Saint John of Kronstadt often said to those from the south: "Why have you bothered to come all this way to see me when you have a man of prayer in Father Jonah?"
Fr. Jonah Atamansky was born September 14, 1852, in the city of Odessa, in the family of a deacon. His father died when the boy was only three years old, and not long afterwards his mother also died, leaving the young boy an orphan. Having nowhere to go, the child spent many days and nights at the cemetery; he picked flowers and wove garlands for his parents' graves. But the hard-hearted custodian beat him and kicked him out of even this poor refuge.
The boy wandered through the streets, along the seashore, feeding on scraps which he found in dustbins; at night he would curl up in a pile of refuse on the outskirts of the city. He found a temporary shelter in a church bell tower, but it was not long before some unkind people chased him out. Eventually his uncle took pity on him, and then his old nanny. They took him in and sent him to school, but the feeling of being an orphan never left him.
He studied at a parochial school, where teachers recognized his superior aptitudes. Possessing a good voice, he took part in the church choir. His mother frequently appeared to him in his sleep, watching over him. Once she forbade him to sail from Odessa, and the very day the boy had planned to leave, the boat he would have boarded capsized.
The boy grew up as a God-fearing, pious youth; he never stopped praying. His piety and exemplary way of life prompted his ordination at a young age to the diaconate and two years later to the priesthood.
For eight years he served in the village of Kardashov. The peasants there loved their young priest, and wept bitterly when they had to part with him. They sensed that here was no ordinary pastor. It was not in vain that Archbishop Nicanor, when ordaining Fr. Jonah to the priesthood, said of him,"I sense a special grace upon him; his soul is burning with a holy flame; he will be a renowned pastor."
In 1897 Fr. Jonah began serving in Odessa's Church of the Dormition. There, too, his flock loved him; people made every effort to be at the early liturgy, which he usually served. The parishioners strained to catch his every word. He inspired everyone both in the manner in which he served and in his sermons. Here, people felt, was a genuine man of prayer. To them he was a father, a friend and a consoler. His home was open to all those in misfortune, all who were homeless; no one left him without being comforted. He had an amazing gift for understanding people; he read their thoughts, penetrated their souls. He knew all his spiritual children by name. In each person he found something positive, some merit which others didn't even suspect. He was particularly protective of orphans, feeding and clothing many of them. With everyone he was affectionate and attentive. He served tirelessly in the church; at every service he would give a sermon. At home he prayed constantly. He dearly loved his own children and his spiritual children. At midnight he would get up and pray for everyone. Whenever there was a storm, he remained in church praying for those at sea. At night he served the midnight service and read akathists. No one who attended these night-time services could ever forget them; they were extremely moving.
Hundreds of thousands crowded to his funeral. The entire route to the cemetery was strewn with flowers and wreaths. The burial service lasted six hours. Those present sang paschal hymns. One eulogy followed another. The church procession during the funeral was remembered in Odessa as a triumphant day of religious fervor, which no one could spoil. The animated crowd was full of determination to overcome all obstacles, and moved along the route it chose and not the one mapped out by the Soviet authorities. The latter ordered the funeral to be over by four o'clock, but it lasted until after midnight. Such was the power of the people in 1924.
Fr. Jonah is buried on Slobodka Romanova. His grave is always decorated. Thousands of believers visit it; they pray for him and ask his prayers. The memory of this good shepherd is alive, and so it will remain.
A man from Moscow described his impression of Fr. Jonah's services: "... During the Divine Liturgy there was absolute silence in the church, as if the whole congregation had frozen. Standing in the altar it seemed to me that there heaven had united itself with the earth. During the singing of 'To Thee we sing,' at the consecration of the Holy Gifts, my soul filled with holy trepidation and a torrent of repentant tears streamed down my face.
"One Athonite monk told me the following about Fr. Jonah: 'I was fortunate once to be together with Fr. Jonah. In his presence my heart filled with indescribable peace and inexplicable joy.' Like this monk, everyone who has reached a certain maturity in spiritual life is greatly uplifted by coming in contact with a person overshadowed by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Fr. Jonah acquired the grace of the Holy Spirit, and this was why it was such a joy to pray with him.
"Fr. Jonah always had many communicants: he communicated his people frequently. During Holy Communion I saw possessed people, who during the Liturgy would burst out with the most frightful and blasphemous language, led to the chalice. Epileptics were often brought to Fr. Jonah. A sick woman was led to the chalice; her legs buckled and she couldn't walk, so she was carried. After receiving communion she calmly walked away, like a normal person. Then a possessed man was led up; he didn't want to go and was uttering all kinds of nonsense. When he approached the chalice he calmed down and partook of the Holy Gifts.
"In the church yard there was often a crowd of barefoot men, waiting for alms. To them, Fr. Jonah was a real father. He not only assisted them materially- he always gave them meal tickets for the city's cafeterias-but he also taught them to fast and saved many from unbelief. He was generous with the poor, and his resources were never depleted: the more Fr. Jonah gave away in charity, the more he received."
The service of the blessing of the water, which Fr. Jonah performed every Sunday and even on weekdays, was very moving. After the moleben, Fr. Jonah immersed the cross into the water and poured the water into the mouth and onto the head of a possessed woman who had been yelling insane and blasphemous words. And what a wonder! The woman calmed down and walked quietly to the side. Fr. Jonah had a cross of cypress wood, plated on the sides with a gold-colored metal. At the base of the Crucifixion was embedded a particle of the Life-Giving Cross of the Lord. A hollow space in the center of the cross filled with water which then sprayed out through small holes in the bottom. The worshippers would open their mouths and Fr. Jonah would pour water from the cross into their mouths and over their faces.
In Fr. Jonah's parish there was no one who was indifferent to the Faith, no unbelievers.. Fr. Jonah himself said about his parishioners, "I am grateful to God that I have never encountered unbelief and indifference to religion; in recent times this has become a frequent lament among pastors of the Church, and this is very grievous. Here, both rich and poor, educated and simple have always prayed with deep faith, reverently, with great attention, and they always listen to what I have to say."
After the services the people didn't disperse. In spite of the fact that it was already half past twelve (sometimes the service ended much later), no one wanted to leave. Many made their way to the right side of the church, into a reception room where a dinner was prepared. Tables were set up the length of the room, with seating for several hundred faithful. Crosswise, at the front, stood a table where Fr. Jonah usually sat together with the choir. During the meal they sang religious cantatas. At these dinners, which were arranged every Sunday and Feastday, one could see priests and hieromonks, merchants and ordinary workers.
After the dinner Fr. Jonah would be surrounded by worshippers with various requests. People who had come from afar stood with letters. Batiushka heard everyone out, no one was left without a comforting word. His spiritual children undertook nothing important without his blessing. What was the Soviets' attitude towards Fr. Jonah?
They knew that in the port church people were being healed through the prayers of Fr. Jonah, and they waited for an appropriate occasion to expose these "miracles". The following opportunity presented itself. A peasant women came to Odessa bringing her two-year-old son who was blind from birth. She had heard of a certain Professor Filatov whose eye operations had restored sight to many, and she approached him. After examining the boy in his clinic, Filatov informed the mother that he could not help him, that his case was incurable. The grieving mother went to Fr. Jonah and asked his prayers; Batiushka promised. For nine nights he stood in prayer; he conducted services of intercession, akathists. On the tenth day the child received his sight.
The incident created quite a stir in the city. Professor Filatov was astounded by the news. The Soviet authorities demanded an investigation and set up a show trial. Filatov was called in. Fr. Jonah was accused of being a charlatan, a blackmailer, but Professor Filatov testified that the boy was the very one whom he had examined and he called the case a miracle. The judges discredited the professor, they shamed him. "How can you concede this to be a miracle?" But the professor stood by his statement and the case was dropped: no one was sentenced, no one was punished, and religious faith was not destroyed; on the contrary, it was strengthened.
For the first few years the Soviet authorities didn't touch Fr. Jonah. Then they began searching his home, the church, and called him in for interrogation. When the church valuables were appropriated, many things were taken from him. Then they tried to arrest him, but this caused such a furor among the workers and peasants, and such a crowd of his defenders rushed to Marazlyevsky that they made quick to release him. He was too popular, the people's love for him was too great, and this stayed the hand of the Soviet authority. But soon Fr. Jonah fell grievously ill, and in 1924 he died.
Fr. Jonah did not permit his relatives to arrange his burial by the church. He foresaw the fate of this church, its destruction. He asked to be buried near the grave of his parents, in the Slobodskoy cemetery. His grave became a place where the faithful would gather. Here a vigil lamp burns before an icon, and those who venerate Fr. Jonah come together here on his nameday, the anniversary of his repose and on feastdays; they ask his prayers and kiss his portrait.
(Translated from Russkiy Pastyr, where it was adapted from an article by V. Chemena in the Church-parish newsletter of Ss Cyril and Methodius Church, No. 9 24-9-43)
No one familiar with this extraordinary man of God can be satisfied with a Life that does not include the following memorable incident:
Early the next morning, after a sleepless night, she left her home and went to the cathedral square. Near the cathedral she saw two night watchmen disputing among themselves. One said, "It was John of Kronstadt!" The other maintained, "No! Fr. John was of medium stature; this priest was tall!" When she approached them, the watchmen related to her the following. At dawn of the morning of the previous day they had seen in the sky a dark spot moving towards the city. They thought it was an airplane, but when the spot drew closer, they saw that it was in fact a huge flock of crows, and in their midst was a man whom the crows were carrying; he in turn was fending them off with his cane. The crows settled on the cathedral square and again took flight, soaring over the trees and the domes of the cathedral. The man, who had also descended to the earth, shook his cane at them, saying, "Cursed ones! Have you flown off?!" The man, it seems, was a priest with a pale face, tall of stature. He then began to wipe the blood and sweat from his face, and afterwards went up the doors of the cathedral, entered, and began to pray, making prostrations. Matins and the Liturgy came to an end, and the strange priest approached to kiss the cross. The local priest gave him a prosphora and asked him who he was and where he was from, but the stranger, making no reply, left the cathedral. On the porch he began to distribute money amongst the poor, but to some of them he said, "You are drunkards; you'll just waste it on drink!" and to such he gave nothing. To one old woman he gave some money, saying, "You are a struggler! Pray for the world!" And he vanished... On hearing all this, the woman concluded that this was the same priest that she had seen in the cemetery. She had not been dreaming! Then she had but one desire: to find that priest. She began to travel from one city to another, going around from church to church in search of him. When she arrived in Odessa, she stopped at the church of St. Nicholas. On seeing Fr. Jonah, she cried out, "It's him!" and fainted dead away. Regaining consciousness, she related everything to Batiushka and presented him with a copy of the Kishinev newspaper.
One of Fr. Jonah's spiritual daughters...related this incident to a certain starets when she was in Moscow. The elder had this to say by way of explanation: "Angels used to carry Fr. Jonah to various places. The demons saw this, waylaid him and carried him off to Kishinev. The angels then bore him home again."
(An excerpt from "The Life and Repose of Fr. Jonah Atamansky" in Orthodox Life, 1979, No. 2, translated from Nadezhda, Vol. 1, Possev, Frankfurt.)