An Inspired Wanderer from the Other Side of the Globe
The Remarkable Life of an American Protopriest in the Russian Church.
“And they straightway left their nets, and followed him” (Matthew 4:20).
I pass by a strict announcement posted in two languages, Russian and English, on a brass plaque, reminding people that men should not enter the church in shorts or T-shirts bearing silly messages, and that women must wear skirts or dresses. I collect my little blue commemoration book from the candle stand, where the names of my family and friends, both near and far, both living and dead, are inscribed. I scribble a note requesting the number of prosphoras I want today, take a candle, venerate an icon and try to concentrate on the confession I am about to make.
We have two priests here: the Rector, Protopriest Victor Boldewskul, a Russian born in America, and Fr Thomas Reske, also a protopriest, but American, who doesn’t speak Russian.
Like most of the Russian parishioners, I go to confession to Fr Victor, a kind, attentive priest, but also strict and judicious. I don’t actually avoid Fr Thomas, the American, who is elderly, with a thick gray beard, but I let him be. I know little about him, only hear his soft intonations during divine services, usually in Russian, with some effort and a slight accent.
I find out that Fr Victor was suddenly summoned away on parish matters, so there was no one else to hear my confession but Fr Thomas. What could I do, I reluctantly make my way to confess to Fr Thomas, trying desperately to remember how to say “pillar of salt” in English.
True, after looking attentively at Batushka Thomas (for the first time in all these years), I realize that there is nothing to worry about, everything is the same: I must confess that I condemn others, I sin through gluttony, and wicked despair. After making confession, I open my mouth to utter my name (how was Fr Thomas to know it?-he doesn’t even know us Russian parishioners), but suddenly hear him speak the prayer of absolution, and effortlessly sighing my name “the child of God Elena”-and my eyes begin to well up in tears. Fr Thomas then spent a good long time talking with me, asking about my job, my career, he utters some words of wisdom, and I stand ashamed at my cold, prejudiced attitude towards him.
Fr Thomas has the kindest face you’ll ever see. Though half-covered with a bushy gray beard and cut with wrinkles like little rays of light, kindness shines in his eyes, and in his endearing, childlike smile, even his beard seems to shine. If you’d like to imagine the face of a typical good Russian priest from before the Revolution, you couldn’t imagine one more similar than Fr Thomas’ visage. But of course, there was nothing pre-Revolutionary or Russian in Thomas Reske by birth, being an American citizen. But still…
Born and reared in Milwaukee, WI, the future Fr Thomas hailed from a staunch Lutheran family. By the age of 13, he came to his own conclusions about God and stopped going to church. At 18, a talented painter, he entered art school, but by the age of 20, he decided that life was just so “wonderful” that it was better to end it rather than seek the meaning of life.
Having traveled a short but thorny path in seeking the meaning of life, from New-Age mysticism to Zen Buddhism, one fine day Thomas Reske quit college and found himself on the top of a mountain with a book on St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great in hand. This was no miraculous ascent, he simply bought the book and a bottle of water and climbed up Holy Hill, in Wisconsin, to read in solitude. Opening to the writings of St John Chrysostom, he read that “the Church is a place of angels, of archangels, the Kingdom of God, it is Heaven itself,” and Thomas immediately descended the hill to find the nearest church. The church he found turned out to be Roman Catholic.
The former staunchly-Lutheran Thomas Reske had his suspicions about Catholics, but decided that there was no point in debating the point, if Catholicism was all that was left in this sinful world of the Church about which St John wrote, then he was destined to find a home here.
Thomas was welcomed by a monk, Brother Gilbert, who explained that they were not just in a church, but in a Catholic monastery, a Carmelite community dedicated to the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, in the town of Holy Hill, WI. Thomas joined as a volunteer laborer, specifically a security guard.
Once, some three months later, a few pilgrim buses with Chicago plates arrived at the monastery, and a group of Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Uniates emerged.
The pilgrims celebrated the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom in the church. Thomas stood motionless through the service, stunned, “unsure if in heaven or on earth, for there was no earthly beauty like this, and we don’t know how to describe it. We only know that there, God is there with mankind, and their divine services are finer than in any other country” [the report of the emissaries St Vladimir, Baptizer of Rus’, upon returning from Byzantium-transl.]. After walking the pilgrims out, Thomas rushed to ask the Carmelite monks what was this splendid Liturgy, how to find out more about this Greek Rite, with the aim of becoming a Catholic of the Greek Rite.
Strictly speaking, approaching a Roman Catholic with such a question is like asking an Orthodox Christian to tell you about the Seventh-Day Adventists because you really like their services. The monks, needless to say, dismissed Thomas’ inquiry out of hand.
But being a man of action, impetuous and uncompromising, Thomas had no compunction about leaving the monastery that very day to visit the Catholic Marquette University, deciding that he would certainly find books on the Greek Rite in such a “palace of Christian knowledge.” Alas, the library had no such books, but a well-wisher directed Thomas to a book store on the campus grounds.
The little book shop was located in a semi-basement, students tended to shun it, and the sales clerk, a half-blind, hunched woman of about 90, slumbering sweetly in her peaceful solitude, recoiled from the loud footsteps of Thomas descending the staircase and hid behind the counter. Slowly realizing that he was not there to rob her, but just a young student eager to learn, the old woman remembered that there was a book on Greek-Catholic Christians somewhere in the shop.
After some 40 minutes of searching, the old woman brought out a volume. The book’s title, The Orthodox Church,by Bishop Kallistos Ware, disappointed Thomas. Clearly, the old woman was mistaken; instead of a book on Greek-Catholic Christians, she brought him something completely different. Out of respect for her age and sympathy for her aching knees, Thomas decided to buy the book anyway.
Buying himself a sandwich, Thomas sat down on a bench and began, very reluctantly, to read his new book. He read about Holy Trinity Monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia located in Jordanville, NY, and that the church had frescoes in the ancient Russian style.
“What if I study icon-painting at this monastery?” thought Thomas.
The unexpected notion of becoming an icon-painter and serving the Lord through his God-given talent, he immediately set off to hitchhike. Two days and five hitches later, Thomas Reske arrived in Holy Trinity Monastery.
It was three in the morning, so Thomas lay down on the grass to sleep. He was awoken by someone’s shoe. Some unfamiliar and nervous women surrounded Thomas.
“Thank God, we thought you were dead,” someone said with a thick Russian accent. “Wake up, today is the Apodosis [Leavetaking] of Pascha.”
Smoothing down his hair, Thomas looked around and saw a gray-bearded priest with a remarkably kind face. The father turned out to be Archimandrite Vladimir (Sukhobok), an elder renowned for his kindness and love, sometimes called the “Beautiful Sun of Jordanville.” To Thomas, he seemed like a holy man.
“Come in, come in, my dear lad,” said Fr Vladimir, inviting Thomas into Holy Trinity Cathedral.
The cathedral amazed Thomas with its frescoes and especially the special visages of the four Evangelists in the spandrels. This was the work of Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov), renowned throughout the Russian diaspora. Fr Cyprian, introduced to Thomas, immediately branded him a “dumb American,” led him to an icon of St Seraphim and in broken Russian-English explained that St Seraphim “was a great saint to whom you must pray, and he will help you.”
During Liturgy at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Thomas sensed for the first time how an entire church can pray in earnest together. The sudden decision right then and there to become an Orthodox Christian, during Liturgy, was final and not subject to reconsideration.
The difficulty would lie in communicating properly with anyone.
When he found out that Holy Protection Cathedral in Illinois had an English-speaking rector, Thomas immediately made his way there. Fr Mark Shinn, the Rector, whose father was American and whose mother was French, actually spoke several languages. Meeting with Thomas and learning that he wanted to convert to Orthodoxy and work at the cathedral, Fr Mark took him to see Archbishop Seraphim (Ivanov) of Chicago and Detroit for his blessing.
Vladyka Seraphim lived in a settlement he himself established two hours from Chicago, called Vladimirovo. The émigré Russian Prince Belosselsky-Belozersky donated the land to the Church in 1960. The streets of the town were named, by Vladyka Seraphim’s blessing, after St Seraphim of Sarov, Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and two great Russians who made contributions to America’s history: Igor Sikorsky and Ivan Turchaninov [Civil-War Brigadier General John Basil Turchin-transl.].
Vladyka Seraphim received Thomas like a son. He kissed his forehead and gave his blessing for him to remain as the cathedral’s superintendent. A month later, in 1974, Thomas converted to Orthodox Christianity and started to get used to the strange-sounding Russian version of the name Thomas-“Fomá.”
Thomas was given a room at the cathedral residence and given a salary of $50. The parishioners, who were primarily Cossacks, looked with suspicion upon the young American neophyte. The cathedral’s Treasurer, Mr Budsky, disbursed Thomas’ pay once a month: casting a leery glance at the young man from under his bushy eyebrows, Mr Budsky reluctantly took the money out of the candle-sale box, carefully selecting the 50 most worn-out and dirty one-dollar bills and handed them to Thomas.
The young superintendent didn’t think much of it, as he had a strong intention to be tonsured a monk. Vladyka Seraphim gave his blessing for Thomas to spend some time with Fr Seraphim (Rose) and Fr German (Podmoshchensky) at St Herman Skete in Northern California. Thomas served as a volunteer under these eminent ascetics for three weeks. At the end, Fr German released Thomas with a sealed letter for Vladyka Seraphim.
Thomas rushed to see Vladyka Seraphim, envelope in hand, expecting that his future was decided. Alas, Fr German had written to the hierarch that Thomas Reske does not have the calling to be a monk.
The wise Vladyka Seraphim did not let the young man’s spirits fall, and advised him to make the immediate decision about what he should do with his life considering the talent the Lord gave him.
“I’d like to study icon-painting,” blurted Thomas.
“Outstanding,” responded Vladyka Seraphim in support.
Vladyka had recently suffered a stroke, he was almost completely paralyzed, it was time for him to retire, and it occurred to him to try to get Hegumen Alypy (Gamanovich), a renowned icon-painter and student of Fr Cyprian, consecrated to the episcopacy and appointed Ruling Bishop of the Chicago Diocese. An added benefit would be that he could teach Thomas the art of icon painting.
In the autumn of 1974, Hegumen Alypy arrived in Chicago and was consecrated Bishop of Cleveland, Vicar of the Diocese of Chicago and Detroit. For Thomas, icon-painting lessons began. To say that Vladyka Alypy was strict was an understatement. The cathedral’s subdeacons feared him like fire itself, and trembled when serving under him. Thomas’ icon-painting classes were no less traumatic.
After Thomas completed his first icon, Vladyka Alypy said two words: “Very ugly.” But Thomas was unperturbed. Vladyka had an electric saw, and Thomas began to learn woodworking under the bishop. Although Thomas’ next several works evoked the same words from Bishop Alypy-“very ugly”-woodworking proved a special calling for Thomas. Slowly but surely, Vladyka Alypy “smoothed” the young man like a plane smooths a plank of lumber.
After a while, Vladyka moved to Cleveland to paint the frescoes for St Sergius Church and took Thomas with him. When the time came to build the iconostasis, Vladyka announced to the parish that Thomas would manage it. By this time, Thomas had become a subdeacon and had established a career. But even now, Vladyka Alypy did not exactly shower his student with praise.
When Thomas carved out a vestry for Fr Mark in the Chicago cathedral, Vladyka Alypy asked, “Did you really do this?” When Thomas responded in the affirmative, scared half to death, Vladyka stood silent for a few moments, then said “Not bad,” which inspired inexpressible joy in his student.
“And yet my greatest accomplishment over the duration of my studies under Vladyka Alypy was something else; that as a subdeacon I was able to several times lace up his vestment cuffs without him redoing them,” smiled Fr Thomas into his gray beard, “Anyone who’s ever served under Vladyka Alypy would know what I’m talking about.”
Meanwhile, the elder Vladyka Seraphim did not abandon the superintendent-woodworker. “You don’t have the calling for monasticism, so better find yourself a wife,” he said with a blessing.
On the wall opposite Thomas’ room at the cathedral residence was a telephone, which on rare occasion rang. Thomas was afraid to answer it lest someone start speaking to him in Russian, while living right next door to him was the kindest of men, Protodeacon Ioann Logvinenko, who never answered the phone lest someone start speaking to him in English. So they tended to let the phone ring and ring, each in his own room, reasoning that whoever was calling would just do better to come to the cathedral for whatever they needed.
One fine day, the phone rang relentlessly; it was obviously someone very persistent. Waiting for three minutes and against his better judgment, Thomas picked up the receiver, expecting to hear someone’s irate Russian speech.
“Pease tell me, can I visit the cathedral and talk to someone about converting to Orthodoxy?” asked a pleasant-sounding woman’s voice--in English.
It turned out to be a young, thoughtful American girl with Ukrainian roots, Irene Belobran, who soon converted to Orthodoxy with the name Irina.
She soon thereafter changed her surname to Reske.
The previously-suspicious cathedral parishioners also changed their attitude towards Thomas. With tears in his eyes, Fr Thomas remembers how the Cossack parishioners approached him on Pascha to exchange the traditional three kisses, with kulichi and gifts for him.
A few years later, Thomas Reske carved an iconostasis for the Church of St John the Russian in Ipswich, MA, and soon, with Vladyka Alypy’s blessing, Thomas, his wife and two little children, Magdalena and Peter, moved to Massachusetts for good. As a farewell gift, Vladyka Alypy painted an icon of the type “Mother of God of the Enclosed Garden” for Thomas, and performed a moleben in front of it before Thomas’ departure.
A few years later, Thomas Reske and his family became parishioners of Epiphany Russian Orthodox Church in Boston, MA.
Soon, on the feats of the Elevation of the Cross, Vladyka Hilarion (Kapral) ordained Thomas to the diaconate. Most excited of all were his children, Magda and Peter: “Papa’s now going to walk around in a dress!”
“I stumbled over my words, no musical ear, not much of a voice,” remembers Fr Thomas, I thought: “It’s good that I am so ungifted--they’ll never make me a protodeacon or a priest!”
In 2009, Vladyka Hilarion, by now Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, ordained Fr Thomas to the priesthood. A few years after that, Fr Thomas, by now a protopriest, performed the marriage of his son, Peter, to Cynthia, and then married Magda to John, and finally baptized his first grandchild Leo Thomas…
I am sitting in Protopriest Thomas’ and Matushka Irina’s hospitable kitchen, drinking tea with a magnificent coulebiac [meat pie], baked by Fr Thomas himself.
“You could write a cookbook, Father.”
“Yes, we can call it Gluttony with Fr Thomas. Really?”
Then he adds in a serious tone:
“You know, the first time that we experience truth and love is when we are born, and receive it from our mother’s bosom. Later in our lives, we experience sickness, betrayal, loss, and we desperately seek out joy and love. The greatest of all love, truth and wisdom in our life is in Christ. For anyone living on earth. Unconditional love. But how much love do you offer, and what kind? All our traditions, our customs, absolutely serve to teach us to experience love and to learn. We learned the main commandments: to love God and one another.”
Last year, on October 19, Fr Thomas’ namesday, after the thunderous singing of Many Years, intoned by our beloved Protodeacon Alexander Jarostchuk, Fr Thomas gazed upon his flock, and uttered in a halting voice, in Russian, “I love you all very much…”
And tears welled up in everyone’s eyes…