Sergei Kalfov, a long-term parishioner of St. Nicholas Cathedral in the American city of Seattle, knew St. John of Shanghai from childhood. He helped Vladyka during the Liturgy, and together with his parents received him more than once at home, and on July 2, 1966, he became a witness of the saint’s blessed repose.
The armchair in which Vladyka departed to the Lord was kept for a long time in the Kalfov family’s house, and several years ago Sergei Georgievich presented it to the skete of St. John of Shanghai of the Svyatogorsk Lavra in the Ukrainian village of Adamovka (the Donetsk region), where the saint was born in 1896.
Recently a monument to Vladyka John was unveiled there, and Sergei Georgievich was invited to take part in the celebrations. During our talk he shared his impressions of the trip and recollections of his first meeting with Vladyka, the times when he helped him, along with miracles associated with him.
Interestingly, for a long time I couldn’t get through to Sergei Georgievich, but once I asked for Vladyka John’s help in this interview, the conversation took place.
The participation in the celebrations in Adamovka was a real blessing for me. I was pleasantly surprised at how many people came to honor the memory of Vladyka. It was reported that about 5,000 people gathered for the festive occasion, but I have seen aerial photos of the event and would say that there were at least 5,00 participants. People came from Kiev, other regions of Ukraine and from Russia. It's amazing!
What I remember most about the event is the way the pilgrims prayed to Vladyka. There are people in the United States who knew him personally, and this is understandable here. But I couldn’t have imagined that people in Ukraine retained such a great veneration for Vladyka. I even shed a few tears of joy.
Frankly, at first I was skeptical about the idea of erecting a monument—it seemed to me that it would be wrong. But at some point I was standing absolutely alone next to the monument and had the opportunity to scrutinize it. I saw the saint’s face and sensed that he was smiling!
After that I was convinced that everything had been done properly. After all, otherwise the Lord wouldn’t have allowed this monument to be unveiled.
We met the monks from the Svyatogorsk Lavra in 2009, when I handed over to the monastery the armchair in which Vladyka died.
He fell asleep in the Lord on July 2, 1966, in the parish house of our St. Nicholas Cathedral in Seattle. After his repose we converted this room into a chapel where the memorial service was celebrated every Thursday. There was the armchair in which Vladyka died and the bed on which his body was laid. These objects were kept there for many years. In addition, his panagia, cross, klobuk and vestments were sent from San Francisco to my father, George Kalfov, who was a reader and had served with Vladyka for many years. All this was also kept in the chapel.
Years later, it was decided to remove the bed from the chapel and sell the armchair. So the armchair was put in the open. Seeing this, my father was shell-shocked. He bought these objects and took them to his home where he made a small chapel.
After my father’s death, we donated the cross and the panagia to our cathedral, but we kept the armchair at our place for several months. Soon I went to San Francisco and celebrated a prayer service in front of St. John’s relics at the Cathedral of the Icon of the Theotokos, “Joy of All Who Sorrow”, after which I asked Archpriest Sergei Kotar what I should do with the armchair. He advised me to travel to the Svyatogorsk Lavra, which was building its skete in Adamovka at that time.
Do you know how we had this armchair transported? By the United Parcel Service (UPS). We arrived at the monastery (Archpriest Peter Perekrestov from San Francisco brought a particle of Vladyka's relics), and we celebrated the Liturgy.
Later many started asking us why the armchair was treated with such reverence and whether it was a relic. To be honest, I don't know for sure if it’s a relic or not. But it (along with his panagia and vestments) is part of St. John’s life on earth and part of his death. And I know that now these things are where they should be—in Adamovka.
My father, George Kalfov, was a choir director, but he knew the services better than many priests. Vladyka John taught him this. Among my father's belongings I found a certificate signed by Vladyka John stating that he had ordained him a reader. Now this framed document stands in my house next to the icons.
In Shanghai my father assisted Vladyka and was with him as his cell-attendant. He used to say that it wasn’t easy obedience at all. Vladyka would go everywhere—to the hospital, to the orphanage—and did it so fast that my father could barely keep up with him.
Once, when my father was thirteen years old, he had peritonitis. He was feeling very bad and even feared that he might not survive the night. They called Vladyka, and he prayed for my father The next morning everything was fine.
I remember my first meeting with Vladyka John, although I was very young then. He had just arrived in the United States from Europe and ended up with us in Seattle. Later he visited us on numerous occasions.
I recall that Vladyka fell asleep while sitting at our table several times. Everyone knew that he slept very little and never lay down to sleep. Therefore, in such cases the people around would freeze—for fifteen to thirty minutes they would remain silent and motionless, and when he woke up everything went on as if nothing had happened.
Vladyka was close to me. I would say that as a child I didn’t understand what “a holy man” means—I simply didn’t think about it. But Vladyka John, of course, was a saint and a very special person for me. I knew many bishops, but he was completely different.
Whenever someone made a mistake during services, Vladyka rebuked them by clicking his tongue. I don’t remember when and how exactly he scolded me, but such things happened to me too. He was always very strict regarding our conduct in the altar; during services silence had to always be observed in his presence and all the altar servers had to stand still. He also forbade us to wear neckties in the altar. I don’t remember why, but perhaps because neckties didn’t match the color of church vestments.
I recall how once during the Liturgy I was one of the altar servers, and Vladyka was going to bless the people with the dikerion and trikerion. The dikerion is always carried by the bishop in the left hand, and the trikerion in the right hand, but as a young altar server I mixed them up. Vladyka looked at me attentively and smiled. I never made such mistakes again.
Vladyka wasn’t always serious. He often laughed and told us various stories. He had such a nice smile—I would say a unique smile. I remember it very well.
I feel that Vladyka is always with us. He is the saint I knew from childhood. I have never met other people like him, and for me he was always, “Vladyka”. When problems arise, I say: “Vladyka, help me.” And he helps. Sometimes he doesn’t—because I must look for a way out myself.
Once my wife and I were travelling in Europe and ended up in France. I forgot the city in which this story occurred. We went into a huge cathedral where the supposed skull of St. John the Baptist is kept [apparently, this is the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens.—D. Z.]. In the distance we saw a Russian priest who was praying fervently in front of the head of St. John the Baptist. He noticed us and asked in Russian: “Can you help me? I’ve just been robbed, and my passport and airplane tickets have been stolen."
It turned out that he was from the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God, “Joy of All Who Sorrow”, in Moscow. It is in the cathedral in honor of the same icon in San Francisco that the relics of St. John of Shanghai rest! He certainly knew about it. I gave him a small bottle of oil, blessed on the relics of Vladyka, and his icon. The police found his airplane ticket shortly afterwards. Perhaps this was a coincidence, but Vladyka John always said that there are no coincidences.