“We Suffer for Russia”
Protopriest Victor Potapov on the travels of the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign” and of the life of a Russian parish in America.
Protopriest Victor Potapov is known by many Orthodox Christians in both America and Russia. The family of the future priest found itself in the United States after the war, having come here from Manchenhoff camp in Germany, where Fr Victor was born in 1948. He worked at Voice of America radio for 30 years, recording spiritual broadcasts for Russian Orthodox Christians. For 38 years, he has served as Rector of St John the Baptist Cathedral in Washington DC.
– Fr Victor, you are a Russian who grew up in America…
– I grew up in America in the 1950's. It was during the Cold War. A few times a week we would hide under our desks at school, preparing for a Soviet attack. We knew that at the end of the street there was a bomb shelter. As boys, we would look over the fence: there was a small military base there, which fascinated us.
It wasn’t very pleasant being a Russian in those years, when everyone was talking about the Soviet threat. The task our emigres faced then was to convince Americans that there was a big difference between Russia and the Soviet Union. Russia was an Orthodox Christian nation which endured a revolution, where atheists seized power who persecute Christianity and the Russian people.
My young identity was formed thus: my parents forced me to speak Russian, attend Russian school on Saturdays, which I didn’t want to do. My parents were not very religious, they only went to church occasionally, on holidays. My grandmother was the religious one. When I was 13-14 years aold, Mama asked me to accompany grandmother to church for vigil. We lived in Cleveland, Ohio. Our church was in a very bad, crime-riddled neighborhood. The Russian community there could not afford to have a church in a better neighborhood back then. Later they moved to a better neighborhood and built a new church. Grandmother really wanted to attend vigil, but I didn’t, and we quarreled. Still, I loved my grandmother, so we went.
There was almost no one in church, just Fr Michael Smirnov, who was a great influence in my life. There I stood, restless, no other kids in church, and I spoke poor Russian at the time… But during service, something happened in my soul. Even though my ears could not understand, I suddenly realized that this divine service has profound meaning. One moment in time, and everything inside me changed.
I remember coming home once, I ordered some books from the Jordanville Monastery. The Church of God and Divine Services by Priest Antonov, The Law of God by Protopriest Seraphim Slobodskoy, and others. I began reading them. And in Russian, too, which was hard for me. I began to study, and attend church. I began to visit Fr Michael, he taught me to read in Church Slavonic. During the summer I would go to the boys’ camp at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY. For two or three weeks, we lived with monks, went to church services, were assigned different tasks “of obedience.” We were like young novices. One seminarian from Australia, from the Chinese emigration, Vladimir Evsyukov, who later became a Protopriest, was my spiritual guide. All this led me to the decision to serve the Church. So it was just one service, completely baffling for me, and yet it changed by entire life. Hard to believe, isn’t it?
In 1970, I was in my second year at seminary. My mother and I wanted to travel to the Soviet Union, the city of Krasnodar, to visit relatives. I had never been in the USSR. There was some massive Communist convention going on in Moscow then, and we were denied a visa. They said that there were no hotel rooms available…
It was summer, and I had to do something, but it was too late to find a job. So I decided to take advantage of the time and travel to Mount Athos, then join a pilgrimage group from New York that was going to the Holy Land. This group was headed by the future Metropolitan Laurus. Then he was just Bishop Laurus, Dean of Holy Trinity Seminary.
So I went to Athos, visited the Russian St Panteleimon Monastery, and Elias Skete, as well as other monasteries. I met Archimandrite Avel (Makedonov), later he was the Prior of St John the Theologian Monastery near the Russian city of Ryazan.
What a wonderful pastor! I was a seminarian from the Russian Church Abroad, and I remember that Fr Avel would say how surprised he was that I was so respectful of him. In those days, there was a great deal of enmity, sadly… but everyone welcomed me with great warmth! There were still monks who had lived in Pochaev Lavra, Pskov Monastery of the Caves… They invited me to spend a year on Mt Athos, to study the monastic rule… I was inspired by the desire to become a monk!
It was in this state of mind that I went to Jerusalem afterwards, to join Vladyka Laurus’ group. We visited holy sites. There was an elderly woman from New York who befriended me, and she introduced me to a girl.
I met my future matushka at the Sepulcher of the Lord. This was one of the greatest finds in my life. So I became a protopriest---one cannot fight Divine Providence. My wife and I have been together for 45 years. I could not imagine my pastoral work without her, because the lion’s share of charity work our parish does is connected with my matushka. This was the work of Vladyka John of Shanghai, under whose influence my matushka grew up.
– Fr Victor, as an American, you still never forgot Russia…
– You know, we suffer for Russia. I grew up in America, I am an American citizen. I don’t have a Russian passport; I think about that sometimes. A lot of things in America have changed for the worse… We watch what is happening in Russia, we suffer for her, we see how everyone is ganging up against her…
I remember the prophesies of the 19 th -century elders about how Russia will be resurrected, it will become spiritually powerful, the final pillar of Orthodoxy in the world-and I see that this is happening! And I am overjoyed that in some small measure we participate in this! In the old days, I organized religious radio programming [from the West] for Russia when there was none in the country. I was given a microphone, and I learned the craft. You could call me a radio-journalism, though I had no training in journalism. It’s just that I knew literature, I knew what people needed to hear. I began reporting. Thank God, there were people in the American government who understood that religion broadcasts could bring great benefit to the Soviet Union, more than political ones.
Over the course of 30 years, I had the honor of sitting in front of an open mike, broadcasting catechistic talks, sermons, interviews with fascinating people, explanations of the holidays and divine services. We even broadcast services from our church, vigil and Liturgy… Now Russia has its own stations, Spas, Radonezh, Soyuz … I used to say that the time would come when my broadcasts would be unnecessary. And thank God, that time has come-in my own lifetime! This is a great Divine mercy. We no longer do these broadcasts, but now we have a boisterous parish life.
– What is parish life like?
– We have five priests and four deacons. Our parish is mostly Russian, about 60-70%. There are also Americans, Serbs, Romanians, even Chinese parishioners… They came to Orthodox Christianity, came to love Russian spiritual traditions and customs.
Over the 38 years that I’ve served here, we’ve been conducting services in English and Slavonic for 20 years. After services everyone shares a trapeza luncheon. The parishioners themselves prepare the meals. There is a Russian and English-language Sunday school. Our official language is Russian. We publish our monthly newsletter in Russian, but everything is translated into English, too. We try to think about everyone in our pastoral service.
We have two good choirs; they have regular rehearsals and take their singing seriously. We have a dance troupe named “Matryoshka,” where boys and girls meet every Friday to practice traditional Russian dances, and they give performances. But maybe the most important thing is that this gives them a chance to spend time together. They are like one big family, they are all friends.
Open trapeza luncheon after Liturgy
We have a scout group which gathers at the parish every other Saturday . This year we marked the 50 th anniversary of our troop, which is named after the ancient Russian city Putivl’. They are also like a family, sharing interests. Every summer they set up a camp, living in tents, building a chapel with their own hands. One of us priests go and celebrate Divine Liturgy, vigil, we hold discussions with the kids. We also live in the tents like the kids. We try to preserve the scout traditions carefully, it survived the emigration. Thank God, after the fall of the Soviet Union, our scouts were able to transfer the traditions to Russia, where the tradition is growing.
Our parish has 500 families. The parish dues are $35/month, students and retirees only pay $15. This is nominal, but it is a way of establishing who is a parishioner. They have the right to attend and vote at annual parish assemblies, elect members of the parish council, make proposals, air grievances. The chairman is the parish rector.
St John the Baptist Cathedral
We have 15 parish council members. We gather every month, talk about parish life and management and administrative issues. We have a very active charitable effort. In November, the head of our mission in Haiti died suddenly, the wonderful priest Fr Gregoire Legoute. He was the heart and soul of our mission. He was only 53… The Church Abroad has five parishes in Haiti and 7,000 members, all native Haitians. They are very poor, they can barely feed themselves, so everything depends on donations from parishes of the Russian Church Abroad.
We held a plate collection to help support the widowed matushka, who together with her late husband run a school for 130 Orthodox children. We collected a pretty good amount. Other parishes also had collections. Our parish also collected a generous amount for a parishioner in St Petersburg; there is a wonderful little girl called Nadezhda, who at the age of six was diagnosed with brain cancer. They removed the tumor in Russia, but she was left blind; her optic nerves were damaged during surgery. They brought her to America, she is now nine years old. The father does not have working papers, and the parents are doing everything they can to help their daughter.
We also put together a good amount for the charity Dobrota [“kindness”] in Donetsk, which helps children wounded in their civil war. We work closely with the Russian Embassy, which lets us use their “Golden Ballroom” space for our Maslenitsa event. The profits from this event, usually about $40,000, goes to our benevolent fund, and we distribute these funds throughout the year, wherever we see fit.
In January, during Christmastide, we hold a Tatiana Ball, organized by our youth. The profit from this event goes to the St John the Baptist Fund to help needy youth.
A homeless Orthodox family from Uzbekistan now lives in my house; they came seeking for help. We couldn’t refuse them, we help any way we can. There are a lot of people like this.
– Fr Victor, by the mercy of God I was able to attend your church during the visit of the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign.”
– Yes, His Grace Bishop Nicholas (Olhovsky) of Manhattan, the caretaker of the icon, traditionally brings it to our parish in November, after Thanksgiving. The parishioners eagerly await its arrival, and adorn the iconostasis with flowers. We announce the visit well in advance, so that as many people as possible can pray before and venerate the ancient icon.
- Fr Victor, do miracles occur from this icon in our day?
– You know, when I served at my first parish in Stratford, CT, in 1975 (I had been ordained in 1974), the Kursk-Root Icon came to our parish. After services, I took the icon to a neighboring town, to the Church of the Holy Spirit. There we performed a moleben and akathist before the icon. I noticed a young man standing on his knees during the service, in tears, praying fervently. After the service, he came up to me and told me that his little son suffered from a rare disease, his skin was slack and wrinkled like an elephant’s. It was a terrifying sight. He held his son against the miracle-working icon. I said, “It’s good that you came. Believe that the Most-Holy Mother of God will intercede for your son!”
A few days later, he came to church again with his son, to request a moleben service: they had just gone to a regular checkup to their doctor, who was amazed to discover that the young child was beginning to improve. Many years later I learned that the boy grew up and got married.
Protopriest Vladimir Danilevich knew a Jewish family. Their seven-year-old child was diagnosed with cancer. They had learned this just before the miraculous icon was to visit the area. They had already been leaning towards converting to Christianity, but no one in the family had been baptized yet. They brought their boy to venerate the icon-and he was cured! They were so grateful, and astounded! The entire family was then baptized in the full rite, and they became active parishioners.
The older sister of my matushka, Alexandra, when she was still a girl living in Belgrade, was seriously ill with polio. She couldn’t swallow or consume food. Her condition was worsening. The family invited the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God to pray before it. The priest administered Holy Communion to Alexandra, and for the first time in days she was able to swallow, after which she was able to eat, and finally fully recovered.
– Do you visit sick parishioners with the icon?
– Yes, one day during each visit of the icon is devoted to visiting the sick and elderly who are unable to come to church. The icon just visited nine people in the Washington, Maryland and Virginia area. Especially memorable was a visit to a Stepan Sudakov, who was bedridden. I had communed him not long before and sensed that he did not have long to live. I promised to bring the Kursk-Root Icon to him. He lived in Virginia, pretty far away; I was in a hurry to see him with the icon, because the priest of a Romanian Church was expecting the icon for evening service. We were stuck in traffic, plus I was exhausted. I even thought to turn back, but my matushka insisted I continue: let’s try, what if he dies? After all, I had promised. So I called the priest and warned him that I may be late. He said, “Don’t worry, there’s time.”
We managed to bring joy to Stepan; we brought the icon and I gave him Communion. He was still alive and alert. A few hours later, he gave up his soul to God. He had revered and loved this icon, and so the last moments of his life were filled with the joy of being in its presence. The Mother of God accompanied this kind man and good parishioner on his last voyage to Her Divine Son!
It was a great consolation for me, and for his widow… and we were only late to evening service by a half-hour.
I visited an American with the Kursk-Root Icon last year-he is an eminent attorney suffering from cancer. He was already dying when I brought the icon. I expected him to be in bed, living out his last. And suddenly, he opened the door himself! He believes that the Most-Holy Mother of God healed him. He is in full remission, and is preparing to return to his practice.
Vladyka Nicholas also promised to stop by the Baltimore home of the blind girl Nadia on the way back to New York.
Every year, the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign" goes to Russia, to various dioceses, Ekaterinburg and other cities… it is accompanied by its caretaker, Vladyka Nicholas.
– Thank you, dear Fr Victor, for this wonderful chat!