Local father retires after 40 years at parish he helped build

COURTNEY HAYDEN/Sun-Gazette After 40 years of service, Father Daniel C. Kovalak retires from Holy Cross Orthodox Church. After retirement, he plans on moving to Harrisburg to be closer to his family and grandchildren

For nearly 40 years, Father Daniel C. Kovalak served at Holy Cross Orthodox Church, his first parish to serve as a priest, and a structure he built with his own hands.

He will have his last service in the area on Sunday and officially retires on Monday.

Kovalak graduated from the seminary in 1974, was married and ordained a deacon in 1976 and then ordained a priest in August of 1978 in Miami, Florida, he said.

He started serving in Miami as a deacon at Christ the Savior Church because the Orthodox church was starting a diocese in Florida, he said. While there, he began running a book store and eight missions throughout the south spanning from Florida to Mississippi. During the missions, he helped start up parishes.

Looking to move to Pennsylvania — an inbetween state for Kovalak’s and his wife’s family — he reached out to the bishop to see if there were any openings at a parish. There were none, but a group in Williamsport was looking to start an Orthodox church. Seeing an opportunity, the Kovalaks moved in September 1978.

Holy Cross Orthodox Church was founded in 1977 when the bishop had the first liturgy, but the group didn’t have their own space. When Kovalak came to the area a year later, his first service was in the music room at Bishop Neumann High School, he said. They were looking for a space to call their own.

“We started with nothing. And we have a nice property now with three buildings and everything is paid off and because we built them all ourselves. We built the church ourselves in ’87 and ’88 out of a 200-year-old barn, so my blood is in the walls, literally,” Kovalak said.

Originally five to six miles away, volunteers helped take down the structure, pressure wash it and put the barn back together over 17 months, he said. They just had to redesign the roof. They were able to move in without a debt while also making an architectural statement. In 2001, they added an additional hall.

“We called this the ultimate recycling project,” he said. “We figured logs seemed appropriate because Williamsport is the log capital of the world so we figured it’s Russian architecture from Northern Russia and the logs just fit in, so that’s what started us in the direction of a log cabin.”

Before entering the seminary, Kovalak was interested in architecture and advertising, he said. Through Holy Cross Orthodox Church, he has been able to follow these passions as he built and designed the parish and advertises the faith of the Orthodox Church in the region.

The church here serves six counties and during his time, Kovalak has brought in about 200 people into their community, he said.

In 1985, Kovalak went to Russia before Communism fell for a 14-day tour during the Orthodox Easter season, according to the Williamsport Sun-Gazette article “Local Priest: Religion Alive in Russia,” published on May 15, 1985.

During the late ’90s, Kovalak was the president of United Churches of Lycoming County, he said. In this role, he produced a

television program with the communications department at Lycoming College, a work study for the students, for six years.

The programs were produced by Kovalak, the students recorded them on tape, they were taken to Basin Street, where Comcast used to be, and were played on the Odyssey Channel, a local access channel, he said.

In 1995, Kovalak went on a church tour through Egypt, Sinai and Israel. The holy sites and land have Orthodox churches — a comment on the Orthodox worldwide community — but when a priest had a letter from their bishop, they could serve at churches internationally, he said.

On the trip, Kovalak was able to serve at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Cairo, and at altar of the burning bush at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, he said. Saint Catherine’s Monastery, the oldest functioning Orthodox monastery in the world, has the best icon collection in the world and a original scripture manuscript.

At Holy Cross Orthodox Church, they have an icon from the church of Saint Catherine, one of her relics and a piece of the burning bush, he said. At Holy Cross, they have nine Saints’ relics.

After retiring, Kovalak will be moving to the Harrisburg area, where he has a grandchild, he said. He also has two other grandchildren in Wilmington, Delaware, so the move to Harrisburg will put him closer to his family.

“I’m sorry to leave, but it’s time,” Kovalak said. “I hate to see the parish empty for a long, extended period of time, but we have priests that can fill in.”

“It’s been a joy, we’ve been here a long time now,” he said. “It’s a very good, young, vibrant community.”