“THE RELICS OF VLADYKA JOHN ARE THE MOST-VISITED BY PILGRIMS IN THE USA”
A conversation with Protopriest Peter Perekrestov
On October 12, the Church celebrates the Translation of the Relics of St John (Maximovich), Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco the Miracle-worker. One participant of that mystery, which took place 25 years ago, in 1993, was Protopriest Peter Perekrestov, Senior Priest of the Cathedral of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow” in San Francisco and the author of many publications on St John. We discuss the history of the church, Orthodox life in America and miracles that took place at the relics of St John.
– Fr Peter, please tell us about the church where you serve and how it’s connected to St John of Shanghai.
– Our parish in San Francisco was founded in 1927 on the basis of the very first Orthodox parish in North America—Holy Trinity Parish, which had existed since 1858. A group of parishioners of that first community wished to remain loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and founded a community dedicated to the “Joy of All Who Sorrow” Icon of the Mother of God.
– What alternatives did they have?
– They could have remained in the so-called North-American Metropoliate (the future Orthodox Church in America), which claimed independence; Metropolitan Platon (Rozhdestvensky) who headed it decided to leave the jurisdiction of the Russian Church Abroad. Metropolitan Evlogy did the same in Europe, breaking ties with ROCOR.
The new community at first rented space for a church, but then in the 1940’s, bought an Anglican church, the Cathedral of Archdeacon Stephen. Worth noting is that it was built out of California redwood, which was sent to England for preparation and carving.
– Why do they sell churches in the West?
– Because new churches are built, or because the existing churches are in poor condition, or cannot be maintained by the community. In the West, very often, new Orthodox communities buy church spaces from Catholics or Protestants. Sometimes churches are purchased by laypersons, who preserve the facades but change the usage to apartments, concert halls, museums and even restaurants or night clubs. Such buildings are often sold cheaply, at least in one case in Montreal, where I was born.
– How did the Far-Eastern flock of Vladyka John end up in San Francisco?
– In the 1950’s, there was a large wave of immigrants in the USA from the Far East: from Harbin and China. China had become communist, and many fled. Archbishop John (Maximovich) was the “Moses” who led his people out of slavery to freedom. At first his flock spend two years in the Philippines, while Vladyka made frequent visits to Washington DC, praying and meeting with government representatives, interceding for his flock to immigrate. After two years, America gave these refugees from China legal status, for they had not had passports until then, having neither Soviet nor Chinese status. Most of them then ended up in San Francisco.
Soon, the parishioners decided to build a new church in the Russian style, the present one. So we had a “new cathedral” dedicated to the Icon of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow.”
– There were complications with the building’s construction…
– Construction began at the end of 1959-early 1960. As we know, the devil does not like the construction of a new church, when a new Divine altar is set up where Divine Liturgy is to be celebrated; many people fell into temptation and divided, and construction soon halted. A lawsuit was filed. The church stood unfinished for over a year, and the Synod of Bishops decided to send Vladyka John of Western Europe to San Francisco to pacify the flock and complete the construction of this great cathedral. The Far-Eastern flock trusted St John.
Vladyka John arrived in San Francisco at the end of 1962. As the president of the parish council of the new cathedral, he was also a defendant—thank God, the court found in favor of the council and gave permission to continue construction.
The exterior of the church was completed in 1965, and on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, March 14, 1966, Vladyka John celebrated the first Divine Liturgy. Since then, Liturgy is celebrated there on a daily basis. We are the only parish church in North America, including all the jurisdictions, where the daily cycle of services is performed: vespers, matins and Liturgy.
– Now the relics of St John lie there. Can you remind us how they were uncovered?
– When Vladyka John died, he was buried in a crypt under the cathedral. It is a miracle that the city council granted us permission within the city limits. St John lay there for 28 years. Many people who knew him and the power of his prayer would visit the crypt; a mass movement started to have him canonized. The Synod of Bishops decided to glorify him in 1993. In connection with this, it was decided that on the evening of October 11-12, 1993, exactly 25 years ago, the relics would be uncovered with witnesses present, and the relics were found to be uncorrupt. We washed and re-vested the body on the eve of the canonization in 1994, and it was moved from the crypt to the cathedral.
People from throughout the world travel to the relics of St John when they suffer sorrow and hopelessness.
– Who are these people who visit the relics of St John?
– The cathedral in San Francisco and the relics of St John are the most-visited shrine in America for Orthodox Christians. When people lose hope, yearn for children, suffer sorrows, when they cannot start a family, when they suffer serious ailments or cancer, when hope dwindles, then people from all over the word come to the greatest saint of the 20th century, St John.
– How has the parish changed since you’ve been there?
– Our parish now is not numerous, though at one time it was the biggest in the Russian diaspora: there was a compact Russian colony in San Francisco at one time, though there were more Russians in New York. By compact I mean that people lived close to each other. Some 90% of the parishioners lived within a 15-20-minute walk or drive from church. Our cathedral’s high school was open 5 days a week!
– You mean Sunday school?
– No, we generally don’t have Sunday schools but Saturday schools. In Paris, for instance, they had Thursday-evening classes, in North America, classes are held on Saturdays. But in San Francisco, besides Saturday, children would attend classes from 4-6 o’clock, after regular school, twice a week: older children on Mondays and Wednesday, younger kids on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Since everyone lived fairly close, the school’s director, Archimandrite Afanasy (Stukov) even bought a school bus and personally picked up and dropped off the children and even fed them on his own dime.
Now our services are attended by the old emigres from China, their descendants, and people who have left the republics of the CIS over the last 20-30 years, and also a good number of American converts, Serbs and Romanians. But many of our previous parishioners have moved elsewhere: San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in America today. We also have significantly fewer regular church-goers, but many visitors and pilgrims, including those from afar, especially in the summer months.
– Please tell us about some of the miracles associated with the relics of St John.
– Miracles from the relics of St John are very frequent. We are accustomed to them—they are not outliers. A few years ago a woman came, not specifically to St John, but to talk to a priest, and she happened upon me. We talked. It turned out that she was expecting a child, but the doctors said that he would be born with Down Syndrome. The husband demanded that she abort the child. The woman was not very religious, but I spoke to her, have still been under the influence of a film I had seen produced by St Elizabeth Monastery in Minsk on working with such children. One nun very moving said that when God speaks to us, everything He says is first filtered through our minds, when we consider what we prefer and want, then it goes into our hearts, passing through this human filter which distorts what God tells us. I suggested serving a moleben before St John, and we prayed and bid farewell. I hoped that she would call me later and tell me what she decided, but I heard nothing.
About a year and a half passed, and this same woman (whom I didn’t recognize) came to the cathedral, a fair-haired little girl with her. The woman looked at me, smiling, and asked if I remembered her. I said, “No, I don’t.” She said “I came to you because my husband wanted an abortion, the doctors said that our child has Down Syndrome. But here she is, completely healthy.” What joy! What a miracle!
It is especially joyful when childless couples suddenly have a child. I remember a young couple which came to me and asked for a moleben. I usually ask people I meet where they are from, and they said from Kazan. I said: “Are you in America on vacation or on business?” “No, we came to visit Vladyka John.” “For long,” I asked. “Two days.” “You came all the way from Kazan to San Francisco for two days? “Yes, we had no children, and prayed to St John, promising that if a child is born, we would thank him.” And so, they went on, a year had passed since their child was born—the mother was over 40! They kept their promise: the flew to San Francisco to personally thank Vladyka John.
People usually come thinking that a miracle is if the Lord God, by the prayers of St John, respond to our pleas just as we expect. We want a child—a child is born, we want to be healthy and we’re cured, etc. But in fact the Lord answers all our prayers but not necessarily the way we hope. One of the greatest gifts that people get from St John’s relics is spiritual strength and hope. Maybe they aren’t cured, they may die of cancer, for instance, but they will depart from this world with a different, transformed spiritual state, which allows them to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I remember a women telling me before the relics of St John how she lost her only child, adding: “You know, batyushka, I lost my son, but I gained God.” After the death of her son she began to attend church, make confession and partake of the Holy Gifts, and an unknown world, the world of the Church and the Kingdom of Heaven, was revealed to her. Of course, the loss of an only son is a terrible blow and sorrow, but she received the greatest of gifts—the opportunity to obtain faith and hope.
– Fr Peter, tell us about yourself and your family. Îòåö Ïåòð, ðàññêàæèòå íåìíîãî è î ñåáå è ñâîåé ñåìüå.
– My father was born in Yugoslavia, where he studied in the Cadet Corps. My mother was from the USSR. Her family lived on occupied territory, and the Germans took her when she was 13, along with her mother and aunt, to Austria to work in German factories. On my father’s side, my grandfather was a White officer, on my mother’s, a soldier in the Red Army who was lost without a trace.
After World War II, my mother and grandmother moved to Canada. When Tito broke with Stalin, he decided to expel all the Russians from Yugoslavia. Some were pro-Soviet, who returned to the USSR, those of the White emigration were sent to Western Europe. My father, who first found himself in Italy, then Canada, met my mother there. They got married, and my brother and I were born in Montreal—he was born in 1954, I in 1956. My brother, Hegumen Nicholas, serves in Calgary, but may soon move to Montreal to help our aging parents.
– What moved you to serve the Church?
– We grew up like typical Russian emigre children: studied in Saturday school, on Sundays we served as altar boys. Later I visited Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, which I fell in love with, and I burned with the desire to spend my life at the monastery and its seminary. I had no conscious decision to become a priest, but, after living in the monastery for four years and finishing seminary, the conviction arose that I am obliged to serve the Church. I also studied for a Master’s degree in Russian language and literature.
After seminary, I married, serving as a deacon in Toronto and working as a draftsman. Many of our priests have civilian jobs. In 1979, a priest of the cathedral in San Francisco died, and his position was offered to me. So in 1980, I became a priest, and my matushka and I moved to California.
– Did anything especially influence your decision to move to San Francisco?
– Our bishops don’t just transfer clergymen on a whim. As a rule, they offer a parish vacancy, with these needs, asking how the matushka would respond, your children, if they are still in school. That is, our archpastors have a familial attitude towards appointments to parishes. In the Russian diaspora they look upon the Church as the family of Christ, more than like an army. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is small, the bishops are accessible, one can always call them, visit and talk, and the bishops usually know their flock, and the flock their bishop.
I first served in San Francisco under Archbishop Anthony (Medvedev)--he didn’t own a car or have a cell-attendant or cook, or a personal secretary. I could easily visit him at two in the morning if his light was on, and he would pour me tea and we would talk.
After Pascha, 1980, we came to San Francisco to scout it out. I had already visited once with my spiritual father, Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov), and was impressed by the large, busy cathedral.
The evening before we were set to leave, Vladyka Anthony invited us over to talk about our move. The doors to his residence were always open—anyone could visit him at any time. He lived alone, didn’t have a car or a secretary, or even a cell-attendant—he was a schema-monk, a real ascetic.
Vladyka sat us down, started cooking and serving, and when my Matushka offered to help, he replied: “No, you sit, I’ll do it…”
Then he said “Let us pray,” after which we ate. I later asked my wife about it, and she said “I’ve never seen a bishop talk to God like that. He prayed as though he stood in God’s presence.
Three months went by and Vladyka Laurus ordained me at Holy Trinity Monastery, and in August 1980 we moved to San Francisco. Since then, the Lord, St John, my brethren clergymen and parishioners have all endured me—for 39 years now!
Our children were home-schooled. Our daughter is now a matushka, the wife of a priest in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, while our son works at Holy Trinity Monastery. He is the seminary librarian and the executive director of the Foundation of Russian History at Holy Trinity Monastery, which has an archive and museum—he loves his work.
(To be continued.)