How the Relics of St. John of San Francisco Were Opened, and Other Amazing Stories

A Conversation with Archpriest George Kurtov

Archpriest George Kurtov Archpriest George Kurtov     

You asked me about the providence of God in my life, about my spiritual experiences, and about encounters with spiritual guides. I’ll try to tell you about everything I can remember.

Credit to my parents

First of all, I want to remember my parents. First, their fate reflects that of millions of Russians. Second, it was they who gave me everything. They raised me and my brother and two sisters in the Orthodox faith. Thanks to my parents, I became a priest, served seventeen years in an Orthodox monastery that St. John brought from Shanghai, and for twenty-two years now I’ve been serving in the Church of St. Seraphim of Sarov in Monterey.

Church of St. Seraphim of Sarov in Monterey Church of St. Seraphim of Sarov in Monterey     

Also, although I was born in Canada, my native tongue is Russian. I don’t have an accent, and you can hear that I speak Russian like you, who were born in Russia. My children and grandchildren also preserve the Russian language and culture. Credit for this belongs to my parents.


My father, George Timofeevich Kurtov, departed this life when I was just fifteen, and now I regret that there was much I didn’t get to ask him about. When you’re young you think you’ll have time for everything later. And the past doesn’t concern you much—after all, so many interesting things are happening in the present! All your dreams and aspirations look to the future. And now that I’m older than my father was, I really want to know more about him and his life, but there’s no one left to ask. My mother has also departed, and neither of my older sisters are alive.

​My father George Timofeevich Kurtov ​My father George Timofeevich Kurtov     

But from what I know, from what papa would sometimes recall when he was in the mood, I realize now what a wonderful person he was. He endured so much. He managed to survive and not break down in the most improbable circumstances. He shouldn’t have survived at all. The four of us shouldn’t have been born to my father and mother, and I would never have appeared in this world.

His first mortal danger

My papa could have died more than once. I’m not sure which year exactly, and I have no one to ask now, but I know that he was a boy when his large family (twelve children) was dispossessed. They were sent to Siberia in freight cars, and it was winter when they arrived.

The special settlers, as they were called then, were dropped off in the deep snow, and the men began to dig out mud huts and lairs. Families with both elderly and infants had to spend the winter in them. The weakest were the first to die, and my father should have died somewhere after the infants and toddlers.

Special settlers in Siberia Special settlers in Siberia   

Special settlers in Siberia Special settlers in Siberia     

But my father didn’t want to die, and sometime later, he came up with the idea of climbing under a car on a passing train. He managed to get on, and after several stations he found himself far from that godforsaken place. The stowaway continued riding until he finally wound up in the European part of Russia. As a street child, he was caught and sent to a shelter, and then he managed to graduate from technical school. Then he began further studies. He showed a brilliant aptitude for studying and technology and eventually became a pilot and flight mechanic. He used to fly a small plane and carry the mail.

Loading up a mail plane Loading up a mail plane     

His second mortal danger

The war began, and my father fought for the homeland. He almost never spoke about the war at all or about his wanderings as a street child. Apparently it was very difficult for him to stir all of this up. Sometimes he would just suddenly remember some episodes. But I was a boy and didn’t especially ask him about it.

But now I recall: Once he talked about how the Germans bombed the airfield, and he and some old man, maybe a watchman, were in an old woodshed and fired at the “stuka” with a rifle. I didn’t understand then what this “stuka” was, but now I know it was the most famous of the German combat aircraft dubbed “stuka” by the Luftwaffle—short for “sturzkampfflugzeug,” a Junkers Ju-87 dive bomber.

Then a German threw a bomb, and my father was thrown out by the force of the explosion, and as he flew, as if in a slow-motion film, he saw how the shed splintered into pieces and the watchman died—there was simply nothing left of him. My papa ended up in a puddle, covered in mud, with his mouth full of mud.

He recalled how he saw half the skull of a man blown off while he was running, and this man ran another ten yards, already dead. War is a terrible thing.

My father was flying a plane and they shot him down in September 1944. When he parachuted out, the Germans fired and he was wounded. I remember my papa had a huge scar on his shoulder. Again, he miraculously survived, and he was taken captive, wounded.

K-5: the flagship of soviet aviation in the 1930s K-5: the flagship of soviet aviation in the 1930s     

His third mortal danger

My father spent nine months in a concentration camp. At first, prisoners of war were simply kept in a field surrounded by barbed wire. He once recalled that the Germans would throw frozen beets through the barbed wire for fun, to watch the starving people fight over it.

​Prisoners of the Ebensee concentration camp ​Prisoners of the Ebensee concentration camp     

Later, when the death rate among Russian prisoners of war became simply atrocious, they started keeping them in barracks. Papa fled with two other prisoners but they were caught. Again, he miraculously survived: The Germans lined up everyone from his barracks and shot every third person, including my father’s friend. But death again passed him by.

A German boy walks along a road where lie the corpses of hundreds of prisoners who died in the Bergen-Belzen concentration camp A German boy walks along a road where lie the corpses of hundreds of prisoners who died in the Bergen-Belzen concentration camp     

The Americans liberated the camp. My father weighed 95 pounds when he was released. He later recalled how an African-American cook looked at him with pity and asked what he wanted to eat. My papa was ready to eat anything. The cook was making pancakes just then, and papa really wanted some. He knew he couldn’t eat much, and he tried to stop in time, but even the small amount that he ate was almost fatal for him. He nearly died. He was sick for two weeks, vomiting, with terrible stomach pains.

The American generals Patton, Bradly, and Eisenhower at the Ohrdruf concentration camp at the bonfire where the Germans burned the bodies of prisoners The American generals Patton, Bradly, and Eisenhower at the Ohrdruf concentration camp at the bonfire where the Germans burned the bodies of prisoners     

Danger again

The NKVD came to the American zone to pick up the soviet citizens. But they all remembered Stalin’s words that there are no prisoners of war among Russian soldiers—there are only deserters and traitors. Starting in December 1941, special filtration camps, resembling high-security prions, were created to check “former Red Army soldiers who were in captivity and surrounded by the enemy.”

In February 1945, at the Yalta Conference, among other agreements, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to return all prisoners of war and civilians who were released by the allies to the USSR.

The Americans were not especially zealous to do this. Some American officers sympathized with the Russian prisoners of war, and realizing what awaited them, turned a blind eye to people escaping from the camp. Those who could avoid being turned over to the NKVD dispersed to different countries of Europe and America.

Soldiers of the U.S. 42nd infantry division at a train car with the bodies of prisoners from Dachau Soldiers of the U.S. 42nd infantry division at a train car with the bodies of prisoners from Dachau     

As for the British, they even overdid it and extradited not only soviet citizens, but also first-wave emigrants who left Russia during the revolution and civil war and had never been citizens of the Soviet Union. Sometimes with cunning and sometimes with violence, they extradited everyone who spoke Russian, even those who refused to return (of course, this is not about war criminals who, of course, had to be tried).

Some wanted to return and believed that everything would be sorted out at home and that they wouldn’t be punished; others had parents, wives, children, houses, apartments there. My father didn’t have two pennies to rub together and was all alone. Also, he well remembered Siberia and how his relatives were unloaded from the freight cars in the snow. He decided he wouldn’t survive the new camp. Many of those who also didn’t want to return survived the repressions of the 1930s, when people didn’t sleep at night, waiting for the “black ravens”1 symbols of the arrests and crippled fates of their loved ones.

My father had golden hands, and immediately after his release, he began to help the Americans, fixing cars and various pieces of equipment. One day he was fixing a jeep when news came that the NKVD was coming. He got in the jeep and drove off, avoiding extradition. He returned later.

Prisoners released from the Ravensbrück concentration camp Prisoners released from the Ravensbrück concentration camp     

My mother

I must also mention my mother. Her maiden name is Medvedeva—Antonina Ivanovna Medvedeva. As a young girl, she was forcibly taken to Germany together with other girls, as ostarbeiters—Eastern workers. My mother knew German and ended up working at a sugar factory not far from Dresden. She spent three years in captivity.

My mother, Antonina Ivanovna Kurtova My mother, Antonina Ivanovna Kurtova     

At the end of the war, Dresden was overflowing with refugees—women and children saved from the war on the Eastern front. In February 1945, the British bombed the city so fiercely that a fire tornado formed, with tens of thousands of people dying in its flames. Some historians even say 100,000. A memorandum for British pilots said that one of the goals of the bombing was to “show the Russians, when they arrive in the city, what the Royal Air Force is capable of.”

My mother recalled this bombing with horror. She said that although she was a few miles from Dresden, the ground was literally shaking under her feet, like it was the end of the world. Yes, war is a terrible thing.

Dresden after the bombing Dresden after the bombing     

It should be noted that the soviet repatriation commissions were very strict even with osterbaiters, despite the fact that many of them were not guilty of anything and were hijacked to work in Germany at a young age. Their biographies were marked with, “was in captivity.” It was like a branding. Among other strictures, there was a ban on many professions, on living in large cities, and so on. Only later, in the years of the “thaw,” did they start to look at the former osterbaiters and prisoners differently; but immediately after the war, many of them faced hard times.


For three years my father wandered around post-war Europe; he helped the Americans for a while, then he wound up in Italy, working part-time somewhere, somehow surviving. He had golden hands.

There’s an abbreviation that’s practically forgotten now—“DP”, or Displaced Person as the League of Nations put it. After the Second World War, this abbreviation became a symbol of the fate of millions of people, torn from their homelands across the vast Europe. So, my future parents became DPs.

In 1947, the International Refugee Organization (IRO) was established under the UN. The refugees sometimes jokingly referred to it as “Auntie Ira.”2

Several countries (the U.S.A., Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, Canada, and others) decided to accept these DPs, in accordance with international obligations. They set a quota of how many refugees they were willing to accept. Usually they wanted to accept the young, strong, and necessarily healthy, or those who had relatives in their countries who could vouch that they would financially support the new arrivals.

From 1947 to 1951, the IRO sent about a million DPs of various nationalities to forty-eight countries: Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians, Latvians, and others, including 6,000 Russians from the Filipino island of Tubabao—refugees from communist China, who were under the spiritual leadership of St. John of Shanghai.

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco     

My father drew a “lottery ticket,” and in 1948, he wound up in Canada. He later recalled how agonizingly he endured seasickness. They sailed to Halifax, then took the train to Toronto.

Russian diaspora

My parents met in Toronto. My mother was from a family of Russian Old Believers. She crossed herself with two fingers at home. The young couple got married in an Orthodox church. I was born in 1956, the youngest of four.

My father was one of the founders of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in Toronto. His name is even there among the founders. The first priest was Fr. Matthew Andruschenko (1899-1986). The first Russian parishioners had such small salaries that they couldn’t support their batiushka, and he served for free, while his matushka, who worked as a seamstress, fed the family. They rented a room under the church.

By the end of 1952, the parish included seventy families. They decided to build their own church and bought a plot of land on the site of a demolished house. The parishioners worked construction for free: They dug the foundation pit by hand, built block walls, did carpentry, and painted the church themselves. From morning to night, Fr. Matthew worked together with his parishioners with axe, saw, and hammer. The people were so enthused that they came to work on the construction every day, six days a week, after their regular jobs.

Thus, Russian refugees built Russian Orthodox churches in foreign lands, in every country they went to. Perhaps the Lord allowed the so-called Russian Diaspora, so that hotbeds of the Orthodox faith would light and shine all over the globe? These refugees included some pillars of faith as St. John of Shanghai, Metropolitan Vitaly (Ustinov), Archbishop Averky (Taushev), Metropolitan Laurus (Škurla), and others.

Archbishop Vitaly (Ustinov) in 1959 Archbishop Vitaly (Ustinov) in 1959   

Vladyka Avery (Taushev) and the wonderworking Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God Vladyka Avery (Taushev) and the wonderworking Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God     

How my father opened a car

We prayed every day in our house. My parents had their own prayer rule and we were taught to do the same. We went to church regularly.

I remember one funny story that my father would tell with a smile. One winter, after a service, Batiushka came out of the church, and his car, a Volkswagen, was covered in snow. He cleared the snow but couldn’t open the door. He figured the lock was frozen, and he jammed something in there. He called my father:

“George Timofeevich, please help me open my car!”

And my papa, a Jack-of-all-trades, opened the car. However, it wouldn’t start for some reason.

Then the snow patrol came, cleared off other cars, and it turns out that Batiushka’s Volkswagen was a little ways away—my father had opened the exact same kind of car, belonging to someone else.

Batiushka exclaimed: “Oi oi oi, what have we done? We opened someone else’s car!”

Thankfully, nothing happened. For some reason I just remembered this funny story. They always called my father for help whenever something happened with machinery.

In a foreign land

My father was definitely homesick. I think he went through a lot of sorrows, including those from being in a foreign land. I know he later called Russia many times, apparently trying to find relatives, but no luck. Russia was closed behind the Iron Curtain in those times.

I remember how I happened to see my father praying. He was kneeling, praying fervently, tears streaming from his eyes.

Our dacha and the Russian community

Papa didn’t speak English very well, and mama even worse, and now I’m ashamed that we used to make fun of them when we were kids, because our English was flawless. But papa didn’t just go missing in Canada either. His accent didn’t prevent him from finding a good job. He became a mechanic and even an inventor, although his patent was stolen.

Thanks to his golden hands, he received a good salary, above average. In the ‘60s, he even bought a plot of land for a dacha, forty miles north of Toronto, in Jackson’s Point.

The dacha was on the shore of Lake Simko—a very picturesque area, similar to Russia. The Russians fancied the area and they started buying plots there, forming a large community. They called these places “Birches.” Gradually, streets even appeared named Volga, Voda, Kalina, and so on. Russian was spoken there. In the Birches, it wasn’t Russian that was the foreign language, but English.

Our whole family went there every summer; we went to the forest with our mother to find mushrooms, we went swimming, and in the evenings we cooked hot dogs on the fire.

We went to church regularly. There was a small, very cozy church there, in honor of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God, consecrated in 1962 by Vladyka Vitaly (Ustinov), then the Archbishop of Montreal and Canada. The church was very beautiful, with one dome, in the Pskov style. Then, in the late 1980s, a stone church was built on the site of the wooden one.

​Parishioners of the Church of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God ​Parishioners of the Church of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God   

​Church of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God ​Church of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God     

Fr. Seraphim (Rose)

When I was twelve, I got acquainted with the words of Fr. Seraphim (Rose). I read the journal “The Orthodox Word,” that they published in Platina. This reading made a huge impression on me.

It’s interesting that Fr. Seraphim (Rose) started going to our church of St. Seraphim of Sarov in Monterey before he was even Orthodox.

Archpriest Gregory Kravchin, a batiushka of high spiritual life, was serving here then. He served in our church for thirty-eight years, from 1950 to 1988. Fr. Seraphim (Rose) even recalled how he liked Fr. Gregory, what a loving pastor he was.


Then my father took me and my brother to Jordanville, to Holy Trinity Monastery. This monastery can rightly be called the heart of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. It’s located in upstate New York, in a small town where there are no stores or restaurants—just one road, a library, and a cemetery. There are fields all around this beautiful place. The monastic life made a strong impression on me.

When my father died, the clergy asked me to bring a photo of him, and my sister spoke up for me:

“Can’t my brother go to the Summer Boys youth program in Jordanville?

This program has been active since the 1950s. Every year, a small group of teenagers is recruited, and they live at the monastery, pray, and work together with the brothers. It’s an extraordinary spiritual school for young men. More than half of the young participants at that time received such a spiritual charge that they now serve the Orthodox Church as priests, deacons, and monks. Several famous ROCOR archpriests were Summer Boys in their days: Fr. Viktor Potapov, Fr. Stephen Pavlenko, Fr. Peter Perekrestov, and many others.

They blessed me to be in the program, and that summer I went to the monastery. We got up with the brothers at 5 or 6 in the morning, prayed, had breakfast, rested a little, and worked with the fathers in the fields. There were just five or six of us “Summer Boys.”

We plunged into the atmosphere of the monastic life—prayerful, ascetic, and filled with grace. We saw how the fathers labored the whole day, and after their work they prayed fervently. And after we had this spiritual experience, we certainly couldn’t remain the same.

Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville     

Seminary at Holy Trinity Monastery

After finishing school, I went to seminary at Jordanville. After seminary, everyone chooses their path: You can take monastic vows, and if they ordain you, become a hieromonk, or you can be a white—married—priest. I thought about becoming a monk at first. Like all the seminarians, I lived in the monastery, wearing a novice’s belt for three years and carrying out my obedience in the carpentry workshop.

Our spiritual mentors in those years were Vladyka Averky (Taushev), Vladyka Laurus (Škurla), Vladyka Alypy (Gamanovich), Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov), who is known as the “iconographer of the whole diaspora,” and others.

In prayerful remembrance

In 1976, Archbishop Averky (Taushev) departed to the Lord. I was doing my obedience in the carpentry workshop, and Vladyka Laurus blessed me to make a wooden canopy, like an aedicule for Archbishop Averky’s tombstone.

I worked on it for several months, and when everything was ready, Vladyka Laurus thanked me and gave me a copy of the Apostol with the inscription: “To our dear brother, novice George, in prayerful remembrance.” I have preserved this book very carefully.

I pray for all the fathers and spiritual guides in Jordanville.

​Archbishop Averky (Taushev) ​Archbishop Averky (Taushev)     

How I decided to get married

Once, Fr. Cyprian blessed me to seriously study the Russian language and literature, and I went to study for a master’s degree. That’s where I met my future matushka. I was in my last year of seminary. We fell in love and I told Vladyka Laurus, the abbot of the monastery at that time, that I couldn’t be a novice anymore and asked his blessing to get married. He answered:

“God blesses.”

Vladyka Laurus

Vladyka Laurus Vladyka Laurus Feelings are passionate in youth, and one time I left the monastery without a blessing and went on a date with my fiancée. Vladyka Laurus found out, called me in, and scolded me:

“Brother George, you can’t leave the monastery without a blessing.”

Vladyka Laurus was a very kind man. About two weeks later, he called for me again, to his episcopal quarters, and said:

“Brother George, we received a $400 stipend for studying from the Theological Fund. Sign here—we want to give you the stipend.”

And I had so recently done something wrong…

That was Vladyka Laurus.


I finished seminary in 1978, got married, and was ordained as a deacon. I served as a deacon for three years and thought I would be one for the rest of my life. In America, many priests combine their ministry with secular work, since their parishes are small and can’t always support the families of priests and deacons. I also combined my diaconal ministry with secular work.

I worked, liked my papa, as a technician, making wooden models of train car parts, which were then made from iron. But soon there was a crisis in this industry, and as the youngest, I was one of the first to be fired.


Matushka and I already had children then, and the Lord did not abandon us. In 1982, I was ordained as a priest and invited to serve at the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God Convent in San Francisco—one of the first Orthodox monasteries in America. The sisters founded it in Russia, then fled from the Bolsheviks to Harbin, and from there to Shanghai.

The first abbess, Mother Rufina (Kokoreva), was born in 1872, and was a clairvoyant eldress and ascetic. In 1925, the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God renewed itself in her hands. Mother Rufina departed to the Lord in Shanghai in 1937, having foretold to the sisters in advance that they would escape the Chinese communists by going to America.


After the blessed repose of Mother Rufina, her spiritual daughter Mother Ariadna (Michurina; 1900-1996) became the abbess. Mother Ariadna and the sisters traveled with St. John of Shanghai from Shanghai to the tropical Filipino island of Tubabao and, finally, to San Francisco.

Mother Ariadna invited me to her monastery, where I served for seventeen years. There were about thirty nuns when I arrived. Gradually, I buried many of them, serving their funerals.

White priests usually serve in parishes, and when they reach a respectable age they’re invited to serve in convents. For me it was the opposite. I started serving in the convent as a young man.

Abbess Rufina (Kokoreva) Abbess Rufina (Kokoreva)   

Abbess Ariadna (Michurina) Abbess Ariadna (Michurina)     

In the Church of St. Seraphim

In 1998, I was appointed rector of the small church in honor of St. Seraphim of Sarov in the small California city of Monterey. I’ve been serving here for twenty-two years now. My wife, Matushka Elena, became the choir director, and my children, my son Michael and daughters Ksenia, Anastasia, Elizabeth, and Juliana, sang in the choir when they were growing up; my son George served in the altar.

My children are grown now, they have their own families, and I have twenty-six grandchildren growing up. The oldest is fifteen, the youngest is eight months, and he was at the service in our church today.

Fr. George and Matushka Elena with their grandchildren, June 2018 Fr. George and Matushka Elena with their grandchildren, June 2018     

We have icons that have renewed themselves. There’s the icon of the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Grand Duke Vladimir. When I began serving here, it was completely black, and now it has been largely renewed.

The icon of the Most Holy Theotokos is also renewing itself. Red triangles have appeared in her robe.

The icon of the Most Holy Theotokos The icon of the Most Holy Theotokos     

The story of the cross

I didn’t personally know the first rector of our church, Fr. Gregory Kravchin—I was just at his funeral. I had also helped the parish. As a master woodcarver, I made an iconostasis after the fire. Later I came as the new rector. And the very first, oldest parishioners shared stories with me about the high spiritual life of their beloved batiushka.

Here is one such story: One night, Fr. Gregory saw in a dream St. John of Kronstadt, who showed him his pectoral cross. When Fr. Gregory went to the church in the morning, a jeweler came to see him. He said:

“Batiushka, you know, after the revolution, many holy things were exported from Russia. When their owners died, many of them ended up in the hands of jewelers like me. Would you like to purchase this priestly pectoral cross?”

And he showed Fr. Gregory a cross exactly like he had seen in the dream.

Batiushka immediately bought the cross, and we keep it here, in the kiot of the icon of St. John of Kronstadt. I don’t dare wear this cross often. Maybe I’ll wear it on Pacha…

​Icon of St. John of Kronstadt with his pectoral cross ​Icon of St. John of Kronstadt with his pectoral cross     

A story with St. Seraphim

I was told how in the 1950s, during the construction of our church, they were thinking about who to consecrate it in honor of—the Most Holy Theotokos, St. Nicholas, or St. Seraphim of Sarov?

Fr. Gregory went to the church one day. He lived about two miles from the church and rode there on his bike. He knew the church was closed and no one was there at this time.

He arrived and saw a light on in the altar, although he definitely remembered turning it off. And Batiushka had a spiritual vision: The Royal Doors were opened, and St. Seraphim of Sarov was serving in the altar.

After that, the church was consecrated in honor of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

In the altar, St. Seraphim is depicted on the wall in white Paschal vestments, although traditionally he is shown in dark vestments. But after all, he himself always said: “My joy! Christ is Risen!”

My good friend Vladimir Krasovsky, an iconographer and the choir director at the cathedral in San Francisco, painted this icon. He learned iconography from Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov). He was his assistant and has painted many churches and dozens of icons.

Participating in the opening of the precious relics

The most valuable spiritual experience for me was participating in the opening of the precious relics of St. John of Shanghai. Interestingly, the church where I serve now has one of the biggest, if not the biggest pieces of his relics.

In 1993, twenty-seven years after the blessed repose of St. John, our ruling hierarch, Vladyka Anthony (Medvedev), led the opening of his relics.

Vladyka Anthony (1908-2000) was a man of amazing destiny. During the revolution, he was a young, ten-year-old cadet. With the retreat of the Volunteer Army, his cadet corps was evacuated to Crimea, then they left Russia together with the Whites. Vladyka Anthony began his monastic life very early. In 1922, when he was only fourteen, he entered a monastery in Serbia, with the obedience to keep order in the services.

It was Vladyka Anthony who succeeded St. John in the San Francisco Diocese, and he became the main inspirer for his glorification. He did all the preparatory work for his glorification and composed the majority of the service to St. John.

Under his guidance, on the evening of September 17/30, 1993, on the day of the holy Martyrs Faith, Hope, and Love, and their mother Sophia, we went to St. John’s sepulcher. There were five of us: Vladyka Anthony, Protodeacon Nikolai Porshnikov, Reader Vladimir Krasovsky, the sepulcher caretaker Boris Mikhailovich Troyan, and myself. We had to carry out the preparatory work for opening his relics: checking how to open the sarcophagus and what state his coffin was in. I think Vladyka Anthony took me, an unremarkable priest, as a technician who could be responsible for the technical side of this holy work.

​Vladyka Anthony ​Vladyka Anthony     

Vladyka Anthony served a litiya, we read the prayer for before a good work, and received an archpastoral blessing. I well remember with what trepidation we did our examination. We removed the heavy lid of the sarcophagus, weighing about 400 pounds, and saw the saint’s mantia draped over it. It looked like new. There was no smell of corruption.

Under his mantia was the old metal coffin. It was rusted in several places, and I was blessed to prepare a new pinewood coffin. By God’s grace, I also helped with the woodcarving for the saint’s future reliquary and canopy in the cathedral. After the inspection, we closed the sarcophagus.

St. Johns reliquary at the cathedral St. Johns reliquary at the cathedral     

We have no other help…

The next step was the actual opening of the precious relics, which happened ten days later, on the day of St. Chariton the Confessor. Archbishop Laurus (1928-2008) came, the future Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York, the First Hierarch of ROCOR. Altogether, three hierarchs, seven priests, three deacons, one reader, and one layman took part in the opening of the holy relics.

We prepared for this holy work with fear and trembling. We fasted, prayed, and communed. After Vespers and Matins in the cathedral, we went down into the sepulcher and took turns reading the Gospel. At nine in the evening we served a panikhida. Then Vladyka Anthony made a prostration, asked everyone for forgiveness, and called us, as participants in this holy work, to be reconciled with everyone.

We sang, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us,” and removed the lid of the sarcophagus. Hieromonk Peter (Lukianov), who came from Holy Trinity Monastery (Jordanville), now Archbishop of Chicago and Mid-America, and took out the key he’d been holding on to for twenty-seven years after the blessed repose of St. John. I should note that Fr. Peter was born in a family that came together with St. John from Shanghai. He was an altar boy for St. John and accompanied him on trips.

Fr. Peter tried to open the coffin, but the lock was rusty and wouldn’t budge. I tried to work on the rusty lock, and it started to crumble in my hands. But at the same time, the coffin lid opened a little.

Then Vladyka Anthony stopped us—he didn’t want us to do this holy deed by force. He started praying to the Most Holy Theotokos, singing:

“We have no other help, we have no other hope, but thee, O Lady. Help us, for in thee do we hope, and of thee do we boast, for we are thy servants. Let us not be put to shame.”

Then the coffin lid opened the whole way.

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco     

The most precious spiritual experience

We came to a dead stop in complete silence, afraid to breathe. Vladyka Anthony read Psalm 50, lifted the aer, and we tremblingly beheld the incorrupt face of St. John of Shanghai, the Wonderworker of San Francisco.

We felt an inexplicable joy. When they lifted St. John up to revest him, I was standing right across from him and I saw how a smile appeared on his face. I rarely talk about it. This might even be the first time. As I recall it now, I’m reliving the trepidation, the tender emotion, and deep reverence that I experienced then: a wonderful world of thoughts; the tranquility of all spiritual powers; spiritual joy.

I very acutely felt then that what the Church says through the mouths of our righteous ones is all true. The afterlife truly exists! The Church on Earth is militant, and the Church in Heaven—triumphant! We are soldiers here on Earth, fighting for spiritual truth, and everything that surrounds us is the sea of life…

Then we cleared the sarcophagus and holy relics of the rusty dust and dirt that was poured into the coffin twenty-seven years prior, at the end of the funeral service. We carefully transferred the holy relics to a new coffin. We all wanted to just stand in the sepulcher and pray, and nothing else—such a high moment in the acutely-felt presence of the grace of God. Then we placed the new coffin with the holy relics into the tomb, sang the troparion to the saint, served a litiya, and were anointed with oil from the perpetually-burning lampada.

Finally, we parted, thanking the Lord for His mercy and realizing that we just had perhaps the most precious, most moving spiritual experience of our lives.

The canonization of St. John of Shanghai the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco The canonization of St. John of Shanghai the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco   

Olga Rozhneva
spoke with Archpriest George Kurtov
Translated by Jesse Dominick


1 Russians were often taken at night from their homes by the NKVD in black automobiles to prisons and death.—OC.

2 The letter “o” in most words is pronounced as a long “a” by most Russians.—OC.

Bishoy10/15/2020 6:05 am
Really precious and beautiful stories. God bless all those who were involved in producing this piece.
ACatharina10/9/2020 7:12 pm
Deeply moving stories. Thank you for sharing.
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