The road to the first home in America of the Hodigitria [Guide] of the Russian diaspora, the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God “of the Sign,” winds between the ranch houses of America, among lakes and forests. An hour and half north from New York City, another turn, and to the left, under hundred-year-old maples, is an archway with a cupola and an inscription found at the entranceway to dozens of monasteries: “Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord!” As we pass through the gates, we see the wooden church dedicated to the Nativity of the Most-Holy Mother of God.
By the end of the 1940’s, most Russians who found themselves in Germany and Austria fled across the ocean. Europe was losing its importance as a center of the Russian emigration, and the Synod of Bishops decided to move its headquarters to America.
The most suitable city for the new home of the Synod was New York, where an estimated 200,000 Russian Orthodox Christians lived. But they could not find a suitable house in the city itself, so they decided to find one in its outskirts.
The renowned benefactor Prince Sergei Sergeevich Belosselsky-Belozersky, having learned of the proposed move of the Synod and of the miracle-working Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God “of the Sign” to the USA, offered his estate in the suburbs of New York, in the town of Mahopac, 49 miles from New York City. Metropolitan Anastassy (Gribanovsky) gave his blessing to establish a stavropighial monastic presence here, which would also become his temporary residence.
Appointed to be the builder and rector of the podvorie was Archbishop Seraphim (Ivanov, +1987) of Chicago and Detroit, who was from Kursk, and the author of the book Znameniye [“the Sign”] about the famous icon, known as the “Hodigitria of the Russian Diaspora.” He proposed naming the new podvorie the “New Kursk-Root Hermitage” in memory of the old Root Hermitage that was destroyed, having once been the home of the miraculous icon.
“I arrived at my new post on the fourth day of the Nativity of Christ, January 10, 1950, according to the new style. I came alone and did not have a penny,” wrote Archbishop Seraphim. “The main big house of the estate was not inhabitable after a recent fire. I had to settle in the small cottage instead. Living there and serving as watchman was a former Russian artillery corporal, SV Vasiliev, who gave me his room, which was heated by a small iron stove. It wasn’t a merry place to be… The main house was in a shambles. The kitchen was almost entirely burnt out. The heating, plumbing and electricity were in disrepair. The windows on the first floor were mostly broken, the walls covered in soot… It was winter. The snow was knee-high. The town was two miles away. The only way of getting there was on foot. There were no Russians living in the area.”
Prince Belosselsky gave three thousand dollars to fix the house, but some of the contractors demanded five thousand, others wanted eight. Then Vladyka remembered a Russian engineer by the name of VI Vishnevsky, whom he had once helped make his way to America.
“Vishnevsky, at my request, came to Mahopac,” wrote Vladyka Seraphim. “He carefully inspected the house and agreed to take up the repair, declaring that he would do it for a price of no more than—three thousand dollars! Work began, and some ten or twenty days later the whole house was remodeled. The cost totaled two thousand eight hundred. Of course, Vishnevsky and his workers did not make much money, but they admitted that they lost no money.”
The engineer not only repaired the house, but built a modest iconostasis in the veranda, turning it into a house chapel which, only twelve days after the arrival of Archbishop Seraphim to Mahopac, was consecrated, and New-Root Hermitage held its first Liturgy.
“I had to serve alone, with a two-person choir and fewer than ten worshipers, guests from New York,” recalled Vladyka. “It would hardly be possible to hold a humbler service, but I was not discouraged. This nest was clean and bright. But where to find ‘birds’ for this nest—monks?”
The rector wasted no time even during renovation work: he collected for the hermitage, penny by penny, and searched for brethren, traveling with a copy of the miracle-working icon, visiting friends and acquaintances in New York. This was the very same copy that at the request of Vladyka Seraphim was painted in Geneva and, with the blessing of Metropolitan Anastassy, was brought to the New-Root Hermitage. Vladyka visited parishes in Lakewood and Vineland, NJ, and Philadelphia. In Lakewood, the first miracle from this copy was recorded.
One woman, having suffered from debilitating hemorrhaging for many years, just as the woman in the Gospel, after a moleben and fervent prayers before the icon, was immediately healed.
A month after the first Liturgy, the Rector began to build a regular church. By that time, two monks joined the monastery—Adam and Viktorin.
Hieromonk Viktorin’s father turned out to be a master of all trades and took to decorating the church, which was built in less than five months. It was consecrated in honor of the Nativity of the Most-Holy Mother of God on November 19, 1950, five days before the arrival of Metropolitan Anastassy. The interior of the church was adorned in the old Russian style of the 14th-15th centuries. As at the old Kursk-Root Hermitage, on the left side was a display case for the miracle-working icon, which they expected to arrive from Germany the following February.
And so on February 5, 1951, at about 3 pm, a Flying Tiger cargo plane landed in Idlewood Airport near New York containing the Hodigitria of the Russian Diaspora on board. It was brought by Archimandrite Averky (Taushev), who had spent ten years with the icon. The Kursk-Root Icon had left Munich on February 2, but because of a storm, it was held up for two days on Santa Maria Island in the Azores. The residents of the island, named after the Mother of God, treated the icon with great piety, fervently praying before it, hearing the unfamiliar Orthodox chants during a moleben that was served.
The icon remained at the Hermitage for only three days, then went to New York and began a pilgrimage to the Russian churches in the US.
With time, the icon spent more and more time away from the Hermitage to visit the megalopolis, and in fact it was determined to be inconvenient for the Synod itself to be based far from New York City. In 1951, Prince Belosselsky-Belozersky gave the Synod a building on West 77th Street in Manhattan, and in 1959, the administration of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia moved to one of the best neighborhoods of the city, 93rd Street and Park Avenue. The Hermitage, meanwhile, was being improved, held services and received new monks.
A modest wooden bell-tower was erected in front of the church in the style of the Russian bell towers of the north, with four small but resonant bells, the gift of an elderly woman parishioner who had lost her only son in the war.
In 1952, five ornamental reliquaries containing portions of the Holy Life-Giving Cross of the Lord, the Head of St John the Forerunner, St Nicholas the Miracle-worker, St Gregory the Theologian, St Mitrophan of Voronezh and many other saints—some 50 relics in all—arrived from Mt Athos and Jerusalem. A special display case was made to contain icons and a stone from the Sepulcher of the Lord, the Bethlehem manger, Golgotha, the Mt of Olives, Nazareth, Gennesaret Lake, and the River Jordan.
In the depths of the monastery, among the trees, a two-storey monastic hospice was built with a large veranda, the front of which was decorated with a large fresco painted by Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov) depicting, as a symbol of hospitality, the Holy Fathers Abraham and Sarah receiving the Holy Trinity in the image of Three Angels.
During the summer, the brethren baked black rye bread in a small bakery which was sold to worshipers, and also made rye kvass.
The “Little Brethren”
In the fall of 1957, Archbishop Seraphim was assigned to the Diocese of Chicago and Detroit. Archimandrite Innokenty (Bystrov) was appointed Rector of New-Root Hermitage. Born in Siberia, Fr Vasily (Bystrov) was sent to prison in Vladivostok twice after the Revolution: the first time in 1927 for refusing to join the Living Church, and then later that year for teaching the Law of God. The following year, once again for refusing to serve with Living Church clergymen, he was expelled from the Vladivostok Diocese, then from the Blagoveshchensky Diocese. Fr Vasily was forced to flee his homeland and settle in Harbin, China, where he served in the “House of Mercy,” and in 1934 he founded a Russian Orthodox parish which he headed for almost fifteen years on the island of Java in Indonesia. From there he moved to San Francisco, CA. There he was welcomed by Vladyka Seraphim, who suggested that he move to New-Root Hermitage to be his senior aide. In 1953, Protopriest Vasily Bystrov was tonsured a monk and given the name Innokenty, a name he drew himself from among three slips of paper on the altar table.
New-Root Hermitage was never greatly populated. In the mid-1950’s, there were only ten residents there: five monks and the rest trudniki (volunteer laborers). At one time, many worshipers would come in the summer. Many came to spend the night, others spent their vacation here, to “breathe,” as they would say, “the air of the Russian church.” Entire families would come with their children for the entire summer. A small hospice was set up in a garage, and then a new one was built from the ground up.
In 1958, the second original resident of the Hermitage, the ekonom [steward] Hegumen Viktorin (Lyabakh), was appointed Rector of the Russian parish in Teheran, Iran. Archimandrite Innokenty remained at the Hermitage without another priest-monk, and had to celebrate Divine Liturgy at the Nativity of the Mother of God Church alone. On the feast day of the church, when the house church could not accommodate the many visiting worshipers, Liturgy would be celebrated at the outdoor chapel.
The Parishioners Take Up Their Tools
For the second year in a row, the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America and New York, will lead feast day celebrations in the open chapel under the hundred-year-old pine trees, in the chapel built by Fr Innokenty.
The event is truly miraculous. In recent years, the Hermitage was ravaged by neglect. In 1986, Fr Innokenty departed to the Lord. For fifteen years, no investments were made in the maintenance and development of the monastery. There was a fire which practically destroyed the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God. There were serious plans to raze the structure and either sell or rent the parcel to commercial interests. But the parish of the Nativity of the Mother of God continued to survive: the parishioners decided to preserve the holy site through their own efforts. In 2004, they received the support of Metropolitan Laurus (Shkurla, +2008), the most of the monastery buildings which the elderly hierarch personally viewed were in extremely poor condition. The main building with the church was in need of major renovation.
But even after the decision was made to preserve the church, renovation work never began. Money was collected from throughout the entire world, dollar by dollar. Things began moving only three summers ago, when the ceiling in the church collapsed. That was the last straw.
“I start tomorrow,” decided parishioner Basil Serdsev. “There is no money, but the Mother of God will provide. We have faith—it will be done!”
Basil took apart the roof with the parish kids. There were leaks in sixteen spots. For three months, he worked here from the love of his heart. Many parishioners also took up their instruments and worked for free. The elderly priest Fr Ilya Gun helped with his prayers.
“We really sense the prayer in our Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God,” said Senior Sister Olga Maltseva. “People come and remark how much this church is infused with prayer.”
The new Parish Rector, Protopriest Victor Tseshkovsky, dreams of establishing a bond with the renewed Kursk-Root Hermitage in Russia. He hopes to receive monks from Russia and Ukraine, who, like Innokenty and Viktorin many years ago, would bring the spirit of Russian Orthodoxy to America, the missionary spirit and the witness of the truth, native melodies, divine services, and simply share with the local monks their experiences, which is in great need.
“Thanks to the donations we’ve collected, the people who volunteer their work, and the contractors who provide low-cost services, the parish was able to cover the $105,000 cost of renovation, which was originally estimated at $250-300,000,” said Fr Victor. “The old bakery, two monastic and visitor buildings need repair; renovation is needed at the candle factory which supplies almost the entire Eastern American Diocese, the warehouses, the summer chapel and workshops.”
As they prepared the main building for renovation, removing the rotting walls and floors, the parishioners found an “epistle” from the past: two boards which apparently came from a trunk which apparently was taken by Protopriest George Grabbe (later Bishop Gregory), when he came from Germany to New York together with Metropolitan Anastassy. Fr George was the Chancellor of the Synod of Bishops of ROCOR in Sremsky Karlovci, later the Senior Priest of the Synodal Cathedral of Our Lady “of the Sign” in New York, and head of the External Relations Department of ROCOR and Editor of the Synodal periodical Tserkovnaya Zhizn [Church Life]. These boards are the first items for a future museum at New Kursk-Root Hermitage. But there is already a museum under the open air: the monastic cemetery, where there is a story behind the name on each grave cross.
A bell tower is planned to be built according to drawings preserved from the 1950’s. On the interior of the bell tower structure, the names of donors and contributing organizations will be inscribed on the walls.
Metropolitan Hilarion has taken great interest in the restoration of the Hermitage, which is to become a center of the Russian diaspora in the USA, calling this place the site in Russian America which “played a saving role in the lives of thousands of our fathers and grandfathers and helped them unite in one holy community, called the Russian Church Abroad.” Vladyka Hilarion hopes that the restored monastery, so close to New York, will make a real contribution to the mutual spiritual enrichment of monastics, and a place where people can come to the life of the Church, receive spiritual education, and gain unity with our compatriots in the US. So, too, will the bonds with the Mother Church and contact with the historic Russia be strengthened.
New Kursk-Root Hermitage, it is planned, will gradually become a beautiful place for pilgrims from Russia, and a convenient point of departure for visits to Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, and Novo-Diveevo Convent in Spring Valley, NY, which boasts the largest Russian cemetery in America, and the oldest Russian parish school in America, found in Nyack, NY.
On the feast day, when Divine Liturgy is celebrated in this holy site, the clergy, parishioners and many pilgrims will beseech the Most-Holy Mother of God to help their individual needs, but more than anything, they pray for the restoration of this site. Just as the elderly SS Joachim and Anna, after decades of childlessness and criticism from their peers, were given a Daughter, so will the restored monastery, created as the Home for the icon of the Most-Holy Virgin, become a place of consolation, bringing spiritual joy and benefit to our compatriots living in America and other countries of the world.
September 20, 2011