Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad and ruling bishop of the Dioceses of Eastern America and Australia & New Zealand, spent Pascha 2019 in Australia. And he departed with thoughts of seeing his Australia flock again soon.
But the current pandemic has made changes to the everyday and work plans of everyone on Earth. As a result, Metropolitan Hilarion now speaks about his service in the "Land Down Under" in his office at the Synodal Headquarters in the heart of New York City.
– Your Eminence, tell us how you first visited Australia. What were your initial impressions of that country?
– I first visited Australia in 1987, prior to my appointment as ruing bishop, when I traveled there for a youth conference. Thus, I already had some impressions of the country, and it was not such a culture shock. In short, Australia is another world compared to America and Europe. Australia (from the Latin australis – southern) is a commonwealth comprised of six states and two mainland territories. It has a population of roughly 25 million people, equal to about three New Yorks or five cities like Los Angeles.
Australians have known about Australia since the mid-1600s. The land was originally called New Holland, but the Dutch did not do much to colonize the new territory, so the first Europeans to heavily settle Australia were exiled criminals from Great Britain.
Australia is a primarily Protestant country, though the largest single denomination is Catholicism. There are many Chinese immigrants who have moved to Australia and set up their own congregations. There are roughly 500,000 Orthodox Christians in Australia, or about 2% of the population.
Upon my arrival, I was greeted with a moleben in the Archbishop’s Chapel, dedicated to All Saints of Russia, after which I proceeded to the hierarchal residence next door.
– What is the hierarchal residence like?
– It is an old building, erected about 100 years ago. It is quite lovely stucco ceiling, a style beloved by Australians.
It was once home to Archbishop Theodosius (Putilin; +1980), and later to Archbishop Paul (Pavlov; +1995), who moved there from Germany, and before that was also home to Archbishop Sava (Raevsky; +1976).
The Archbishop’s Chapel is located next to the residence. It is actually a house that has been converted into a church. The Chapel was always considered to be the ruling bishop’s "house church," but today comprises a separate parish. In this Croydon church, we keep the mantle and vestments of the Holy Hierarch John of Shanghai.
There is a hall behind the church with a library containing religious and secular books. There is also a kitchen there for the sisterhood and a hall where parishioners often gather for tea and organize luncheons.
– How did you begin to travel to the parishes?
– I traveled with my assistant, Fr. Michael Boykov, who was rector of the Archbishop’s Chapel at the time. I got to know the people, who received me hospitably. The parishioners came primarily from China: from Harbin, Shanghai, the "Three Rivers" region (the Russian name for a large area of Russian settlement in Inner Mongolia – trans.), which shares a border with Russia, as well as those who came from Europe after World War II.
The communist takeover of China was a tragedy for the Russian-Chinese community, and after the Cultural Revolution in 1966-1976, they were forced to flee their country. At that time, Harbin was a big "Russian city" with eight Orthodox churches, schools, and institutions of higher learning,
The residents of Harbin loved their city very much. They still remember how it was to live in China, they write books about their life there and to this day visit the places where they once lived. I visited Harbin three times with groups of our faithful. They located their old homes there and, occasionally, local residents who remembered them. It was in China that I first met the senior-most cleric of our diocese – Archpriest Michael Li, who suffered during the persecutions in China.
– I heard that that he was born into an Orthodox family, and that throughout the Cultural Revolution and later persecutions spent 20 years in prison, being forced to work in a quarry…
– Fr. Michael was born in 1925 to a family of Orthodox Chinese within the bounds of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission, and even witnessed its glory years. From childhood, he served and sang at the Mission, and his father would emboss metal icon coverings. In 1950, Fr. Michael became a priest.
During the years of the Cultural Revolution, he was evicted from his parish and the rectory, and spent almost 20 years laboring in a prison quarry. Fr. Michael was not permitted to speak with the other workers, because he was a priest. He was especially forbidden to pray openly.
In 1997, during my visit to Shanghai, I met with Fr. Michael and offered to have him move to Australia, in order to serve the Chinese-speaking Orthodox residents of Sydney. In May 1999, Fr. Michael and his Matushka Anna arrived in Sydney, where he took over the "Russian-Chinese Orthodox Mission (ROCOR) in Australia," the goal of which was the spiritual education of the Chinese population. Fr. Michael served first in Protection of the Holy Virgin Church in Cabramatta, and later in the Archbishop’s Chapel in Croydon until his repose in 2016. He was almost 100 years old.
Fr. Michael was a brilliant example of pastoral love, simplicity, and purity of heart. He remembered St. John of Shanghai and how he would serve; he remembered the three heads of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in China – Metropolitan Innocent (Figurovsky; +1931), Archbishop Simon (Vinogradov; +1933), and Archbishop Victor (Svyatin; +1966), who was his first spiritual father.
He would serve in Slavonic, and he spoke Russian with a Chinese accent. I asked him to recall how in China they would sing the Symbol of Faith and other hymns in Chinese, and I recorded his singing on a tape recorder. I also collected photographs of Orthodox priests who had suffered during the Cultural Revolution, and passed these on to the Orthodoxy in China website, where this information is now available.
– Is there any missionary work being done among the native population of Australia?
– Yes. We had, for instance, an Aboriginal priest, Fr. Seraphim Slade (+2018), who himself came to Orthodoxy thanks to his acquaintance with a book by St. John of Shanghai. Before his repose, he nourished the country’s Aboriginal population. He built a small church in his home, which was dedicated to St. John. He also ministered in prisons with Aboriginal inmates.
The Australian Aboriginals arrived on raft and canoes from East Asia very long ago – 40-50 thousand years ago – and began to settle in areas with fresh water. There were once more than 30,000 Aboriginals living in Australia. Depending on population growth and at times when water sources dried up, they would travel to the interior of the country. Thus, they settled all of Australia. Today, the Aboriginals are supported by the government.
Fr. Seraphim was the kindest man. His Matushka was Australian. They lived not far from Canberra. He tried to find how best to approach his people, to lead his brother Aboriginals to Orthodoxy. He was successful, and there was no small number of Aboriginal parishioners in his parish. But it needs to be understood that these are people with a specific culture and mentality, and you will not be able to convince all of them all of the time. They have a unique method of interaction and especially of argumentation, which is not familiar to us. The method works something like this: a person comes, sits, and waits for another to approach him. And only then does he try to convince his interlocutor of something. Until his death, he tried to find a way to convert the nation’s Aboriginal population to Orthodoxy.
Fr. Seraphim purchased some land and organized a cemetery there, where burial plots were offered for an affordable price.
Lesser consecration of the first Russian Orthodox Church in Gold Coast, dedicated to Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg, December 2013
– Your Eminence, how fare the Orthodox parishes in Australia; how are do they handle financial problems?
– About 90% of the clergy work secular jobs, just as most of the priests in the Church Abroad do. All of the parishes are well organized, and the churches are majestic. That includes St. Nicholas Cathedral in Brisbane, Holy Protection Cathedral in Melbourne, which was built in the Russian style, and Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral in Sydney. Many Russians had experience building parishes and organizing sisterhoods from back in Harbin.
Sisterhoods will often, especially in large churches, will organize various fundraising events to benefit the church, the parish, and the Saturday school. Their pelmeni luncheons are very popular. Parishioners will sometimes buy frozen pelmeni, prepared by the sisterhood, to take home.
– Yes, luncheons at the churches in Australia include Russian foods, like bliny and pelmeni. Nevertheless, for those who live in Australia today, these are not everyday foods. What do they eat at home?
– Russian food, as well as Chinese food and regular European (Australian) food.
– In Russia, popular Orthodoxy has a great love for the feasts of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God and the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos. It is on those days that people, even those not especially close to the Church, will try to attend the services. What Orthodox feast days are most beloved in Orthodox Australia? Among the Russians? Greeks? Serbs?
– It is the same as with all Orthodox Christians – they celebrate Pascha, Christ’s Nativity, parish patronal feast days, namesdays, etc.
– How have the parishes changed over the course of your time in Australia?
– When I arrived, the diocese was already primarily comprised of the parishes established after the 1950s. They are often adorned, some churches organize Russian Saturday schools. At Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral in Sydney, for instance, operates a Saturday school with ten grades.
Primarily found during my episcopacy were English-speaking missions, but there are not many of these. However, several parishes now also serve in English, because the majority of the young people have assimilated and no longer understand the service in Slavonic. At the residence in Croydon, the evening All-Night Vigil is served in English The youth come, and sing and read the service themselves. Each parish has its own experience.
The largest cities on the Australian continent, Melbourne and Sydney, spent many years struggling to establish which of them would be the seat of government. In order to end the debate, the country’s government decided to found a new city, built to be the capital, equidistant between Melbourne and Sydney. The city was named Canberra, and today it hosts a church of the Russian Church Abroad – St. John the Baptist Church, with gorgeous frescoes.
– How are the churches in Australia adorned for the feast days? What rare flowers and plants are used, maybe the kind you won’t see in Europe, for instance?
– Just as in all Orthodox parishes around the world, the churches are adorned with both European flowers (roses, for instance) and local flora.
– The seasons in Australia are different from those in other continents. Nativity, it turns out, falls in the hottest time of the year. I also heard that they also serve hot pelmeni for the feast!
– Pascha in Australia takes place in the autumn, the weather is usually calmer, cooler, and sometimes rainy. But on Nativity, as a rule, it is hot, and everyone relies on the air conditioners. Before, when there were no air conditioners, houses in Brisbane were built on stilts, to allow the air from below to circulate up and into the house. You can still see houses like this is Australia.
– Does the diocese have its own newspaper or magazine?
– The Diocese of Australia & New Zealand has long published the journal "Church Word" ["Tserkovnoe slovo"]. We collaborate with and love the newspaper "Unification" ["Edinenie"], which illuminates the life of our communities and diocese. This is the oldest publication in the Russian Diaspora. It has changed over the years, and its current editor Vladimir Kuzmin, along with Olga Kuzmin, have worked hard on its current modern design and interesting content. The newspaper also has an internet version. On the whole, the paper is for Russian speakers who have lived in Australia for a long time, who know and love the country. I receive our newspaper even when I am in New York, and regularly read it with interest.
– Vladyka, tell us, what was your day-to-day life like in Australia?
– Everything was well organized. My chancery was located at the residence in Croydon. The chancery staff was not large, but everyone worked very hard, and worked well together. In January, during the Nativity break (in Australia, this is the peak of summer!), I would usually visit the youth camps.
In a picturesque place not far from Sydney, for a few days I would rent a small house among the vineyards, where I would get away to for short periods.
If the weather was rainy, then when not working I would go pick mushrooms in the coniferous forests, which had been planted by the European immigrants. That is because it is only in the roots of coniferous trees that the mushrooms spores live. If I were able to collect enough mushrooms, then later we would pickle them.
– What about Australia would surprise a European or American?
– Australia is the most amazing, unique, and outstanding country, located practically at the edge of the world. Australia is washed on all sides by the waters of the ocean, and yet is the driest continent in the world. Here live the rarest animals in the world, including the platypus and kangaroo. And the kangaroo population is more than double that of people.
One of the most widespread and beloved animals on the Australian continent is the koala. Despite the mistaken belief, koalas are not bears, and are not even closely related to them.
Koalas live only in Australia and the islands closed to the mainland. Specially designed gripping fingers allow koalas not only to climb all over trees, but also to sleep there, having gripped the nearest branch or trunk. When needed, koalas can even spend a fairly long time hanging from one paw, and if they so desire, can run reasonably fast and are very good swimmers.
The only thing that koalas eat are eucalyptus leaves, and they only really drink water during the rainy season. They receive the rest of their hydration from the juicy eucalyptus leaves and from dew. Unfortunately, koalas often die in fires.
– Vladyka, why do you love Australia?
– For its uniqueness, or the beauty of nature there, with which I have grown acquainted during my trip to that country. Where else can you see, for instance, a lake with pink water, such as Lake Hillier in Western Australia?
But the most important thing in Australia is my diocese (which is still mine to this day). I love the flock like family, and always pray for them.
Interview by Tatiana Veselkina
Photos: Vladimir Kuzmin