The city of San Francisco in Northern California is named after St. Francis of Assisi, a Catholic saint who lived in the late twelfth and the early thirteenth centuries. But for us Orthodox Christians this city is famous for another name. It was here, in this region with glorious nature and climate of the Western USA, that Archbishop John (Maximovitch) served for about four years till his death in 1966. It was to San Francisco that the largest group of refugees travelled from the Filipino island Tubabao, to which they had earlier been evacuated from Shanghai to avoid persecution by approaching Chinese Communist troops. Archbishop John interceded for them in Washington to get an entry permit for the USA—and his request was successful.
I happened to visit a number of the European cities connected with St. John’s life and pray in the churches where he had humbly and reverently celebrated the Divine Liturgy many years ago. In some places his veneration was particularly evident: thus, his icon (together with that of St. Martin of Tours) greets guests as they approach the gate of the Russian Orthodox Monastery in Pervijze, Belgium. The ever-memorable Archimandrite Thomas (Jacobs; +2019), the father-superior of this monastery, was a greatly devoted to St. John. His brief meeting with the holy archpastor at a Belgian railway station was engraved on his heart—the saint’s mild, radiant and kind look struck the very young Belgian deeply.
I recall how a few years ago I was travelling to the Holy Dormition Zhirovitsy Monastery, situated in the Grodno region of Belarus. I was tormented with melancholy and despair; and a fellow passenger gave me a small icon, which turned out to be that of St. John.
As for the United States, I travelled there for the first time, and I think it was providential that I first headed towards the city where Archbishop John had served in the final years of his life. This city was privileged to become the holy archbishop’s last resting place. The reliquary with his relics is kept at the ROCOR cathedral at Geary Boulevard, in the north-western part of San Francisco. Prayer services to St. John are held here every Saturday; intercession lists are submitted right at his shrine, free of charge. There is some evidence that this ROCOR cathedral is the most visited pilgrimage destination of the USA. People from all over America flock here; there are pilgrims from Europe and Russia too. As Archpriest Peter Perekrestov, senior priest of the ROCOR cathedral, said: “For us, miracles at St. John’s shrine are a norm, not something extraordinary.” It was in the cathedral at Geary Boulevard that Archbishop John would often serve when he was in San Francisco.
But the Church of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, situated at the crossing of 15 Ave. and Balboa St. fifteen to twenty minutes’ walk from the ROCOR cathedral, is closely linked to St. John’s life as well. The building that now accommodates the church, along with living quarters and service areas, was chosen and obtained by Archbishop John in the early 1950s for the needs of an orphanage transferred there from the Philippines.
Earlier, as Bishop of Shanghai, St. John had become the protector of the local children who for various reasons had been deprived of parental love and care. With the departure for Tubabao the orphanage was evacuated, and later all the children were sent to the USA, to San Francisco.
According to the testimonies of people who knew St. John at that time, the saint took special care of those children. Not only did he strive to ensure that they were fed and had a roof over their heads, he also gave them opportunities to obtain a good education and a proper place in American society. As Hieromonk Anatoly (Kimbirsky), cleric of the Church of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, told me:
“Vladyka John was always a very loving and caring pastor. When he served in China, he sometimes found abandoned, rejected children. He would take them to the orphanage and look after them. He didn’t leave anybody without his care, it concerned even employment. Most of those children found their vocations: Some became priests, others became directors of enterprises, and others got jobs in banks… In America some approached St. John and offered: “We can fix all your orphanage girls up with jobs as janitors, hospital nurses, etc.” But the archbishop would refuse, saying that he would look for good jobs for them. The Mayor of San Francisco symbolically presented Archbishop John with a key to the city because the hierarch took care of people even in small things. He prayed very much and at the same time showed enormous concern for his neighbors; it was permanent help, not one-off help.”
Now services at the Church of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk on 15th Avenue are usually celebrated on Saturdays and Sundays. Its clergy carefully preserve the memory of St. John, who would serve at this church from time to time and would even live in the cell located on the same floor as the church during his stays in San Francisco. It still houses items from his everyday life—his clock, calendar, his bishop’s staff and censer. The cell (which I saw with my own eyes) is very little and modest, and doesn’t even have a bed—the archbishop would normally sleep on an armchair in a semi-sitting position.
“In our church we feel the spirit and help of St. John,” Fr. Anatoly said. “We feel his legacy, care and love. After all, he lived, prayed and served here for several years. Now we don’t have services every day; we do them only on Fridays (the akathist), Saturdays and Sundays (plus feast-days). People who come to us tell us about the special experience they feel during prayer. Now the community isn’t big: everybody knows each other and we are like one family. Occasionally we have a meal together after services and talk with each other. Our main liturgical language is Church Slavonic: this practice is encouraged by our parishioners, though there are representatives of various nationalities among them.”
True, the San Francisco of our days is a very secularized and extremely liberal city, notorious for its anti-Christian “liberties” not only across largely conservative America but even all over the world. Perhaps this city illustrates how polarized our world can be—with lack of all restraint, with licentiousness and hedonism on the one hand, and peace, asceticism and the utmost confidence in God, demonstrated by St. John’s life, on the other. The freedom of choice that was given to mankind and its consequences and fruits are particularly evident here. You can die here after a drug overdose or in a drunken brawl. But you can live in the same city with faith in God, imitating the great holy archbishop who was known to thousands of people already in his lifetime. Here you can see the churches in which he once served, venerate his holy relics, invoke his name, pray and seek his intercession. San Francisco in its darker side can ruin your soul and destroy you physically. But the city of St. John, even in our days, can give you peace, consolation and well-being. And it is through the prayers of the holy archbishop, who spent the final years of his life on earth here and chose San Francisco as his last resting place and a place of meeting with thousands of pilgrims, for whom prayer at his shrine often becomes the point that transforms their outer and inner lives.