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Metropolitan Hilarion: "The Diocese Grew Before My Eyes"

For 17 years, Fr. Hilarion labored at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY. For many of the monks, seminarians, and pilgrims there, he was a spiritual confessor, father, and kindly instructor. The year 1984 brought great change to his life, starting with a move to New York City.

Fast-forwarding a quarter century, now-Archbishop Hilarion is returning to New York once more, now from Australia, and will be elected the sixth First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad.

The events planned for 2020 to mark the centennial of the founding of the Russian Church Abroad had to be cancelled, owing to the Coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the planet. Thus, in anticipation of its end and the resumption of active Church life, we rewind, looking to history. And our First Hierarch recalls his service in his first episcopal see: Manhattan.

‒ My election to the episcopacy was, for me, a big surprise. I had studied for five years at seminary, and then labored for 12 years as a monk. And now ‒ the Synod of Bishops resolved to send me to New York City to help the Secretary of the Synod.

When I arrived in New York, the city, especially Harlem, was in a terrible state: many of the roads were crumbling, there had been riots recently, and buildings had been burned. There were drug addicts in Times Square, gang members and pickpockets in the subway, and graffiti all over the subway cars. This was the normal scene in 1980s New York, with the neighborhoods outside of the city center totally dilapidated.

In any city, much depends on the leadership of the mayor, and New York City is no exception. Thus, the primary policy goal of Mayor Ed Koch, who was elected to office three times, was to enforce public order. He oversaw the repair of roads, restoration of order on the streets, and falling crime rates. All of this helped New York become the city the whole world knows today.

My hierarchal consecration was scheduled for the patronal feast of the Cathedral of the Sign, that of the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God, December 10, 1984. The Synod of Bishops usually convenes during these days. Before me, three First Hierarchs of the Russian Church Abroad had been enthroned in the Synodal Cathedral: Metropolitans Philaret (Voznesensky), Vitaly (Ustinov), and Laurus (Škurla).

The festal services began the evening before. Prior to the All-Night Vigil, the Rite of Nomination was performed. The moleben was sung solely by the hierarchs. Taking part in the nomination were Metropolitan Philaret, Archbishops Seraphim (Ivanov) of Chicago, Detroit & Mid-America, Anthony (Sinkevich) of Los Angeles & Southern California, and Laurus of Syracuse & Holy Trinity, and Bishop Gregory (Grabbe) of Washington & Florida. On Monday, December 10, Archbishop Vitaly (Ustinov) of Montreal & Canada, Archbishop Paul (Pavlov) of Sydney, Australia & New Zealand, Bishop Mark (Arndt) of Berlin & Germany, and Alypy (Gamanovich) of Cleveland also arrived for Liturgy.

Two choirs sang the divine service in turns: the Synodal choir, under the direction of A.B. Ledkovsky, and the seminary choir, which had arrived in full from Jordanville. My father and sister came from Canada.

It was hard for me to leave life at the monastery. I also understood how difficult it would be for me to adjust to my new obedience. During my years at the monastery, I had only been to New York two or three times, having visited with Archbishop Averky.

They gave me a room on the fourth floor, opposite the elevator. Some time later, a space opened up on the third floor, which had been occupied by the bookstore. With time, they also gave me an office.

‒ Vladyka, how did your work with the Synodal employees start out?

‒ When everyone had departed, I began to get acquainted with the work that lay ahead. Bishop Gregory (Grabbe) and his daughter and secretary Anastasia caught me up.

I worked with Metropolitan Philaret for less than a year, and we rarely crossed paths. Vladyka Philaret with a spiritual hierarch, a man of prayer, and a good man. He loved to invite the youth [to Synod], and would hold talks with young people on spiritual topics. He loved them for their interest toward Church life. Many remember to this day how Vladyka Philaret affected their lives going forward.

We served together relatively rarely. On weekday mornings, His Eminence would often go to the service and sit in the bishop’s seat. Occasionally, when there were no altar servers, he would take the candle out for the Little Entrance himself.

In November 21, 1985, the feast day of the Holy Archangel Michael, Vladyka Philaret was planning to attend the patronal feast of the church in Paterson, where Archpriest John Legky served. But early that morning, his assistant, Protodeacon Nikita Chakirov, knocked on my door and told me that His Eminence had reposed.

‒ What other clergy served at the Synodal Cathedral of the Sign in those years?

‒ The senior cleric was Archimandrite Gelasy (Mayboroda), born in the village of Nizy in the Kharkov province. By character he was a quiet man, who spent much time in prayer. Orphaned at an early age, he entered the Kiev Caves Lavra. After the war, he emigrated to Germany, where he served under Metropolitan Anastassy. In 1950, he came to the U.S., and served for virtually the remainder of his life at Synod. Fr. Gelasy reposed in 1994 at age 90, and is buried in Jordanville.

On Sundays and feast days his spiritual son ‒ the future Archdeacon Fr. Eugene Burbelo ‒ would serve at the hierarchal services, later to be joined by Deacon Nicolas Mokhoff.

With whom did you work directly in the administration?

‒ For the first few years, with Bishop Gregory and Vladyka Laurus, the secretary of the Synod. Vladyka Gregory (Count George Grabbe) had for many years been the chancellor of the Synod, a specialist in canon law, very knowledgeable in the history of ROCOR. Before coming to America, he worked in the chancery under Metropolitans Anthony in Belgrade and Anastassy in Munich.

I was mostly responsible for English-language paperwork. I was assisted by the then-young translator Reader Isaac Lambertsen, as well as by Xenia Endres in my secretarial work. She was also among those working desk duty in the Synodal Headquarters. I would dictate letters to her, and she would check and type them up. Later, Xenia was married, graduated college, and is now a professor of English Literature, and a parishioner in one of our parishes on Long Island.

An American of Norwegian descent, Reader Isaac Lambertsen was a talented translator and hymnographer. He graduated Holy Trinity Seminary, and then together with now-Bishop Luke (Murianka) and me studied at Syracuse University.

Isaac translated the most varied documents, among which were documents relating to the Mayfield case ‒ and court case in the 1980s, when a parish left the jurisdiction of the American Metropolia for the Russian Church Abroad. A large number of historical documents needed to be translated, and this helped us to win the case.

During his years working in Synod, Isaac translated the services, including translating the 12 volumes of the Menaion into English. As a hymnographer, he composed around 75 services and akathists. Only toward the end of his life did Isaac receive monastic tonsure with the name Joseph, in honor of Venerable Joseph the Hymnographer.

‒ What was life like in general at the Synodal Headquarters in those years?

‒ It was mostly people from the old émigré community working here. Metropolitan Philaret’s loyal assistant was Protodeacon Nikita Chakirov. His Eminence had been of great help to him back when they were living in China, and from that point on Fr. Nikita became like a son to Vladyka, and Fr. Nikita served the Metropolitan faithfully for 21 years, traveling with him from Australia to New York.

Fr. Nikita was the founder, organizer, and primary force behind the Russian Youth Committee. He founded a publishing house at the Synod, which published beautiful church calendars, spiritual books, and brochures. He also organized a youth pilgrimages to the holy places of Europe and to the Holy Land. These were once-in-a-lifetime trips, during which the youth would stop and visit the relics of St. Nicholas in Bari and St. Spyridon of Tremithus in Greece on their way to the Holy Land. Later, many of these pilgrims would become the young clergymen, choir directors, and matushkas of the Russian Church Abroad.

Fr. Nikita worked to deliver liturgical vessels and vestments to the diocese. He was a great help to those in need and to the sick, often without any request on their part, and sometimes even in secret. Fr. Nikita helped me to buy a car ‒ a large, dark blue Oldsmobile. My cell attendant and I would drive in that car (I was afraid to drive in New York by myself for almost a year).

When Vladyka Philaret reposed, Fr. Nikita served for a while in Synod; later, having fallen ill, he left for Australia, where he would repose, having survived Metropolitan Philaret by less than two years. In 2000, Fr. Nikita was reinterred in the cemetery near Dormition Church at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville.

A regular parishioner at the Cathedral of the Sign was Princess Vera Constantinovna Romanov, goddaughter of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. She came to New York in 1951, and lived in the area near Madison Avenue and 93rd Street.

It was impossible not to spot her tall, slender figure in church. Parishioners noticed her kindness and sense of humor and loved her. As she grew older, she would fall into ill health more and more often, and spent her last years at Tolstoy Farm, where she reposed at the age of 94.

I remember the women on desk duty in those years. Among them were Maria Podushkin and Irina Golovin; the latter would also sing on the kliros in the mornings. Maria’s daughter was an actress in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Nina Krotenko also worked for us; in the past, she had been an employee at the UN. All of these ladies stood out in that they dressed very elegantly.

Not far from Synod lived Metropolitan Anastassy’s driver, Michael Scherbinin. New immigrants, especially young people, often found a home with him during their first years in New York.

Every day at Synod, we had breakfast after Liturgy and lunch at 12 o’clock noon. For many years, the Synod would hire a cook ‒ these were usually Russian women.

‒ How often would you visit the parishes?

‒ Metropolitan Philaret’s successor, Vladyka Vitaly, would often travel to Canada, and I, as his vicar, would visit all of the parishes of the Eastern American Diocese. The parishes closer to the center at New York City were visited more often, but I had to make sure to visit those further away. For those trips, I needed a driver and cell attendant. Paul Ivanov had just finished seminary, and he gladly took me up on my proposal. For five years, the two of traveled practically all of America; we often traveled by car to Florida, Louisiana, west to Texas. We would visit parishes that until that point had never had a hierarchal visit.

In those years, there were about 25 parishes in the Eastern American Diocese. New parishes gradually opened; many Americans converted to Orthodoxy and created their own missions. The diocese grew before my eyes. It was nice to get to know the clergy and parishioners. At that time, there were many elderly priests, who had come to the U.S. from Europe. I knew many from the monastery; some had graduated from Holy Trinity Seminary.

When Paul met his future matushka, Reader George Chemodakov became my new assistant. Today, he is Archbishop Gabriel of Montreal & Canada. We worked together for six years. We traveled together to the youth conference in Australia, where George was originally from.

‒ What specific events do you recall from your time in Manhattan?

‒ Well before the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’, Fr. Nikita Chakirov was worried that Metropolitan Philaret would not live to see the jubilee, and so, three years before the event, a large concert of Russian orchestral music was organized in a hotel in the city center, which was very well attended.

It was in my capacity as Bishop of Manhattan that I first visited Russia in 1990. Over two months of pilgrimage, I visited Valaam and St. Petersburg, Kiev and the Pochaev Lavra, where I met the deputy rector, Archimandrite Onufry, now Primate of the Ukraine Orthodox Church. That was also when I met my relatives in Ukraine for the first time. I always had a desire to get to know more about our family’s roots, about my cousins, and with time I was able to get to know my relatives not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia.

‒ Vladyka, whom do you remember from among the laity, including those whom you helped when they first arrived to New York, a city foreign to them?

‒ When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian immigrants would come to the Synod and ask where they would be baptized… and where they could spend the night. For the most part, these were young people, who were able to leave that country and planned to start a new life in America. Most of them did not know English, and asked for help filling out their paperwork. I helped them with translations, and I had a pile of folders with copies of their documents. Some of them stayed in America, having made a life here, while others returned.

For a time, Abbot Patrick (Kenel) ‒ an American of Irish descent who served in St. Mark Chapel on 117th Street ‒ offered housing to some of the men.

I remember how our now-Archpriest George Zelenin brought his friend to be baptized. At that time in New York, a group was on tour performing the rock opera "Juno and Avos," in which he was a dancer. The opera’s author ‒ composer Alexey Rybnikov ‒ visited Synod, and I also attended the show.

George returned with the group to Russia, but that autumn returned again to enroll in Holy Trinity Seminary. Later, he met his future Matushka Inna, who was a ballerina and danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

I cannot fail to mention the renowned composer and director Mstislav Rostropovich. I remember when he came to Jordanville. He liked it all so much that he decided to buy a home nearby.

We went on foot from the monastery, and he liked one of the properties that was for sale. He bought the land that very day, on which he built a new house and set his initials above the gate, and decorated the house’s interior with paintings from his collection. But later, as it turned out, he never had time to visit that home.

‒ Who succeeded you as Bishop of Manhattan?

‒ In 1995, I was sent to be ruling bishop of Australia. Bishop Gabriel was elected to be my vicar, as Bishop of Brisbane. But, within a month, we determined that one bishop was sufficient in that diocese, and Vladyka Gabriel returned to New York, where Metropolitan Vitaly had been without a vicar after my departure. Thus, Vladyka Gabriel was appointed Bishop of Manhattan, and I moved to his homeland, where I lived for 12 years in Sydney; although, I am to this day still the ruling bishop of the Diocese of Australia & New Zealand, with the help of my vicar ‒ Bishop George of Canberra.

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During his time as Bishop of Manhattan, Vladyka Hilarion did much for the Synodal Cathedral of the Sign and for the faithful. Regular parishioners remember how His Eminence "brought peace and quiet, order and harmony among parishioners, a desire for prayer, and the creation at Synod of a united religious family."

Interview by Tatiana Veselkina.

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