Eighteen years ago, the relics of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco were translated. At the end of this month, the Church celebrates this event. Protopriest Peter Perekrestov, a witness to this event, discusses how this took place:
Vladyka John reposed in the Lord in 1966, during an archpastoral visit to the city of Seattle, WA, with the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God. After divine services, he went to his room with the icon, where he was later found dead in its presence. The funeral was not held right away, since a great deal of time was needed for all of the bishops to gather. Metropolitan Laurus (then Hegumen Laurus) drove for three days from Jordanville with Vladyka Averky (Taushev)—this was over 3,000 miles. Although Vladyka John was not embalmed, there was no sign of decay during or after the funeral. San Francisco had a Greek Orthodox mayor at the time, and he granted special permission to bury Vladyka on the Cathedral site itself, in a basement storage area refurbished as a crypt, where his body was laid to rest.
People began gathering there even before his glorification, just as they did at the resting place of Blessed Xenia. At first they prayed for Vladyka, then they began to pray to him, and leave notes with appeals for his intercession. And there were a great many miracles. I would say that the veneration of St John and his glorification was a grass-roots movement. The people’s veneration grew and fairly quickly the question of his canonization was proposed. The fact that the decision was made is a miracle in and of itself. At the time, our Church was led by Metropolitan Vitaly (Oustinov), who was not a great admirer of Vladyka John, and the people of San Francisco did not much love him in return. Still, Archbishop Anthony (Medvedev) headed the Western American Diocese, and after returning from a trip to attend a meeting of the Synod of Bishops, told me “You will not believe what happened. I only proposed to begin gathering materials towards the glorification of Vladyka John, and Metropolitan Vitaly suddenly said to me: ‘we will glorify him!’” After this, it was decided to open the relics in San Francisco. Vladyka Anthony summoned his best friend from among the bishops, Vladyka Laurus, and several priests, one archimandrite who had been the main altar boy under Vladyka John, and the steward of the crypt.
There are days in a person’s life that he remembers in great detail. Fr Alexander Schmemann pondered this in his journals. We may not remember our wedding day, the day we were ordained, but there are days and moments that remain with us forever. For instance, I served with Vladyka Anthony (Medvedev) for 20 years, but I only remember a few moments clearly—I close my eyes and feel that he is sitting beside me, I see him separating his pectoral cross and panaghia, I see the expression on his face. The day of the translation of the relics of St John was like a little Pascha for me.
There was some anxiety, but purely of the human variety, probably because none of us had ever opened a coffin before. I was still a young priest, and, honestly, was not a great admirer of dead people. At about 9 pm, we descended to the crypt and began to serve a pannikhida. Our wives and children knew about this. Although Vladyka Anthony asked us not to announce this in advance, of course we had to tell our matushkas, or they would ask where we were going, so he gave us permission. They waited at home, and shared our anticipation. A few days before this, a small delegation of three priests entered the crypt, one of whom was a carpenter, in order to examine the crypt and prepare for it to be opened. The coffin was in a cement sarcophagus above the ground, and they needed to determine how to remove the heavy covering slab. When we returned, we already knew what needed to be done. Beams, crowbars, fabric and everything else was prepared in advance. We opened the sarcophagus lid and saw the rusted metal coffin inside. A bishop’s mantle lay on top of it, which was placed there during the funeral, and it was intact. The coffin was lifted with ropes, but it started to crumble. We placed beams under it as supports. We then prepared to open the coffin.
A hieromonk had kept the key to the coffin lid for over 25 years. He approached, inserted the key, but it did not open. The lock had rusted through and did not work. Then our protodeacon—a Russian giant weighing 375 pounds—tried to open the coffin cover with a crowbar. But Vladyka Anthony did not like the fact that we were using force, it was impious, he said, to force relics open. He stopped the clergyman, crossed himself, and began reading the 50th Psalm.
I’d like to make a brief aside here. At one time, my matushka and I were considering a move to San Francisco (we are not as strict as the Church in Russia is with clergy assignments. Usually a priest makes an offer and a priest can agree, or decline. The fact is that many of our priests work at civil jobs, and not everyone can simply quit, for very few parishes can fully support their clergymen.) Matushka was not very eager to go, because it was far from her family. So we went to San Francisco to take a look. My impressions consisted of external things—the cathedral, the many young people, a multitude of Russians, a parish high school. She was somewhat more skeptical about it. We toured the city together, met the clergymen, and on the eve of our departure, Vladyka Anthony invited us over. He did not have a cell-attendant or driver; he would take city transit, always with a briefcase in hand. Whenever he went food shopping, he would also put the food in this leather briefcase. Vladyka invited us over, sat us down and began preparing dinner himself. He read the prayer before the meal himself. My matushka remembers that she had never seen anyone ever read “Our Father” like that. Vladyka Anthony actually conversed with God, he beheld the Living God. This was not just a formal prayer. When we finally left Vladyka Anthony’s residence, I asked matushka, “What do you think, Lena?” She replied “I could live and work with a bishop like this anywhere.” This was the deciding moment for us.
So this very hierarch was praying as we opened the relics. He finished reading the 50th Psalm, then place his hand on the cover and easily opened it. I think that we were unable to open it at first because the Lord wanted Vladyka Anthony himself to open it, because he had earned this through his lofty spiritual life. The lid rose, and we saw St John’s vestments. It had been white at first, but was now green, probably from mildew. We touched the vestments and they crumbled in our hands from decay. When a clergyman is buried, his face is covered with the vozdukh [liturgical veil which covers the Chalice and diskos]. Such a vozdukh covered St John’s face. Vladyka Anthony crossed himself and lifted it. It was the first time I saw Vladyka John. His face and entire body was preserved, uncorrupt—these were genuine relics.
Vladyka Anthony appointed me the photographer of the event. I had previously used up the film in my camera, so I ran home for more, only to find all the lights on, like on Pascha. It was midnight, and matushka was waiting for me. “They are uncorrupt! Uncorrupt!” I grabbed some film and hurried back, and she started phoning people to share our joy. When I returned, I found that a sickly boy had been brought to the crypt—the son of a priest of our diocese. Vladyka Anthony gave his blessing for him to be brought inside, and he was healed. Now this young man is completely healthy, a foot and a half taller than me, and he plays rugby. A wooden coffin had already been prepared in advance, and we transferred his relics, closed the coffin and went home, praising the Lord.
A few months later, when the materials for his glorification were collected, we once again opened the relics, in order to bathe and put new vestments on Vladyka. But how were we to do this? There was no guidebook for this containing instructions on how relics are cleaned. Vladyka Anthony pored through various books, accounts of the glorification of St Theodosius of Chernigov and of Joasaph of Belgorog, the most recent saints glorified by the Russian Church. He found some articles in the periodical Tserkovniy Vestnik, and other old publications. There were some descriptions of the process, but it really had to be figured out. There was no contemporary practice of cleaning relics in Russia. There was no one to ask. We washed Vladyka’s body with water, oil and rose wine. His skin was light, an off-white, but after washing it acquired an amber coloration. I combed Vladyka’s hair and beard (some hairs remained on my comb). We put new vestments on him and left him in the crypt until 1994, when Vladyka John was glorified on the anniversary of his birthday.
Before St John’s glorification, the Church Abroad had glorified Blessed Xenia, St John of Kronstadt and the New Martyrs. We were asked by many to do this, even by St Nicholas of Serbia, who appealed to the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia to canonize St John of Kronstadt. Metropolitan Anastassy, then the First Hierarch, was against it, because he felt that we are usurping the full authority of the Russian Church. But when Metropolitan Philaret was elected, the glorification took place.
This is how St John was glorified: The relics were first transferred to the middle of the cathedral. Then a final pannikhida was performed, at the end of which an icon of Vladyka John wrapped in a cloth was brought out of the altar. The pannikhida ended with the words: “O Lord God, lay to rest his soul and by his holy prayers have mercy and save us, for Thou art good and the Lover of mankind.” Afterwards, all-night vigil commenced, when stichera were already sung for the new saint. During the litany, when all the saints are commemorated, they also named “our holy father John, Bishop of Shanghai and San Francisco the Miracle-worker, whose glorification we now perform, and all the saints.” It was wonderfully beautiful service!
During the polyeleos, the First Hierarch approached the icon, untied it, and the clergymen lifted it above the worshipers. Then they removed the lid of the coffin so that everyone could see the relics of the hierarch. Everyone made a prostration and began singing the magnification. It was a splendid glorification, truly “of the people.” This was one of the main events in my life. I never get tired of repeating that our generation is the most blessed one. There is not one generation upon which the Lord poured forth so much mercy as ours. We endured no wars. We witnessed the renascence of church life in Russia. We bore witness to the glorification of the New Martyrs. We witnessed the canonization of Vladyka John. And we have seen the greatest of miracles, an unprecedented miracle, when two parts of the Church united!