The Local Deanery of the Archdiocese of Churches of the Russian Tradition in Western Europe is made up of sixteen parishes with over 5,000 faithful, led by seventeen priests and five deacons, as well as numerous readers. At present one of our deacons and two of our readers are awaiting ordination to the priesthood and one reader to the diaconate. This will create a group of twenty priests and five deacons, 25 major clergy in all.
However, one of the decisions which we clergy and people of the Archdiocese are called on to make is: Who is our Patron-Saint? At present we have two outstanding candidates. These are St Alban the Protomartyr and St John of Shanghai. Both have arguments in their favour. St Alban is perhaps the obvious candidate for a Deanery which spreads throughout Great Britain, from Exeter to Felixstowe and from London to Glasgow. On the other hand, St John of Shanghai, an almost contemporary figure, is one of those who brought back Orthodox Christianity to this country, but also called on the local saints (like St Alban) to be venerated again. He also allowed the use of a Western rite, and since two of our priests use a Western rite, they have a special veneration for St John. Let us recall some facts:
St Alban (whose name means ‘white’) lived in the later 3rd or very early 4th centuries, in Verulamium (long since renamed St Albans). Presumably a Romano-Briton, once Alban met a Christian priest fleeing from persecutors and sheltered him in his house for a number of days. The priest prayed and kept watch day and night, and Alban was so impressed with the priest’s faith and piety that he found himself emulating him and soon converted to Orthodox Christianity. Eventually, it came to the ears of an unnamed impious prince that Alban was sheltering the priest. The prince gave orders for Roman soldiers to make a search of Alban’s house. As they came to seize the priest, Alban put on the priest’s cloak and clothing and presented himself to the soldiers in place of his guest.
Alban was taken to a judge, who just then happened to be standing at a pagan altar, offering sacrifices to devils. When the judge heard that Alban had offered himself up in place of the priest, he became enraged that Alban would shelter a person who despised and blasphemed the gods, and, as Alban had given himself up in the Christian’s place, Alban was sentenced to endure all the punishments that were to be inflicted on the priest, unless he would comply with pagan rites. Alban refused, and said his famous words: ‘I worship and adore the True and Living God Who created all things’. The enraged judge ordered Alban to be scourged, thinking that whipping would shake the constancy of his heart, but Alban bore these torments patiently and joyfully. When the judge realised that the tortures would not shake his faith, he gave orders for Alban to be beheaded.
Alban was led to execution and he came to a fast-flowing river that could not be crossed. There was a bridge, but a mob of curious townspeople who wished to watch the execution had so filled the bridge that the execution party could not cross. With the ardent desire to arrive quickly at martyrdom, Alban raised his eyes to heaven and the river dried up, allowing Alban and his captors to cross over as if on dry land. The astonished executioner threw down his sword and fell at Alban’s feet, moved by divine inspiration and praying that he might either suffer with Alban or be executed for him.
The other executioners hesitated to pick up his sword, and meanwhile, Alban and they went about 500 paces to a gently sloping hill, completely covered with all kinds of wild flowers and overlooking a beautiful field. When Alban reached the summit of the hill, he began to thirst and prayed God would give him water. A spring immediately sprang up at his feet. It was there that his head was struck off. On hearing of the miracles, the astonished judge ordered further persecutions to cease and he began to honour the saint’s death.
Mikhail Maximovich (correct spelling) was born in 1896 in Adamovka near Kharkiv, now in the Ukraine. He came from the same Russian (not Serbian, as some incorrectly say) family as St John of Tobolsk. Growing up, he was a sickly child who was devoted to the Faith and was captivated by the lives of the saints. His piety so impressed his French governess that she converted from Catholicism to Orthodox Christianity. He attended the Poltava Military School from 1907 to 1914 and then attended Kharkiv University and received a law degree in 1918. He studied well and attended church where he was inspired by the renowned theologian Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky). He later recalled that the local monastery has become more important in his life than secular institutions.
John was a patriot and profoundly disappointed by the human weaknesses and lack of faith displayed during the tragic events of 1917. As a result he made the decision to dedicate his life to serving God. In 1921 his family sought refuge in Yugoslavia, where in 1925 he graduated from Belgrade University with a degree in theology. To support his impoverished family he sold newspapers.
In 1926 he was tonsured monk and ordained hierodeacon, given the name John after his saintly ancestor, and later ordained hieromonk. Once ordained Fr John no longer slept in a bed. He would nap in a chair or kneeling down in front of his icons, praying and eating only once a day. For several years afterwards he worked as a teacher at a school and then at a seminary. The principal of this seminary, in Bitola, was the future St Nicholas (Velimrovich, + 1956).
Fr John earned respect and devotion at the seminary where he taught. His reputation grew as he started visiting hospitals, caring for patients with prayer and communion. In 1934 he was consecrated bishop by Metropolitan Antony, the last bishop he consecrated, and assigned to the Diocese of Shanghai.
Here Bishop John found an uncompleted Cathedral and Orthodox deeply divided along ethnic lines. Making contact with all the various groups, he quickly involved himself in the existing charitable institutions and personally founded an orphanage and home for the children of the poor. He also set about restoring Church unity, establishing ties with local Orthodox Serbs, Greeks and Ukrainians. Here he first became known for miracles attributed to his prayer. As a public figure it was impossible for him to completely conceal his ascetic way of life. Despite his actions during the Japanese Occupation from 1937, even when he routinely ignored the curfew in pursuit of his pastoral activities, the Japanese authorities never harassed him. He was made Archbishop of China in 1946.
When the Communists came to power in China, the Russian colony was forced to flee, first to a refugee camp on the island of Tubabao in the Philippines and then mainly to the USA and Australia. Archbishop John personally travelled to Washington to ensure that his people would be allowed into the country.
In 1951, St John was assigned to the Archdiocese of Western Europe, including Great Britain, with his see first in Paris, then in Brussels. In France he became known as ‘St Jean Nu-Pieds’, ‘St John the Barefoot’, as amid the post-war poverty of Paris he would give away his shoes to the shoeless poor. Thanks to his work in collecting lives of saints, a great many Western saints became known in Orthodoxy and continue to be venerated to this day. For example, he founded St Brigit’s church in Vienna and had a service composed to her. His charitable and pastoral work continued as it had in Shanghai, even among a much more widely scattered flock.
In 1962 St. John was sent to San Francisco. Here too he found a bitterly divided community and a Cathedral in an unfinished state. Although he completed the building of the Cathedral and brought a measure of peace to the community he became the target of slander from those, including fellow-bishops, who became his enemies, and went so far as to file a lawsuit against him for alleged mishandling of finances related to the construction of the Cathedral. He was completely exonerated by the court, but this hounding of him by the political- and secular-minded was a great cause of sorrow = and probably hastened his death.
On 2 July 1966 John reposed in front of the Wonder-Working Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God, while visiting Seattle at a time and place he had foretold. He was entombed beneath the altar of the Cathedral he had built in San Francisco, dedicated to the Mother of God, Joy of all Who Sorrow. In 1994 he was at last canonised on the 28th anniversary of his death. His incorrupt relics now occupy a shrine in the Cathedral. His feast day is celebrated on the Saturday nearest to 2 July.
He is beloved and celebrated worldwide, with portions of his relics in Serbia, Russia, Greece, South Korea, Bulgaria, Romania, the United States, Canada, England (Colchester, Essex) and other countries. He is known variously as St John of Shanghai and Western Europe (where he spent over eleven years) and, in the USA as St John of Shanghai and San Francisco (where he spent four years), or simply as St John the Wonderworker.
We do not know whom the clergy and people of the Deanery (God willing, one day to become a Diocese) will choose as our Patron-Saint, either of these two, or perhaps a third choice. However we have our own suggestion, which represents our destiny, to be both Local and Universal.
In 1994 the late Mother Elizabeth (Ampenova), Abbess of the Annunciation Convent which St John had founded in London, told me the following. When in 1962 Archbishop John was making his farewells to the flock in Great Britain, his last words were this: ‘I will not see you again in this world, and so I entrust you into the hands of your Protomartyr, St Alban’. Thinking of these words, would it not be a good thing if we adopted both of these saints as our Patrons? I can already envision an Icon of both Saints, with St John entrusting us to St Alban.
May God’s will be done!
Archpriest Andrew Phillips
15 September 2021