally taxing day, I could count on the support of a friend back home. Another young man, named David, also lived at the rectory. David currently works for the Eparchy of Parma’s communications apostolate as a videographer and is also discerning his vocation. He and I shared in Eastern Catholic friendship, an often all-too-challenging thing to find.
Some of my fondest summer memories were those made around the dinner table with Father Andrew, Laura, and David. We welcomed other guests throughout the summer, too — quite similar to The Lay Centre’s daily life — including two doctoral students from the University of Notre Dame and a Melkite iconographer from Georgia. These guests not only brought joy to the rectory, but also enriched parish life.
My summer experience was incredibly formative academically, professionally, and spiritually. Over those eight weeks, both David and I observed and were inspired by Laura and Father Andrew’s life: Laura tirelessly supported the eparchy as editor of the diocesan newspaper and other communications projects and witnessed to the fulfilling quality of church-related work. Father Andrew spent long hours praying in church. With great patience and love, he directed his flock to a deeper encounter with Our Lord Jesus Christ. I was particularly moved when he left the rectory for the hospital late one night in early August to anoint a sick parishioner.
I thank the Holy Spirit for guiding me to this small Indiana town — where I was granted the opportunity to observe closely the work of the church and to enter fully into Eastern Catholic parish life — for an incredible summer.
1. Laura and Alexander pose for a photo in the parish booth at the town's annual Pierogi Fest, where they sold nut roll as a parish fundraiser.
2. Alexander and David pose after a Divine Liturgy for the parish feast of the Dormition of God (Assumption), where they served as altar servers.
3. The icon of Jesus, known as the Pantocrator, on the ceiling of the dome of St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church in Whiting, Indiana.
Main photo: Alexander, Father Andrew Summerson and Laura Ieraci pose in front of the outdoor altar, dedicated to Our Lady of the Protection, on the church grounds.