“We prefer to remain friends and pray altogether here, and we don’t encourage conversations about politics at church”

About an Orthodox parish in Atlanta, USA

Today, just as this translation was submitted, we learned that Fr. Alexander reposed in the Lord after surgery and illness. Though we know him only through this interview, we feel like we’ve always known and loved him. Please pray for the repose of his soul. Memory eternal to Fr. Alexander!

Hieromonk Alexander (Lysnichuk) Hieromonk Alexander (Lysnichuk)     

In 1976, Fr. John Townsend, an American, founded a parish in Atlanta in honor of St. Mary of Egypt under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church in America. In November of 1997, the parish transferred to the omophorion of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.

In 2005, the parish purchased the then-vacant building that previously housed a Lutheran church and, using their own resources, converted it into an Orthodox church, where the clergy and parishioners worship today. Two and a half years ago, this parish also founded a skete for men. Hieromonk Alexander (Lisnichuk) talks about the current life of the parish and the Skete of the Holy Optina elders.


—The parish membership has changed over the past two and a half years. If only three years ago our membership was about thirty percent American, today it is seventy percent. During the pandemic, almost all the churches in the area remained closed and the Americans began to come to our parish. Aside from them, we also have Russians, Belarusians, Greeks, Indonesians, Vietnamese, and Iranians.

How was your church able to stay open?

—Our governor announced that he would not require the churches to stay closed, because it would be against our constitution. And we continued to hold services.

If only three years ago our membership was about thirty percent American, today it is seventy percent

What other changes have taken place over the past two and a half years?

—We added a new spacious kitchen and a refectory. Our parishioner Kesho Berkadze, an architect from Tbilisi, added an annex and a canopy to the church building where we have lunch and dinner.

We have a great library with over a thousand books in English and Russian. It does sound strange but people actually enjoy reading here! There is a bookstore next door. We offer free prayer books to the Americans. We generally don’t have any fixed prices for church needs. If, say, someone needs to be baptized, we simply perform the Sacrament of Baptism and say nothing about a fee. But, as a rule, people always offer donations.

St. Mary of Egypt Church St. Mary of Egypt Church   

We prefer to be friends here and pray together, so we don’t encourage conversations about politics at church to avoid someone leaving the church in our troubled times. But what we do have in abundance in our church is love, and people feel it and they heartily respond to love. That is why we the clergy have the desire to serve, and our parishioners are eager to come and pray. All of us as a community serve the Lord.

Fr. Alexander, tell us about yourself.

—I was born in Kiev. I was baptized when I was twenty-five years old. After I finished military service, I graduated from the R. Glier music college, specializing in guitar. I was playing with the musical ensemble of the Birobidzhan Regional Philharmonic Hall. Then, many players of our ensemble went to found a new group consisting of three violins, double bass, accordion and guitar, plus a soloist who could sing in Yiddish. In 1990, we went on tour to the Holy Land, where many of our group members decided to stay put, and so the group broke up. One day, we visited the Wailing Wall. They said to me: “Write a note to the Lord and He will hear you.” So, I wrote: “Lord, bring me to my senses, as I feel my life has gone all wrong.” I wrote it from my heart. It was in December.

I wrote, “Lord, bring me back to my senses as my life is all wrong.” Less than six months later, I stepped inside an Orthodox church for the first time

This was when I had a US-issued visa. I bought a plane ticket, went to Atlanta via Toronto, and in April of 1991 a friend of mine took me to the Russian Orthodox Church where I met Fr. John Townsend. I celebrated my first Pascha with him.

Interestingly, when I came there, I only knew four hundred words in English. I counted them all before I came there. But because I am a musician, foreign languages come easily to me. Besides, batiushka and his family welcomed me and I found myself in an English-speaking environment where no one spoke Russian.

Where did you work when you came here?

—Music was my life-long occupation, and I played Brazilian, Spanish, and Latin American music. From the time I came here and up until 2015, when I took monastic vows, I worked as a guitarist and played respectable music at nice restaurants.

When my career took an upturn and I needed to move to New York, batiushka announced that the church needed a bilingual priest, and he and Metropolitan Hilarion (Kapral; †2022) decided that I should be that priest. I didn’t dare to say no. Even the Optina elders used to say: “Don’t ask for it yourself, but if they offer, don’t say ‘no.’” I agreed, and have never had any regrets. I was ordained a deacon in 2009 and in 2010 I became a priest.

Portrait of Met. Hilarion painted by a church parishioner Portrait of Met. Hilarion painted by a church parishioner   

I had worked as a musician for almost thirty years and music stood, sadly, in the first place for me, with the Lord coming only second. I always thought, how could I ever give it up? But when I was ordained and heard the first confessions, the first penitent who came up to me crying actually left me smiling. And this is something that can’t be compared with anything else. Besides, I definitely knew that I had nothing to do with it—it was all in the Lord’s hands. I also had no nostalgia for my previous career in music.

Father Alexander, tell us how the idea of founding a skete came into being.

—Father John and I were thinking for a while about how to found a monastery. Matushka Varvara was in poor health already and also elder Makary (Bolotov), one of the three priests who participated in the re-opening of the Optina Monastery, told me when he came to America: “You are to become a monk!”

He lived in the village of Nizhniyi Pryski (across the river Zhizdra from the Optina Pustyn monastery). Elder Ambrose of Optina, on his way to Shamordino, stayed in this house, which previously belonged to a priest from a local church. With the elder’s blessing, a well was dug in the courtyard of the house. Emperor Nicholas II who visited Optina also stopped by there.

The Lord chose Father Makary to become the guardian not only of this, but also of many other relics that formerly belonged to the Elder Ambrose. Father Makary returned all of them to Optina after it was opened. Vladyka Hilarion greatly admired the elder.

He had about nine or eleven elderly schemanuns, including his mother, and a monastery was founded near the church where he served in the village of Nizhniyi Pryski. He came here twice, in 1994 and 1996, and everything he told us came true. I can confirm this, because I translated for him and spent ninety percent of his time here near him.

In October 2020, Metropolitan Hilarion gave us his blessing to start a skete. So we founded a monastery in honor of the Optina elders. It happened two and a half years ago. Soon novices came to reside there. We currently have four hieromonks and two novices.

Tell us about the residents of the monastery.

Our abbot, Archimandrite John (Townsend) has been a priest for fifty-five years. He worked at a secular job until the age of fifty-seven and served as a priest on weekends. If a major feast fell on a weekday, he’d get up at 5 a.m. and serve at 7 am. He founded five parishes, and when his matushka passed away, Metropolitan Hilarion tonsured him a monk.

Archimandrite John Archimandrite John   

Hieromonk Gabriel is also a special kind of a priest. A professional musician and a guitarist. We immediately became friends. Despite being an American, he already was in the rank of Reader in the Greek Church at the time. Two years ago, he came to pray with us during the Holy Week and Pascha. I asked him: “What keeps you there? Why don’t you stay?” He stayed, and a year later, we ordained him a priest. We could tell right away that he was gifted to be in this position. In addition to all his positive character traits, he is very organized, and it is very important for a monk.

The novice John (John), a Persian-born (Iranian), is twenty-seven. In his search for truth, he tried Eastern religions and then came to us. How did it happen? One day he went to a party organized by Orthodox Greeks and asked: “Why is your party unlike those organized by other young people? Everyone is behaving decently.” “Well, we are Orthodox,” they replied. One of our parishioners was also there. That’s how came to us. He was baptized half a year later, and in three months he became a novice. He works hard and sets an example for many of us. Just think of it—he had to go through so much during such a short period of time, knowing absolutely nothing about Orthodoxy! He currently helps us with the writing of the lives of Persian saints.

​Brother John ​Brother John   

Brother John, a Vietnamese, John Nguyen Thang, is another brother at the skete. He raised seven children. He has physical limitations, so he serves as a Reader at worship. His children also attend our services, and one of his sons even graduated from the seminary in Jordanville.

On Saturday and Sunday, our church is really packed, with over a hundred communicants

You won’t believe it—people are flocking to our church, our parish is growing! We serve four liturgies a week, and there are usually twenty to twenty five communicants every Liturgy on weekdays, while on Saturdays and Sundays, it is really packed here, with more than a hundred communicants. And this is Atlanta, not New York! As for the monastery, we conduct all monastic services required by the typikon. We serve Vespers at 3 pm followed by Compline at 7 pm and Midnight Office at midnight. At 9 a.m., we have Hours and Typica services. If liturgy is served in the morning, it is preceded by the Matins and Vespers. We have worshippers who come to our Midnight office service every night. We do nothing to bring them here, it’s the Lord Who brings them.

People want to pray and confess! Many Greeks seek spiritual support and come to us for confessions, because their sacrament of confession is by appointment only.

Fr. John, Fr. Daniel, a newly ordained hieromonk from Puerto Rico, also an extraordinarily gifted man, and I reside in the church building. Fr. Daniel has been a monk for eight years already. Fr. Gabriel and Brother John live in trailers.

Hieromonk Daniel (Justiniano) Hieromonk Daniel (Justiniano)   

Our skete is like a family. When a novice leaves us, it feels like there was death in the family.

So there were cases when someone left the skete?

—Well, sure! People come and test themselves, learn what it’s like to be a monk. It happens sometimes that this life isn’t for them.

How do you see the future of the skete and the parish?

—With God’s help, we will build twelve cells and a small monastery church in the area between the road and the church. We also have plans to add a green roof made of fruit-bearing grapes for our existing garden.

We have many children in the parish—more than eighty of them, and we don’t have enough classroom spaces. We hold classes for them in different corners around the church. So, of course, we’d like to build a school building that, with time, could house not not only a Sunday school, but also a secondary school.

How many people of Slavic origin attend your church and how do you find a common ground with the Americans?

—Three years ago, people of Slavic descent made up ninety percent of our parish, but today they make up about thirty, due to the influx of Americans who came during the COVID epidemic. It was easier for me from early on to find common ground with the Americans than with most Russian speakers, because the latter—and I see this in our parishioners—are often more withdrawn. There is nothing wrong with that; it is our national trait. But once you open your heart to the Americans, they will make you feel welcome, and so it is easier to establish contact with them.


Is there such a thing as spiritual eldership in America?

—No. Sometimes people come from their homeland and start “building” an elder out of their priest. We explain to them that the time we live in isn’t about elders. Anyway, we don’t have any. Every person has everything he needs for salvation: a church and a priest. What happens beyond that is: “you shall not make for yourself an idol.”

Father Alexander, you have an American parish and an American monastery. Have you adjusted yourself to the American way of thinking?

I’m a Russian-Ukrainian-American priest who tries to guide people to Orthodoxy

—No. We can’t alter what we inherited from the outset life. Whenever people try to think differently, it looks superficial and fake.

How would you characterize yourself?

—I am a Russian-Ukrainian-American priest who tries to guide people to Orthodoxy. And I try to do it only with love.

Tatiana Veselkina
spoke with Hieromonk Alexander (Lisnichuk)
Atlanta, GA
Translation by Liubov Ambrose
Photos by the author



Ignatius jones jr1/14/2024 3:33 pm
now that you know about the St Mary of Egypt let me tell you about the Orthodox Church in America t That , also goes by the name ST. Mary of Egypt in Norcross GA please come by and worship with us.
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