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OCF Team renovates Church, explores Religious Freedom during ‘Real Break’ to Ecumenical Patriarchate


Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visits with Bishop Savas, Fr. Mark Leonids, OCF personnel, and students who participated in the Real Break program to Constantinople.

Fourteen Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) students, from multiple jurisdictions, recently returned from their ‘Real Break’ trip to Istanbul and historic visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The trip was planned in cooperation with The Order of St. Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, who graciously provided all of the funding for the equipment and supplies.

Led by His Grace, Bishop Savas of Troas, and assisted by OCF Board Chairman, Fr. Mark Leondis, and OCF Executive Director, Fr. Kevin Scherer, the group spent their Spring Break Week renovating the Church of The Dormition of the Theotokos (“Our Lady of the Heavens”) in the Salmatombruk district of the city.

This historic Church, erected in 1778, was once the center of a prosperous community of Greek Constantinopolitans. In recent decades, however, the parish has been reduced to a single octogenarian, the former president of the parish, who lives in humble quarters at the Church gate. The Church itself, a simple structure in the post-Byzantine style, was in a state of significant disrepair since having fallen out of regular use over a quarter century ago. The grounds were overgrown with weeds, vines, and thorn bushes making entrance to the Church difficult. The building’s exterior showed signs of neglect and attempted arson. The inside was heartbreaking at best. Many of the icons had been defaced either by the burning or gouging of faces and hands.

Though modest in its design and decoration, the Church was an oasis of simplicity waiting to be restored to its former glory. This renovation took place in the beginning of Great Lent, in anticipation of the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when the Church celebrates the restoration of the Holy Icons.

“The Church these students renovated,” said Dr. Anthony Limberakis, National Commander of the Order of Saint Andrew, “was only one example of the numerous Orthodox churches, monasteries and seminaries that have been desecrated. The religious freedom deficit in Turkey that exists today not only has resulted in the near asphyxiation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but has led to the physical devastation of innumerable houses of worship.” Limberakis continues, “The Real Break experience was an important educational opportunity for these students to experience the Martyria of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as it projects the salvific message of Jesus Christ, despite the overwhelming challenges it faces in its own country. It is my hope these young adults will share their Real Break experience with others upon their return to the United States. Let our young adults convey the message that the inalienable right of religious freedom shared by all member nations of the European Union and upon which our own country was founded, must now be realized in Turkey.”


The OCF team applies a fresh coat of paint to the main gate of the Church.

The students’ first full day in Istanbul was Clean Monday, and there were an abundance of services. Throughout the day, busloads of pilgrims from Greece poured in and out of the Patriarchal Church of St. George. The students, who were housed a few hundred yards from the patriarchate, changed back and forth between their Church clothes and work clothes in order to be faithful to the services and their renovation work.

Under the direction of His Grace Bishop Dionysius of Synadon, in whose diocese the Church lies, and Meltem Sophia Gikas, a professional restorer, the students cleared the Church grounds of clutter and debris, pruned bushes and trees, stained and varnished woodwork, re-gilded the Royal Doors, painted the apse of the Holy Altar, and polished the silver covered icons of the iconostasis.

By the close of the first day, the transformation was already evident. Bishop Dionysios and Fr. Stylianos Zografides, one of two priests serving 12 diocesan parishes in rotation, came to the parish early on Tuesday and were visibly moved by the progress.


Tuesday and Wednesday were dedicated to the remainder of the restoration work, which included repairs to the iconostasis, replacing light fixtures and vigil lamps, patching and repairing holes and cracks in the walls and floor, and scrubbing the marble floor of the nave. On Wednesday morning, His All Holiness made a surprise visit to the Church and offered the students light snacks for the day. His All Holiness commented, “They have eaten little but offered greatly to the Mother Church.”


Students had the opportunity to become further educated about the Ecumenical Patriarchate during a rare, private session at the Phanar with His All Holiness.

Thursday the students were received by His All Holiness at the Ecumenical Patriarchate. To the surprise and joy of all, the Ecumenical Patriarch announced that he would be visiting the parish on the second Sunday of Lent and that it would be returned to active liturgical use. Following an audience with His All Holiness, he brought the students to the historic Greek High School of Fener, The Great School of the Nation, and treated them to a lunch with the students.

On Friday the group toured the many ancient holy sites of Constantinople, including Hagia Sophia, Christ the Saviour Church at Chora, Barukli Monastery and the Theodosian Walls.

Fr. Mark Leondis stated, “I’m grateful to be associated with such an energetic and selfless group of students. The results of their work were immediately evident and are indicative of the great things we can expect from their generation.”

Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) is the official campus ministry program of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). OCF works to keep students connected to the life-giving teaching and experience of the Orthodox Church. It supports over 260 local chapters throughout North America and involves thousands of college students through its programming, including the College Conference and Real Break. Additional information on all the OCF programs can be found on the OCF website,, or by calling toll-free, 800-919-1623.

Additional photos provided by OCF can be found in the photo gallery.

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