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MERRILLVILLE — Holy water, incense and prayers were used Saturday to prepare land for a future cemetery for the area's Orthodox Christians.

His Grace, Bishop Longin, of the Diocese of New Gracanica-Midwestern America, and Orthodox priests from six area churches were joined by parishioners from the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church to bless the property and break ground for the cemetery that will be created adjacent to the church on Mississippi Street north of 93rd Avenue.

The Rev. Marko Matic, of St. Sava, said the occasion was an important day for the church and Northwest Indiana because the cemetery will be open to all Orthodox.

“It's not only St. Sava,” Matic said.

There are many traditions Orthodox follow after death that differ from other Christian churches, including the way deceased are laid in the ground and buried, Matic said. St. Sava's cemetery is significant to the Orthodox community because all those traditions will be followed there.

The Rev. Alin Munteanu, of Descent of the Holy Ghost Orthodox Church, said it's common for large crosses to be erected at Orthodox grave sites, but that's not permitted at all public cemeteries.

In Europe, Orthodox cemeteries are typically owned and operated by churches, Munteanu said. With the new cemetery outside of St. Sava, there will always be a priest to provide spiritual supervision over the deceased, he said.

Orthodox also have regular blessings of grave sites. Matic said there are many Orthodox parishes throughout Northwest Indiana, and the creation of the cemetery offers an opportunity for all the churches to unite for the blessings and in other services.

Danica Pejnovic, St. Sava's board president, said the church started planning for the cemetery about five years ago, and the project will include up to three phases. There is space to create 2,100 graves in each phase.

“The first burial could be in January as long as construction goes well,” Pejnovic said.

In addition to the groundbreaking, Matic said Saturday also was significant because it was St. Varnava's feast day.

St. Varnava, whose secular name was Vojislav Nastic, was born in Gary in 1914 and was the first person baptized at St. Sava when it was in Gary.

St. Varnava, who is known for being a strong protector of Orthodoxy, is the first American-born Serbian to be proclaimed an Orthodox saint.

Matic said it was a coincidence the groundbreaking occurred on St. Varnava's feast day, but he was happy it happened that way.

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