Fifty-five years ago, on July 2, 1966, Archbishop John (Maximovitch) of San Francisco, now glorified by the Russian Church as the Holy Hierarch John of Shanghai and San Francisco, came to Seattle with his beloved Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God. On that day, which ended up being the last day of his earthly life, fourteen-year-old Sergei Kalfov served with him in the altar at the Liturgy in St. Nicholas Cathedral.
Sergei, still a parishioner of the same church after all these years, spoke with us about what happened that day.
Vladyka blessed my father and gave his soul to the Lord
Vladyka John came to visit us in Seattle with the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God. He and Bishop Nektary (Kontzevitch) of Seattle were planning to take the wonderworking icon to Vancouver the next day. Two people had come from Canada to accompany them.
I served with Vladyka John at his last Liturgy—it was a traditional hierarchical service, only without a deacon. Of course, no one was expecting things to go the way they did. Everything was normal, except after the service, Vladyka remained in the altar for an unusually long time—probably two and a half or three hours. That was the main thing that distinguished that day from any other day.
I should say that Vladyka didn’t like to be late. He wanted to go to the cemetery near the cathedral after the service, but it was already 3:30 and he hadn’t come out of the altar. Everyone was waiting for him at the parish house: Vladyka Nektary, my father—our reader and choir director George Kalfov, and the two guests from Canada—George Patrikeyev and Patrick Bradin.
The Archbishop finally left the altar and went to the second floor of the house where he had a cell. Everyone continued to wait. Around 4:30, we heard something fall upstairs.
Of course, everyone quickly went upstairs. My father saw Vladyka lying on the floor. Vladyka told him he’d never felt this way before. He didn’t say he felt bad—he said it just like that. My father picked him up and sat him in his chair. Vladyka blessed my father and gave his soul to the Lord. Everything was very calm and peaceful.
Even years later, it was very difficult for my father to understand what happened. To the end of his life, he couldn’t understand why it happened that way, that he was the one who was with Vladyka in the final moments of his life. Was it God’s grace, a punishment, or something else? I don’t know either. But it always bothered my father. He really loved Vladyka.
One of the firefighters said: “What a peaceful way to go”
When Vladyka reposed, we had a lot of things to deal with right away. Imagine: It’s 1966, fax machines haven’t been invented yet, the phones were antediluvian, and it was the holiday weekend before July 4th. There was no 911 yet, so we had to call the ambulance operator. The fire station was a block and a half from the cathedral, so they immediately called them. When the firefighters arrived, Vladyka was already gone, and one of them said: “What a peaceful way to go.”
We all immediately started trying to figure out what to do. We had to tell the Synod of the Russian Church Abroad in New York and the diocese in San Francisco, and we had to contact the funeral home. We only had one phone, so our priest’s wife went home and started calling from there.
Peter (Lukianov), who is now the bishop of Chicago, arrived from San Francisco a few hours later with his brother Nikolai, the former warden of the Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral. They brought special vestments. By that time, we had to start preparing Vladyka’s body. Vladyka Nektary and our priest, Fr. Andrei Nakonechny, began preparing the body for vesting.
We also had to figure out how to take Vladyka back to San Francisco. We had to get permission from state authorities in Washington, Oregon, and California that if the plane landed on their territory, they could take the body with them. That was due to local laws, because as a monk, Vladyka wasn’t embalmed.
All the paperwork for this had to be done by the next morning, and it was already Saturday evening. I don’t know how it was possible, but everything got done on time. The Lukianov brothers helped Vladyka Nektary wash and vest the body.
I chose a blue casket, for the Theotokos
Meanwhile, my father and I went to the funeral home for a casket in the middle of the night. There were only three or four there that could be bought on the spot. My father asked me: “Serezha, which one should we choose?” I saw that there was a blue one there—the color of the Theotokos, and we decided to take it.
When the funeral home staff brought the casket to the cathedral, we had to take Vladyka’s body there. He was carried by six young adult men, including my father. I walked in front with Vladyka’s episcopal staff. It still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.
It’s interesting that all these people were connected with Vladyka at different periods of his life around the world. One, Patrick Bradin, was from the orphanage he started in Shanghai; Yuri Khruschev knew him from Yugoslavia; the Lukianov brothers from San Francisco; and my father was the reader at the cathedral in Seattle.
It’s noteworthy that these strong, healthy men could barely hold the body. My father later said it was as heavy as if they were carrying gold, though Vladyka was small and weighed probably 130 pounds.
We bid farewell to Vladyka for several days, but his body showed no signs of corruption
They immediately started reading the Psalms in the cathedral. They served an early Liturgy and then a panikhida. Many of the parishioners we had then had come from China, like Vladyka, and had known him for many years.
Everything was done quickly. Vladyka’s body wasn’t embalmed, so by law his body had to be delivered to San Francisco no later than a day after his repose.
The service ended in our church at about ten in the morning on July 3. They closed his casket and took it to the airport.
If I’m not mistaken, saying goodbye to Vladyka—not just here, but in San Francisco too—lasted five or six days, but there were no signs of corruption at all during that time.
Now, even fifty-five years later, I shed a tear remembering everything that happened. Vladyka was very dear to me. He’s a saint, whom I’d known since childhood. I’ve never met anyone else like him. He’s always been Vladyka for me.