BALLSTON SPA — A new church has established its roots in Ballston Spa, featuring a congregation led by an area native.
St. Helen of the Cross Old Catholic Chapel and Ministries held its first service on Jan. 8. The Very Reverend Canon Richard Russo, a member of The Society of Mercy, said the location “literally just found me.”
“I could immediately feel a special connection with this space,” said Russo.
The church is located at 20 Prospect Street, Suite 214 in the Chocolate Factory. Russo said he worked in other parishes for nearly 30 years, including 10 years in St. Louis. But now, Russo is leading his own congregation near his hometown.
Russo said members of the church refer to themselves as ‘Old Catholics’, saying they are not under Roman jurisdiction.
“I am not a diocesan priest. In fact, we’re not Roman Catholics in the strict sense,” Russo said. “We are what’s called ‘Old Catholics’, which means that we pray for the Pope, we give what we call our paternal affiliation to the Pope. But we’re not directly under Rome’s jurisdiction.”
Russo said The Society of Mercy believes all people deserve mercy, saying he welcomes all to attend his services.
“As a priest of The Society of Mercy, it’s my obligation to show mercy to you, and to you, and to someone sitting on the street, or whoever,” said Russo. “So a lot of people that come to us are what we call, kind of, fringe Catholics. ‘We sort of believe this, but maybe not this.’ We welcome them, and we say, ‘Let us explain to you what we do, why we do.’”
He said the main differences between St. Helen of the Cross and the Catholic Church are the traditions. Russo said Old Catholics have kept traditions that were “in the church for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
The Church’s altar also faces away from the congregation, with the priest’s back facing the people. Russo said this is because the priest is “trying to join all the prayers of everyone through him to rise to heaven.”
“It’s not a free-standing altar, like you would see in a contemporary church, with the priest standing behind it,” said Russo. “We actually stand in front of it, so our back is to the people.”
The Church holds both a high mass and a low mass. Russo said a low mass tends to be shorter, with a different series of prayers than a high mass. He also said the church is hoping to begin offering services in Latin as well as English.
Jeremy Defibaugh of NXT Wave Media, who is assisting the church with digital design and promotion, said one of the most important aspects of the church is its inclusivity.
“Anybody’s welcome,” said Defibaugh. “That’s the thing that’s one of the most important pieces. ‘Oh, I don’t have a dress shirt for church.’ As long as you come here and you pay your dues and are respectful to the man above, it’s a judgment-free zone.”
Russo said roughly 30 people attended the church’s initial mass on Jan. 8. St. Helen of the Cross holds low mass at 12:15 p.m. on Wednesdays and 8 a.m. on Sundays, and holds a high mass at 10 a.m. on Sundays.
Russo also stressed the importance of connecting with and supporting the local community, with Defibaugh noting that the church has “a lot of plans” dealing with youth development in the community.
Russo offers pastoral care hours every Wednesday from 1 to 4 p.m., he said, offering a supportive ear to whoever may need one.
“Anybody can come in if they just need a place to sit, or they need an ear, or whatever they need,” Russo said. “We’re here.”
He said that it is “amazing” to have this space, noting that it has been a long journey.
“It’s amazing. I come in here, and I just think, ‘This is for my people,’” said Russo. “And it is for my people. This is not my church, it’s their church. I just happen to serve them.”