(This speech coincided with a presentation of photographs from the live and service
of the late pastor and of the history of Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack, NY.)
On behalf of the Slobodskoy family, I would like to express my gratitude to Father George, the members of the parish council and the sisterhood of the Holy Virgin Protection Church for organizing this day and this bountiful luncheon. I would also like to thank you for always remembering and praying for my father, the rector of this parish for many years and the builder of this splendid church.
I am also thankful to all of you who came today to remember and honor the memory of my father, the Very Reverend Seraphim. You chose to come here on this day your lives. Many of you recall Father Seraphim personally as a pastor, a spiritual father, and a mentor. Others remember him as an inspiring teacher, either in the parish school, in church, or in the children’s camp. Some of you only know him from the stories of your parents and friends, and still others are familiar with Father Seraphim merely as the author of the book, The Law of God. I would like all of you to become better acquainted with this true kind pastor, with his life’s journey, and with the legacy that he left behind for us.
I am awed by everything that my father was able to accomplish during his short life. I have published a book that is being unveiled today, entitled, Father Seraphim: Life and Legacy. My wish is that this book will not only familiarize you with Father Seraphim’s character, but particularly for the current generation, that it will serve as an inspirational example of a selfless Christian life. In today’s speech, I would like to convey the essence of Father Seraphim, and to present to you his image as both a secular and spiritual figure.
The Very Reverend Seraphim Slobodskoy – in our minds we see the picture of a priest, in a cassock, in vestments, and with a cross… But this rector was once a little boy, who was brought up and grew.
Here before you is Father Seraphim when he was approximately two years old. He was born on September 11th, 1912, in the village of Cherentsovka, near Penza, the third child of Father Alexei Slobodskoy, and his wife, Matushka Vera. There was no doubt as to what name would be bestowed upon him – Seraphim. A year before his birth, the close-knit family suffered a great loss. The youngest child, Anatolii, died from croup. The inconsolable parents traveled to the Sarov Monastery, and there they found some easing of their sorrow in their fervent prayers to Saint Seraphim. With hope, they returned home and brought with them a small icon, a medallion: on one side was the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and on the other was the image of St Seraphim of Sarov. This medallion, Father Seraphim wore his entire life, and now, I wear this icon and remember my father every day.
From his earliest childhood, Seraphim, or as everyone called him, Sima, displayed a talent for drawing. From his father, who in addition to being a priest was also an artist and iconographer, he learned to utilize a pencil and paintbrush. When he was still very young, he drew his own portrait. He didn’t know how to write, so he asked his sister to write, “It is I: an artist, a priest, and a singer.” From his earliest childhood, Sima had selected three particular paths for his life. And it is specifically about these that I would like to speak to you today: artist, priest, and singer… well my father was never really a singer, although he did have a strong baritone and he always served in church in tune with the choir, but instead, I would like to add a different designation: author.
And so, Sima said, “It is I, an artist!”
Sima had a happy childhood. His family was gentle and close; he had art lessons with his father. Sima loved to draw from his earliest childhood. However, with the revolution of 1917, and in the years that followed, everything changed sharply: his schooling, he was given a scornful nickname –a priest’s son, and his father’s parish in Cherentsovka was closed. When Sima was older, several times he tried to receive a formal education in the fine arts. But for Sima, as the son of a priest and one of the deprived, the doors were closed. Despite the fact that his father was a personal friend of the director of the Academy of Art in Penza, Sima was not accepted into the school. Seraphim moved to Moscow to his aunt, but there too, he was not able to enter into art school. He ended up working as a draftsman, and although he was not matriculated, he took some art classes and courses on the promotion of the arts. At this time, he painted many portraits and he even had several exhibits of his artwork. His friends liked and appreciated him for his cheerful and energetic personality and for his skill and dexterity in various sports. They were also impressed by his ability to quickly complete his own paintings and still find time to help others with their work.
When World War II began and the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, Seraphim was mobilized. He was assigned to the battalion of the “undesirables,” which was comprised of criminals, sons of priests, and other “unwanted” individuals. They were sent to the front with no preparation. They were only given rifles and shown how to fire them, the night before their departure. Seraphim experienced a great deal as a soldier. He was constantly sent out as a scout to see if there were Germans or landmines in the area.
“Slobodskoy! Go!” for some reason they always sent him. “If they kill you, we won’t go there,” his commanders would say.
And so, Seraphim would go – always relying on the will of God. There were many incidents where his fellow soldiers were killed, but somehow he escaped death and injury. Death did not take him, but the Germans did, and in prisoner-of war-camp, it was his art that saved him.
The year was 1942. These were difficult times for the captives. Hundreds of prisoners died every day. They were freezing from the cold and became weakened from starvation. The hunger was constant –terrible hunger! Despite these conditions, Seraphim’s faithfulness to the will of God provided him with a calm assurance, even though his strength was just as depleted as the others. The other prisoners-of-war drew close to him, sensing his inner strength.
Whenever he had the opportunity, Seraphim would make small sketches in pencil on scraps of paper of everything that his eyes could see. Sometimes he would be able trade one of these sketches for a hunk of bread or a potato. These scraps of food helped him keep up his diminishing strength. Once, Seraphim drew one of the prison guards. The sketch delighted the guard, “Gut, sehr gut!”
The guard took his portrait. In several days he called Seraphim over and took him to see the commandant of the prison camp. This was an especially fortunate day, and from that day forward, the destiny of the prisoner-of-war, Seraphim Slobodskoy, took an entirely unique direction. The commandant of the camp was a highly cultured individual and he loved art. He decided to organize, as he called it, “My Academy.” He selected the best artists from amongst the prisoners-of-war, and included Seraphim. As he himself said, “I don’t need any second rate artists!”
The artists worked hard creating paintings, scenery, and portraits, and for this they received rations and other privileges. Later on, Seraphim was even allowed to go to the neighboring town in order to paint etudes or to buy necessary art supplies. It was always essential, however, to return in time for roll call. This prison was located in Lithuania, near the city of Kaunas. Occasionally, under the watchful eye of a prison guard, Seraphim was permitted to attend church services in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. He even rang the bells there. It was during this period in his life, that Seraphim completed many of the paintings that are still preserved in our family. We also have the chess pieces that he carved by hand during his imprisonment. Many events occurred during Seraphim’s years in the prison camp, but right now, it will suffice to say that Seraphim saved the artist Andrei Aleksandrovich Rostovtsov from death, and he met Nikolai Aleksandrovich Papkov. Both of these men were both prisoners of war and became his close, life-long friends. These artists, Seraphim, Nikolai, and Andrei, made a pledge that if they survive the prisoner-of-war camp, they will one day build a church for the glory of God. Indeed, this they accomplished in building the Holy Virgin Protection Church here in Nyack. Each made his contribution: Nikolai Papkov - the frescoes and icons, Andrei Rostovtsov – the iconostas, and Seraphim – the building of the church. Father Seraphim also painted some of the icons: the Resurrection of Christ over the Royal Doors, the Crucifixion, the large icon of Seraphim of Sarov, and also many of the small icons that are located along the sides of the church. These icons were commissioned by generous parishioners in order to raise funds for the building of the church. He inscribed the names of the donors on the backs of the icons. And so, art saved Seraphim in prisoner-of war camp, and later his artistic eye assisted him in the building of the church. Furthermore, his artistic talent helped him in creating his book – The Law of God.
“It is I, a singer... an author!”
Father Seraphim left all of us, the wonderful book, The Law of God. With great care and love, he wrote and illustrated this book. Long ago in Russia, his father had once said to him, “Russia is such a vast country, and yet no one here has created a good text about the Law of God.”
These words made a lasting impression on Father Seraphim. Finding himself in Germany after World War II, Seraphim Alexeyevich discovered that many young Russians, who had grown up in the Soviet Union, had a spiritual thirst. As a result, he organized youth groups to discuss and study theology. Along with his youth group, he participated in the conference of the RSCM (Russian Student Christian Movement), which had been organized by Father Alexander Kisselev. There, Seraphim Alexeyevich met his future wife, Elena Alexeyevna Lopuchina. In February of 1949, they were married, in a double wedding ceremony with Yolochka’s sister, Tania, who was marrying Oleg Mikhailovich Rodzianko., and the following year, their daughter, Tania, was born. Seraphim Alexeyevich continued to paint, some of which depicted Russia, the homeland that he would never see again.
It was then, still before he was ordained, that Seraphim Alexeyevich commenced working on his book. For his newborn daughter, Tania, he wrote out by hand, and colorfully illustrated the first volume of The Law of God. Which he entitled God’s World. His preliminary idea was to create a colorful, multi-volume set of books. Later on, already when he was living in America, he decided on a one-volume tome, which is the current format of the book. When Father Seraphim was assigned to the parish in Nyack in 1953, he continued to work on developing the book, although concurrently he had many other obligations – the parish, the school, his family, and the building of the church.
Father Seraphim’s vast life experience, along with his reading and study of the works of the Holy Fathers and other theological writers, provided the basis for this comprehensive volume. He often worked on writing The Law of God, at night, as there was so much to do with the parish during the day. In addition, at night he was not disturbed by telephone calls. Consequently, when there was time for rest, Father Seraphim did not rest, but worked instead. Not only did he write the text, he also illustrated the book as well. With his artistic eye and perceptive understanding of pedagogy, he considered it important for each page to have a picture. He carefully thought through and planned every section of the book. In addition to the many icons of saints and feast days, he depicted all the objects in the church, the design of the church building and maps. He also drew all the decorative headings and embellishments. I would like to add that a copy of Father Seraphim’s map of Jerusalem at the time of the earthly life of Jesus Christ hangs in the hotel at the Mount of Olives, and serves as a guide for multitudes of pilgrims.
When Father Seraphim drew an image of a family in prayer, he depicted his wife, Matushka Yolochka, his young daughter, Tania, and his little son, me. One picture is prayer in the home and the other is praying in the church in Nyack. Father Seraphim often went to Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, where the book was being published. He spent many hours making the typeface plates, which he paid for himself, and typesetting. He did all that he could to assist with the production of his book, in order to speed up the release.
Father Seraphim never asked for any financial compensation for his labor. He insisted that the book be sold at a low price so that it would be accessible and affordable for all. In fact, for all six editions of The Law of God, published in America, neither Father Seraphim, nor Matushka Yolochka, ever received a penny for the book. The greatest reward for him was to hear appreciative comments about the book that he created with so much love and care.
In the 1970s, some Russians from abroad started to travel to the Soviet Union. In their suitcases, they took copies of The Law of God with them. Even those books that were confiscated at customs, somehow found their way into the country. Later on, Holy Trinity Monastery began to send an enormous amount of copies of The Law of God to the Soviet Union, particularly from the third and fourth editions. In 2007, in responding to a question about publications from outside of Russia during the Soviet regime, His Holiness Alexei II, Patriarch of all Russia, responded by saying, “Theological books published by the Russian Church Outside of Russia, made their way into Russia even during the years of the Iron Curtain, although in somewhat limited quantities. This was valuable help. Later, times changed, and that which had been created abroad, was republished in Russia in enormous editions. It is enough to mention The Law of God, of the Very Reverend Seraphim Slobodskoy. Hundreds of thousands of children, if not a million, have studied and are studying now in our Sunday Schools using this text. Young people must also use this book to prepare for entrance into the seminary.”
This is still true today. If one looks on the Internet for the requirements to be accepted into a seminary or theological academy throughout Russia, for example, in Moscow, Voronezh, Ryazan, Yaroslavl, or Tambov, just to name a few, the mandatory preparation is to read and know the material in Father Seraphim’s book. For me, it is personally gratifying to mention the Penza Theological Seminary. This is especially meaningful for me because my grandfather, Father Alexei Slobodskoy graduated from the Penza Theological Seminary in 1901.
In describing Father Alexei, it is possible to use the same words that Bishop Averky used in his eulogy at Father Seraphim’s funeral. Father Alexei “remained faithful with his entire soul to Christ, Our Savior, and he selflessly served the cause of working for the salvation of the flock that had been entrusted to him.” Father Alexei never knew how greatly he influenced the spiritual development and nature of his son, Seraphim.
Father Alexei was arrested in 1937, but Father Seraphim never discovered his father’s fate. It was only in 1992, that we learned that Father Alexei had been sentenced to death on August 28, 1937, on the day of the Feast of the Dormition. He had been accused of anti-Soviet propaganda, but he did not confess to these crimes. He was shot on August 31st. Of course, the main reason he had been arrested and executed was that he was a priest. Thus, Father Alexei Slobodskoy suffered and died a martyr’s death for his faith in Christ.
In returning to the topic of Father Seraphim as an author, I just want to add that, The Law of God, is sold in all bookstores and churches across the entire breadth of Russia. It has already been translated into English and Ukrainian, and recently I have received requests for translations into Georgian, Rumanian, Spanish, and Serbian. Consequently, The Law of God, of Father Seraphim Slobodskoy, continues to edify both the faithful, and those who are seeking faith around the world.
“It is I, a priest!”
The revolution of 1917, took place when Father Seraphim was five years old. How did it happen that a person who grew up in a godless regime grow up with such a firm and strong love for God and people? The answer to this question can be partially found in the first years of Sima’s life where he lived with his family in Cherentsovka.
In those early years, Sima’s parents gave him the basics of an Orthodox upbringing and a Christian mindset, which stayed with him his entire life. From his earliest childhood, Seraphim considered the church of Archangel Michael in Cherentsovka, where his father was the rector, to be his home. When he was an infant, his mother held him in her arms in church, and later he stood alongside his sisters, Nina and Lydia. Everything around him was safe, dear, and familiar, and became a part of his soul and spirit: the icons which were written by his father, the chanting of the litanies by his father the priest, the singing of the hymns and prayers, the peal of the church bells, the flickering of the candles, and the scent of the incense. He loved all of this, and for him, it was an inextricable part of his entire world.
When he was a young man living in Moscow, Seraphim saw godlessness, with ideas that were contradictory to his own, all around him. He strove to understand the meaning of life. He knew dialectical materialism, which was a fundamental aspect of the philosophy of Marx and Lenin, almost by heart. He needed to know this thoroughly in order to have discussions where he could respond to people and convincingly explain his position. Not openly, of course – this was not allowed. Sometimes for practice, he had imaginary disputes with made-up antagonists. With his intelligent and clever line of reasoning, he was able to practice persuading those with opposing views. Both his internal and actual discussions seemed to formulate, strengthen, and help him assert his faith.
The travails that Seraphim had experienced in his life, the ridicule at school, the inability to get a formal art education, the arrest of his father, and then the war and the hardships of German prison camps, the threat of repatriation, all of these did not suppress his faith, but on the contrary, strengthened his spirit and magnified his love and faith in God. He was submissive to the will of God, and told me many times, “One should not only believe in God, but one must trust in Him.” Father Seraphim’s faith was extremely active, and he worked energetically and with intensity to serve God and people.
Father Seraphim became a priest in 1951 in Munich on the feast day of Palm Sunday. In January of 1952, the Slobodskoy family left for the United States, where, a month later I was born. Then, in 1953, Father Seraphim was appointed rector of the Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack. In a short time, both Father Seraphim and Matushka Yolochka earned the respect, trust, and love of the parishioners.
I would like to mention the special relationship between my parents. They shared the same view of life and the same goals. Material comforts were not essential for them; they live humbly, money was not important, and they always had faith in God’s will. The whole point and meaning of their lives was the church and the life of the parish. In all things, Matushka was a contributor, partner, and helper to Batushka, and they always displayed love and respect for each other. This is a portrait that my father painted of my mother. I would be remiss in not also mentioning my mother’s family, the Lopuchins, who greatly helped and supported my father in his parish work.
Both Father Seraphim and Matushka paid special attention to children and the youth. They knew and thoroughly believed in the value of an early foundation in Christian faith and love for the church. They knew how important it is for children to actively participate in church. Children and young people were encouraged to assist and read during services and to sing in the choir. For the girls, Father Seraphim and Matushka organized the “Young Sisterhood”, which took turns caring for the candles in church. The boys served in the altar, and for each, Father Seraphim always had a smile and a kind word. In this way, both boys and girls came to understand the importance of their participation in the services. On holidays, there were so many altar boys, that once a guest remarked, “You have more altar boys than the Patriarch of Jerusalem!”
Father Seraphim had a gift of uniting people and persuading them to volunteer and serve the community. He found a common language with everyone, with the young, with teenagers, with adults and with the elderly. He was able to reach them all, to interest, comfort and help them. He also encouraged people to teach in the Russian school.
Father Seraphim provided religious instruction in the parish school. During his lessons, the relationship between the teacher and the students was more like a mentor with his favorite children. He had a natural connection with his students, and they were captivated with his passionate and firm convictions.
I remember a particular instance in our classes of religious instruction. At that time, the students who were attending high school in Nyack, were allowed to leave school early once a week in order to attend lessons with Father Seraphim. On that day, the lesson was about miracles. One of the boys in the back was fooling around and not paying attention (I remember who it was, but I am not going to reveal his name). My father got angry, and turned to the student and asked, “Tell me, what is a miracle?’ The class became quiet, but suddenly, the voice of my cousin sounded, and he said, “If he answers this, it will be a miracle!” My father used to remember this incident with a smile.
I would also like to mention the wonderful Christmas Yolkas /Pageants in Nyack. Father Seraphim considered them to be of great importance, and they were undertakings that united the entire parish. Not only did he direct much of the preparations, he also worked diligently himself. Taking off his cassock, he painted scenery and hammered pieces of wood together. On the day of the Yolka, the festivities, including performances, plays, games and songs around the Christmas tree, continued late into the night. I still remember how eagerly we all played “tumba”. The Nyack Yolka was considered to be exemplary, and many people came from afar to watch the performances and to participate in the Christmas celebrations. All of this was the result of the endeavors of Father Seraphim and those who worked with him.
In 1967, Father Seraphim became the spiritual director of Camp NORR. He became fully entwined in camp life. It was not only in church and at services, however, that he had an influence on the campers. In his youth, Batushka had been an ardent athlete – he was a goalkeeper in soccer, loved volleyball, and played the ancient Russian game of “gorodki”. All this allowed him to find a common ground and understand with the youth, and they in turn, reciprocated with affection and respect. Father Seraphim organized volleyball games, often was the referee, and at times even played himself. He patiently helped children learn to play different sports, such as soccer, softball, and relay races. From him, the youngsters began to realize that they had ability and that they should never give up. On the sports field, the kindhearted pastor established many relationships and connections with the young people who surrounded him.
All of you are familiar with my father’s role in the building of the church here in Nyack. But, I must also mention the generosity and sacrifice of the Nyack parishioners, from the youngest to the oldest. As you can see, even my newly born sister Vera helped with the construction. Inspired by Father Seraphim, everyone worked together toward the realization of this great endeavor including Vladimir Mikhailovitch Tolstoy, the architect of the Nyack church. I remember an episode, which clearly illustrates God’s help and intervention. When the parish first embarked on building church, there was little money. In response to those who were reticent to begin due to lack of funds, Father Seraphim would say, “Money is not your worry. It is God’s worry. We are building a church of God!”
And so, the parish applied for a bank loan. The bank denied the application on the basis that did not believe the parish would be able to keep up with the payments. Undeterred, Father Seraphim insisted that work on the building continue. He was personally at the worksite all the time. Alongside with his parishioners, he mixed cement, moved bricks with a wheelbarrow, and did a multitude of other jobs. Once, it happened that the bank director was driving by. Upon seeing the pastor himself, working so assiduously with his parishioners, the director decided to approve the loan. He decided that with this kind of work ethic, the parish would surely pay off its loan.
An especially momentous day was when the cupola was erected onto the top of the church. Father Seraphim, Nicholas Papkov and Andrei Rostovtsov, the three friends who together had given an oath in the German prison camp to build a church, watched with joy in their hearts as their long awaited dream took on a more and more finished look. Another day that was especially meaningful for Father Seraphim was when the belfry was built, as he loved bells and was an expert bell ringer. In 1962, the administration of Harvard University in Boston, one of the most famous and prestigious colleges in America, invited Father Seraphim to give a lecture and then ring their bells. At that time, the Russian bells from the Danilov Monastery of Moscow were housed at Harvard. This invitation pleased Father Seraphim and he went to Boston. After the lecture, he went up to the belfry in Lowell House and immediately saw that the ropes were attached to the bells incorrectly. He was forced to spend quite a bit of time adjusting and retying the ropes. But finally, for the first time, Harvard University was treated to authentic Russian bell ringing. To this day, a photograph of Father Seraphim, ringing the Danilov bells, is kept at Harvard University. In 2008, the historic Danilov bells were returned to the monastery in Moscow.
I would be remiss in not mentioning Father Seraphim’s talent in preaching in church. His sermons were exceptional in that their content was profound and the form was concise. He also had an approach that was uniquely his own. Because of his artistic nature, he always included vivid images in his sermons. But, do not think that it just happened effortlessly. Father Seraphim put aside much time and exertion so that his sermons would be accessible and comprehensible for his listeners. He wrote out each sermon in its entirety in his own hand. But, he did not write simply – he underlined certain passages, he wrote certain words or phrases that were to be emphasized in big, bold letters, and he used different colored inks. Being the artist that he was, he often drew little pictures in the margins and throughout the text so that he could quickly glance down and be reminded of the thoughts that he wanted to convey to his listeners. My father also believed that he could not go out to say his sermon without being fully prepared. Amongst today’s audience, I know that there are several of you who remember how when there were no services, Father Seraphim would rehearse his sermons in the empty church.
Everyone who cherishes Father Seraphim’s memory in his heart recalls, above all, the animated joy with which he welcomed the Feast of the Resurrection of the Lord—Pascha. Father Seraphim was radiant and his joy enveloped all of us. Few are able to read the Homily of St John Chrysostom during the Easter matins with as much feeling as my father—when he welcomed us to “enjoy the Feast of Faith.” We remember his triumphant exclamation, “Christ is Risen!” and the thunderous response of the people, “Truly He is Risen!” especially among the altar boys and the young sisterhood. And this exultation was also evident at other moments; after all, who can forget his joyous expression during weddings as he led a newly married couple around the center of the church to the singing of “Isaiah Rejoice!”
The path of Father Seraphim’s life, that brought him unscathed from Cherentsovka, Penza, Moscow, and then later from Europe and Germany to the United States, and finally to Nyack, cannot but touch the souls of all who knew and remember him. But, what is the legacy that this priest left behind? He conferred upon us the image of a genuine Russian pastor, who laid down his soul for his flock. He had integrity, followed his conscience, always defended the truth, and not once did he think about personal gain. He bequeathed to us a splendid and beautiful church and an exemplary parish. And finally, he left us with the wonderful and comprehensive tome, The Law of God, which for 54 years has enlightened people in the true faith, and continues to inspire those who are seeking faith.
Everywhere I travel in the Russian Diaspora, in Europe, in America, and now also when I visit Russia, when people discover that I am the son of Father Seraphim Slobodskoy, they come up to me and tell me how he personally helped them, how he said a kind word to them, and how he listened to them when they shared their joys and sorrows. Others express how much they value his book, The Law of God. Thank you to all who remember my father. Thank you also to all who helped him during his lifetime to bring to fruition, that which God granted him to do in serving Christ’s Church. After all, the work of a parish is a communal endeavor. It is a charitable effort that cannot be conducted by only one person. But through the inspiration of a kind priest, and through the Grace of God, the parish of the Holy Virgin Protection Church was able to create this pearl of the Russian Diaspora.
In conclusion, I would like to convey to you one of the outstanding personality traits of my father. It was his ability to have empathy and love for all. He never delved into extremes, and considered it essential to be understanding of human weaknesses and frailty. He treated everyone with kindness and compassion. He often faulted himself for his own shortcomings, and frequently repeated, “love is most important.” The commandment of the Savior about loving God and one’s fellow man was an intrinsic part of his essence. This characteristic of his personality, his ability to love, was his most valuable gift. This love, and the great joy that Father Seraphim shared on Easter, I wish for all of you.