This year, the Russian Church Outside of Russia is celebrating two anniversaries, associated with one of the most venerated saints in the diaspora: Archbishop John of Shanghai and San Francisco. June marks the 125th anniversary of his birth, and today, June 19/July 2, the fifty-fifth anniversary since his death.
Archpriest George Larin, rector of the Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack, NY, is a goldmine of stories about St. John. He met Vladyka as a boy, in his native Shanghai in the early 1940s, and since then he has felt his protection all his life.
Vladyka said, “If God had intervened and the Holy Innocents had survived, then in Jerusalem they would have shouted, ‘Crucify Him!’”
St. John (Maximovitch), Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco I very well remember how I first met Vladyka John. I was a boy of six or seven. My parents bought a house, from which we could walk to the Cathedral of the Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, “The Surety of Sinners”, where Vladyka John served and lived. In addition, from the age of five I studied at a French school, which was next to the cathedral.
My father was very much a man of the Church and often stood on duty at the candle desk. Our whole family attended services—the Vigil on Saturday evenings, and the Liturgy on Sundays and the major feasts.
It was very hot and humid in Shanghai in summer. During our holidays my friends and I would play in the courtyard of the cathedral. One day it was especially hot, and I decided to go inside to rest as it was always cool there.
It was a weekday. A priest was celebrating a service, and there were few people around. Vladyka John had his place in the cathedral, to the left of the entrance under the arches. He had a small ambo and a lectern (analogion), and he prayed there. At that time I noticed that he was standing. Intrigued, I stood next to him. Vladyka noticed me, but said nothing.
After the service Vladyka, as usual, walked around the cathedral and venerated all the icons. This surprised me. I followed him, carrying his staff. Then he invited me to his room: “Come in for a talk.”
My parents often talked about him at home, and I knew that people were saying that he prayed all the time. Indeed, he participated in all services, even if he didn’t celebrate.
Vladyka lived on the first floor of a house next door where we had a bell tower. I noticed that when we entered his room, Vladyka began to make prostrations. There was a large work table with papers In the corner of the room, and there were many icons next to it. He knelt down and prayed for a long time.
Suddenly his secretary came in (I think his name was Kantov). He invited me to the next room and gave me a cup of tea, and after a prayer Vladyka began to ask me about my life and other questions. This is how our first meeting came about.
Fr. George Larin, the 1980s From that day on I began to visit St. John almost every day in the summer to talk to him, asking him about everything that interested me. Of course, back then I didn’t speak such an “adult” language as I do now—I just asked childish questions. It was very interesting for me to watch the way he lived.
Vladyka explained everything very well. For example, I was very worried about why the Lord hadn’t taken King Herod’s soul before he ordered all the babies in Bethlehem be killed. Once I asked St. John about this, and he replied: “Well, okay, let’s reflect on it. If God had intervened, Herod would have died, and all those babies would have survived. But what would have happened if the Lord had done this? All of them would have been alive and the same age as Christ, which means that when He was crucified these guys would have also been in Jerusalem and shouted, ‘Crucify Him!’ They would have grown up, wouldn’t have accepted Christ, and would have been in hell. But now we honor them as martyrs for Christ.”
An unearthly light emanated from Vladyka
I really enjoyed watching Vladyka and his services. Many said that on Pascha he literally flew around the cathedral and greeted everyone with the words, “Christ is Risen!” He moved so quickly that the assistants could hardly keep pace with him.
I was a witness of one incident. There was some great feast, and we were serving in white vestments. Vladyka was in the middle of the sanctuary; his helpers vested him and left, while I as his staff-bearer stayed with him.
At that time, the Hours were being read in the church and people were lighting candles. Suddenly I saw that Vladyka was completely transformed, with an unearthly light emanating from him, and his eyes were filled with joy. He probably had some kind of vision, and I was just looking at him, seeing nothing but that light. After several seconds I lowered my head, thinking that it had just seemed to me, and when I raised it again there was no light anymore. Vladyka served on.
Once I decided to imitate St. John
A year or two passed after our meeting. I became very attached to Vladyka, came to love him, and once during Lent I decided to imitate him. He led an ascetic life—slept in a sitting position and didn’t eat meat—and I decided to do the same. I began to eat very little, and my parents noticed it. And one night, when everyone was asleep, I got out of bed, laid my sheet on the floor and lay down there. My mother saw this, and the next day my parents took me to Vladyka, told him everything and said that I was disobeying them.
Vladyka was very annoyed and said, “What are you doing? Do you think this is pleasing to God? You must obey your mommy and daddy—this is the most important thing!”
I even cried a little. The saint called the church caretaker, gave him some money and sent him to a store. About fifteen minutes later he returned with a packet with ham in it. Vladyka handed it to me and said:
I answered him, “It’s Lent! how can I eat it?”
“No, obedience is above all else. Eat now and listen to your parents.”
So with tears I ate that ham. Of course, not all of it, but a good portion of it.
Vladyka headed the Russian diaspora in Shanghai when it was dangerous to do so
There were other incidents in my childhood. For example, when I was about ten or eleven, I and a couple of other child-acolytes made slingshots for ourselves and during the Vigil, while Vladyka was anointing the faithful with oil, we went to the vestry, took off our acolyte’s tunics, ran up to the fence and began to shoot at the windows of a Catholic school next door. When two or three windows were smashed, we ran back, put our tunics back on and went to the service. Suddenly two Catholic monks entered. They saw me holding the staff—they couldn’t have imagined that I was the kid who had just broken their windows. I realized that they wouldn’t catch me in the vestments.
St. John’s name day. Shanghai, 1943
Of course, Vladyka found out about this and gave us a good talking-to: “Never do such things! This is against the will of God.”
It was a lesson for the rest of my life. I realized that such things should never be done and they are not pleasing to God.
There was one more story in my childhood that I am ashamed of.
During World War II, Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese. Wealthy Germans and French lived not far from our house. The Japanese took their homes and quartered their soldiers there. Once a few friends and I went into those barracks. There was a prayer-room with no one inside, only the statue of an idol. We threw it into a pot and ran away. Only later did I realize that if they had caught us red-handed, they would have shot us. We didn’t tell anyone about that, but I am sure that Vladyka knew everything, prayed for us and that’s why we were not arrested.
Here was such a paradox: on the one hand, I loved Vladyka very much and wanted to imitate him; but on the other hand, I did such crazy things.
In Shanghai we had our own diaspora, which elected chairmen, “leaders” of the Russian refugees, as it were. They didn’t agree to fulfill some of the Japanese’s requirement, and they were secretly killed. It got to the point that people were afraid to take this position. Vladyka John agreed and officially became the Chairman of the Russian Society of Shanghai.
The Japanese didn’t touch him. Whenever they declared a curfew and opened fire on anyone who appeared on the street at night, Vladyka was always allowed to go out. They knew that he was going to his flock at any time of the day and did not touch him.
When the Soviet consulate opened in Shanghai after the war, occupying the premises that had previously belonged to the Russian diplomatic mission, many non-religious people succumbed to the agitation and received Soviet passports. Vladyka John urged them to ignore the propaganda and warned that nothing had changed in the USSR. But those people didn’t listen to him. Unfortunately, among them were two of my maternal uncles, Nikolai and Alexander, who rarely went to church. Uncle Nikolai’s wife didn’t want to return, and he secretly took their little son with him. My grandmother Barbara went with them too. She said that she just wanted to die in her homeland, and she didn’t care what kind of regime there was in it.
My mother was very worried about that. Later she tried to find them, but found only her brother Nikolai and began to correspond with him. Eventually, in the 1960s, he came to visit us in Australia not long before I entered seminary.
American senators were saying that the Russian saint had worn them down, and they accepted the refugees quickly
When the Communists came to power in China in 1949, the Russians had to be evacuated. The only country that agreed to accept us was the Philippines. The territory of the former American military base on the island of Tubabao was given to us, and we set up a camp in which most of the refugees spent about 10 months.
St. John of Shanghai and Russian refugees on Tubabao
I was then fourteen years old, and for me and my peers this time was a continuous holiday. We lived in tents, which made us feel like we were in a scout camp; every day we went to the beach and swam in the ocean. And, most importantly, there was no need to go to school. Some kind of classes were arranged for young children because among the refugees there were teachers for that age group. There were no lessons for gymnasium students, though; the necessary materials were simply not available.
Vladyka John didn’t live on Tubabao permanently, but he travelled there and served in the church that we had managed to build. But it so happened that I didn’t help him there.
Then he went to Washington D.C. to get the U.S. to allow the Russian refugees to come. He kept visiting Congress, trying to persuade the senators to give the go-ahead. There were rather strict quotas in America, and they would not accept anyone from China.
Vladyka John had a good command of English, and there was even a rumor that the legislators were talking among themselves that they were tired of “this Russian saint” and that a law on the acceptance of the refugees should be passed, just to get rid of him. One of the senators flew to Tubabao, saw that there were decent people living in the camp and there were no crimes, and he helped to get the law passed quickly.
Letters to Australia
However, our family ended up not in the USA but in Australia, where the godmother of my elder sister Tatyana had moved before the war. It was she, together with her English husband, who had us come to her place.
Vladyka John often wrote letters to me and my younger brother Seraphim. I think he was clairvoyant—no one had told him that I no longer attended services so zealously, that I was becoming a lukewarm Christian—but he was aware of it. In one letter he wrote: “You may prosper, but think about what will happen in your old age. Then it will be too late, and you will begin to regret having not fulfilled what your heart had always strived for—to serve the Church.”
Vladyka John was right: by that time I had begun to walk away from the Church, I no longer went to services so diligently and was going to build a secular career.
Thank God, I still have this link—his letters. The most important thing he wrote was that I should serve God. In addition, he taught me a very important lesson: that nothing happens “by chance”—God’s Providence works everywhere. I have remembered this for the rest of my life.
In his letters Vladyka expressed regret that ROCOR lacked clergy, and entire countries and regions lacked priests. He invited me to consider this path. This was one of the things that went deep into my soul.
In the end the letters from Vladyka had an effect, and I went to the Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville. In Australia, I had a good job in a financial company, and they were surprised at my decision to go to the USA and even laughed about it.
Anyway, I went to America by boat because it was cheaper than by plane. In Miami I took a bus, and so, with transfers, I got to the seminary.
In the USA, Vladyka protected me from slander
It was at the seminary that I had my only meeting with Archbishop John in the United States. It was when he came to the Holy Trinity Monastery. Before that we had last seen him when I was still a boy, and now I was a young man in a cassock and with a beard. Nevertheless, he entered the church, recognized me at once and approached me. I spent the whole evening in his cell: we talked for a long time and I asked him many questions. I was very pleased to see him again. And I was very grateful to St. John for the letters he sent me when I was in Australia.
Thanks to them I got to the seminary. Initially, I wanted to be Vladyka’s cell-attendant, but he wrote to me that the Church needed priests. I remember thanking him for guiding me on this path.
A sermon in the new Holy Virgin Cathedral—Joy of All Who Sorrow. San Francisco. 1965
Vladyka probably knew that I was studying at the seminary. In the first year there I was slandered—some seminarian wrote that I had allegedly studied with Jesuits who had sent me to the monastery to seize power there. This accusation was based on the fact that I did go to a Catholic school in Shanghai. However, it had nothing to do with the Jesuits.
Nevertheless, the famous icon painter Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov), who was the father-confessor to most of the students, was very worried about this story and wrote to Vladyka John. The archbishop replied that he knew our family well, that we were Orthodox, and thus reassured Father Cyprian. He read the letter he had received at a session of the church court, during which I responded to the charges brought against me in front of the Cross and the Gospel.
Vladyka himself knew what slander was like. As far as I know, many disliked him, but this is also a sign of holiness—many righteous people have been driven out of the Church, and Vladyka John also didn’t escape that lot.
In San Francisco he was accused of some kind of fraud, although he was an unmercenary and wouldn’t take a penny. The case even went to court, and the American judge who carried on the proceedings didn’t find anything illegal.
I heard that when the funeral service was being celebrated over Vladyka, many of those who had accused him came up to the coffin with tears and asked for forgiveness. I’m sure he forgave them, as he forgave everyone during his lifetime. He always fulfilled one of the most difficult commandments of God: to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.
To be continued…