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A Veteran’s Journey of Faith: The Life of Archdeacon Basil Rives

The following article inaugurates a new series on In "Antiochian Profiles," we will feature some of the many eminent Christians of past and present who have found a spiritual home in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. This story, written by Michael Price and published by the Conciliar Press (now Ancient Faith Publishing) magazine AGAIN in 2004, describes the remarkable life of the newly reposed Archdeacon Basil Rives of Santa Fe, NM.

Deacon Basil Rives of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a man of many names. He began his life under the name of Harold, “although for some reason I was always called Bill as a child, even though that is nowhere in my name,” he said. Other monikers include Hal and Slim. Nowadays, his fellow parishioners know him affectionately as Fr. Basil.

Like many veterans, no matter from which war, his military experiences have affected and solidified his spiritual beliefs.

Joining the Army

“The New Mexico National Guard was mobilized in 1940,” Fr. Basil said. “Someone in the Department of the Army had the foresight to mobilize them. I was in the National Guard then, so I was mobilized, too, and so was our Roman Catholic chaplain.

“During this period of my life, I was not much of a church person, but I liked this chaplain. I liked his outlook on life and afterlife, so I attended his services and learned a lot more about religion.

“But my enlistment ran out before Pearl Harbor, so I got out. I went back to New Mexico State University, where I was in an ROTC program. I progressed from ROTC to Officers Candidate School in Fort Knox, Kentucky, at the Armored School where they teach armored officers. Cadets were urged to go to Sunday services. Most of us went, not by choice, but to impress our drill instructors that we were serious about what we were doing. This exposure had some effect on me.

“In France, I was commander of a tank unit opposing the German army. From the first day in combat, I felt that whatever was going to happen, the Lord was going to take care of me. If I got killed, the Lord would take care of me. If I had to go through battle, the Lord would take care of me. I never feared what might happen to me personally.

“Now, a tank unit had seventeen heavy tanks at that time. They were not like the tanks they are using in Iraq now, but they were heavy tanks. They had three artillery pieces mounted on top. We also had five heavy tanks mounted with sixty barrels of M-4.2 mortars, which were experimental rockets. We were the only unit in the army with them. We know all about rockets now, but we didn’t back then. They were very dangerous, because sometimes they went where they were supposed to go, but sometimes they were very erratic. Sometimes they even fell right in front of us. The infantry hated them because they knew the rockets were erratic. The supply people hated them because once we fired them all, it took five two-and-a-half–ton trucks full of rockets to reload them, and it had to be done by hand.

“As we drove across Europe, we fought many, many small battles. We had to take town after town after town. At one of these German towns, there was an interesting incident. It was a cold, wintry dusk. After we chased the German army out, we had some houses to stay in. I had to attend a meeting to help plan the attack the next day, so my tank crew had to pick out a house to stay in. When I came back, my sergeant said that we had a house to stay in, but he couldn’t get the woman living there to leave. I went to the house. The woman could speak a little English and I could speak a little German, so we could talk. She said she wasn’t going to leave because I owed her.

“I said, ‘What do you mean I owe you?’

“She said, ‘Because my husband is a prisoner of war in the United States and you owe me special things.’

“My interest was raised, so I asked, ‘Where in the United States is your husband a prisoner?’

“‘In New Mexico,’ she said.

“‘Where in New Mexico?’

“‘In a little town named Mesilla Park,’ she said.

“My wife lived on a farm in Mesilla Park, and German prisoners of war picked the crops, worked the alfalfa, and irrigated them. I thought it was ironic that he was in Mesilla Park where my wife was, and I was in this German town where his wife was. It’s a small world. After she moved out of her house and we were cooking dinner, someone asked if anyone had checked the basement. No one had, so we searched the basement and found five armed German soldiers there. Here we were, getting ready to go to sleep with five armed German soldiers in the basement.”

A Memorable Battle

There were four major battles in Europe, composed of hundreds and hundreds of small battles for each town and city in each country. Fr. Basil and his unit participated in them all.

“I like to tell about an incident that involved me after the Battle of the Bulge. The famous battle was a breakthrough that the Germans pulled in December 1944. They wanted to get to the port at Antwerp to steal all the Allied supplies there.

“I was in General Patton’s Third Army. We were sent from Southern France to Luxembourg to face the German army. As historians know, the German army was defeated and had to pull back into Germany.

“It was awfully hard. It was wintertime fighting. We were all cold and spirits were low, but we knew that the war was over. After a short rest, we were ordered to go back into Germany. We started into Germany, and the war was not over. The Germans fought harder once we started moving into their land.

“During one of these battles, my company was completely surrounded by the German army. There was no way to escape. We had run out of ammunition. We were out of gasoline. We were out of food. We knew that it was going to be pretty tough going.

“I made up my mind that I was going to kill myself because I was tired. I didn’t want any more. The war was never going to end. I had had it. So during a battle, I got out of my tank. Artillery was falling everyplace. The Germans were shooting at us. I got out of my tank and started walking toward a nearby embankment. Bullets and artillery shells were bursting all around me. All of a sudden there was a bright, white light and a voice came to me with a name. It was no name I had ever been called by, but I knew it was mine. This name was called to me, ‘You are not going to kill yourself! Get back in that tank and finish your job!’

“So I got back in the tank and, of course, have lived for many, many years since. This is a miracle I attribute to the Lord God.”

Steps of Faith

Along with his wartime experiences, Fr. Basil’s civilian life and pursuit of religious knowledge had a great impact on the direction his faith would take.

“After World War II, my wife was a very involved Methodist. Her father was a Methodist minister, so we both went to a Methodist church. However, I got disgusted with the preacher and some of his sermons, so I dropped out of that church.

“When we lived in Roswell, New Mexico, an Episcopal priest invited us to attend his church. I went. I fell in love with the Episcopal Church because he was an Orthodox Episcopal priest. He believed in incense. He had a type of iconostasis, called a rood screen. He believed his altar was a holy place and that there should be reverence to it.

“All these things introduced me to Orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church.

“From Roswell we moved to a small mission in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There I met one of three priests who I believe are saints. While there are many priests, only a few are saints. This saintly priest encouraged me to study for the diaconate, and I was ordained as a deacon. From that time on, I have been highly involved in first the Episcopal Church, then the Orthodox Church, as a deacon.”

Fr. Basil was a deacon in the Episcopal Church for nineteen years, including four years under Fr. John Bethancourt, now pastor of Holy Trinity Antiochian Orthodox Church in Santa Fe, but then an Episcopal priest and Fr. Basil’s pastor.

A New Antiochian Spiritual Home

“One day he called my wife, Marianne, and me into his office and said he had made a decision to leave the Episcopal Church and go to the Orthodox Church, and he wanted us to know about it,” Fr. Basil said. “Of course, we were curious to know when this would happen. We wanted to know whether he was going to have to start a new church. We decided that whatever the move was, he knew what he was doing and we would go with him. So we went into the Orthodox Church with Fr. John.”

During that process, an important question arose for Fr. Basil. “Would I still be able to be a deacon in the Orthodox Church, or would my diaconate be over?”

Father John called Bishop Basil (who would be ordaining him as an Orthodox priest), and the bishop said that Fr. Basil could be ordained an Orthodox deacon at Fr. John’s ordination. However, both would have to go through all the normal steps for ordination. This meant that both of them had to begin by being tonsured first as a reader, then a subdeacon. Then both were ordained as deacons. After becoming a deacon, Fr. John was finally ordained as an Orthodox priest. This was almost ten years ago.

“After the move to the Orthodox Church, we began worshipping in the home of one of our members. At that time there were ten or twelve of us, including some small children,” Fr. Basil said. “We had no money. We were experiencing the newness of Orthodox worship. One day Fr. John said that we had to find a place to worship. We couldn’t continue to worship in a member’s house.”

After looking around and contacting a realtor for help, the fledgling Holy Trinity parish turned its attention to a house for sale by a friend of Fr. Basil. Jeff Birch’s parents owned it, but had died. After negotiations and what can only be described as God’s intervention, the parish was able to purchase the house. Not only was Birch willing to offer seller financing with a relatively low interest rate, but since he also had a real estate license, he offered to represent himself in the transaction and donate his entire commission (about eight thousand dollars) as a cash donation to the parish.

“Over the years we added improvements to the building so we would have room to worship, because we started to grow,” Fr. Basil said. “Pretty soon we were having 40 to 50 people worshiping in this small space. Then we had to make another decision. We had to make a commitment to build a church.”

The members agreed to launch an effort to raise the needed funds, and received donations from within the parish and from other Orthodox Church members.

“We received a lot of nice checks,” Fr. Basil said. “Before long, we had enough money in the bank to hire an architect to draw up plans for the beautiful church we now have.”

After searching all over for financing to build, including some sources specifically for funding church buildings, someone suggested asking a local bank for funds.

“We hadn’t thought of that,” he said. “So we talked to Los Alamos National Bank about a loan.” They agreed to lend Holy Trinity the money needed, and the result is the domed church the parish now owns.

“Our congregation has grown from the fourteen or fifteen we started with ten years ago to sometimes around one hundred on Sunday,” Fr. Basil beamed. “We have a growing congregation with an attitude of worship, and people who visit our church building are very impressed with how it looks. We are not finished yet. We are working on iconography now, and it will take some time.”

Father Basil’s is a long life, lived fully and filled with a love of God and an unshakable belief in Him.

“The discipline I learned in the military has helped me in my faith,” he said. “Orthodox faith and Orthodox worship require your full attention and discipline. It requires that you do things thankfully and with joy. It requires you be present with the Lord at all times. I believe that all things will happen as promised by Him.”