In the historic center of the Republic of Paraguay, on Nuestra Seniora de la Asuncion Street (Dormition of the Mother of God in Spanish), is the Russian Orthodox Protection of the Most-Holy Mother of God Church. The temple draws attention from passers-by with its unusual style, including modern and ancient Pskovian architecture. It was built by Russian emigres in 1927. Last year, the struggling parish celebrated the 85th anniversary of the consecration of the church.
I flew to Asuncion almost two years ago, on April 13, 2012. The parish had endured for 25 years without a regular priest, so I was sent to the capital of Paraguay by the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill to serve under His Grace Bishop John of Caracas and South America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, having been a clergyman of the Belgorod Diocese. I had mixed feelings about this: joy for the Paschal divine services, which were being celebrated for the first time in many years, yet also sadness in seeing the parish, which had diminished greatly: the church needed renovations and a paint job, the thick tropical greenery was overgrown. But mainly, there was no Christian community, and no monetary resources to reestablish the parish again.
At one time I was sent to a mission in the Magadan Diocese. Over the course of four years of service there, I sensed as never before the abyss of suffering that the Russian people had experienced, I felt the cold breath of Kolyma and saw the human bones which were washed together with the gold nuggets.
How then could I fail to understand the clergymen and laity of that period who found themselves in South America? These were people born and reared in the Orthodox Christian Russian Empire who were forced to emigrate after the Bolshevik revolution. Many of them preserved their love for their lost Homeland to the end of their days, along with a hatred of the communist state. These feelings litter the pages of emigre newspapers and magazines still preserved in Asuncion’s small parish library, which were published in South America during that age. I began studying the chronology of the parish there.
This is how it all began: “By the initiative and invitation of NF Erne, in the apartment of Prince YaK Tumanov, a General Meeting of Russian Orthodox Christians living in Asuncion and the provinces of the Republic of Paraguay convened on August 1, 1926.” There were 31 people in attendance. “NF Erne opened the meeting, having read the prayer ‘King of Heaven,’ and proposed to elect a President of the Meeting and a Secretary. AA Kashirsky was elected president and G Benoit the secretary.”
Nikolai Frantsevich Erne was an eminent military figure. Major General of the Russian Army since 1917, he participated in World War I, and in the Volunteer Army since its inception. Then he was aide at the headquarters of the commander-in-chief, later called the Armed Forces of Southern Russia. After the evacuation from Crimea, he served under the commander-in-chief in Sremsky Karlovci, Yugoslavia. In 1924, he emigrated to Paraguay, where he was invited to teach as a professor in the military academy. He fought in the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia, became Lieutenant-General of the Paraguayan Army and a representative of the Russian Military Union in Paraguay. He was the brother of the Russian religious philosopher Vladimir Frantsevich Erne.
The meeting decided to establish an Orthodox church in Asuncion. In order to find funding for construction, a committee of four was chosen: NV Bobrovsky, VN Pestrikov, NM Golubinsky and NF Erne himself. They decided to ask “their own” for help (letters were written to Metropolitan Anthony [Khrapovitsky], President of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Metropolitan Evlogy [Georgievsky], who ruled the Russian Orthodox parishes of Western Europe since 1921, and Protopresbyter Konstantin Izrastsov, administrator of the parishes of South America, and also their “neighbors,” local Orthodox Arabs and Serbs).
Metropolitan Anthony, for instance, was asked for blessing to manifest their plan, “so that in the distant city of Asuncion, Orthodox Christians would hear the peal of bells calling them to the Holy Church,” and also “to help with church items such as icons, utensils, vestments, books and musical notes.”
Metropolitan Evlogy was informed that the Russian colony in Asuncion, which had grown already to 98 individuals, had a meeting and chose a committee to clarify what material possibilities there could be, and to invite a priest, and establish at least some kind of modest space for divine services. Vladyka was also asked for blessing “for this holy deed,” and to grant the parish “vestments, church utensils and icons from the Stockholm Orthodox Church, which had been closed by that time, at the initiative of KN Gulkevich, our representative at the League of Nations in Geneva.”
The next meeting was held in about a month and a half, on September 26. This time, the overwhelming majority decided to organize the parish and establish a church. They thanked Izrastsov in a letter for donating a ticket for a priest to travel from Europe to Asuncion. They determined the level of compensation to be given to the priest and instructed the parish council to invite one. Nikolai Erne was unanimously elected warden.
By that time, a response arrived from Metropolitan Anthony. Protopresbyter Izrastsov was charged with providing the parish council with certain items. “A Holy Antimension is to be sent to the parish, should Izrastsov have one available, and also metrical record books and forms. At the same time, the book Acts of the All-Diaspora Russian Church Council of 1921, which includes by-laws that parishes should adhere to in organizing church life.”
On September 5, 1927, a portion of the Russian colony of Asuncion, headed by its church committee, met Archimandrite Pachomy “with bread and salt,” the first rector of the new parish. In the temporary church space located in the former “Russian House,” they performed a service of gratitude, then had tea. On September 11, the first Divine Liturgy was celebrated.
The church was built according to the design of the talented military engineer Captain Georgy Leonidovich Shmagailov, a local immigrant who had built the Grodna Fortress in Imperial Russia (1912-1915), the last one constructed before the Great War. The engineer NA Snarsky oversaw the construction at his own expense.
Finally, on October 26, 1928, the Church of the Protection of the Most-Holy Mother of God was consecrated by Fr Konstantin, along with Archimandrite Pachomy. All the formalities were finalized: the by-laws were approved, and Prince Yazon Tumanov legally registered the community on the basis of Paraguayan law.
The parish chronicles note that “there are usually 15-20 worshipers attending divine services. Feast-day services and pannikhidas for the late Emperor and His Family, and General Wrangel, drew almost all Russian Orthodox people living in Asuncion. On Great Friday, almost all the people of the Yugoslavian colony also attended. Over the course of one years, 38 people partook of the Holy Gifts, 4 were baptized, 2 were married.” According to eyewitnesses, the church choir sang magnificently.
The documents show that there were financial difficulties from the beginning; there weren’t many people, and emigres in general lived poorly. Monthly dues which supported the parish, mandatory for all parishioners, were levied in accordance with their ability to pay, but payments were irregular. The parish council, in November, 1928, called upon all their compatriots to support their Russian Orthodox church with dues and donations, in order to preserve it from closing or transfer to the ownership of other Orthodox Christians. This page was the last before a hiatus in the records.
According to surviving archives, we can trace the subsequent life of the parish. These documents include the metrical books of 1928: baptisms, marriages, funerals, parish council minutes, bills. And new priests: Fr Michael Klyarovsky, Fr Porfiry Biryukov, Fr Vasily Vakhromeev, Fr Varlaam Vemlov and Fr Alexei Yablochkov. These clergymen, who also conducted services at St Nicholas Church in Encarnacion, the second largest city in Paraguay, and a few other Orthodox communities which gradually disappeared, ended with Bishop Innokenty (Petrov, +1987). His difficult life deserves special attention.
Ivan Nikolaevich Petrov was born in Elaburg, Russia, to the family of an officer. In the summer of 1918, the 16-year-old junker [cadet] was assigned to the division of General Voitsekhovsky, who was the first to enter the Ipatiev House. Ivan took a bit of plaster from the walls which contained the blood of the Royal Martyrs, and for the rest of his life he kept it in a pouch around his neck.
In early 1922, for his service in the battles of the Urals, Kolchak’s Campaign through Siberia and the great battle at Khabarovsk, he was elevated to the rank of first lieutenant, the Military Cross of St George and the medal “The Great Siberian Campaign,” First Degree.
Later that autumn, Petrov fled to Shanghai from Vladivostok, then joined the 1st Siberian Cadet Corps, and boarded a ship to Serbia. There, after the corps was dissolved in 1925, he served for many years as an aide to the head of the local railroad, then at the Ministry of Communications.
In 1941, the order came to form a new Russian corps, which drew him to join the ranks of many Russian emigres. Ivan Nikolaevich spent the duration of the war in the Balkans.
In June of 1948, Petrov moved to Argentina, where he found employment at a textile factory owned by a Serb. He always attended services. His zeal and love for the church was noticed by the scholarly theologian Archbishop Afanasy (Martos) of Buenos Aires and Argentina-Paraguay, who ordained him subdeacon. After studying theology, Petrov was ordained to the priesthood in 1962.
On December 25, 1967, he was appointed rector of Protection Church in Asuncion and of St Nicholas Church in Encarnacion, thus becoming a leading figure in Paraguay. The Russian Gazette (No 133, 1978), announced: “Russian in Asuncion enjoy very good relations with the local government, headed by General Alfredo Stressner, the President of Paraguay. During the funeral of General Andreev and Major Korsakov, the President of the country and his ministers attended our church services, while members of the various branches of military stood at honorary guard at the coffins. Protopriest Ioann Petrov led the funeral and burial at the cemetery, and enjoyed great esteem among the people of the city and its government. It was a great tragedy that there were no candidates to serve as clergymen to help Fr Ioann, who remained the sole Orthodox priest in the country, which had five churches. Although Fr Ioann was not young, and his health feeble, he zealously fulfilled his pastoral duties, sparing no effort, visiting emigre communities with their thousands of Orthodox Christians.”
The widowed Fr Ioann was tonsured a monk in 1982 and given the name Innokenty. A year later he was elevated to the rank of Bishop of Asuncion, Vicar of the Argentinian Diocese. Upon the death of his mentor, Vladyka Afanasy, Vladyka Innokenty was appointed to rule the diocese. Three years later he was diagnosed with cander, but continued to lead church life in his broad diocese until his very death on December 23, 1987.
Renewal and Schism
The golden age of the Asuncion parish was from 1940 to the 1960’s. Russians in Paraguay were shared good relationships. Protection Parish united them all. In the 1940’s, the Association of White Russians was established. At about the same time, a Ladies’ Committee was set up, a Russian library, Russian choir and theater. Meetings and social events were common. Until the 1960’s the parish had many members and was well established. The parishioners maintained the church and supported their priest. For instance, the ROCOR Parish Questionnaire of 1957 records the fact that Holy Protection Parish consisted of 139 people. On Sundays, there were 50-60 people in attendance, 100-120 on Christmas and some 200 on Pascha. During 1957, 133 persons made confession.
But gradually, because of assimilation, the Russian community changed. The sons of the first settlers would marry Paraguayan women. The Russian language was gradually lost. Russian-Paraguayan mixed families preferred to baptize their children in the Catholic Church. The parish quickly dwindled in number.
A blow was struck in 1987, when their last rector died, and the parish was left without a pastor for a long time. In the late 1990’s, a ROCOR priest from Buenos Aires would come every three or four months.
But the harshest blow was the unexpected news that the priest who would visit Asuncion left ROCOR into schism along with Agafangel (Pashkovsky), a self-proclaimed “metropolitan” and “first hierarch.” He was a former bishop of ROCOR (he left after the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion between the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007). The parish only happened to hear this, when on the eve of Russia Day in Paraguay, celebrated in November, 2008, Protopriest Michael Boikov, Secretary of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America and New York, arrived. He notified the Consul Emeritus of Russia in Paraguay, Igor Fleisher, that he brought a portable altar table with him to conduct divine services. The diplomat was surprised and recalled that there is an active Russian church in Asuncion. Fr Michael replied “You left the Church Abroad, so we cannot serve at your parish.” This stunned the Russians of Paraguay. At Fleisher’s initiative, the Russian community sent the parish warden a letter asking that he no longer allow the schismatic priest to serve in the church. As a result, the parish was returned to ROCOR.
The Universal Church
A new bishop was appointed to the diocese on June 20, 2008: the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church confirmed the candidacy of Hegumen John (Berzins) for elevation to Bishop of Caracas. Vladyka John regularly visits the parishes of his immense diocese, and through celebrating the Eucharist and his archpastoral sermons, is patiently healing the wounds of schism within the South American flock.
Before I was appointed rector of the Asuncion parish, Hegumen Varfolomey (Ovedio), an ethnic Paraguayan of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Misiones Diocese of Argentina would regularly visit. Meanwhile, the church and two Orthodox cemeteries have been tended to consistently for 30 years by the warden, Sergei Vasilievich Kolenko, who emigrated from Shanghai to Paraguay with his parents, and in fact remembers St John of Shanghai and San Francisco quite well.
My first challenge in Asuncion was the reestablishment of Liturgical life of the parishioners. During the course of 56 years, since 1957, the Christian community of Asuncion shrank sixfold. Could any success be achieved? Probably not much. Regular services are conducted, there have already been several baptisms, marriages, services of holy unction and of need. Several elderly members of the Russian community were also seen off to the next world.
Then a miracle occurred: Paraguayan benefactors were found who renovated the church, cleared the church territory from overgrowth, and planted roses and pine trees. The church suddenly regained its Russian flavor. We convened a parish meeting and other executive committees. A small group of Christians has already been assembled.
Today, the Orthodox community in Asuncion consists of some 30 people, adults and children. On Holy Pascha in 2013, some 50 people attended services. Is that a lot or not? The Church of Christ, according to the Gospel, exists even when two or three persons gather. Is there a chance for growth? Only God knows. The descendants of the old emigration have dissolved into Paraguayan life, and with rare exception converted to Catholicism. New emigres to Paraguay from Russia, Ukraine or Belarus are very few in number. It is rare for a new visitor to attend services, some emigres don’t go to church at all.
The parish has an international flavor: it includes Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Greeks, and a Macedonian woman even sings in the choir, and Bulgarians and Serbs visit. There ar also ethnic Paraguayans. The seeds of Orthodoxy have been planted in South American soil and are bearing fruit.