Through the autumn colors, we drove into a spacious area in the city of Chesapeake, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, on which, with God’s help, the church of St. Joseph of Optina will be built. The plot pleased the eye both in size and location. Farms on both sides: turkeys on the left, horses on the right. And if the latter behaved quietly and were hardly noticeable until the parish children discovered them, then by the middle of Liturgy the turkeys grew bolder and ended up in the parish area. They froze upon hearing the singing, but the children silently moved away from any danger they posed. Of course, I could go on describing the beauty of the autumn treetops on the 29 acres of parish land, but this is just a preface.
The main thing is that, on October 30, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, when the Holy Church celebrates the memory of, among others, the Unmercenaries Cosmas & Damian of Cilicia (Arabia), the righteous Lazarus the Four-Days-Dead, and the icons of the Most Holy Theotokos "Before and After Giving Birth a Virgin" and "The Deliverer," parish rector Priest Sergei Kosov celebrated the first Divine Liturgy on the plot acquired by the parish.
Most of the parishioners gathered for the beginning of the service. Those with children arrived later. Believers hail from the countries of the former CIS: Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks, as well as Bulgarians, Romanians, Americans who converted to Orthodoxy, and even one Orthodox person from Morocco.
The parish, which at its foundation was dedicated to the Holy Hieromartyr Ignatius the God-Bearer, was founded in 1989 under the jurisdiction of the Antiochian Church by Archpriest Seraphim Stevens. The parish did not have a permanent building, and the faithful sometimes prayed in Fr. Seraphim’s living room, then in the premises of the Philippine fish market, then in the priest’s garage.
In 2007, the parish became a church dedicated to Venerable Joseph of Optina of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. On the private land of one of the members of the church, parishioners built a wooden church, but soon the parish was forced to move out of there and subsequently found refuge, first on the territory of a Protestant church, then in the conference room of a Norfolk hospital. About two years ago, the local Greek church responded to the request of its parishioner to provide the Russian parish with the St. Theodore Chapel in Norfolk for worship.
"Everything is good in the Greek church, but there is no place where parishioners can gather: to get acquainted, interact, have a meal, which is very important, and for people to come to church more than once a year, to participate in the divine services, the Sacraments, and parish life," ‒ says parish warden Vladimir Karpov.
Vladimir is a psychiatrist by profession. He arrived in America with his wife Anya in 1991. Here they had four children.
And he began his path to God from Solovki. Like many in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a young Muscovite came as a student in the summer to work at the monastery, which was under restoration. This was the impetus for a conscious coming to the Church. In Moscow, it was the recently opened Danilov Monastery, upon arrival in America ‒ St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Washington, DC. Twenty years ago, Vladimir moved to the city of Virginia Beach for work and, together with the parish, went through all the places of prayer.
"In 2018, Fr. Sergei came to us," says Vladimir. "They thought that he would be the second priest, but with the departure of the former rector, he became our only priest and our community fell on his shoulders, despite the fact that this is his first parish."
"I had no intention of studying at the seminary or becoming a priest at all," Father Sergei says. "And as the only son of my parents, I did not even think about leaving for America. It was the blessing of my spiritual father."
As a schoolboy, he spent every summer in the village with his grandmother in Kaluga Oblast. He mowed the lawn, helped with the housework, prayed with his grandmother, and went to Optina Hermitage, which was poorly equipped in those years. And upon returning to Moscow, he served in the church in Peredelkino, where in those years Schema-Archimandrite Eli (Nozdrin) had just arrived. It was he who, a few years later, would bless Sergei to enter seminary. The blessing of the elder will be repeated word for word by his confessor, Hieroschemamonk Theodosius (Elfimov) from the Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, in the village of Ust-Sakhray, Maikopsky District, Adygea.
Fr. Sergei’s future wife, a Georgian woman named Lali, found the seminary in Jordanville during a trip to the United States. There, after years of study, in his last year, the ever-memorable Metropolitan Hilarion (Kapral) ordained him a deacon, and a year after graduating from the seminary, in 2018, the current Metropolitan Nicholas ordained him a priest.
"We have a Russian parish. But know that they have nothing."
"At one of the annual pastoral conferences, I approached Metropolitan Hilarion and said: ‘What good am I doing? I serve as the fifth or tenth priest in the monastery?’" Fr. Sergei says.
"‘We have a Russian parish. It needs a second priest. But know that they have nothing. It is a mission,’ His Eminence warned, knowing my family – my wife and I, mother-in-law, three children, and introduced me to Fr. Richard Reed, an American who was rector there.
"I called my confessor. He told me: ‘I bless you to go there.’
"‘I have children, how can I take them?’ I asked with a slight fright. ‒ The parish will not be able to provide for us. Not only financially, but even housing.’ But out of obedience, we went, and I went there knowing that it would be necessary to work very hard. And it would be necessary to look for good schools for the children, which means looking for a good area with expensive housing.
"The parish paid me a little, but this was not enough even to rent a house. I met Russian-speaking people in the city, contacted a transportation company and started working there as a loader. On weekdays, I left in the morning, came in the evening – and so earned my way. Then I got a job laying floors, which I had never done before. And very often the money came out just enough to pay the bills. And we lived like this for four years. Now I am taking care of the parish and the children, while my mother works and studies."
"Fr. Richard soon left to study at seminary and I was appointed rector. Unfortunately, no seminary teaches how a young priest should lead a parish. And parishes are all different. It was hard. But I was lucky that both my spiritual father helped me and our dean, Archpriest Victor Potapov, supported me. This is the rock on which our Church Abroad stands. I am a young priest for him, and he treats me like a son and instructs me.
Father Theodosius said: "You have a job to do in America."
"Gradually, I began to look at people, re-formed the parish council. And slowly things began to improve. I myself have become more experienced and confident, because next to me are reliable people.
"My spiritual father said that you need to be strengthened by prayer, and you need to have a prayer rule for the whole parish. For everyone to pray. And try to live up to people’s expectations. And we began to pray, and on Saturdays I would read the akathist to the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God.
"For 30 years, the parish had accumulated some savings in the bank, and we began to look for land to buy it on credit. Several months passed. One time, one of our benefactors, a very modest man, invited me to see one site – 29 acres, of which 5 acres is cleared land – you could build right away ‒ and 24 acres of forest.
"‘But how much would this cost?’ I asked. And he asked, ‘Do you like it?’ And gave me a check.
"We purchased the property and slowly the Lord brought me together with a good architect who is now leading our project.
"As soon as all the necessary papers are ready, with God’s help, we intend to begin construction. We first decided to build a spiritual and educational center, in which we will organize a temporary church. There will also be a large hall: a refectory, a large kitchen where we can feed everyone. The third hall is a lecture hall, a Sunday school, a bookstore. People will have the opportunity to socialize and make friends. I tell them: we must be a family and try to live like Christians. And all of this should be centered around the church.
"Recently, we bought a tractor – a very necessary thing for our site. We will obtain a large garage for the tractor, in which we will arrange a workshop. In the spring, we will put up an apiary. And that means candles and honey. When our center is ready, depending on the finances, it will be possible to build a church. In the future, when the church is already consecrated, we plan to hold youth conferences here. Our land is gorgeous and the climate is wonderful."
On the eve of Liturgy, Fr. Sergei performed the evening service and, as every week, the akathist to the Kursk Root Icon. At the same time, on the other side of the ocean, the priest’s spiritual father was also praying before the Protectress of the Russian Diaspora.
Even earlier, before the day of the divine services, the men of the parish set up tents with tables for a meal on the site, and tidied up the property, including treating it so that the children would not accidentally be bitten by ticks.
* * *
I searched the internet, but did not find another church, except in American Virginia, dedicated to the Venerable Elder Joseph of Optina. For older parish members, he was even a contemporary, because the elder reposed in 1911.
For 30 years, Joseph was a spiritual child and cell attendant of the great Optina Elder Ambrose; in fact, his "right hand." About them one blessed eldress would recount: "Be it Ambrose or Joseph – they are one."
In 1988, the holy relics of the venerable saint were found, and the elder was glorified for universal veneration in the Church in August 2000.
"When I come to Russia, I always go to the Kaluga region," Fr. Sergei says. ‒ "For me, I feel as if it were home: a village where I helped from the age of five, a forest, the then-abandoned Optina.
"And at Fr. Theodosius’ skete – there is a piece of America: in the place where the people confess, there lies a small icon of the Kursk Root Mother of God, which he greatly reveres. Batushka suggested to me: ‘Let us pray together.’ And from the moment we started praying, the land appeared and the parish began to develop. And I remembered that when it was decided whether I should go to America or not, Fr. Theodosius said: ‘You have a job to do there.’
"For a long time, my matushka and I could not understand what that job was. But when I arrived in Virginia, I understood what business could bring me to America, to this city, and why the Lord vouchsafed me to become a priest.
"And today, when I celebrated Liturgy for the first time on our parish land, I realized how important it is to do church affairs in obedience. After all, that is when Lord does all of this, and I am only an instrument in His hands, and my job is to remain a worthy Christian and His co-laborer and work for the glory of God. And for the sake of the parish, where for many years our parishioners can go and bring their children."
Tatiana Veselkina (Text & Photos Media Office of the Eastern American Diocese)
If you want to support the construction work of the parish of St. Joseph of Optina, you can:
- Donate with PayPal.
- Send a check to:
St. Joseph of Optina Russian Orthodox Church
PO Box 64476
Virginia Beach, VA 23467