Fr. Stephen Pavlenko is a Russian born in postwar Europe; as a child he ended up in America, studied at the Holy Trinity seminary in Jordanville, and now serves at the Church of All Russian Saints in California.
During his life, Fr. Stephen has met remarkable ascetics of piety of the 20th century: Metropolitan Laurus, archbishop Averky (Taushev), archbishop Anthony (Medvedev) and many others. He spoke with the great servant of God St. John of Shanghai, received his blessing and was a witness of his gift of clairvoyance. He has also been a witness of how icons renewed themselves and how prophecies of holy elders were being fulfilled.
However, let’s tell everything in the proper order. Here are the stories that Fr. Stephan has recounted for our readers.
The greatness of little things
I’d like to share some stories which, one might say, are miraculous. As one might say, greatness can be found in little things.
In San Francisco there used to be the Convent Of Our Lady Of Vladimir, one of the first Orthodox convents in America. The sisters there had at first founded it in Russia, but then fled from the Bolsheviks to Harbin, then to Shanghai, and then together with St. John of Shanghai ended up on the tropical island of Tubabao, and finally San Francisco.
Abbess Rufina (Kokoreva) The founder of the convent, abbess Rufina (Kokoreva) (1872-1937), was a true ascetic. In 1925 a Vladimir icon of the Mother of God renewed itself right while she was holding it in her hands.
After Matushka Rufina had reposed in the Lord in Shanghai, her spiritual daughter, Matushka Ariadna (Muchrina) (1900-1996), became the abbess.
I’ve been to this monastery before, helped the sisters out, served sometimes during the week, replaced absent or sick priests, so Matushka Ariadna knew me well.
The icons in their convent often renewed themselves on their own. The icons of the Savior, the Mother of God and the apostle Luke were all renewed this way…
And once she suddenly called me:
“Fr Stephen, please, come visit us, I need to show you and speak with you about something.”
So I came over, and, instead of accepting me at the usual guest refectory, she led me to the small monastic refectory on the second floor that I’ve never been to before. It was not a very large room. It had a fireplace on one side, and a window looking out onto the street on the other side. And then matushka said, “Fr. Stephen, I need to share something with you: Our icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker is renewing itself.”
I must say, I love old iconography very much—the kind that’s in a Byzantine-Russian style as one might call it. However, this particular icon was depicted in a Western style, a bit portrait-like. I looked at it and wasn’t very impressed, and answered matushka in a kind of sluggish tone, “Really? Hmm…”
And then she left the room for a bit, I don’t remember why—perhaps to make me a cup of tea; but I kept looking and looking at the icon… And then right before my eyes, in an instant, it became a shade brighter. As if a thin layer of coating was suddenly taken off of it. I was shocked: “O Lord, what just happened?!” In an instant it entirely became lighter! I was thinking that perhaps a cloud passed by and a ray of sunlight entered the room? I went over to the window, looked out at the backyard and saw the famous San Francisco fog—there was not a bit of sunlight at all.
Abbess Ariadna (Muchrina) I stood up close to the icon, looked at it, and again, in the blink of an eye, it became two shades brighter. The abbess was coming back into the room and I was almost shouting:
“Matushka Ariadna, Matushka Ariadna! The icon, the icon! It’s becoming brighter, it’s becoming brighter!”
The abbess calmly answered me, “You see, Fr. Stephen, that’s why we invited you—so that you could become a witness of the fact that our icons are renewing themselves.”
I was almost shouting again, “Yes, yes, Matushka!”
And that’s how it happened...
“What is a holy relic?!”
Once I got a call from a wealthy American woman who said that she wanted to show me her private collection of antique items. She was a true collector. She showed me old Russian porcelain, beautiful silver cups and her collection of silver spoons. I asked her if she had any icons, and she said:
“Just one. But I don’t know who’s portrayed on it. No one is able to tell me what’s depicted on it.”
She led me to her room and showed me a completely darkened, old icon. You could see two figures depicted, but it was impossible to make out whose they were.
Sts. Sergius and Herman, the Wonderworkers of Valaam I asked her, “You know, you have a lot of things—beautiful collections of porcelain, cups. However, do bear in mind that an icon is something special; it’s a holy relic.”
“Really?! What do you mean?! What’s a holy relic?”
“The faithful pray before icons, receive healing… And also bear in mind that icons sometimes renew themselves. Yes, darkened icons such as this one sometimes become renewed on their own.”
And then I started looking at the icon and clearly saw that it was becoming brighter; I mean, it was renewing itself right before my eyes and right after what I had said. I was looking and couldn’t believe it myself. I thought, maybe I’m hallucinating? If I tell this American lady now that the icon is renewing itself, she might think I’ve gone mad! But the icon kept getting brighter and brighter and I could already see two monks depicted on it. I was thinking, should I tell her or not? But then I couldn’t hold back any longer and shouted out:
“Look, there are two monks!”
Her eyes became round and wide—she was seeing the same thing, and she began to shout:
“The icon is becoming bright!”
“I told you…”
The American lady in state of astonishment asked me:
“What do I have to do now?!”
“If you were an Orthodox Christian, then, perhaps, you’d take this holy relic to a church and a priest would serve a paraklesis to these saints.”
“Can we do that right now?”
And we went to a church, served the paraklesis, and she took the icon home. I had hopes that she would leave the icon in the church, but that didn’t happen.
I was also hoping that someone might purchase her private collection at the Holy Trinity monastery in Jordanville, because a museum was opening up there at the time. However, her collection was priced at about 3-4 million dollars and they couldn’t afford to pay such an amount.
After one and a half years I received a present placed in some kind of a bag. When I opened it up, I found that very same icon in it.
The third time
I was serving as the rector at one church, and amongst my parishioners were two elderly women who were sisters. I was living a room above the church, and one day I heard someone knocking at the door. I opened the door, and the two women were standing there. I was looking at them, and then they said:
“Fr. Stephen, we don’t know what to do, one of the icons is renewing itself! We brought it here with us.”
And they handed me a completely darkened paper icon, which was glued onto a thin piece of wood. I looked at it and it seemed to be an icon of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, because you could see some large figures of people depicted, while next to them was one small figure.
I answered, “Well, alright.”
I took the icon and placed it on a lectern. It was winter, and dark inside the church. That same night we had vigil. I can’t remember whether it was a Sunday vigil or a feast day, but anyhow, we turned the lights on. I was censing the church, came up to the lectern and looked at the icon. Indeed, the icon was becoming brighter. Then I went to cense for the third time when the choir was singing “More honorable than the Cherubim…” and looked again: Every dark spot on the icon now was just melting away, right before my eyes, and it became evident that the icon was depicting the appearance of the Holy Mother of God to St. Sergius of Radonezh. The saint was standing on his knees, while around the Mother of God there were angels and saints. The darkness had disappeared from the icon. There was just one dark spot left, as if to serve as a reminder of how dark the icon had been before.
You ask how and when I came to the faith… You know, I could never answer that question—I can’t recall a moment in life when I didn’t believe in God. I was raised an Orthodox Christian and can’t imagine being anything other than that. Of course, there are moments in life that make you think about the faith, but, by the mercy of God, I’ve never had any doubts.
My family was always church-going. My father, Vladimir Stepanovich Pavlenko, the son of a priest, worked as a church reader his entire life in one church or another. He also worked as a secretary at the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Sophia, Bulgaria, during the time of St. Seraphim (Sobolev), who has now been glorified as a saint.
St. John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai My mother, Maria Dmitrievna, by birth Shatilova, was born in Petrograd, Russia, but grew up in Belgrade, Serbia. She read at the readers stand in the Holy Trinity church in Belgrade and was well-acquainted with metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) and Anastasius (Gribanovsky) and knew many other bishops.
She was also acquainted with the future saint bishop John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai, whose parents immigrated to Yugoslavia after the revolution in 1917. In Belgrade he studied at the theological department of one of the universities there. My mother was acquainted with him before he became a monk. The Maximovitch and Shatilovy families were friends with each other. My mother continued staying in touch with him even when he had already become a bishop. She would affectionately call him “Vladychka”. Then he was sent to serve in Shanghai, and for some time they wrote to each other.
After World War II, in 1949, my mother and father immigrated to America with me, my brother Paul, and my sister Mary. My other sister, Olga, was born in America. We settled in Vineland, New Jersey, where altogether as a family we became active parishioners of the Holy Trinity Church.
Archbishop Vitaly (Maksimenko) I don’t even remember when I began helping out in the altar because I started at such a young age. At the Holy Trinity Church there’s still a small sticherion, just tiny in size, and I wore it when serving in the altar and once, while wearing it, got to hold the bishop’s staff of Vitaly (Maksimenko), the archbishop of Eastern America.
He founded many of the parishes in ROCOR in the 1950s, a time when many Russians had immigrated from postwar Europe to America. Thanks to his efforts, by the summer of 1953 there were now around 110 Orthodox parishes in North American and Canada, and the Holy Trinity Church was one of them.
The clairvoyance of St. John of Shanghai
When I was 12 years old, St. John of Shanghai came to the ROCOR conference of bishops in New York, and was to serve in the church at the town of Caswell (now known as Jackson), New Jersey. At that time we lived in Vineland, about 70 miles away from Caswell. The rector of the church, Fr. Nikolai Martsishevsky, brought me there because my mother really wanted me to get St. John of Shanghai’s blessing. The correspondence between them had long come to an end and St. John knew nothing about the fate of our family.
It so happened that when the priest, Fr. Nikolai, was busy with something, I took the suitcase with his vestments in order to bring it to the church. In those years only the lower church was built, while the upper church, which is very magnificent, did not yet exist. It was almost evening and it was dark when I went downstairs. No-one had seen me before this moment. I went into the altar in order to put the suitcase there, but saw St. John of Shanghai standing there.
I must mention that when my mother sent me to get St. John’s blessing, I asked her, “How will I know which one of the bishops is Vladyka John?”
And my mother answered, “Vladyka’s hair is a bit messy, his klobuk is sloped to one side, he wears sandals on his bare feet, and speaks with a burr…”
In short, my mother had given a bright and kind of humorous description of him. She knew St. John from childhood, and besides that, she was a real firecracker of a personality. She added also, “Look for the one who least of all looks like a bishop.”
I remembered those words exactly.
When I came into the altar and saw the person standing there, then instantaneously from my mother’s description I knew it was Vladyka John. He would never say anything without necessity while in the altar, so he led me out to the chant stand and right away called me by my name. He never saw me in his life, yet called me by my name, and then affectionately asked:, “Hi, Steve! How is your mom? How is your sister Mary and your brother Paul?
And I answered him. Then all of a sudden he looked at me so deeply, and asked, “But how did you figure out who I am?”
And at that moment I became a bit embarrassed, having remembered my mother’s description, and mumbled something.
Many years later, having found out what holiness and clairvoyance are, I understood that the amazing thing was not that I recognized Vladyka John, but that he knew who I was and called me by my name without ever having seen me before.
A lesson of monastic love
My parents often visited the monastery in Jordanville and took me there with them when I was still a little boy. From the age of nine and onwards I often spent the entire summer there. Fr. Nikolai Martsishevsky, who was a parish priest and my first spiritual father (I went to him for confession), would also take me there.
If I were to tell about the spiritual life at Jordanville, then I would recall the following story. Once during vacation I was at the monastery’s summer camp and walked into the kitchen by accident. Right at that moment there were two monks, Fr. Nikodim and Fr. Guriy, who started arguing with each other. They were arguing so badly that at one point there were kitchen pots were flying around the place; and I, being a little boy, snuggled up against the wall.
At that moment the monastery steward, Fr. Sergiy, who would become the archimandrite of the monastery in the future, walked into the kitchen. He held both of them back and said, “Brethren, we’re not going to talk to each other like this!”
And they calmed down. Then during evening trapeza both of them were punished and remained standing. After trapeza was over, Vladyka Averky (Taushev) said, “Brethren, we all know the monastic rule: before sunset everyone must ask each other to forgive them. As you see, there occurred a misunderstanding between our two brothers, and now Fr. Nikodim and Fr. Guriy will ask each other for forgiveness in front of everyone.
And both of them fell to the floor and stood on their knees before each other. Neither one, nor the other wanted to stand up, and both were asking each other for forgiveness.
Whenever I remember this, I can’t hold back my tears. It was such a grace-filled and edifying sight, in which you could see real monastic love. Then they both got up and had the meal together. And I noticed that afterwards they both treated each other with much love.
I also want to add that Fr. Nikodim, besides the fact that he had many obediences, was also well-known in the monastery for baking bread. He died in the bakery, having reposed during his obedience. Such was the high degree of his monastic life.
The main joy of serving as a priest
After finishing school it was completely natural that I enter the Holy Trinity seminary in Jordanville.
At the school I went to in America, each senior student was given a mentor who had to care for our plans for the future in life. When my mentor asked me what I wanted to do after school, I told him that I want to enter a seminary and that I hope to become a priest. He didn’t understand me and even broke out into laughter then. I don’t know what religion he professed, but he was very surprised and asked me why I didn’t want to become an engineer, a lawyer, or a doctor.
I finished high school in 1966. In autumn I entered the Holy Trinity seminary. That was the year that St. John of Shanghai had reposed in the Lord.
Metropoliten Laurus I studied at seminary for a total of five years. During the last two years of my studies I went to San Francisco every summer together with a group of students and visited the most well-known iconographer in the Church Abroad, archimandrite Kyprian (Pyzhov), in order to help paint the ceiling and walls of the Holy Virgin “Joy of all Who Sorrow” Cathedral.
At the end of my studies at seminary, I got married and was ordained a deacon. On September 30 in 1973, bishop Laurus of Manhattan (the future first-hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and metropolitan of Eastern America and New York), ordained me a priest when I was twenty-six years old.
For me the main joy of serving as a priest was that I could always be in church, live a church life, and attend all of the Divine Services. I think this is one of the reasons why I went to study at seminary. I really wanted to be in church during all of the feast days; however, that’s impossible if you have a secular job. As a matter of fact, since childhood I’ve never had any kind of occupations that were not church-related. Except for when I was a boy I would wash dishes at a restaurant not far from our house.
You can only choose one thing
To be honest, during the first years when I was a deacon and a priest, it was hard for my family to live off of what the Church could give me, and I had to work elsewhere as well. This kept going on up until the moment when I felt that I have to choose one thing: work at a secular job, or serve as a priest.
This is how things happened. I was a young priest at the time, and, in order to provide for my family, I worked on the side during the evening. The family of one of my parishioners had given birth to a very sick baby girl, with complications that followed after birth. I baptized her, and soon after that baptism, I was working in the evening as usual. I was sitting alone in a small bank office where cars come by and people come to exchange their checks through a window.
And all of a sudden, the mother of the sick girl calls me on the phone crying —her child had died. And I started talking with her, trying to console her in her sorrow, while at the same time there were cars getting in line and people were beginning to get agitated that I’m busy on the phone and were rebuking me:
“How long are you going to chit-chat with your girlfriend?!”
The Church of All Russian Saints in Burlingame And then I sat down on the floor so as not to be seen inside the office and kept talking with the unfortunate women, trying to console here as much as was necessary. Some of the cars stood waiting, while some had left.
The next morning my boss called me, and I expected to be rebuked by her because there were so many people that had called in complaining. But my boss turned out to be a very religious woman, a catholic, and having found out the reason behind what had happened, she said:
“Don’t worry, we’ll explain to those who are complaining that you’re a priest and were consoling a grieving mother. We’re very glad to have such a person working for us.”
But after this I personally could no longer remain at a secular job. I began to only serve as a priest, and the Lord send me the money needed in order to sustain my family. From 1981 and onwards I’ve been serving as the rector of the Church of All Russian Saints in Burlingame, not far from San Francisco.
How prophecies are being fulfilled
Before the glorification of St. John, the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco, in 1994 his relics were laid to rest in a tomb under the Holy Virgin “Joy of all Who Sorrow” Cathedral in San Francisco. And people would come there and place candles, serve Panikhidas. Around 1985 I was there together with my mother.
She said to me:
“Stephen, I know that Vladyka John is a saint. Yes, he’s a saint, but I also remember him as a friend.”
My mother died before St. John was glorified, but she was convinced that he’s a saint. My mother also told me that during her youth in Belgrade she helped with different things in the church—at trapeza, at the chant stand. One time she was helping set the tables and, in the presence of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitskiy), was serving tea, as young women usually do during church meals. And she saw how people would come up to metropolitan Anthony to receive his blessing.
My mother would remember how next to her an elder was standing, who was a priest from the non-monastic clergy. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember the name of that priest, but I remember very well that my mother spoke of him as a clairvoyant elder. And while the people were getting a blessing from Vladyka Anthony, when one person would come up, the elder-priest would say to my mother, “Look at that person: he is a great man of prayer, a doer of the Jesus prayer.”
And that person, who was still a layman, later on became a ROCOR bishop. That was Nikon (Rklitsky), archbishop of Washington and Florida. He was one of the first teachers of the Holy Trinity seminary in Jordanville, and he wrote a biographical account of the life of metropolitan Anthony, which was a multi-volume book that was published in Russia and abroad.
Then another layman came up to get a blessing, and the elder said to my mother, “Now this person will cause the Russian Church much evil.”
And indeed, that layman became a ROCOR clergyman, and later on supported a group of schismatics that had fallen away from the Church.
Then the young hieromonk John, the future Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco, came up to get a blessing, and the elder said to mother:
“There will be planes flying throughout the world to Russia carrying the relics of this person.”
Many years later I became part of a group of priests that were escorting metropolitan Laurus to Russia. We flew there for the reunification between ROCOR and the ROC. The iconographer Vladimir Krasovsky had painted 28 icons of St. John, the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco, and each icon had a part of his relics. We gave an icon to a church in St. Petersburg, in Moscow, in Diveyevo, and wherever we went we would give an icon with the relics of St. John. I saw all of these things and was thinking: My mother had known about this when the future St. John was still a simple hieromonk. I came up to Metropolitan Laurus (he knew my mother well), told him that story, and he gave me his blessing, saying, “Tell everyone about it!”
And in the presence of His Holiness the Patriarch and the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate I retold everything again.
These are the stories that I wished to share. May God help the readers of OrthoChristian.com in every good work!