What Is a Patronal Feast?
The Feast of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Reflections on a Spiritual Pilgrimage
August 14, 2005
Updated August 13, 2006
You may well ask! A Patron Saint is a saint chosen to be the special intercessor in heaven of a particular place or organization, such as a parish church or cathedral, a hospital, university, or guild. A Patronal Feast is the occasion on which a parish annually honors the saint who was chosen as the Patron Saint of the parish. Today, this parish celebrates a feast to honor Saint Mary the Virgin, quite simply because she was chosen at the establishment of this parish to be its Patron Saint by the Reverend Father L. Noel Stipkovich, founder and first rector of the parish.
Why this particular date for the celebration of our Patronal Feast? Some churches, likewise dedicated to Saint Mary the Virgin, choose to observe the Patronal on the Feast of the Annunciation, a feast day found in the Prayer Book. However, the Annunciation always seems to fall within the season of Lent (in 2006, it fell on Good Friday!). It would seem inappropriate to celebrate a festival within a solemn season of penitence and fasting.
In consultation with the Long-Range Planning Committee, we sought to see if there might be a feast day of Our Lady better suited to our purpose: the Visitation, the Purification, the Nativity. However, all of those feasts were in conflict with other parish observances or diocesan functions and the choice quickly narrowed to The Dormition. So you Rector chose this particular date, it being the Sunday nearest to the canonical date of The Feast of the Dormition (that is, the “Falling Asleep”) of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Why have we not observed our Patronal Feast before doing so for the first time today? My response is – better late than never! It seemed to me that the time had come to so honor the Blessed Virgin, especially in light of the fact that our parish is named for her.
And it became an opportunity to redress my own personal former reticence to pay her due homage. Allow me a moment of your time to share with you the personal pilgrimage leading to this day.
I first need to explain that the feast known as The Dormition or Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin recalls and observes the ending or termination of her life upon earth. It is an ancient feast that has been commemorated in Eastern Christendom for well over fifteen hundred years and the title comes to us primarily out of the Eastern Church tradition. In the West, the feast likewise emphasized her passage into heaven, but there it was entitled The Assumption, which further commemorated the taking, not simply of her soul, but also of her body into heaven.
Either way, this belief relating to her passing or passage is our inheritance through the Holy Tradition of the Church (not from the Scriptures nor can it be proven from the Scriptures). It most certainly is not a teaching to be considered as being in any way a belief necessary to a Christian’s salvation!
One of the reasons I left the Church of Rome, whilst a layman, was because one was taught that one had to believe the doctrine of the Assumption under pain of mortal sin. In other words, ones salvation was at stake if one did not profess to believe it! Which means that it was to be observed as being of equal weight with the Biblical doctrines such as the Incarnation, the Resurrection of Christ, and the Last Judgment. Another non-Biblical, specifically Roman doctrine one was expected to believe for the sake of ones eternal soul was Papal Infallibility. Believing neither one of these non-Biblical doctrines to be necessary to salvation, I left the Roman Church and left behind also any thought about, or devotion to, the Blessed Virgin.
Seven years later, during my ordination to the priesthood, I swore on aoth never to teach anything as necessary to salvation which could not be concluded from the Scriptures or which was contrary to the Scriptures. Rest assured, I have never, nor will I today violate that oath. What I may say about the Blessed Virgin this day is not necessary to ones salvation! However, the Falling Asleep or the Dormition is a fact (even though non-Biblical), and the Church – both East and West – did establish a date for its proper and respectful observance.
Many members of our congregation are converts from Roman Catholicism. And as such, they may not have any mental reservations regarding the doctrine of the Assumption. But many of our folks did not come to us from that branch of Christ’s Church, and to them this doctrine may seem purely “Romish” or “Popish” teaching. I would remind such objectors that the Eastern Orthodox Church has also believed it from the earliest of days, although their preference is to refer to it as the Dormition, or Falling Asleep, of the Blessed Virgin. However, it must be noted that within the Orthodox Church in Russia, Greece, and many of the Slavic countries, many cathedrals and parish churches are dedicated to The Assumption (yes, and by that title!).
As I told you, after leaving the Church of Rome, I was adverse to even thinking about the Blessed Virgin. And I was not the least interested in revisiting the subject. However, I did begin to reevaluate her importance after her own prophetic words began to sink into my consciousness: “From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” (St. Luke 1:48). As recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel, the Virgin’s own words are therefore the words of Holy Scripture. As it happens, the parish I was then serving in Placentia observed the Stations of the Cross in Lent. Therefore, during the nine years I served there, it was my pastoral duty to officiate at every one of those services, which means I had to recite 14 Hail Mary’s on each of the six Fridays in Lent! At a certain point somewhere along the years, it became easier for me to offer the devotional prayer.
You see somwhere along the way, I began to develop a deepening love and respect for the Blessed Virgin and to appreciate her importance in God’s scheme of our salvation; this earthly human being who had been blessed of God, who had chosen her to be the Christ-Bearer to the world. Indeed, all generations should acknowledge that she was and is blessed!
Then came the call to Chatsworth, to serve the congregation at St. Mary the Virgin parish. After a short time, it seemed to me that a parish dedicated to the honor and patronage of St. Mary the Virgin ought to express the same, both spiritually and aesthetically.
The Rector and Vestry considered and implemented plans for the embellishment of the Lady Corner with blue brocade hangings. Also, an English sculptor was commissioned to carve a handsome wooden statue. A parishoner donated the pair of wrought iron candelabrae and a picture for the adjacent wall.
A few years go, Father Stipkovich presented us with the alabaster impression of the head of the Virgin duplicated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the famous marble sculpture of the Pieta!
Introducing a Patronal Feast, however, was another matter! Candidly speaking, until recently I was hesitant about introducing the Patronal, and had further trepidation about celebrating it on the Feast of the Dormition (even the Assumption, if you will). What did F.D.R. say – “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself!”
Having examined my past aversions, I overcame them and have moved beyond them; deciding for your sake as well as my own to make this leap of faith. I came to the prayerful conclusion that a Patronal Feast could provide a welcomed opportunity for us all to grow and deepen in our relationship with God and in respect to the Blessed Virgin Mother of our Lord and Savior.
So this morning, in the presence of our Suffragan Bishop, join with us won’t you please, with joyful hearts and sincere gladness, in celebrating our first-ever Patronal Feast. With our faith firmly rooted in God, and as Scripture prophesies, let us rightfully acknowledge that above all women, above all virgins, above all mothers, above all saints, our patron, St. Mary the Virgin, is truly blessed. Just as she bore the Christ within herself, may we too and forever bear the image of Christ within ourselves.