The History of the Gethsemane-Chernigov Skete of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra

May 18/31 marks the anniversary of the 1869 repose of Blessed Philip, the founder of the caves at the Gethsemane-Chernigov Skete of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. In his honor, we offer a brief history of the skete.


Gethsemane was a place of solitary prayer of Jesus Christ for the salvation of mankind. There ended the earthly life of the Mother God—it’s the place of her glorious Dormition. A monastery bearing such a name is dear and holy to every Orthodox person.

Two miles from the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, far from the hustle and bustle of the world, in silence and solitude, in the midst of the forest, by God’s providence and the efforts of the Lavra abbot St. Anthony (Medvedev), the Gethsemane Skete was built. St. Philaret (Drozdov), Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna, and Philaret (Amphiteatrov), Metropolitan of Kiev and Galicia, blessed this place, where several monks especially disposed to silence and strict renunciation of their desires and property settled in 1844. Here, besides the usual prayers and services, the Psalter of David sounded forth day and night, sanctifying the monastery and its benefactors.

Simplicity and rigor were commanded by the ever-memorable founders of the skete. The vestments, the adornment of the church, the very atmosphere of the skete was to imitate the “poverty” of the great Sts. Sergius and Nikon of Radonezh. Even the liturgical utensils were wooden, including the altar servers’ candlesticks. “Simplicity… is the hope of the skete. May the Lord preserve this,” wrote St. Philaret of Moscow.


The founder of the caves, the fool for Christ Philip, was a simple and austere man: He would fast for several days in a row, sleep on the bare ground, and go about barefoot both summer and winter with a thirty-five-pound staff in hand. Having asked a blessing from the Lavra abbot to “dig a cellar,” in 1847, Blessed Philip began to build caves like those at the Kiev Caves Lavra. A year later, he was joined by his adult sons, with whom he later received the monastic tonsure. Word about the cave ascetics brought monks here, eager for podvigs. Everyone who came had to dig a cell for themselves. The cave cells were no more than two yards in width and length, and there were no stoves. In the winter, the cave-dwellers heated them with their breath and the lampadas burning before their icons. In the central, largest cave, there was a church in honor of the Archangel Michael. Much later, the cells and cave churches were lined with brick. Thus was formed the cave section of the Gethsemane Skete, which received Vladyka’s parting words: “May the Lord enlighten those who seek Him in the darkness of the caves.”

The skete’s typikon was known for its strictness and the spirit of Orthodox zeal. Fasting, constant prayer, the prohibition on idle talk, the solitary monastic life—everything was aimed at the salvation of the human soul. Thus, women were allowed inside the skete only once a year, on the commemoration of the Assumption into Heaven of the Mother of God—the main protectress of this monastic habitation. Many believers were looking for strict guidance, as the most salvific path, and the skete gradually became the cradle of Moscow eldership. Thousands of believers flocked there for guidance and counsel. The lives of the caves ascetics, such as Hieroschemamonk Alexander, who was shut up in solitude and silence for more than ten years, were renowned for their particular rigor.

But where there is strictness, there is consolation and gentleness. To the skete came Elder Barnabas of Gethsemane, whose name means “son of consolation.” He began by leading pilgrims through the caves of the skete. Then, in 1866, he was given the obedience of bearing the “cross of guiding the people”—the podvig of eldership. The Lord marked the Elder with the visible gifts of clairvoyance and the healing of spiritual and physical ailments. The people began to flock to him from everywhere, and he never refused to help or edify anyone. Every day, he would receive from 500 to 1,000 people, each one finding necessary words of consolation and reconciliation with God. The Elder was renowned throughout all of Russia, and in 1905, he was visited by Tsar Nicholas II and his family. It’s known that it was in this year that Nicholas II received a blessing to accept a martyric end.

The prophecies of St. Barnabas came true with amazing accuracy. Many were warned in advance about the coming persecution for the faith that crashed down upon the Russian Church in the Soviet period. His further prophecies are also known: “And there will come a time of flowering. They’ll start to erect churches again. There will be a flourishing before the end.”

The Elder’s ministry was crowned with a blessed end in the holy altar before the holy altar table on February 17/March 2, 1906. From that moment, miracles began to be worked at his grave and by his posthumous prayers. He was buried in the Iveron cave chapel, where he loved to pray while alive. After the uncovering of his relics, a life-giving spring poured out of his grave, bringing healing from various ailments to many today. In 1995, Venerable Barnabas was glorified as a saint. The Elder’s house has been miraculously preserved to this day.

On September 1, 1869, the day of the Ecclesiastical New Year, the Chernigov Icon of the Mother of God, given to the cave church, manifested itself when a paralyzed peasant was healed of an illness she had suffered from for nine years. Since then, more than 100 miracles and healings coming from this icon have been recorded. Many sick people rushed to the skete to venerate the wonderworking icon. People sent letters asking for oil from the lampada, entreating prayers, and they even prayed before images of the icon in books; and everyone was heard, everyone received help. Copies of the miraculous icon of the Mother of God have spread everywhere and are still venerated in many Orthodox churches. It’s no accident that the prototype of this icon was found by St. Anthony of the Caves, the famous founder of Rus’ monasticism and the first cave-dweller of Rus’.

Besides the caves, the skete is famous for its unique architectural ensemble of churches, buildings, and walls that have survived to this day. How precious is the five-tiered bell tower, standing like a candle over the entire surroundings, comparable only to the Lavra’s bell tower! And the revered skete cemetery, where the last monks of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery took refuge after the monastery’s closure in 1919. There lie the remains of the famous Russian philosophers V. V. Rozanov and Monk Kliment (K. N. Leontiev in the world).

In November 1919, during Lenin’s atheistic campaign, the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra was closed. Before that, in April 1919, the relics of St. Sergius of Radonezh were hidden for blasphemous “examination” by order of Lenin. Upon closure of the Lavra, the brethren were offered to move to the Gethsemane Skete and the Chernigov Monastery, and on October 10, 1919, the Sergiev Executive Committee decided: “In view of the need to accommodate the institutions and dormitories of the Soviet of Deputies and the military department, the Lavra is to be liquidated as a monastery; the monks’ living quarters are to be closed, resettling the monks in the Chernigov Monastery and Gethsemane Skete.”

In 1921, the Chernigov Monastery was also liquidated as monastic quarters (the brethren moved to Gethsemane Skete), though the Cathedral of the Chernigov Mother of God behind the monastery was preserved. In the fall of 1922, the cathedral was closed too. At the request of the employees of the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow, the wonderworking Chernigov Icon of the Mother of God was transferred to Moscow, to the Church of St. Sergius in the Rogozha Sloboda (returned to the Russian Orthodox Church not long before the writing of this article).

In 1924, during the New Economic Policy, Gethsemane Skete received the status of an “agricultural artel” and survived on its own means, with practically no alms from willing donors (there were practically none; women weren’t allowed into the Skete for services). In 1928, the last church in Gethsemane Skete—the Church of the Dormition and Assumption of the Mother of God (with its patronal feast on August 17/30) (in the basement was the lower church in honor of the Gethsemane Prayer of the Lord Jesus Christ, the prayerful remembrance of which was always celebrated in the Skete in Holy Week)—was closed and given over to be used for a club for the deaf and dumb. This last closure and seizure was accompanied by the “dispersal” of the Skete. Its brethren, still a significant number, dispersed wherever they could. The last head of the Skete, Igumen Israel, died in exile in the early 1950s.

In the spring of 1946, by personal order of Stalin, the monastery was restored in the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. The first service was served on Holy Thursday in the Dormition Cathedral (according to the eyewitness testimony of Fr. Sergei Boskin).

Among the first inhabitants of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra was Fr. Joseph (Evsenyuk) (the future Schema-Archimandrite Josiah, †1970), the cell attendant of Fr. Israel, the last of the Skete.

In 1950, a building of the Gethsemane Skete was given to the military department and blown up. On the site of the skete cemetery, a multi-story educational and administrative building was built, which still exists today.

The Chernigov Monastery housed successively: a prison colony for the “criminal element,” a boarding school for the blind and vision-impaired, a boarding house for invalids from World War II, and a vocational school for invalids. In the Cathedral of the Chernigov Mother of God, they put a warehouse of the Zagorsk1 City Department of Trade in Industrial Goods.

In September 1988, after two years of preliminary historical-ecclesiastical research, a public committee was established to revive the Chernigov Monastery with its former status as a skete of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. In December 1988, the committee chairman V. M. Eremina received the blessing of the Lavra abbot, Archimandrite Theognost, for the committee’s activities, subject to the abbot’s general control.


The beginning of the work on reviving the Chernigov Skete coincided with the beginning of a new state policy towards the Russian Orthodox Church. Therefore, gradually many government departments moved from “non-interference” in the work of the committee to assistance and cooperation. This applied first of all to the press (for example, “Literaturnaya Gazeta” gave space for two publications), the Production Bureau for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments of the Moscow Province, and the Council for Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers of the RSFSR.2

At the same time, with the blessing of the abbot Fr. Theognost, regular molebens before the Chernigov Icon of the Mother of God were resumed in the narthex of the Holy Trinity Cathedral (where there’s a venerated copy of the wonderworking icon—previously the patronal icon of the Chernigov Mother of God Cathedral). The first moleben was served on Memorial Saturday before Meatfare Sunday in 1989. Regular panikhidas at the grave of Elder Barnabas were also resumed, served by the Lavra monks with the participation of Orthodox laity.

Finally, the prayers of the Church bore fruit: The Executive Committee of the Zagorsk City Council—the same one that decided to close the Lavra in 1919—now, in September 1989, appealed to Abbot Theognost with a proposal to take a part of the buildings of the Chernigov Skete under his care and to resume, if he found it necessary, the Chernigov Skete of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. It wasn’t without God’s providence that the first meeting between Archimandrite Theognost and representatives of the City Executive Committee and the Council for Religious Affairs took place on September 13, 1989, on the eve of the 120th anniversary of the appearance of the Chernigov-Gethsemane Icon of the Mother of God, which was celebrated in the Chernigov Skete for the first time since its closure.

Finally, on April 11, 1990, the Zagorsk Executive Committee decided to gradually transfer the Chernigov Skete, with the first stage being the return of the holy sites of the Chernigov Cathedral and the miraculously preserved wooden cell of Elder Barnabas to the Church.


In early July 1990, a monastic residence was opened in the Chernigov Skete.

Services are celebrated daily in the Chernigov Cathedral. The peculiarity of the skete’s ministry is that the Unction of the sick and those suffering from mental and bodily ailments is served daily all year round.

The brethren of the skete, together with the hired workers, help with the repair and restoration of the skete’s buildings, which fell into complete ruin over time but managed to escape intentional destruction. In this, we can’t help but see the grace of the Mother of God, who preserves her abode.

Translation by Jesse Dominick

Gethsemane-Chernigov Skete


1 Sergiev Posad, home to the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, was known as Zagorsk from 1930 to 1991.—Trans.

2 Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic—Trans.

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