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The Angel of the Erie Church. 
Towards the Bright Memory of Bishop Daniel

Interview with Doctor of Theology Priest Ioann Miroliubov, Director of the Patriarchal Center of Ancient Russian Liturgical Traditions, Secretary of the Commission on Old Believer Parishes and Relations with the Old Rite of the Department of External Church Relations.  

-Father Ioann, on April 26, 2010, at the age of 79, the Vicar of the First Hierarch of ROCOR for the Old Believers, Bishop Daniel (Alexandrov), died. You knew Vladyka well, and you often visited him in Pennsylvania. Can you describe the magnitude of the loss to the Russian Church from the death of this eminent archpastor?

-Firstly, I would like to note that Vladyka Daniel belonged to that disappearing constellation, if one can use that word, of Orthodox intelligentsia. Strictly speaking, he belonged to that so-called “first wave” of Russian emigres, but his noble birth, his education and world view were bound to the finest traditions of the White Emigration, though he himself was only an adolescent during World War II.

It must be noted that Vladyka had a well-rounded education. He graduated from Jordanville Seminary (which also awards a degree from the State University of New York), and Vladyka Daniel continuously and very profoundly continued his education on his own. Vladyka knew about 30 languages well, he studied ancient tongues, had a practical knowledge of the basic modern European languages, as well as the classical and many Eastern languages. The newly-departed hierarch was also possessed of a lofty poetical gift, well-known for his translations of ancient Greek fables into Russian and Krylov’s fables into English.

Bishop Daniel was a great scholar and a lover of ecclesiastical art. He had a splendid knowledge of architecture, was a professional iconographer, having been a student of the renowned Old-Rite icon-painter Pimen Sofronov, who established a school in America (it was this that first drew the future bishop towards the Old Rite). Bishop Daniel knew the znamenny chant very well, and mastered the Ustav of Divine services. On the other hand, who was not an armchair intellectual. For example, in his youth, he was an avid participant in the sport of sailing.

One can say that we have lost one of the last representatives of the pre-Revolutionary generation. The kind of person who not only had an encyclopedic education, but a broad scope of knowledge, the ability to hear and grasp other points of view. It was in this regard that the death of Bishop Daniel is a great loss to the entire Church.

-What does this loss mean for you personally?

-Vladyka Daniel was one of those people who played the most profound and deciding role in my life, in my path to the Russian Orthodox Church. It probably would be an exaggeration to say that he brought thousands of Old Believers to the Church, but hundreds, absolutely.

-Fr Ioann, tell us how you met Vladyka.

-This was about 20 years ago, when the borders were opened, and we were able to freely visit our brethren in the faith in other countries. One of these trips was to the US, when I, as the leader of the biggest Old Believer group on the territory of the former USSR, the Pomorsky Rizhskaya Grebenshchikovskaya Community, had the opportunity to acquaint myself with the life of the Old Believers in America. At the time, we knew that there were four Pomorsky communities in the US since before the war, but knew almost nothing about the [authorized] Old Ritualists. And suddenly, during a visit to the Pomorsky Old Believers of Erie, PA, we learned by chance that in this same city was a group that had separated from them and joined the Russian Church Abroad.

-Batiushka, our readers know little of the community that Vladyka ministered to. Can you tell us briefly about this group and how it joined the Russian Church Abroad?

-The core of this community originated from emigres from Poland and the Baltic states who moved to America in the end of the 19th century. A significant part of them had practically already lost their conversational Russian by the mid-20th century, but preserved their adherence to the Old Rite.

In the 1970’s, a young and--by worldly standards--successful lawyer by the name of Pimen Simon became the nastavnik [lay leader] of the Erie community, who in the future would play a significant role in its unification with ROCOR. Through reading the Holy Fathers and church history, the Ustav of Divine services, many bespopvtsy [priestless group] of Erie gradually came to the conclusion that a Christian community existing without full-fledged ecclesiastical ministry, without the fullness of a hierarchy and the fullness of the Mysteries, was abnormal.

I must say that in terms of timing, this immersion into the essence and first causes of the schism, and also the reevaluation of the situation, approximately coincided with the acts of the Sobor of ROCOR of 1974 which repealed the condemnation of the Old Rites, unfairly imposed in 1666-67. These acts were in many ways analogous to the decrees of the Pomestny Sobor [Local Council] of the Russian Orthodox Church of 1971, though they occurred independently. If in the Moscow Patriarchate they were initiated by Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov), esteemed by many Old Believers, in the Church Abroad an important catalyst were the famous letters written by Alexander Isaevich Solzhenistyn to the ROCOR Sobor. One should not ignore the fact that the Church Abroad itself was experiencing a transformation of its own. The shift in the circumstances of her existence and an understanding of what was happening led to a reevaluation of many concepts. There was a re-orientation, if you will, from pre-Revolutionary Synodal traditions to the image of Holy Russia. This was especially noticeable in the area of ecclesiastical art—church architecture, icon-painting, but more so in the increased attention to the Traditions of the Holy Fathers. And this doubtless was noticed by the local Old Believers.

I will not linger on the details of the history of the contact between the Old Believer nastavnik Pimen Simon with the hierarchs of ROCOR (but would only note that the future Vladyka Daniel—then Protopriest Dimitry Alexandrov—played a significant role). I will, however, point out that in 1983, some 80% of the parishioners of the Erie community voted in favor of joining ROCOR while retaining their own divine services and daily traditions. That same year, Fr Pimen Simon was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Laurus (the future Primate of the Church Abroad).

-That is, this was unification yet with the retention of the Old Rite traditions?

-In practice, yes. Though there are two points. The first is the right to our community’s special Ustav, which is different from the typical parish regulations of ROCOR, and in particular that the community had the right to elect their own priests from among themselves, and the right to control our own property. The second, based on the decisions of the Pomestny Sobor of 1917-1918, the right to have our own Old-Rite bishop minister to us who would be subject directly to the First Hierarch of the Church Abroad. Neither condition was contested by the ROCOR Hierarchy.

-And the future Vladyka Daniel was elected?

-Yes, no one doubted his candidacy, though at the time, Fr Dimitry Alexandrov preached to the Old Believer communities of Australia, but upon his return to America, he was tonsured to monasticism with the name Daniel and consecrated Bishop of Erie, Vicar of the Diocese of Eastern America and New York of ROCOR.

-How did this affect the community itself?

-Over the last 20 years, I visited Erie several times and can state firmly that this Old Ritualist community is experiencing dynamic growth. This is in contrast with the Pomorsky communities which, alas, are in fact on the brink of extinction. Today, the Old Ritualist parish of the Nativity of Christ in Erie has several hundred parishioners, and, it should be noted, these are not only locals with Old Believer roots. A great many members of this community travel from other cities of Pennsylvania, and even from other states. At one time I was surprised to see that among the parishioners of the Old Believer church were even African-Americans. Protopriest Pimen Simon teaches at the local university, and many of his former and current students converted to Orthodoxy specifically in the Old Believer community. The parish also has an active life outside of divine services: conferences, festivals of Russian culture and other activities are a frequent occurrence.

-Let us return to how you first came to know Vladyka. What sort of impression did he make on you?

-At the time, I only had an abstract conception of the Old Rite and Old Believers. This movement evoked a certain respect in me even then, but at the time I did not know of one Old Ritualist even in the Soviet Union (indeed, in fact there were almost none left in the USSR, the rebirth of Old Ritualism began in Russian only in the early 1990’s). That is why at the time, curiosity was not the least of my motivations, and so I happily accepted the invitation to visit Nativity of Christ Parish in Erie. At first we met Fr Pimen, who seemed to be a perfectly earnest person, and from my conversation with him I learned that the community is ministered to by an Old Ritualist bishop who, at that time, lived elsewhere.

Soon afterwards a close friend of ours, the granddaughter of a Deputy of the Tsarist State Duma who represented the Old Believers of the city of Dvinsk, SR Kirillov, by the name of Tatiana Makovski (a ROCOR parishioner who knew Bishop Daniel well), proposed that we meet with Vladyka. She invited us to her home (Vladyka drove himself) and we spent the entire time with him. 

My first impressions were unforgettable. Bishop Daniel amazed me in literally every way: his personal manner, his simplicity, his knowledge. The main thing, probably, was his genuine and deeply-felt pain at the ecclesiastical division of the 17th century. It instantly became clear to me that this was not to be our last meeting.

-In the future, you would visit Vladyka during each trip to the US?

More than that: all my following visits were oriented around going to Pennsylvania to the Old Rite parish. During one of my visits, I stayed with Vladyka Daniel, spending about two weeks in his little house after he moved to Erie.

I must say that Bishop Daniel, up until the time when he became completely disabled, took care of himself independently, and I was always uncomfortable that after trapeza he would hasten to wash the dishes, while it was difficult for him. Yet his actions were so natural and straightforward that my admiration for Vladyka, a grandson of the last Russian governor of Alaska, only grew. For I was only a clergyman, and grandson of an Old Rite clergyman, who had lost almost all his civil rights in the Russian Empire. So naturally, we touched upon many questions, including the history of the Schism. I cannot say that we always saw eye to eye, but again, Vladyka Daniel was always able to listen carefully, to understand another point of view.

But the greatest impression Vladyka made on me was what a luminous and prayerful man he was. I saw with my own eyes how he read the Rule of prayer in his cell, how he looked upon things, how he reacted to one circumstance or another. Maybe in some things he had a childlike, naive attitude. Truly he seemed to me an angel to his Church, which was small yet strong in the Spirit, so bright was his soul.

-What did Erie’s Old Rite community gain from the fact that they were ministered to not by a simple priest, but by a bishop?

The responsibility for the primary pastoral care for the members of the community remained on the priests, of whom there are now three. They are aided by several deacons. But when the majority of the Erie Pomorsky community decided to join the Russian Church Abroad, the matter of maintaining a certain degree of autonomy was first discussed. But in strict accordance to canon law, a community, or one of several ministered to by a bishop, retains the fullness of the Church, the absolute fullness of the Mysteries. This is very important for those who come to a different divine service and canonically-organized group of Old Believers, since they are still concerned with retaining their self-identity.

-Father, many have recently recalled the complicated stance Bishop Daniel took on the matter of reunification between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Can you comment on this, to dispel confusion?

It is important to note that these controversial areas did not apply so much to Vladyka Daniel as much as with his helpless and in many ways feeble condition of the last few years. There were many lies disseminated through the internet, according to which Fr Pimen allegedly kept Vladyka behind locked doors, keeping him from speaking out against reunification. Having full knowledge of events, I state that these were unabashed lies. During all of his final years, Bishop Daniel was spiritually and intellectually completely independent, though, I repeat, physically he was noticeably weak.

I think that on the eve of reunification, there was always a cell-attendant with Vladyka who belonged to the opposition. He would bring people to Bishop Daniel who would try to manipulate him to play a decidedly anti-Moscow political card.

I must say that even in the 1990’s, Vladyka and I would often discuss church unity, and he always consistently spoke out in favor of both unity with the Old Believers and unity with the Russian Orthodox Church. An example of this was his unofficial visit to Russia in the early 1990’s, when he visited the renascent Old Rite parish of Mikhailovskaya sloboda in the outskirts of Moscow, where he entered into prayerful communion with the Old Ritualists of the Moscow Patriarchate. Now we can speak openly about this.

On the other hand, he did indeed take a cautious approach to the form that reunification would take, fearing that the reunification would simply become a merger, and that the Russian Church Abroad would completely lose its autonomy. But we know full well that in the end, Vladyka Daniel succinctly outlined his position by severing his ties with the opponents of reunification. In June of 2008, despite his poor health, he participated in the consecration to the episcopacy of his old friend and student, Hegumen John (Berzins), now Bishop of Caracas and South America.

-In conclusion, Father, tell us in your opinion, what should the bright memory of Vladyka Daniel mean for us?

I already mentioned that at the beginning of our discussion, listing the Vladyka’s primary traits. His living prayer, which did not settle into pure habit, was heartfelt in earnestness and honesty, he possessed the desire and ability to understand others. The main thing, I think, was the principle according to which he built his whole life. He always behaved as though the Lord was present right beside you. Any action by a priest, moreover by a bishop, is reflected in social opinion, and this must be taken into account. But even more, we must take into account how every action of ours may be reflected in the Kingdom which we desire. I think that this principle of Bishop Daniel must be the main one for each Christian.

Eternal memory to him!

May Christ save you!

This interview was taken by Mikhail Tiurenkov, Editor-in-Chief of the Expert Analytical Portal of the Sociological Department of the Moscow University, “Pitirim Sorokin Foundation, Senior Director of the journal of conservative thought “Russkoje vremja” [Russian Time], member of the Parish Council of the Moscow Old Rite Church of St Nikola in Studentsy, for “Pravoslavije I mir.”