With a priest for first time in 3 years, Saranac Lake’s oldest church restarts services after COVID shutdown
SARANAC LAKE — For the last three years, the oldest church in Saranac Lake has been without a priest, making do with rectors borrowed from other parishes, called “supply priests,” before the pandemic hit and all services were temporarily halted. This Sunday, St. Luke the Beloved Physician, the Episcopal church built in 1879 to help minister to tuberculosis patients and their physicians, will be opening its doors for its first public services since March — and its first with a new rector.
Father Andrew Cruz Lillegard succeeds Ann Gaillard, who left St. Luke’s in 2017 after nearly a decade as its rector. Cruz Lillegard, 42, his wife Theresa and their two teenage sons Christopher and Wyatt, moved to the village less than a month ago to take up residence at the rectory.
Before coming to the North Country, the Cruz Lillegard family was in Wyoming, where Andrew was doing an associateship, called a curacy, at the Episcopal church in Sheridan. Prior to that, they were in northern Wisconsin, where Andrew and Theresa both grew up and where Andrew went to seminary. While still in seminary, Andrew had visited Saranac Lake — as it turns out, only days after Gaillard had left — to meet with St. Luke’s community members.
As it was too early in the process for St. Luke’s to offer a position, Andrew accepted a job in Wyoming, where he and his family have been for the last three years. Now, after a few pandemic-related detours, the Cruz Lillegard family once again headed to Saranac Lake, this time to join the community as the 19th rector of St. Luke’s.
On a recent morning, Father Andy, as he’s mostly called, sat down at St. Luke’s to talk about his journey — both his spiritual trek and the cross-country trip to take up ministry in the North Country. And yes, there’s now a new fishing canoe strapped to the top of the family car.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Why here? Why Wyoming?
Father Andrew Cruz Lillegard: In a former life, not in the literal sense but when I was younger, I was a professional rodeo cowboy. I did bareback broncos. We’d been out to Wyoming and loved it, so it was kind of a no-brainer. We kind of assumed that was it. We knew that it was unlikely that the parishes we had visited would have an opening when we were done. This past December I got a call from Bishop Love [Albany Episcopal Bishop William Love] asking if I’d be willing to put my name in at a couple parishes, two of them are ones that we visited. When everything works right, a priest discerns a call to a church and a church discerns that same call with that same priest. We had the opportunity to come out on spring break. We got as far as the eastern corner of Minnesota when the bishop called and told us that the governor had just shut down New York for travel. So we spent spring break in Wisconsin.
ADE: And then the folks at St. Luke’s called again?
ACL: Just all these pieces fit together that made a move possible at a time when a lot of people were saying, OK, a move’s not possible, a change in calls isn’t possible. We trusted that God would show us the way that it would work. The people here at St. Luke’s, even though they’re coming up on three years without a rector, were keeping things together. Ministry was still happening without having any kind of central clergy for leadership, and that to me speaks very highly of the congregation, that this was the church they call home, and that come hell or high water it was going to function as a church.
ADE: How’s your family liking the village?
ACL: The family’s doing very well. A lot of that has been the very, very warm welcome that we’ve gotten from the community here. We pulled in on a Sunday morning and there were balloons on the driveway and a sign and a basket of flowers and gift cards.
ADE: And services are starting again?
ACL: We are starting in-person service this weekend. It will in some ways look very much like an Episcopal service and there are some ways where people are going to say, Hmmm, this doesn’t feel right. We are going to be in another form of transition, like other churches, trying to figure out what is the new normal.
ADE: So what is the new normal?
ACL: We will have a eucharistic celebration with the exception that only the celebrant, the priest, will consume the wine, or the blood. The host, or the body, will be made available to anyone who wishes to come up and receive it. The other thing is that within the Anglican communion there is something called making one’s spiritual communion, which is that if an individual is unable physically to receive, there’s a kind of spiritual communion where the desire itself is essentially sufficient, until such time as that person can make a physical communion. Masks will be required by all parishioners; there will be social distancing required. There won’t be processionals or recessionals, which are usually a part of our liturgy. We won’t come up and kneel at the altar rail to receive. It’ll be individuals coming up, and I’ll drop the host in their hand, and they’ll take that host back to their pew, remove their mask, consume it, put the mask back on. We may have some instrumental organ music, but no congregational singing for the time being. It will look stripped down in a lot of ways.
ADE: How big is your congregation these days?
ACL: That’s a good question. We’re going to find out. Capacity is probably going to be around 15 or 20 individuals per service. Theresa and I have started doing morning and evening prayers. For this week, it’s been just the two of us; next week, we’ll open the doors, literally. It’s a much shorter service; we can space ourselves out. It’s an opportunity for people who might not feel comfortable coming with a dozen people there, but might feel comfortable with one or two.
On Sundays, individuals who come in will be greeted by greeters like they normally would at a service, but in this case the greeter will pump hand sanitizer into your hands. And when they come to receive communion they’ll have hand sanitizer. There’s a ritual hand washing that the priest does before celebrating communion, so we’ll have that like we always do. In addition, there’ll be a hand sanitizer pump on the altar that I’ll be using as I’m consecrating the eucharist. All those things can be a little off-putting. As Episcopalians, we learn that things don’t go on the altar. It’s not a bookstand. And so we’ll be setting something on it — to be conspicuous — so that those that are there can be assured that we’re taking all possible measures. We’ll trust in God, but at the same time we’ll be smart about it.
ADE: How are you thinking about ministry in the middle of a pandemic?
ACL: Vocation is not a job. It’s a calling, and it means that when my phone rings, I pick it up. Ministry is not a burden; it’s a privilege. To be Christ-like, to work towards that ideal in this life where nothing is ideal, is what we do when we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. Availability is most of it.
ADE: This country has been going through a reckoning, in terms of how it responds to racism and social injustice. Do you feel a greater calling to respond to that?
ACL: Absolutely. More often than not, if you see me out and about in Saranac Lake, you’ll see me in a collar, for no other reason than that’s been one of the best ways for me to evangelize and to offer some kind of ministry. In Sheridan, I was at Walmart and I had no less than three people ask me for a blessing, including two employees — which would not have happened had I not been there wearing a collar on my day off. My ministry is not bounded by the walls of St. Luke’s, and it’s not even bound by those that are Christian. In all who seek help and attention is my ministry.
ADE: You’re wearing cowboy boots.
ACL: As a rodeo cowboy, they’re just part of the attire for now. Well, until Christ comes again.
ADE: Do you still ride? And how about fishing?
ACL: I no longer own a horse. But last year Sheridan hosted what’s called the WYO Rodeo, which is maybe the fourth or fifth biggest rodeo in the United States. I had the great honor of being the rodeo chaplain, which meant I got to get back behind the chutes again and offer prayers and blessings to the rodeo cowboys. And yeah, fishing is definitely a passion of mine and my wife’s and my sons’. We come from northern Wisconsin, which is geographically very much like upstate New York without the mountains. I have a picture of a huge fish that my wife just pulled out of Lake Colby; it’s a very large, largemouth bass. [Shows a photo on his phone of his wife in a cowboy hat holding a huge fish.] I always say that I’m named after St. Andrew, who was himself a fisherman, so fishing for men is great; fishing for fish is lovely as well.