At a church camp in Westmoreland County about four years ago, as children sang the hymns of the Orthodox Christian faith, their elderly spiritual leader wept with joy.
It was precisely to ensure that children learn and adopt their ancient religious heritage that Metropolitan Philip Saliba had acted in 1978 to have his Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America establish the Bolivar, Pa., site called Antiochian Village. It has ever since hosted camps and conferences where children and adults from North America and beyond could experience chanting, liturgy and iconography amid more common summer fare such as campfires and challenge courses.
"He explained it was always his desire for young people to have a desire for the church, and through the ministry of this camp that has been fulfilled," recalled the Very Rev. Anthony Yazge, camp director at Antiochian Village.
To underscore that attachment, Metropolitan Saliba will be buried later this month at the village following his death from heart failure Wednesday at age 82 in Florida, where he was staying during the winter and receiving medical care.
Born in Lebanon in 1931, Metropolitan Saliba was an outspoken advocate for Arab Christians -- including Palestinian refugees and those displaced by Lebanon's and Syria's civil wars. Yet he always insisted that his church adapt to American ways and welcome converts with no ethnic connection to the Middle Eastern roots of the church.
Metropolitan Saliba was the longest-serving bishop in any branch of Orthodoxy in the United States -- having been in his role for nearly half a century since the age of 35.
"The word that best describes him as a bishop would be a visionary," said the Rev. Demetrios Makoul, dean of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood. "The word people use today is strategic planner."
He insisted the archdiocese modernize its operations, create a clergy retirement program, a women's organization and new parishes and monasteries. Following his predecessor's lead, he fostered the use of English rather than Arabic in liturgies.
"His favorite song used to be 'The Impossible Dream,' " Kweilin Nassar of Pittsburgh recalled of his early goals -- but he made many of them realities.
Ms. Nassar said Metropolitan Saliba was open to change. After she wrote an article questioning why no women were on the archdiocese's board, he began appointing some at the next convention. "And then looked at me from the podium and said, 'Is that better, Kweilin?' He was responsive when there were things that made sense and he knew it would be better."
Metropolitan Saliba presided in 1975 during the healing of a split between two branches of Antiochian Orthodoxy and oversaw a quadrupling of parishes in the diocese to about 275. While based at the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Brooklyn, N.Y., his presence was particularly felt in Pennsylvania, with 22 parishes, and the Tri-state area, with one of the largest concentrations of Orthodox overall in the country.
Orthodoxy -- the second-largest global branch of Christianity with roots in and around the Middle East and Europe -- represents a small but historically rich presence in America. It is steeped in intricate liturgy, sacraments and a sense of spiritual unity with the saints whose images abound on the icons and walls of incense-filled churches.
Metropolitan Saliba's tenure overlapped with a growing interest among some American Catholics and Protestants in the Orthodox tradition. While numerous immigrant groups had created Orthodox branches that they could choose from, "he created a spiritual climate in the Antiochian archdiocese that made it very inviting to converts," said Father Makoul.
That included the movement of the Evangelical Orthodox Church -- a group of thousands of evangelical Protestants attracted to Orthodoxy -- which came under the wing of the Antiochian archdiocese in 1987.
"Others turned them away because they didn't know what to do with them," said the Rev. Thomas Zain, vicar general for the archdiocese. "He took the bold step to say, 'Come home.' "
Metropolitan Saliba was born in 1931 in Lebanon and received initial education there and in Syria. Ordained a deacon in 1949, he worked in church administration and lecturing before continuing studies in Great Britain and the United States. He was ordained a priest in 1959. He served at parishes in Detroit and Cleveland, began serving on various church boards and was chosen in 1966 to succeed the late Metropolitan Antony Bashir.
Amid his duties Metropolitan Saliba maintained a sense of humor, those close to him said. He chuckled about children who, unable to pronounced his title, "Your Eminence," called him "Your M&Ms." And he quipped that he outlived most of the medical team from the 1970s that had told him after open-heart surgery that he only had a few years to live.
A series of memorial liturgies will be held next week at the cathedral in Brooklyn. Metropolitan Saliba's body is then scheduled to be transported to Antiochian Village on March 30, followed by a vigil and burial rites on March 31.
Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, an ecumenical group that included Metropolitan Saliba's local representative, issued a statement of sympathy on Friday to the Antiochian Orthodox faithful.
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.