My Experiences at Holy Trinity Seminary, Jordanville, USA
Archpriest Peter Jackson
My wife and I are Americans and served as Protestant missionaries in Colombia with the Kogi Indian tribe. I was not any kind of clergyman, though, because my work was mainly technical, focusing on translating the Bible into the indigenous Kogi language. I never had any interest in or desire to be a clergyman myself.
On a visit back to the United States 1994, we discovered Orthodoxy, visited several parishes, spoke with a few priests, and decided that when we returned to Colombia, we would start attending an Orthodox parish in Bogota, the Colombian capital. We were disappointed to find that there was no functioning Orthodox parish in the whole country at that time. We contacted the Greek community in Bogota, and when a Greek bishop came through to perform a wedding, he agreed to baptize us. But we were then left on our own with no priest and no parish.
I began sending letters to the United States, asking if there was any priest willing to come start a mission in Colombia. We received no responses to my request, and I gradually realized that no priest was going to come! I never wanted to be a clergyman, but I saw that only way to get an Orthodox priest in Colombia was for me to become one myself, if it was God’s will.
My wife and I were already corresponding with the then Bishop Hilarion (Kapral) of Manhattan, who would later become Metropolitan Hilarion, the primate of the Russian Church Abroad. When I explained our situation in Colombia without a parish or priest, he blessed for me to study at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, New York. So we left our work in Colombia and moved to Jordanville.
The seminary is on the grounds of Holy Trinity Monastery, founded in 1935. The seminary was founded in 1948. Not only had we never been to a monastery before, we had never grown up in an Orthodox parish. We had only visited a few Orthodox parishes in the US, so we were not sure of what to expect. The friends we had made in other Orthodox jurisdictions tried to warn us not to join the Russian Church. They said that the services would be too long, everything would be in Slavonic, not English, and they predicted that it would be such a bad experience for our young sons that they would end up hating Orthodoxy and leave the faith. But the three years we lived in Jordanville were in fact a very positive experience for our boys. They are not only solidly Russian Orthodox men now, but they are also both tonsured readers and very active in their parishes.
The village of Jordanville itself is very small: just a post office, a general store, a small restaurant, and a library, all along one street. We did not live on the grounds of the monastery, but in an apartment right above the post office. This had the advantage that our driveway was always plowed by the postal service in the winter. The snow often starts falling in October and can last till after Pascha. The monks who founded the monastery deliberately chose an isolated location. The neighbors are mainly dairy farmers.
Because we arrived straight from Colombia, we had no furniture, but several people in the Orthodox community generously donated all the furniture we needed.
We arrived several weeks before the semester began, so that gave us time to not only get familiar with the area, but with the Orthodox rhythm of life at the monastery. We attended divine services, began attending Confession, and made many new friends. Our father confessor was a hieromonk, who is now Bishop George of Australia.
I was fitted for a cassock, because all seminarians are treated as monastery novices, whether single or married. Before I could enroll in classes, they had me sit down before a table of hieromonks who interrogated me on what Orthodox books I had read, how much Russian I knew, and whether I knew any Slavonic. They had me recite the Our Father in Slavonic, which was a bit nerve-wracking. I had it memorized on my own, fortunately, but I had never actually heard it spoken, so I mangled the pronunciation pretty badly! However, I apparently passed this hurdle, because they let me enroll in the first-year classes. Two of these hieromonks are now Archbishop Peter of Chicago and Bishop Luke of Syracuse, now abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery.
I met with the dean in his office overlooking the courtyard and the cathedral. He told me words that I will never forget: “This is not your classroom,” he said, indicating the seminary building. “That is your classroom,” pointing out to the cathedral. He was absolutely right. It was in the monastery cathedral that my family and I imbibed the spirit of our Orthodox Faith. All seminarians are required to attend Divine Liturgy at 6:00am. I immediately began standing on kliros, first just listening to the Slavonic texts and the melodies, and then gradually, quietly joining in the chanting. When winter arrived, weekday services were moved to the downstairs to the Chapel of St. Job of Pochaev. I have always loved the intimate and sacred feeling in that chapel. There is nothing more beautiful than walking into a quiet church at the break of dawn, especially on a chilly winter morning, smelling the incense, and having the blessing of singing the services side by side with other chanters. A foretaste of our worship in heaven.
New students not fluent in Russian were of course required to study the language. In the 1990s, most of the instruction was still in Russian. First-year courses also included Foundations of the Orthodox Faith, Church Slavonic, Russian History, and Liturgics and Music. Or as an Australian classmate put it, “It’s Russian, Russian, Russian, and getting settled in.”
Many faithful move to Jordanville to live in the shadow of the monastery and attend divine services. Most are of Russian background, but a good number are English-speaking converts. Archbishop (later Metropolitan) Laurus, the monastery abbot, gave his blessing for monthly English services to be held up in the Dormition Chapel on the grounds of the monastery’s cemetery. I was in the choir for these services, and one day the choir director told me that he was going to have me direct the choir for the next English-language Liturgy. As a recent convert, I was still just getting familiar with the structure of divine services. With the help of classmates, I was able to figure out how to arrange the hymns and make sure that I knew the melodies well enough to lead the choir at the next English service. I made plenty of mistakes. At the end of the Liturgy, the priest came out and asked me what was wrong. I asked his forgiveness and told him that I had never directed any choir before, much less prepared an Orthodox service. “Oh,” he said. “In that case, it was not too bad.”
Every seminarian is assigned obediences. Sometimes I would help bake the prosphora in the ovens down below the refectory kitchen. Large slabs of honeycomb from the monastery’s beehives were used for greasing the baking pans, giving the prosphora loaves a slightly sweet fragrance.
My main obedience was working in the library in the basement of the seminary building. The head librarian was Hieroschemamonk John (Berzins), now Bishop of Caracas and South America. Sometimes Fr. John would invite me back to his cell where he would prepare Greek coffee for the two of us over a portable stove. At first, I was intimidated by him, because he was always so serious during church services, usually with his face covered by his klobuk. But once we began working together, we got along famously. This friendship with the future bishop of South America has proved to be invaluable in my current mission work in Colombia!
My family and I spent our first Great Lent at the monastery. I assumed that the monks would become quiet and somber during Lent, but to my surprise, they became more joyful than usual. As a Protestant, I had never thought of Lent as a joy-filled season, so I learned so much from the brethren. They seemed to walk on air all the way till Pascha.
I was eventually tonsured a reader, and during Great Lent of my second year, Archbishop Laurus announced that I was to be ordained a deacon on Palm Sunday. Before my ordination, Vladyka Laurus called me into his office for an impromptu oral exam. He called in anyone he could find around the offices and print shop and had them ask me any questions they could think of to see what I had learned so far in seminary. “Which tsar freed the serfs?” “What is the structure of an Hours service?” “What became of the Magi after they visited the Christ Child?” Apparently, I passed.
When you are ordained, you serve the complete cycle of daily services for forty days in a row. There is no better method of training a clergyman, and I cannot imagine a better place to do this outside of Russia than at Holy Trinity Monastery. That same day, Fr. Seraphim (Voepel), the future abbot of the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in West Virginia, was ordained to the priesthood, so we joyfully served those forty days together. During Holy Week, he phoned back to his brotherhood, and I heard him say, “Yes, it is challenging to serve as a new priest… but at least I am not a deacon!” After my forty days, Vladyka Laurus smiled, patted my arm like a kind father, and told me to “go home and prepare to be a batiushka”.
In the summers we would take our sons to the St. Herman of Alaska summer camp, where my wife and I helped as counselors. All of us made friends for life at that camp. That summer, Vladyka Laurus told me that he had scheduled my priestly ordination for St. Elijah Day. “Vladyka,” I said, “I am so sorry, but we will be away at camp that week.” Vladyka Laurus asked, “Well, then, when would you like to be ordained?” Transfiguration has always been an important feast for me, so I was delighted that he let me choose that date. It was a joy to finally serve as a priest, but I realized that now I could no longer sing on my beloved kliros! If a woman ever complains to me that she cannot be a priest, I tell her, “No, and neither can I sing on kliros… which you can!”
The Russian Church Abroad has several properties in the Holy Land, including St. Mary Magdalene women’s monastery in the Garden of Gethsemane. The hieromonk who was serving the sisterhood there had to be away, so Bishop Gabriel of Manhattan (now Archbishop of Canada) was looking for a priest who was available to fill in for him. Of course, most priests are already occupied with their own duties, so as I finished my final fortieth Divine Liturgy and walked out to the parking to go home and rest, Vladyka Gabriel approached and asked me whether I would like to go serve in the Holy Land. I told him that I could not refuse, so off I went to Jerusalem. I was surprised to find that I felt so much at home serving in this holy place, but it was because seminary had prepared me so well. After my first Divine Liturgy, the nuns took me to trapeza for breakfast. They asked me something in Russian which I did not understand, and after repeating the question for me several times to no avail, they finally called a sister over to translate it into English for me. The nuns could not help but laugh at the fact that I could serve the whole Liturgy in Slavonic with no trouble, and yet I could not tell them in Russian how I wanted my eggs prepared!
I could tell many stories about my time in the Holy Land, but I will limit myself to one more.
Some of the nuns kindly drove me around to many holy sites. On a feast of St. Sabbas the Sanctified, they drove me to his monastery in the Judean desert. On the way, the driver took a wrong turn in a Palestinian village, and she ended up in a dead end. Our car was soon surrounded by a group of angry young Muslim men carrying large rocks. They acted like they were going to hurl them at us. I knew that even if their intention was not to harm us, but just to scare us, if one of them was to accidentally let go of his rock, the others might take that as a signal to start throwing theirs, which could have been disastrous for us. My instinct was to immediately roll up the window where I was seated, which is silly because a rock would just shatter it. The sisters, however, remained calm, praying with their heads bowed. Suddenly, the young men stepped back and set their rocks down on the ground. Our driver slowly back our car out of the alley, and we continued on our way. “St. Sabbas would never let us be harmed on his feast day!” one of the nuns said. I admired their faith.
Women are not allowed in to St. Sabbas, so I entered by myself. It seemed like a good idea to go on a feast day for the saint, but of course the monks had been up all night at the Vigil service, so most of them were asleep, and the last thing they wanted was to be disturbed by pilgrims. The guestmaster courteously, though a bit reluctantly, received me and showed me around the monastery, including the intact relics of St. Sabbas and the bones of the monks martyred by the Saracens. At the end of the tour, he took me to the refectory where other pilgrims were sipping their coffee and raki. The guestmaster, to be polite, asked me where I was from. “I live by a small monastery in the US,” I said. “Where?” he asked. “Oh, it's very isolated. It’s in upstate New York.” This piqued his curiosity. “Where in upstate New York?” “Oh, it’s a very small village, Jordanville. I’m sure you’ve never heard of it.” The guestmaster’s eyes grew wide. “Jordanville? You are from Jordanville?” The other pilgrims, mostly Greeks, heard the guestmaster. Suddenly, voices from around the room were all shouting, “Jordanville! This priest is from Jordanville!” That was the first time I realized that our dear Holy Trinity Monastery was known beyond the US and even beyond the Russian Church.
Once back in Jordanville, Vladyka Laurus assigned me to serve at Sts. Theodore parish in Buffalo, a city near the Canadian border, a 3 ½ -hour train ride away. While I was still attending seminary, I would travel to Buffalo every weekend to serve Vigil and Liturgy. After a year, our family bid farewell to Jordanville and moved to Buffalo. I served that parish for fifteen years, but we traveled back to visit Holy Trinity Monastery whenever we could. Now that we live in Miami and do missionary work in Colombia, we are even further away geographically, but we still carry Jordanville in our hearts and cherish the invaluable experiences that shaped us as Orthodox Christians.