There are several saints with North American connections, many of them Russians connected with Russian Alaska, the first part of the Continent to become Orthodox. Among these we cannot fail to mention Sts Herman, Juvenal, Innocent and Jacob of Alaska and the native Protomartyr of America, St Peter the Aleut, tortured to death by Jesuits in San Francisco some 200 years ago. There are also other Russian saints, who lived for a time in North America, but then returned to their homeland and were martyred by the anti-Russian Communists. Among them were the former Bishop of San Francisco, Patriarch Tikhon, and two priests who served for a time in Chicago and New York, Fr John (Kochurov) and Fr Alexander (Khotovitsky).
However, in the last thirteen years, four saints who all actually reposed in the USA have been canonized. They are St Alexis of Wilkes-Barre (1994), St John of San Francisco (1994), St Raphael of Brooklyn (2000) and St Nicholas of Libertyville (2003). Never again will it be said that North America has no saints. Coming from today’s countries of Slovakia, Ukraine, Syria and Serbia, these four saints were of four different nationalities, representing four homelands of Orthodoxy: Eastern Central Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Balkans. Through their different origins and generations they represent the Catholicity of the Church and through their lives, the Apostolicity of the Church. Moreover, unlike today, both St Alexis and St Raphael, who knew one another, belonged to a united Orthodox Church in North America under the multinational and multilingual Russian Orthodox Church. Later, St John, who had known St Nicholas in Serbia, was an exemplary representative of this same Russian Church and St Nicholas was its great friend and servant. All these saints served on the same Orthodox calendar, a symbol of their real unity.
At a time when much-divided Orthodox in North America are searching for unity, it seems that there can be no more obvious solution than to look for this unity in the lives of these four saints. Unlike on Earth, the Church in Heaven is One. This is because the Church is also Holy, for there is no Unity without Holiness. And these four men, ‘Catholic and Apostolic’, as we have said above, also represent the Oneness and Holiness of the Church. If there is no unity in the Orthodox Church in North America today, with its multitude of often protestantized, secularized and compromised jurisdictions, it must surely be because Orthodox there today have not remained faithful to the holy deposit of these four saints, because they have not looked for holiness. Like the Four Evangelists, these four saints were always focused on the One Christ, the One Church and the One Tradition, which they followed in faithfulness to their calling by the Holy Spirit, refusing to be distracted by secular politics or heterodox errors.
Of course, it may be said, and perhaps rightly, that with the Russian Church enslaved by Communism for most of the twentieth century and barely functioning within the straitjacket of the Cold War, disunity, compromise and lack of leadership among Orthodox in North America were inevitable. However, today, when the Russian Church is free and reunited once more, there is no more justification for disunity. May the examples of these four saints be a wake-up call to all Orthodox in North America to unite once more around the same Orthodox values which united them, a call to return to the pre-1917 roots of North American Orthodoxy. For if Orthodox in North America do not unite around the values of holiness, the values of these four saints, then the Orthodox dioceses of North America will never be worthy of unity. For although holiness is given by the grace of God, unity requires our human repentance.
Perhaps, soon, an Icon will be painted of these four holy immigrant and refugee Orthodox. The four of them will stand by the sides of the Icon, looking towards Christ Risen in glory. Standing at the bottom right, St Raphael of Brooklyn will represent the Evangelist Matthew, who wrote for the Semite peoples, standing at the top right, St Alexis of Wilkes-Barre will represent the Evangelist Mark, who wrote for the Gentiles, standing at the top left, St Nicholas of Libertyville will represent the learned Evangelist St Luke, who wrote as an educated man and, standing at the bottom left, St John the bishop-theologian of San Francisco will of course represent the Evangelist and Theologian John. Perhaps such an icon of ‘the Four Apostles of North America’ could help to bring us all back to the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’, back to our Orthodox senses at last.
Holy Apostles of North America, pray to God for us!
An Orthodox Life of the Righteous Priest Alexis of Wilkes-Barre
(+ 24 April/7 May 1909)
The Righteous Priest Alexis was born into a poor Carpatho-Russian family in what is now Slovakia, in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, on 18 March 1854. That was the 800th anniversary of the Roman Catholic schism of 1054. Like many others in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Toths’ ancestors had been forced into becoming Uniats in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Alexis' father, and later his brother, was a priest and he received an excellent education. He spoke several languages (Carpatho-Russian, Hungarian, Russian, German, Latin) and could also read Greek).
Alexis married a priest's daughter and was ordained on 18 April 1878 to serve as second priest in a Uniat parish. His wife died soon afterwards, followed by their only child - losses which the saint endured with the patience of Job. In May 1879 Fr Alexis was appointed secretary to the Bishop of Presov, the main city in north-eastern Slovakia. He was also put in charge of diocesan administration and entrusted with running an orphanage. At seminary in Presov Fr Alexis also taught Church history and canon law, which served him well in later life. Fr Alexis did not serve long as a teacher or administrator. In October 1889 he was appointed to serve in a Uniat parish in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to where many Carpatho-Russian had been forced to emigrate by the poverty imposed on them by the cruel Roman Catholic Hungarian regime.
Upon his arrival in America, Fr Alexis presented himself to the local Roman Catholic bishop, Archbishop John Ireland. The latter was so ignorant that he did not understand the Uniats and was one of those who favoured the ‘Americanization’ of all Roman Catholics. Naturally, non-Latin rite clergy did not fit into this scheme. Thus, when Fr Alexis came to present his credentials, Archbishop Ireland showed him open hostility. He refused to recognize him as a priest or grant him permission to serve in his diocese. As a historian and professor of canon law, Fr Alexis knew that he could not accept the Archbishop’s decision.
In October 1890 there was a meeting of eight of the ten Uniat priests in America at Wilkes-Barre, about a hundred miles to the north-west of New York in Pennsylvania, under the chairmanship of Fr Alexis. By this time panicking American bishops had written to Rome demanding the recall to Europe of all Uniat priests in America, fearing that Uniat priests and parishes would hinder them in their secularist schemes. Moreover, intimidated Uniat bishops in Europe refused to listen to the priests' pleas for help. Archbishop Ireland sent a letter to his parishes ordering the people not to attend Fr Alexis’ parish, nor to accept any priestly ministrations from him.
Expecting imminent deportation, Fr Alexis explained the situation to his Carpatho-Russian parishioners and suggested that it might be better for him to return to Europe. ‘No’, they said. ‘Let's go to the Russian bishop. Why should we always submit ourselves to foreigners?’ They decided to write to the Russian consul in San Francisco to ask for the name and address of the Russian bishop. A parishioner went to San Francisco to make initial contact with the Russian Bishop Vladimir, then in February 1891 Fr Alexis and his church warden made the journey. Subsequently, Bishop Vladimir came to Minneapolis and on 25 March 1891 received Fr Alexis and 361 parishioners into the Orthodox Church of their ancestors. The parishioners regarded this event as a new Triumph of Orthodoxy, crying: ‘Glory to God for His great mercy!’
This initiative had come from the people themselves and was not the result of any coercion from outside. The Russian Orthodox Church had been unaware of the existence of Slav Uniat immigrants to America, but had responded positively to their petition to be reunited to their Mother Church. The example of Fr Alexis and his parish in returning to Orthodoxy was to become an encouragement to thousands of other Uniats. Fr Alexis was like a candle upon a candlestick, giving light to others and his flock may be likened to the leaven which leavened the whole. Fr Alexis’ fearless preaching uprooted the tares which had sprung up in the wheat of the true faith, and exposed the false teachings which had led his people astray. He did not hesitate to point out Roman Catholic heresies and had to defend the Russian Orthodox Church and its American Mission from unfounded accusations. His opponents, like those of so many us who struggle for the Church Truth, were characterized by intolerance, rudeness, dishonesty and threats against him and his parishioners.
Yet, when Fr Alexis was offended or deceived by other people he forgave them. In the midst of great hardships, this herald of Orthodox theology and sound doctrine poured forth an inexhaustible stream of writings and gave practical advice on how to live in an Orthodox manner. Fr Alexis was slandered by his Roman Catholic enemies and accused of selling out his Carpatho-Russian people and faith for financial gain. But in reality he did not receive any financial support for a long time and his parish was very poor. Until a priestly salary arrived from Russia, Fr Alexis was obliged to work in a bakery to support himself. Even though his funds were meagre, he did not neglect to give alms to the poor and needy. He shared his money with other clergy even worse off than himself and contributed to the building of churches and education of seminarians in Minneapolis. Trusting in God to take care of him, Fr Alexis followed the admonition of Our Saviour ‘to seek first the kingdom of God’. So he bore tribulation, slander, and physical attacks with patience and spiritual joy.
Bishop Vladimir, Bishop Nicholas, Bishop, later St Tikhon, the founder of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, then Russian Bishop in North America, and finally Bishop Platon, all recognized the special gifts of Fr Alexis. They often sent him out to preach and teach. Fr Alexis did not hesitate or make excuses, but immediately and obediently carried out his tasks. He visited many Uniat parishes, explaining the differences between the Orthodox Church and Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Uniatism, stressing that the path to salvation is in the Church alone. Fr Alexis was instrumental in forming or returning seventeen parishes to the Church, planting a vineyard of Christ in America, and increasing its fruitful yield many times over. By 1909, the time of his blessed repose, tens of thousands of Carpatho-Russian and also Galician Uniats had returned to Orthodoxy.
Who can tell of the saint's spiritual struggles? Who can speak of the prayers which his soul poured forth to God? He prayed to God in secret with all modesty, with contrition and inward tears. God, Who sees everything done in secret, rewarded the saint. It is inconceivable that Fr Alexis could have accomplished his apostolic labours unless God had blessed and strengthened him for such work. His efforts did not go unrecognized in his own lifetime. He received a jewelled mitre from the Holy Synod in Russia, as well as the Order of St Vladimir and the Order of St Anna from the future Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II, for distinguished service and devotion to God and his people. In 1907 he was considered as a candidate for the episcopate. He declined this honour, however, humbly pointing out that it should be given to a younger man.
At the end of 1908 Fr Alexis' health began to decline on account of various illnesses. He went to the seaside in southern New Jersey in an attempt to regain his health, but soon returned to Wilkes-Barre, where he was confined for two months. He reposed on Friday 24 April 1909 (7 May on the secular calendar), the feast of St Alexis the Hermit of the Kiev Caves. In his last will and testament Fr Alexis commended his soul to God's mercy, asking forgiveness from everyone and forgiving everybody.
Fr Alexis was a true man of God who had guided many Carpatho-Russian and Galician immigrants through the dark confusion of religious challenges in the New World and back to the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church through his grace-filled words and by his holy example. He was glorified in 1994. The realization of his holiness was to take 85 years, as the rest of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America was preparing to glorify St John of San Francisco (+ 1966). We cannot doubt that it was the intercession of St John that Fr Alexis should be glorified before him, for he had preceded him in his earthly life. St Alexis relics now rest at St Tikhon’s Russian Orthodox Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, where faithful Orthodox come to venerate them and ask for the saint’s intercessions on their behalf.
Holy and Righteous Father Alexis, Pray to God for us!
An Orthodox Life of St John of San Francisco
(+ 19 June/2 July 1966)
St John of San Francisco (1896-1966) is also known as St John of Shanghai, St John of Western Europe and St John the Wonderworker. Such were the many places where he was bishop, such were his many qualities. He was considered a saint in his own lifetime and icons began to appear in Orthodox churches not long after his repose. A zealous bishop and theologian of the Orthodox Church, St John is still well remembered with great spiritual love in Australia, the Philippines, Western Europe, in North and South America and, today, increasingly in Russia, where churches have already been dedicated to him.
The Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia canonized Archbishop John on the 28th anniversary of his repose, 2 July 1994. In preparation for this glorification, the tomb containing his relics was opened. When the sepulchre cover was removed, the metal coffin was found to be in a poor state of preservation due to moisture. Rust had eaten through the coffin and the cover was rusted tightly shut. Inside, the Gospel Book over the remains had virtually disintegrated, the cross in the Archbishop’s hand was corroded, an icon had deteriorated and the episcopal vestments were mildewed and falling apart. The relics of Archbishop John, however, were incorrupt. His skin was white and soft and his body was found to be very light due to dehydration but quite intact. Those who venerated the relics discovered that they exuded a sweet fragrance. Exposure of a body to an amount of moisture that had deteriorated metal and other objects would have caused rapid decomposition. There was no basis to argue that Archbishop John’s body had undergone mummification.
This man of God was born on 4 June 1896 in the province of Kharkov in what was then southern Russia. At baptism he was given the name Michael. As a child he was serious for his years and he later wrote: ‘From the first days when I began to become aware of myself, I wished to serve righteousness and truth. My parents kindled in me a striving to stand unwaveringly for the truth, and my soul was captivated by the example of those who had given their lives for it’. Following the desire of his parents, he entered law school in Kharkov. He was naturally gifted student, but spent more time reading Lives of Saints then attending academic lectures. ‘While studying the worldly sciences’, he wrote, ‘I went all the more deeply into the study of the science of sciences, into the study of the spiritual life’.
After the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, he was evacuated together with his family to Belgrade in Serbia, where he entered the faculty of theology at the University. In 1926, a year after his graduation, he was tonsured a monk and given the name John, after his own distant relative who is a canonized saint, St John of Tobolsk (Archbishop John was to be buried with an icon of his saintly relative). In November of that same year, he was ordained priest. Soon he became a teacher at the Seminary of St John the Theologian in Bitol. More than once the bishop of that diocese would say: ‘If you wish to see a living saint, go to Father John’.
It was his own students who first became aware of Fr John’s great feat of asceticism. At night they noticed that he would stay up, making the rounds of the dormitories and praying over the sleeping students. ‘Finally, it was discovered that he scarcely slept at all, and never in a bed, allowing himself only an hour or two each night of uncomfortable rest in a sitting position, or bent over on the floor, praying before icons’. This ascetic feat he continued for the rest of his life, bringing his body ‘into subjection’, according to the holy Apostle Paul: ‘But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified’ (I Corinthians 9, 27).
At the age of 38 he was consecrated bishop by the great theologian Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky), in the company of several bishops who are now saints. He was sent to the diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in Shanghai. There he took an active interest in the religious education of the young, encouraged and participated in various charitable organizations, founded an orphanage, and gathered sick and starving children off the streets. He always wore clothing of the cheapest Chinese fabric and often went barefoot, sometimes giving his sandals away to some poor man. He served the divine liturgy daily, as he did for the rest of his life. In China it became evident that Bishop John was not only a righteous man, but a true ascetic, a man of prayer and a wonderworker.
Once in Shanghai Bishop John was asked to the bed of a dying child, whose case had been called hopeless by the doctors. Entering the apartment, he went straight to the room in which the sick boy lay, although no one managed yet to show him where this was. Without examining the child, he immediately fell down in front of the icon in the corner, which was very characteristic of him, and prayed for a long time. Then, assuring the relatives that the child would recover, he quickly left. And in fact the child became better towards morning and he soon recovered, so that a doctor was no longer needed. He loved to visit the sick and if the condition of a patient would become critical, he would go to him at any hour of the day or night to pray at his bedside. There were cases when patients would cry out to Bishop John in the middle of the night from their hospital beds and he would go to see them without even being called by phone.
When the coming of the Communists, the Russians in China were forced to flee again, mostly through the Philippines. At one time 5,000 of the refugees were living in an International Refugee Organization camp on the island of Tubabao, located in the path of typhoons. When the fear of typhoons was mentioned by one Russian to the Filippinos, they replied that there was no reason to worry, because, ‘your holy man blesses your camp from four directions every night’. They referred to Bishop John, for no typhoon struck the island while he was there.
In trying to resettle his flock in Christ our Lord, Bishop John went to Washington D.C. There he had to meet a committee in the Senate to appeal for the Russian refugees. However, he went only after he had celebrated the divine liturgy. Once the liturgy was over, he went to the Senate on behalf of the Russian refugees, but was by then late. By the time the small of stature holy man had entered the Senate, they had already moved on to another item on the agenda. Nevertheless, everyone in the Senate stood up out of respect, for they saw that a man of God had entered the room and wanted to hear his appeal on behalf of the Russian refugees in the Philippines. After Bishop John had given his report to the Senate Committee, the refugees were able to go to America and live in San Francisco. All the Russian refugees were able to go to America - including his orphanage, which he later established in San Francisco and which became known as St Tikhon’s Orphanage.
In 1951 Bishop John was sent to Western Europe and here he was later made Archbishop. Here too his reputation for holiness spread - and not only among the Orthodox. In one of the Roman Catholic churches of Paris, a priest strove to inspire his young people with these words: 'You demand proofs, you say that now there are neither miracles nor saints. Why should I give you theoretical proofs, when today there walks in the streets of Paris a saint - St Jean Nu Pieds - St John the Barefoot. In the twelve years that St John spent looking after various nationalities in Western Europe and also in North Africa, he gave hope to all and an example of Orthodox truth, faithfulness and piety amid the errors and apostasies of the post-war period in Western Europe. It was here especially that he became renowned as a missionary, receiving Western European Orthodox back into their ancestral faith after some nine hundred years. He also restored veneration for the ancient local saints of the many lands of Western Europe, laying the foundations of the later struggles of other Orthodox, who followed in his footsteps.
At the end of 1962 Archbishop John was transferred to America, in fact to San Francisco and many of his former flock from China. As Archbishop of San Francisco, he was called on to sort out a bitter internal division among the Russian Orthodox. Many of these had become secular and politically-minded Americans and had forsaken the purity of their ancestral faith of Holy Rus. In particular they were divided with regard to the building of the new Cathedral. Archbishop John was to suffer much, including being put on trial in a secular court, but he bore slander and indignity from false brethren with patience and humility. Indeed, this was to be his Gethsemane and Golgotha before his Resurrection. For on 19 June (2 July according to the secular calendar) 1966, during an archpastoral visit to Seattle with the Wonder-working Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God, Archbishop John peacefully gave up his soul to the Lord, whom he had served so faithfully during his earthly life.
His body was flown to San Francisco, where for six days it lay in the Cathedral he had built in an open coffin. In New York Metropolitan Philaret wanted to attend the funeral service in San Francisco, but due to the fact that he had heart problems, it was suggested that he take the train to San Francisco. This of course delayed the funeral for the newly-reposed Archbishop John. However this did not matter, because when Metropolitan Philaret arrived at the Joy of All Who Sorrow Russian Orthodox Cathedral for the funeral, Archbishop John’s body still showed no signs of decay. It was said that he looked pure and that a sense of spiritual beauty was felt when any approached his coffin during the funeral service.
From the beginning of the first service it was apparent that this was to be no ordinary farewell to the newly departed Archbishop. There was a sense of being present at the unfolding of a mystery: the mystery of holiness that still exists to this day. ‘Those present were devoutly convinced that they had come to bury a saint’. Since the reposed of Archbishop John many of the faithful came to call him Blessed John, and for these many years his tomb (St John was buried under the Church of the Cathedral of the Joy of All Who Sorrow in San Francisco) was a place of pilgrimage for thousands and thousands of Orthodox Christians throughout the world, before his remarkable canonization by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia on 2 July 1994. Ever since then, St John’s reputation as a saint and powerful intercessor have grown and he has become a saint venerated worldwide.
Holy Hierarch Father John, Pray to God for us!
An Orthodox Life of St Raphael, Bishop of Brooklyn
(+ 14/27 February 1915)
St Raphael was born in Syria in 1860 to pious Orthodox parents, Michael Hawaweeny and his second wife Mariam, the daughter of a priest in Damascus. The exact date of his birth is not known, but it was near his namesday on 8 November (21 November on the secular calendar). Due to the violent persecution of Orthodox, when their parish priest St Joseph of Damascus (10 July) and his companions were martyred, the Hawaweeny family was forced to flee to Beirut for safety. It was here that the future saint first saw the light of day. Indeed, as the child's life unfolded, it was evident that he would have no abiding city in this world, but would seek the city which is to come.
He was baptized ‘Rafla’ in Beirut on the Feast of the Theophany 1861 and that spring the family was able to return to Damascus. The child attended elementary school, where he did very well, but in 1874 it became clear that Michael Hawaweeny would no longer be able to afford his son's tuition. Fortunately, help came from Deacon Athanasius Atallah (later Metropolitan of Homs), who recommended to Patriarch Hierotheus of Antioch that he be accepted as a student of the Patriarchate in preparation for the priesthood. He was such a good student that he was selected to be a substitute teaching assistant in 1877. The following year he was appointed as a teacher of Arabic and Turkish. On 28 March 1879 he was tonsured monk by Patriarch Hierotheus, and served as His Beatitude’s cell attendant.
Since the seminary at Balamand had been closed in 1840, Patriarch Joachim III of Constantinople invited the Patriarch of Antioch to send at least one deserving student to study on scholarship at the School of Theology at Halki and the future Saint Raphael was selected. On 8 December 1885 he was ordained to the diaconate. In July 1886 the young deacon received his Certificate of Theology and returned to his homeland in the hope of serving the Church there. Patriarch Gerasimus of Antioch was impressed with Deacon Raphael and often took him with him on pastoral visits to his parishes. Indeed, when His Beatitude could not be present, the deacon was asked to preach.
Deacon Raphael was not satisfied with his knowledge and thirsted to learn more. This did not stem from pride, but from his fervent desire to benefit others. Therefore, he asked Patriarch Gerasimus to permit him to study at a school in Russia, promising to return and serve as the Patriarch's Russian-language secretary. The Patriarch gave his blessing and Deacon Raphael was accepted as a student at the Theological Academy in Kiev. In 1889 Patriarch Gerasimus ordered the young deacon to take over as head of the Antiochian Dependancy in Moscow. He was ordained to the holy priesthood by Bishop Sylvester, the Rector of the Academy, at the request of Patriarch Gerasimus. A month later, he was raised to the rank of Archimandrite by Metropolitan Ioannicius of Moscow and confirmed as head of the Antiochian Dependancy.
After two years, Archimandrite Raphael was able to reduce the representation's debt by 15,000 roubles. He also arranged for twenty-four Syrian students to come to Russia to further their education. When Patriarch Gerasimus resigned in order to accept the See of Jerusalem, Archimandrite Raphael regarded this as an opportunity to free the Arab Church of Antioch from its domination by Greek bishops, who treated it as a colony. Burning with love for the Church of Antioch and wishing to restore the administration of the Church to its native clergy and people, Archimandrite Raphael began a campaign, writing letters to Antiochian bishops and influential laymen. He also wrote articles in the Russian press, drawing attention to the plight of Antioch. His courageous efforts did not meet with success, however, and there was a price to pay for telling the truth.
In November 1891 Metropolitan Spyridon, a Greek Cypriot, was elected Patriarch of Antioch. He had probably purchased the election by distributing 10,000 lira to notable people in Damascus, as was the custom in the East at that time and more recently. Archimandrite Raphael refused to commemorate the new Patriarch during services at his church in Moscow. As a result, he was suspended by Patriarch Spyridon. Archimandrite Raphael accepted his suspension and continued to write articles in Russian newspapers in defence of the Antiochian cause. The Greek Patriarchs of Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem successfully petitioned to forbid Russian newspapers from publishing his articles.
With this door closed to him, Fr Raphael began to publish his writings in book form. Eventually, Patriarch Spyridon wrote to the Assistant Overprocurator of the Russian Synod, a friend of Fr Raphael, asking him to persuade Fr Raphael to ask for the Patriarch's forgiveness. He did so and the suspension was lifted. Fr Raphael was allowed to transfer from the jurisdiction of Antioch to the Church of Russia and remain there. He went to Kazan, taking a position as instructor in Arabic studies at the theological academy. He remained there until 1895, when he was invited by the Syrian Orthodox Benevolent Society of New York to be the priest of the Arab Orthodox there.
When Fr Raphael heard of the needs of his countrymen who were scattered across a foreign land, he crossed the ocean to labour in another foreign country. He arrived in New York on 2 November 1895 and was welcomed by a delegation of Arab Orthodox who were awaiting their leader from Russia. On 5 November, his first Sunday in America, he assisted the Russian Bishop of America, Bishop Nicholas, in serving the Divine Liturgy at the Russian church in New York City. Less than two weeks after his arrival, Fr Raphael found a suitable place in lower Manhattan to set up a chapel and furnished it with items that he had brought with him from Russia. Bishop Nicholas consecrated the chapel to St Nicholas.
This zealous priest remained in New York teaching, preaching and celebrating the divine services for his parishioners. It was not long, however, before he heard of smaller communities of Arab Orthodox scattered throughout the length and breadth of North America. Since these Arab immigrants had no priest to care for them, it was not surprising that some had neglected their faith. This was a concern for Fr Raphael throughout the course of his life. Although, obviously, he was not opposed to friendly relations with Non-Orthodox based on shared beliefs, Fr Raphael never lost sight of the clear line of distinction that exists between the Orthodox and the heterodox and had to warn the faithful against attending heterodox organizations.
The Orthodoxy of Fr Raphael's life and teaching was shown over and over again by his words and his actions. He always upheld and defended the spotless Orthodox Faith which was ‘delivered to the saints’. Although at first he did not understand the teachings of the heterodox, he soon saw how far they were from Orthodox teaching. When he realized this, he took steps to protect his flock from harmful influences. He directed his people not to attend heterodox services lest they become confused by ‘divers and strange doctrines’. He believed it would be preferable for the head of the household to read the Hours at home from the service book, when it was not possible to go to church.
In summer 1896 Fr Raphael undertook the first of several pastoral journeys across the continent. He visited thirty cities between New York and San Francisco, seeking out the lost sheep in cities, towns and on isolated farms. He fed the spiritually hungry people with the Word of God in each place where he stopped. He performed marriages, baptisms, heard confessions and celebrated the liturgy in the homes of the faithful where there was no church building. In other words, he zealously fulfilled his ministry as a preacher of the Gospel, enduring many hardships and afflictions and was watchful in all things concerning the care of his flock.
In 1898, with the blessing of Bishop Nicholas, Fr Raphael produced his first book in the New World - an Arab service book called The Book of True Consolation in the Divine Prayers. This book of liturgical services and prayers was very useful to priests in celebrating the divine services, and also to the people in their personal prayer life. Between May and November 1898, Fr Raphael set off on his second pastoral tour. During this trip he became convinced of the need for Arabic-speaking priests to serve in the new churches he had established. When he returned to New York, he made a report to Bishop Nicholas expressing these concerns. With Bishop Nicholas’ blessing, Fr Raphael was able to bring educated priests from Syria. He also sought out educated laymen whom he could recommend for ordination. Both as an Archimandrite and later as Bishop, St Raphael would appoint pastors only after obtaining the blessing of the Russian hierarch who headed the American Mission.
This was the normal state of affairs in America at the time. Fr Raphael welcomed Bishop (later St) Tikhon when the latter replaced Bishop Nicholas as the ruling bishop in America. On 15 December, St Tikhon came to serve the Liturgy at the Syrian church of St Nicholas. Raphael told his people that their new Archpastor was one who ‘has been sent here to tend the flock of Christ - Russians, Slavs, Syro-Arabs and Greeks - which is scattered across the entire North American continent’. At that time, thank God, there were no parallel jurisdictions based on mere nationality. The Church united those of diverse backgrounds under the protection of the Russian Archbishop. This was the norm until the Russian Revolution, after which petty nationalism and secular chauvinism began to disrupt Church life both inside and outside Russia, including in North America.
In March 1899, Fr Raphael received permission from Bishop Tikhon to start collecting funds for a cemetery and to build a new church to replace the chapel, located in an old building on a dirty street. In the spring he left on another pastoral tour of forty-three cities and towns. Travelling by land and sea and undeterred by the obstacles and difficulties before him, he spent seven months in the north-eastern, southern and mid-western regions of the United States. Fr Raphael ministered to Greeks and Russians as well as Arabs, performing weddings and baptisms, and regularizing the weddings of Orthodox people who had married outside the Church. He also chrismated children who had been baptized by Roman Catholic priests.
In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, he reconciled those whose personal enmity threatened to divide the Arab community. Although civil courts had been unable to make peace, St Raphael restored calm and put an end to a bitter feud. While in Johnstown, he received a telegram informing him that Metropolitan Meletios (Doumani) had been elected Patriarch of Antioch. With great joy Fr Raphael told his people that for the first time in 168 years, a native Arab had been chosen as primate of the Church of Antioch. His long-term battle against Greek colonialism which had begun in Russia had been won. After the new Patriarch had been installed, Archimandrite Raphael was put forward to succeed Metropolitan Meletios as Metropolitan of Latakia in Syria. The Patriarch, however, stated that the Holy Synod could not elect Fr Raphael because of his important work in America. In 1901 Metropolitan Gabriel of Beirut wrote to Archimandrite Raphael asking him to be his auxiliary bishop, but he declined, saying that he could not leave his American flock. First, he wanted to build a permanent church and acquire a parish cemetery.
The latter goal was achieved in August 1901 when Fr Raphael a section of Mt Olivet cemetery on Long Island. In December 1901 Archimandrite Raphael was elected Bishop of Zahleh. Patriarch Meletios sent a telegram congratulating him and asking him to return. Fr Raphael thanked the Patriarch, but again declined higher office. He said that he wished to complete the project of building a church for the Syrian community in New York. The following year, he bought an existing church building on Pacific St. in Brooklyn, and had it remodelled for Orthodox worship. Bishop Tikhon consecrated the church to the great joy of the faithful in attendance. Thus, Fr Raphael’s second project was completed.
Since the number of parishes within the Diocese of North America was growing, Bishop Tikhon found it impossible to visit all of them. The diocese had to be reorganized in order to administer it more efficiently. Therefore, Bishop Tikhon submitted a plan to the Russian Holy Synod to transfer the See from San Francisco to New York because most parishes and individuals were concentrated in the east. Since various ethnic groups required special attention and pastoral leadership, Bishop Tikhon proposed that Fr Raphael be made his second vicar bishop, the Bishop of Alaska being his first.
In 1903 the Holy Synod of Russia unanimously elected Fr Raphael to be Bishop of Brooklyn, while retaining him as head of the Syro-Arab Orthodox Mission in North America. The Holy Synod announced the election to Patriarch Meletios, who was pleased by their decision. Bishop Tikhon wrote to Fr Raphael to inform him of his election and he accepted. Thus, on the third Sunday of Lent 1904, Fr Raphael became the first Orthodox bishop to be consecrated on American soil. Bishop Tikhon and his vicar, Bishop Innocent, performed the service at St Nicholas Cathedral in Brooklyn. The new bishop's vestments were a gift from the future Tsar-Martyr, Nicholas II. Following his consecration, Bishop Raphael continued his pastoral labours, ordaining priests, assigning them to parishes and helping Bishop Tikhon.
At the end of 1904 Bishop Raphael announced his intention to publish a journal called Al-Kalimat (The Word) as the official publication of the Syro-Arab mission. This would help to link the people and parishes of his diocese more closely together. Bishop Raphael knew that he could not visit all Orthodox Christians across North America in person, but through the ministry of the printed word, he could preach the word of salvation even to people he would never meet. The content was to be spiritual, moral and churchly so that the journal could reinforce people in their Faith. The Word would focus on five primary topics: dogmatic truths, ethical teaching, historical and contemporary church subjects, a chronicle of baptisms, weddings, etc., and official pronouncements. The first issue was printed in January 1905 and Saint Raphael considered this milestone as one equal in importance to the acquisition of St Nicholas Cathedral and the parish cemetery.
In July 1905 Bishop Raphael consecrated the grounds for St Tikhon's Monastery and blessed the orphanage at South Canaan, Pennsylvania. Three days later, he presided at a conference of diocesan clergy at Old Forge, Pennsylvania, because Archbishop Tikhon was in San Francisco. Among the clergy in attendance were three who would also be numbered among the saints: Fr Alexis Toth, Fr Alexander Khotovitsky, and Fr John Kochurov (the latter two were later martyred by the Communists in Russia). For the next ten years Bishop Raphael tended his growing flock. With the growth of his New York community came an increase in the number of children and he was concerned about their future. He wanted to establish an evening school to educate them in an Orthodox atmosphere, because the future of the Church depended on the instruction of the young. Children who did not speak Arabic were already going to Non-Orthodox churches where Sunday school classes were conducted in English. Bishop Raphael saw the need to use English in worship and in education.
In March of 1907 the future St Tikhon had to return to Russia and was replaced by Archbishop Platon. Once again Bishop Raphael was considered for episcopal office in Syria, being nominated to succeed Patriarch Gregory as Metropolitan of Tripoli in 1908. However, that was not to be. On the Sunday of Orthodoxy 1911, Bishop Raphael was honoured for his fifteen years of pastoral ministry in America. The Russian Archbishop Platon presented him with an icon of Christ and praised him for his work. In his humility, Bishop Raphael could not understand why he should be honoured merely for doing his duty. He considered himself an ‘unworthy servant’, yet he did perfectly the work that fell to his lot.
Toward the end of 1912, Bishop Raphael fell ill while working in his office. Doctors diagnosed him with a heart ailment. After two weeks he felt strong enough to celebrate the liturgy in his Cathedral. In 1913-1914 Bishop Raphael continued to make pastoral visits to various cities. In 1915 he fell ill again and spent two months at home, bearing his illness with patience. At 12.40 am on February 14/27 he rested from his labours. They called him, but he did not answer – he had left this earthly life.
From his youth up, Bishop Raphael's greatest joy had been to serve the Church. When he came to America, he found his people scattered abroad, and he called them to unity. He never neglected his flock, but travelled throughout America, Canada and Mexico in search of them so that he might care for them. He kept them from straying into strange pastures, protecting them from spiritual harm. During twenty years of faithful ministry he nurtured them and helped them to grow. At the time of his death, the Syro-Arab Mission had 25,000 faithful and thirty parishes. Bishop Raphael was also a scholar and the author of several books. He wrote many, if not most, of the articles that appeared in The Word. He served his own Arab community and also reached out to Greeks and Russians, speaking to them in their own language. He became fluent in English, encouraging its use where necessary.
Bishop Raphael came into contact with all sorts of people, and was a gentle father to them. He gained their love and respect by first loving them, and also through his charming personality and excellent character. He was always kind, merciful and condescending with others, but was strict with himself. He accomplished many good things during his earthly life, and now he joins the holy angels in offering unceasing prayer and praise to God. On the discovery that his relics were incorrupt and sweetly scented, Bishop Raphael was canonized in the Year 2000. Many attribute the rapid growth in the Antiochian Archdiocese in North America in the last few years to his heavenly intercessions.
Holy Hierarch Father Raphael, Pray to God for us!
An Orthodox Life of St Nicholas of Libertyville
(+ 5/18 March 1956)
St Nicholas of Libertyville is more commonly known as St Nicholas of Zhicha or St Nicholas of Ochrid. He was born in Lelich in western Serbia on 23 December, the feast of Saint Naum of Ochrid, 1880, the eldest of nine children. His parents Dragomir and Katherine Velimirovich were pious peasant farmers, who lived on a farm where they raised a large family. His pious mother was a major influence on his spiritual development, teaching him by word and especially by example. As a small child, Nicholas often walked three miles to the Chelije Monastery with his mother to attend services there. Sickly as a baby, Nicholas never developed a robust constitution, and failed the physical requirements in his application to the military academy.
As a youth, however, Nicholas was very lively and had an exceptional talent as a comedian. He was tempted to join a troupe of actors but his mother insisted that he become a priest. He was not physically strong as an adult. He failed his physical requirements when he applied to the military academy, but his excellent academic qualifications allowed him to enter St Sava’s Seminary in Belgrade, even before he finished preparatory school. On graduating, in 1905, he was chosen to pursue further study abroad and Nicholas earned doctoral degrees from Berne in 1908 and Oxford in 1909. Returning home, he became gravely ill with dysentery. He vowed that if the Lord granted him recovery, he would devote the rest of his life to His service. And so it was that later that year he was tonsured at Rakovica Monastery on 20 December 1909. That same day he was ordained to the priesthood.
He spent the following year, 1910, studying in Russia, in preparation for teaching at the seminary in Belgrade. In addition to teaching courses in philosophy, logic, history, and foreign languages (he became fluent in seven), he produced an anthology of homilies that manifest his gift for being able to express profound thoughts in a way that made them accessible to the common man. In 1910 he went to study in Russia to prepare himself for a teaching position at the seminary in Belgrade. At the Theological Academy in St Petersburg, the Rector asked him why he had come. He replied: ‘I wanted to be a shepherd. As a child, I tended my father's sheep. Now that I am a man, I wish to tend the rational flock of my heavenly Father. I believe that is the way that has been shown to me’. The Rector smiled, pleased by this response, then showed the young man to his quarters.
After completing his studies, he returned to Belgrade and taught philosophy, logic, history and foreign languages at the seminary. He spoke seven languages and this ability proved very useful to him throughout his life. Fr Nicholas was renowned for his sermons, which never lasted more than twenty minutes, and focused on just three main points. He taught people the theology of the Church in a language they could understand, and inspired them to repentance.
At the start of World War I, Fr Nicholas was sent to England on a diplomatic mission to seek help in the struggle of the Serbs against Austria. His doctorate from Oxford gained him an invitation to speak at Westminster Abbey. As one Anglican minister later recalled: ‘The Archimandrite Nicholas Velimirovich came, and in three months left an impression that continues to this day. His works, 'The Lord's Commandments' and his 'Meditations on the Lord's Prayer' electrified the Church of England. His vision of the Church as God's family, as over against God's empire, simply shattered the West's notion of what it had regarded as the Caesaro-Papism of Eastern Orthodoxy’. Next Fr Nicholas left England and went to America, where he proved to be a good ambassador for his nation and his Church.
The future saint returned to Serbia in 1919, where he was consecrated Bishop of Zhicha and later transferred to Ochrid. The new hierarch assisted those who were suffering from the ravages of war by establishing orphanages and helping the poor. Bishop Nicholas took over as leader of Bogomlicki Pokret, a popular movement for spiritual revival which encouraged people to pray and read the Scriptures. Under the bishop's wise direction, it also contributed to a renewal of monasticism. Monasteries were restored and reopened and this in turn revitalized the spiritual life of the Serbian people. In 1921 Bishop Nicholas was invited to visit America again and spent two years as a missionary bishop. He gave more than a hundred talks in less than six months, raising funds for his orphanages. Over the next twenty years, he lectured in various churches and universities.
On 6 April 1941 German troops poured into Yugoslavia, and the government soon capitulated. Serbian mortality in the Second World War was less the result of military action than it was of the frightful atrocities committed by the occupying Axis forces and by the Ustashi, a Roman Catholic Croat terrorist organization that collaborated with the Nazis in return for political support. As many as 750,000 Serbian men, women, and children were tortured and massacred, among whom were many priests, monks and nuns, while thousands more were sent to death camps in Germany. As an outspoken critic of the Nazis, Bishop Nicholas was arrested in 1941 and confined in Ljubostir Vojlovici Monastery until September 1944, when he was sent, together with Patriarch Gavrilo, to the infamous death camp at Dachau. There he witnessed unspeakable horrors and was himself tortured before the camp was liberated by American troops in May 1945.
The Patriarch returned to Yugoslavia, but Bishop Nicholas went to England. The Croat Communist leader Tito was just coming to power in Yugoslavia, where he persecuted the Church and crushed those who opposed him. Bishop Nicholas believed he could serve the Serbian people more effectively by remaining abroad. In 1946 he went to America, following a hectic schedule in spite of his health problems which were exacerbated by his time in Dachau. He taught for three years at the Serbian seminary of St Sava in Libertyville, just outside Chicago, before settling at the Russian Monastery of St Tikhon in South Canaan, Pennsylvania in 1951. Here he taught and also served as the seminary's Dean and Rector. He also lectured at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville.
On Saturday 17 March 1956 Bishop Nicholas served his last Liturgy. After the service he went to the refectory and gave a short talk. As he was leaving, he bowed low and said, ‘Forgive me, brothers’. This was unusual, something which he had not done before. Like the brilliant autumn leaves of dying nature, so too, as Bishop Nicholas finished his earthly days, his face was transformed, bearing a stamp of that other world where ‘the just shine like the stars’. On 5 March 1956 (18 March in the secular calendar) Bishop Nicholas fell asleep in the Lord, Whom he had served throughout his life. He was found in his room kneeling in an attitude of prayer. Though he was buried at St Sava's Monastery in Libertyville outside Chicago, he had always expressed a desire to be buried in his homeland. In April of 1991 his relics were transferred to the Cetinje Monastery in Lelich. There he was buried next to his friend and disciple Fr Justin Popovich (+ 1979). On May 19, 2003, the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church recognized Bishop Nicholas (Velimirovic) of Ochrid and Zhicha as a saint and entered his name into the church calendar.
St Nicholas’ writings are of great benefit to the whole Church and are today especially popular in Russia, where he is known as ‘St Nicholas the Serb’. He thought of his writings as silent sermons, addressed to people who would never hear him preach. In his life and writings, the grace of the Holy Spirit shone forth for all to see, but in his humility he considered himself the least of men. Though he was a native of Serbia, St Nicholas has a universal significance for all Orthodox Christians. He was like a candle set upon a candlestick giving light to all. A spiritual guide and teacher with a magnetic personality, he attracted many people to himself. He also loved them, seeing the image of God in each person he met. He had a special love for children, who hastened to receive his blessing whenever they saw him in the street.
A biography of Bishop Nicholas Velimirovic, published in Belgrade in 1986, bears the title, Novi Zlatoust, A New Chrysostom. Its author, Igumen Artemije, now a bishop in Kosovo, is not the first to have drawn this comparison. Nearly thirty years earlier, St John of San Francisco, who had been a young instructor at a seminary in Bishop Nicholas’ diocese of Zhicha and in whose consecration St Nicholas had taken part, had called him ‘a great saint and Chrysostom of our day (whose) significance for Orthodoxy in our time can be compared only with that of Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky. They were both universal teachers of the Orthodox Church’ He was a man of compunctionate prayer, and possessed the gift of tears which purify the soul. He was a true pastor to his flock protecting them from spiritual wolves, and guiding them on the path to salvation. He has left behind many soul-profiting writings which proclaim the truth of Christ to modern man. In them he exhorts people to love God, and to live a life of virtue and holiness.
In his writings, St Nicholas left a legacy of enduring and inestimable value, and he is to be honoured among the great writers of the Church. His two-volume Prologue of Ochrid (the uncensored version) should be familiar to all Orthodox. One Serbian bishop declared that ‘the only two books one needs to digest and put into practice to obtain salvation are the Bible and The Prologue of Ochrid’. A second volume of his Homilies was also published in English in 1998. Among his other works available in English are The Life of Saint Sava, The Mystery and Meaning of the Battle of Kosovo, The Wise Abbess of Ljubostinja (written during his imprisonment there in the early 40s), various other writings in the remaining volumes of A Treasury of Serbian Spirituality and scattered articles, sermons and missionary letters. Other works include: Beyond Sin and Death (1914), The Spiritual Rebirth of Europe (1917), Orations on the Universal Man (1920), Thoughts on Good and Evil (1923), The Faith of Educated People (1928), Symbols and Signs (1932), The Faith of the Saints (an Orthodox Catechism in English, 1949), and The Only Love of Mankind (published posthumously in 1958). We look forward to the time when more of these are translated into English.
While the mere facts of St Nicholas life inspire awe, such a skeletal portrait does not explain his spiritual magnetism and the soul-penetrating power of his writings. These were the fruit of his life-long striving to know and to serve the Truth, which, in turn, kindled a habit of unceasing prayer and a practised consciousness of continually abiding in the presence of God. As St John of San Francisco relates in his tribute written two years after the repose of his old friend, Bishop Nicholas: ‘The young Velimirovich, while growing in body, grew all the more in spirit. As a sponge soaks up water, so he absorbed learning. Not only one, but many schools had him as their pupil and auditor. Serbia, Russia, England, France and Switzerland saw him in their lands as a bee collecting nectar. He not only strove to learn much, he also strove to acquire Truth. Firm in the Orthodox faith, he sought to obtain even with his mind that which faith gives. He did not doubt in the truth of faith; rather, he longed to sanctify his intellect with the Truth, and to serve the Truth with his mind, heart, and will. He developed his mind such that with its fruits he nourished not only himself but others as well. As much as he grew in knowledge, so he grew in spirit...Constantly pondering the ultimate questions, he gathered wisdom from everywhere - from learning, from nature, from the happenings of everyday life. Most of all he enlightened his soul with the Divine light, nourishing it with the Holy Scriptures and prayer’.
May we also be found worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven through the prayers of St Nicholas, and by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom be glory forever. Amen.
Holy Hierarch Father Nicholas, Pray To God For Us!