By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
More than 100 years ago, a small Orthodox Christian church opened in McDowell County to serve immigrants to the coalfields. That church later moved to Mercer County, and now one of its parishioners helps keep the memories of the founders alive through food and fellowship.
Anna Semonco grew up in Elkhorn, a community in McDowell County, and was in one of the last classes to graduate from Northfork High School.
“It wasn’t the last graduating class, but I think it was a couple of years before they closed. I was down there during the basketball glory days,” she said.
Semonco attended Bluefield State College, but stopped short of her degree. In 2009, she earned a degree in organizational leadership from Mountain State University. She now works for a company in Princeton.
“I’ve worked for Conn Weld for almost 17 years. I work in the engineering department. I do everything from working on the marketing side to helping with the organizational management in the engineering side,” Semonco said.
Outside the workplace, Semonco works with her fellow parishioners to present the annual World Food Festival at St. Mary’s Orthodox Christian Church in Bluefield. The festival shares the heritage of the church’s congregation with the rest of the community by offering foods from much of Eastern Europe and other parts of the world.
“I do organize it, but there are a lot of other forces behind it,” Semonco said. “This is part of the growth committee. We were trying to come up with ideas for fundraising. I think every church experiences that, how you need sustainable ways to bring in funds. This is something I kind of thought of to myself for a long time. We had a meeting and I kind of presented the idea to everyone, and they said, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea. We should do that.’ It’s turned out t to be more than we expected. It’s much more than a fundraiser.”
The World Food Festival brings benefits both to the church and the community.
“It’s a way all of us can bring our heritage, share, of course, in some wonderful food, and the fellowship we have developed while working together on a project like this. I found I’ve become closer to a lot of the parishioners just by working on this project. That’s meant a lot to me,” Semonco said.
One of the church’s Sunday traditions generated the idea for a food festival.
“We love to eat at our church,” Semonco said with a smile. “We have after church, every Sunday, a coffee hour. People would bring several dishes from their country, so we were able to experience it in our church and I thought this is something we could bring to our community.”
Semonco’s aunt and a cousin, who now attend a church in Cumberland, Md., organized a similar food festival and shared their experiences with her.
“They started one a few years ago. I kind of collaborated with him and asked ‘How did you do this?’ They were a huge help to me in working that out. That’s when I started thinking about it,” she recalled.
Besides raising funds for the church, the festival creates a time for fellowship and sharing.
“Everyone has pride bringing in their food and sharing it. I think everybody enjoys doing that, and it turns into a lot of fun for us, working the festival that day,” Semonco said. “It’s busy, it’s mayhem, and we have a blast with each other.”
For the people in a region that’s mostly Protestant, the festival gives the public an opportunity to visit St. Mary’s and learn more about the denomination.
“I think a lot of people are confused – what is that church with the gold domes up on the hill? This is a way to say come see. We’re a Christian church. We’re going to have church tours. We love for people to come to our church,” Semonco said.
St. Mary’s is mostly Carpathian and Russian, especially when it was founded more than 100 years ago.
“There were other churches in the coal fields, but ours is one of the few surviving churches. I consider that a miracle, and what means so much to me is that my grandparents, great-grandparents were a part of founding that church,” she said. “Now it’s been brought to Bluefield, and when we brought it to Bluefield, that’s when other Orthodox Christians who were from other nationalities started to come. Of course, we have a huge Greek presence in our church. We have a family from Lebanon, Palestine. We have a young woman there from Georgia (Russia), and she’s going to have a booth there.”
Other nations are represented in the variety of foods.
“Our booth is kind of the Slavic booth, and there are a lot of introductions there from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungarian, that Carpathian-Russian area. Romania is another booth, and we have an Ethiopian family that comes. I never thought I would like Ethiopian food reading about it, but I absolutely love it,” Semonco said. “It’s one of my favorite booths. It sells out every time.”
One booth represents that nation that brought all the nationalities together, the United States of America.
“And we want to speak to our own heritage, our own area, so we have a booth that’s USA with hot dogs, beans and cornbread. We want it there because that’s what brought us here. What brought all our groups together is the United States. That’s important to us, to show that.”
The U.S.A. booth is also an alternative for children who might be leery about tasting unfamiliar foreign food, she added.
Now in its third year, the World Food Festival will be open Sept. 21 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“We’re going to have music, we’re going to have children’s activities, we’re going to have church tours,” Semonco said. “I love my church, I love my faith, and doing everything. I wouldn’t be able to do this if it wasn’t for the people who did the work before me, the people who built the church in Elkhorn and brought it up to Mercer County.”
Besides activities with her church, Semonco also became interested in raising awareness about breast cancer. This occurred when she looked for a new way to exercise.
“I’ll be doing the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer at the end of October, Oct. 26 and 27 in Charlotte. I did the walk last year in New York City. It was the week before Sandy hit, and it was absolutely one of the most gorgeous weekends I’ve ever spent. I actually started that, I was looking up marathon walking,” she said.
“I’ve been fortunate enough not to have been struck by breast cancer, but I had an aunt who passed away from breast cancer many years ago. I was a girl at the time,” Semonco recalled.
Participating in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer introduced her to many people touched by the disease. Walking with hundreds of other walkers leads to many introductions.
“I’ve met a lot of people, I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I was shocked at the young and the ages of people with breast cancer. The young women, I’ve talked to young mothers, She said.
When she participated in one cancer walk, an elderly woman who used a walker handed her a donation.
“When she handed a donation to me, she said, “I don’t think this will help me, but maybe it will help somebody. That was one of my first donations, and that’s when I realized I had taken on something that was more than getting some exercise. I take it to heart every time I do it,” Semonco recalled.
— Contact Greg Jordan at email@example.com