On the 50th Anniversary of Father Seraphim Slobodskoy’s Repose
From the Editors: On Saturday, November 6, 2021, His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America and New York, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, celebrated Divine Liturgy at Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack, NY, on the 50th anniversary of the reposed of its founder, Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy, the renowned author of The Law of God For Family and School (+5 November 1971). His Eminence was joined by His Grace Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan, Archpriest George Larin, Archpriest Elias Gorsky and the parish and visiting clergymen. Alexei Slobodskoy's speech on his father that followed Liturgy and a pannikhida for Fr Seraphim along with other presentations was recorded on video.
(Video of the anniversary event at Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack, NY, is available here.)
Your Eminence, Your Grace, venerable priests, guests and friends,
My family would like to express our gratitude to Father Ilya, Father Andrei, and the entire Holy Virgin Protection Parish for organizing this event, the Sisterhood for such an abundant trapeza, and especially Father Georgy and Matushka Katya who always remembered father Seraphim and Matushka Elena Alekseyevna with love and commemorated them at every service and each anniversary. Thank you, dear ones! And we are grateful to our church hierarchs for their decree: “To bless the Church-wide commemoration of the servants of God Archpriest Seraphim and his devoted spouse Elena in all churches of the Russian Church Abroad during divine services on the Saturday of St Dimitry.” This is a great honor, and we are thankful to all the parishes who are praying for our parents today.
Remembering my father, Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy, and embracing in my mind’s eye his entire life’s path, his spiritual outlook, and everything that he was able to accomplish in his short life, involuntarily, I recalled the words of the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Corinthians: " And now abideth these three, faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love." These three Christian virtues were undoubtedly inherent in Father Seraphim and his Matushka.
In 2007, during the reconciliation of the Russian Church Abroad and the Moscow Patriarchate, an exhibition was organized in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour dedicated to the Reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church. This exhibition depicted Father Seraphim Slobodskoy as one of the most outstanding figures of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. How did it happen that Father Seraphim, who had been born five years before the Bolshevik Revolution and who had received his education during Soviet times, became a person with such strong faith?
Seraphim was born in Russia on September 11, 1912, in the village of Cherentsovka, near Penza, into the family of Father Alexei Slobodskoy, Matushka Vera, and his two sisters, Nina and Lydia. His father was the priest of the Church of Archangel Michael, where little Sima was brought up. He grew to love the church and received a firm foundation in faith that became deeply rooted in his heart. He went to school when the Soviet government was already in power, and being the son of a priest, he had to endure all sorts of taunts and insults. Anti-religious and anti-church propaganda was constantly taught in school, and even Seraphim sometimes had doubts. As he himself said, “ If it were not for discussions with my father, it is unknown whether I would have become a man of faith.”
Once, 16-year old Seraphim was resting on a pile of logs in the churchyard. He was gazing into the distant, blue sky, when suddenly, he had a fleeting, bold thought. God, if You exist, let me know! What happened afterwards lasted just a second. It was not an external, blinding light - it was not a dizzying sensation of flight, and it was not something that grabbed his entire being with an unearthly joy, but rather, he was enveloped with an inexplicable sensation of the total completeness of everything. And then abruptly, it was gone. The same faraway, blue sky was still above him, but at that moment, Sima knew that God exists. “My Lord,” he exclaimed, “do not ever allow me to forget this!”
Seraphim dreamed of becoming an artist, but the doors of all the higher education programs of the Fine Arts were closed to the son of a priest. Nonetheless, he took night courses and was able to receive an education and then work as an artist.
Seraphim lived in the ungodly environment of the Soviet Union when personal freedoms were non-existent, and there was great persecution of the church. His father’s parish was closed, and later, in February of 1937, Father Alexei was arrested. Seraphim was never able to discover the fate of his father. Only in the 1990s, through the intercession and help of Patriarch Alexy II, our family found out that Father Alexei Slobodskoy had been sentenced to death on the day of the Dormition of the Mother of God. This is the document we received from the archives of the KGB. He was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda, but of course Father Alexei pleaded not guilty. He was executed by a firing squad on August 31, 1937. The real reason for his arrest and execution was that he was a priest. Father Alexei Slobodskoy suffered and died a martyr’s death for his faith in Christ.
Seraphim continued to believe in God in spite of the attempts all around him to destroy faith in Christ, but at times, some doubts would emerge. Once, some of his friends invited him to visit an antireligious museum. It was established by the government to show that religion was the “opium of the people.” Father Seraphim recounted,” When I went into the museum, I was stunned. In front of me was what seemed like a normal church, with icons, an altar and iconostasis, but shockingly, some icons were turned upside down, and others displayed scenes of debauchery. Everything was sacrilegious, obscene, and disgusting. I was completely sick and felt demeaned. But suddenly I realized. Good Lord! They can only mock! They can only blaspheme and represent a sick distorted view of faith. They can only deny. They have nothing to offer. Only filth and degradation. At that moment I crossed myself and never doubted my faith in God again.”
As you can see, it was not an easy and smooth path for Father Seraphim to become an exceptionally and deeply religious person. In actuality, the harsh and difficult life in the godless Soviet Union strengthened Seraphim’s faith. St. John Chrysostom says , “But faith makes the one who turns to God a heavenly citizen; faith makes man, who is created from the earth, a companion of God."
His strong faith served as an inexhaustible spiritual force in the difficult years of the war, and gave him hope, which is the second of the main Christian virtues. Hope is the firm conviction that God cares about us and our salvation and will grant us the promised grace. And Seraphim kept this hope alive in his heart during all the difficult years of war and captivity.
Seraphim was mobilized in 1941 when Germany launched its invasion of the Soviet Union. His battalion was comprised of the denied: the sons of priests, criminals, political prisoners, and others who had been blacklisted and were considered the unwanted. They were thrown to the front with no preparation. He was constantly sent out by his superiors as a scout to see if there were Germans or landmines in the area. Seraphim was subjected to many dangerous situations in which his hope in God’s care was justified. Here is one such event.
The battalion was moving forward. They dug trenches, froze in small shelters, marched, dug more trenches, and marched yet again.
Once, they came to a field, and beyond the field was a forest. They needed to determine whether there were Germans in the forest. “Who will go?” growled the commissar. Without even looking around he yelled, “Slobodskoy!” and prodded him with his finger.
This was not the first time that Seraphim had been sent out on reconnaissance. Why am I constantly chosen? he wondered. He always went willingly and bravely, and for some reason, others were not afraid to go alongside with him. This time two others volunteered to accompany him. Seraphim started to march across the field.
“Hey, you!” he heard a cry from behind. “You should at least crouch down!”
But no, why should he duck when no one was shooting? he thought. He kept going and going. He reached the woods and then the other two caught up with him. They turned around and saw the others in the battalion waving their hands at them, gesturing for them to come back. Seraphim and his two companions crossed the field again and returned to the others.
“Well, now we know there aren’t any Germans around,” said the Commissar. “As soon as it starts to get dark, we will move forward.”
Lying on the earth that still held on to its warmth, they waited for darkness. The angled rays of the sun lingered upon the woods that they had to take. Seraphim wished time would stand still. The air became cooler, and the orange crests of the trees slowly lost their brightness. Suddenly, the light was gone. Dusk had fallen and darkness enveloped everything. The command was given, and the crouching line of soldiers ran in a chain formation towards their target. Seraphim also ran forward, but as the men reached the middle of the open field, they were felled by machine-gun fire. Seraphim was not hit and managed to reach the shelter of the forest. It was dark. And what now? Where is everyone?
The machine guns could no longer be heard. He took two, then three steps, and stopped to listen. It seemed as if there were voices right there, beyond the bushes. He pushed the branches aside and froze from shock. Directly in front of him, almost face-to-face, was a soldier. He was wearing a round helmet. Not one of ours... a German! In that same instant, a bright light flashed across Seraphim’s eyes, and he heard the dry crack of a shot. He covered his blinded eyes with his hands. Did he shoot me? When he removed his hands from his face and his vision returned, there was no one there any longer. Perhaps the Germans had decided that the entire battalion was right behind Seraphim and so had fled.
How is it that he did not hit me? It was at point-blank range...Lord God!... My guardian angel! He felt a pang of quiet and tender joy in his heart. And there were many such events. Explosions, bullets, grenades, shooting, - but Seraphim, having hope in God, as if protected by invisible armor remained unscathed.
But at the end of 1942, his battalion was surrounded by the Germans and taken prisoner. And so, in a prisoner of war camp in Kaunas, Lithuania, a harsh life with terrible conditions befell Seraphim: hunger, filth, disease, the cold, and the cruel treatment by the Germans. Death surrounded Seraphim. Although he was not any less starved than the others, Seraphim’s prayers and hope in God kept up his weakening strength. He tried not to fall into despair knowing that “Not a hair on your head will be lost,” without the will of God. (Luke 21:18)
Whenever possible, Seraphim made small pencil sketches of everything he observed around him on scraps of paper. Once, he drew one of the sentries. The sketch delighted the guard, and later he took him to see the commandant of the prison camp. This was an especially fortunate day, and from that day forward the destiny of the prisoner-of-war, Seraphim Slobodskoy, took an entirely unique direction. The commandant of the camp was a highly cultured individual and he loved art. He selected the best artists from amongst the prisoners of war, including Seraphim. The small group of artists worked hard creating paintings, scenery, and portraits. These are two pictures that my father painted when he was in captivity in Lithuania. The artists were also sent under escort to the Kaunas Musical Theater to paint scenery for opera performances that were scheduled for German officers. I personally visited this theater in 2013 and saw the workshop where my father worked. At the camp, he met two other artists, Nikolai Aleksandrovich Papkov and Andrei Aleksandrovich Rostovtsov, and they all became life-long friends. Together they made a vow that if they survived the camps, they would build a church for the glory of God. Art saved their lives and made it possible for them to avoid the advancing Soviet army. So, hope in the Lord preserved them, and in 1945, after the end of the war, they settled with many other Russian refugees near Munich in Germany.
God works in mysterious ways as the paths of Seraphim Slobodskoy and Elena Alekseyevna Lopuchina crossed in post-war Germany. Elena’s family, the Lopuchins, came to Munich and lived at the House of the Merciful Samaritan that had been founded by Father Alexander Kiselev. He did a great deal of charitable work, rendered assistance, and provided refuge to many displaced Russians. In this house Father Alexander had started an outpatient clinic, a publishing department, and a school. There, 20-year-old Elena, who was called Yolochka by her family, enrolled in nursing courses along with her mother, Fekla Bogdanovna,. Soon Yolochka also started teaching at the school. And of course, she took part in divine services with her family and sang in the choir.
Seraphim, who also lived near Munich, in Pasing, was full of energy and enthusiasm. He organized various activities and sports competitions, but more importantly, sensing the incredible spiritual hunger among the displaced people who found themselves in Germany after the war, he organized a religious youth group. Mature in his faith, he led discussions where he was able to spark his listeners interest and captivate them.
In 1948, Seraphim’s group was invited to a conference of the Russian Student Christian Movement (ÐÑÕÄ) - organized by the same father Alexander Kiselev. At this conference, Seraphim met Elena Alekseyevna. They soon fell in love and got married in 1949. It was a double wedding with Oleg Mikhailovich Rodzianko and Yolochka’s sister, Tatyana Alekseyevna Lopukhina.
I would like to say a little about the special relationship between my parents. From the start of their marriage, they did everything together and made all their decisions jointly. I would like to recount one example that shows my parents’ cooperation with one another and their willingness to defer to each other. In those post-war years, many of the Russians living in Germany applied for permanent residence in various countries, and gradually, most moved away. And so it happened that the choir director and reader in their church left, and there was no one who knew the Slavonic language well. Elena Alekseyevna took this responsibility upon herself. She learned the structure of the services and improved in her ability to read and sing in church so that everything could proceed smoothly and with dignity. Seraphim Alekseyevich, realizing that his Yolochka was needed in church, humbly stayed at home in the evenings to care for his newborn daughter, Tania, although for him God and church were so important. Was not this divine providence, to give a future Matushka the opportunity to gain experience and the necessary education to develop a strong foundation in church singing, reading, and the order of the services?
In 1951, Seraphim was ordained into the priesthood, although for a long time he had declined, considering himself unworthy and realizing his own shortcomings of being demanding and having a short temper. His wife, however, tried to convince him to take this step and supported him. As you can see, even in this great matter they made the decision together. After their arrival in America in 1953, Fr. Seraphim was appointed rector of the small church of the Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack. In a short time, Father Seraphim and Matushka won the respect, trust and love of the parishioners.
Much can be said about all their work and achievements. It is worth mentioning the wonderful and glorious construction of this landmark, the Holy Virgin Protection Church, whose architect was Vladimir Mikhailovich Tolstoy. It was built by Russian "refugees" who immigrated to America, virtually empty-handed. And despite the challenges of settling in a new country, these "newcomers," inspired by their beloved pastor, erected this church. In response to those who were afraid to begin the construction due to a lack of funds, Father Seraphim said, “Money is not your concern, it is the concern of our Lord God. After all, we are building a church.” All the parishioners: men, women, and children, participated in this project, and later, Matushka and the members of the sisterhood gilded the cupola by hand.
Are not the works of God marvelous indeed? The former prisoners of war, artists Seraphim Slobodskoy, Nikolai Papkov and Andrei Rostovtsov, fulfilled their pledge, and each artist contributed to the construction of this wonderful church: Papkov – painted the frescoes, Rostovtsov – designed the iconostasis, and Father Seraphim – planned and oversaw the construction of the church. And with what love Father Seraphim planned every detail. Some of the larger icons in the church were his work: The Resurrection of Christ over the royal doors, the Crucifixion, and St. Seraphim of Sarov. He also painted many of the smaller icons of various saints.
It is difficult to compare our times with the burst of energy that was prevalent in those years, when, despite personal difficulties and hardships, everyone worked together and was united in church activities and projects. And Matushka, even though she had a family with young children and was always busy with parish responsibilities, never missed church services or a service of special needs. The doors of their home were always open, and Matushka was hospitable and ready to receive and serve refreshments or meals to the constant stream of parishioners, relatives, friends, clergy and bishops who visited. Everyone looked to Father Seraphim for consolation in personal sorrows or advice on pressing church matters. It should be noted, however, that my mother was not very interested in cleaning up after such visits. Fortunately, her mother, Fekla Bogdanovna, Baba Tesya, who called my mother "professor," knowing her preference for working on Russian School projects and teaching, often came and washed the large pile of dishes remaining in the kitchen. Baba Tesya helped the parish in many ways, she sang in the church choir and for a while was the conductor. During singing classes at Russian school and at various performances and Christmas celebrations (Yolkas), she always accompanied on the piano. Moreover, all of my mother’s relatives, the Lopuchins, supported Father Seraphim in parish affairs. My mother's sisters, Sanechka, Anyoka and Tanya participated in the sisterhood, taught at the parish school and sang in the choir. Uncle Misha Ossorguine was the choir director in our church for many years, and Uncle Kolya Lopuchin was a long-term church warden. Their dedication was inspirational to many.
Father Seraphim and Matushka founded the parish school together. They both knew how to attract and inspire people to help and volunteer their time. Father Seraphim himself taught the law of God, and Matushka was the school director for many years. She put her whole soul into working with children and taught with love. With the help of many parishioners, she compiled lesson programs and textbooks, staged Christmas Yolki, where with much joy, she led songs, dances and games around the tree. For my mother, all the students and children of the parish were family, and the children responded to her with the same love. For everyone, she was Tsyotsia Yolochka.
A neighboring priest, Father Andrei Semyanko, recounted the following story that took place in his parish during one of their annual Christmas celebrations (Yolka). Ded Moroz (Santa Claus) had arrived with gifts for the children, and one little boy approached him.
“Where do you go to Russian School?” asked Ded Moroz.
“The Russian School in Nyack,” he answered.
“Which class are you in?”
“I go to pre-school,” responded the boy
“And who is your teacher?” inquired Ded Moroz.
With a broad smile, Ded Moroz exclaimed, “Tsyotsia Yolochka was my teacher, too!
Matushka Yolochka believed fervently that bringing up children is one of the most important responsibilities in this world. She said that it is often the children who pull their parents to attend services, and as a result the entire family becomes closer to God and faith.
Knowing the importance of the participation of all children in church services, Father Seraphim encouraged the boys to serve as acolytes in the altar, while Matushka Yolochka organized a “junior sisterhood” for the girls. They wore light blue dresses with white aprons and white headscarves. They too, had a schedule for helping, and their job was to assist in selling candles and to take care of the candle stands.
Father Seraphim left all of us his wonderful book, The Law of God, which he wrote and illustrated with diligence and love. In his eulogy at Father Seraphim’s funeral, Bishop Averky described this book as ”a veritable monument not made ??by human hands.”
Long ago in Russia, Seraphim’s father had once said to him, “Russia is such a vast country, and yet no one here has created a good textbook about the Law of God.”
These words made a lasting impression on him and continually tugged at his soul. While still in Germany, he wrote a slim volume entitled, God’s World for his newborn daughter, Tania. He wrote the text out by hand and painted all the color illustrations. His original idea was that this was going to be the first volume of a series of colorfully illustrated books that he intended to write. Later, in America, Father Seraphim decided to publish his book in a single volume, in the form in which it appears today.
Father Seraphim wrote The Law of God for Orthodox families and schools outside of Russia with the hope that someday his work would spread to his homeland. Not only did this come true, but Father Seraphim’s modest dream has multiplied many times over.
Today, I am very glad to see our dear campers from NORR, who have come to honor the memory of Father Seraphim. In 1967, together with Vasily Fyodorovich Zhukov, Father Seraphim founded the children's summer camp NORR, and became its first spiritual father. He became fully intertwined in camp life and taught the law of God. But it was not only in church and at services, however, that he had an influence on the campers. In his youth, my father was an athlete. He played soccer and was a goalkeeper. He also excelled in volleyball and gorodki. All this helped him find a common language with the campers, and they responded to him with love and respect. The last time Father Seraphim was in the camp was in July 1971, just three months before his death.
Father Seraphim reposed in the Lord on November 5, 1971. For my mother, who was only 45 years old, and for our family and the parish, it was a tremendously heavy blow. Matushka Yolochka cherished and honored the memory of Father Seraphim, and despite her grief, continued her educational work and service to the church. She taught continuously in the parish Russian school and started a nursery program for preschool children. Along with Sofia Sergeyevna Koulomzin, she created the children's Orthodox magazine "Trezvon” and later was the main editor. “Trezvon” had stories, poems, crafts and songs and was even sent to Russia.
Matushka also founded the summer camp Otrada for five to eight year old children, and thus provided them with the opportunity to learn Russian, sing, play, and socialize with friends. Later, at camp NORR, each summer she created lessons with a unified theme for the duration of the camp, such as Pushkin, Alaska, St. Sergius of Radonezh and others. While taking care of the children in the camp, she compiled a "Forest Newspaper," which contained short articles and photographs pertaining to camp events.
My mother was very fond of reading aloud. This brings to mind an episode in the camp NORR. My mother would go to the boy’s camp in the evenings, with a flashlight, to read aloud to the youngest boys so that they would fall asleep peacefully. She would read in the tent, and the counselor would wait for her to finish. My mother, who often got carried away by the story, continued to read for quite some time. Everything was already completely quiet in the tent, so finally, the counselor came in and said, "Matushka, all the children have been asleep for a long time. You can stop.”
“Yes, yes," replied Matushka, "but I'll just read to the end of the chapter!”
By the way, my mother would read a lot and often to Tanya, Vera, and me. She read a great deal of Russian literature and also classics in Russian translation. My father sometimes had to stop her because they had so much work to do. She not only loved to read to children. For many years, my mother went to read books aloud to the residents at the old age homes in Tolstoy Foundation and in Novo-Diveyevo.
In 1982, Matushka Yolochka published the "Azbuka" (Russian language primer) for children. This edition was different from all the others because it is imbued with the Orthodox spirit. For example, in the illustrations, the letter C is a priest (ñâÿùåííèê), M is prayer (ìîëèòâà), Ò is Trinity (Òðîèöà), and many others. At the end of this book, Matushka included Father Seraphim’s colorful "God's World," which I mentioned earlier. She did all this work with love and gratuitously. Her work with children brought her great satisfaction, and therefore she was especially happy and grateful when the church hall and school that had been conceived by Father Seraphim a long time ago were built.
The previous generation has left us with such a rich inheritance, and it is so important to remember and honor their work. They were grateful to have survived the war, and found joy in having the opportunity to settle in a new country where they could build their Russian communities and preserve their faith. What a blessing it is that we are in this magnificent hall named in honor of Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy, and in the lobby is his portrait painted by his friend Nikolai Aleksandrovich Papkov. And none of this would have happened without the efforts of Father Seraphim, Matushka Yolochka, and many devoted, truly Russian Orthodox people. When Father Seraphim was still a prisoner of war in 1944, he wrote out this short poem about joy by A. Maykov:
What is joy? On the path of life,
Where your duty wills you to go,
Do not know enemies, do not measure obstacles,
Love, hope, and believe!
The Christian virtue of love was the one my father considered the most important, and this love was the richest gift inherent in Father Seraphim. When I was going out with my current wife, it turned out that Father Seraphim and my future wife were driving together in a car. He turned to her and asked, "What do you think is most important in life, faith, hope or love?" Masha thought, since a priest is asking her, then he probably wants to hear, faith. So she said, “Faith.”
"No," said Father Seraphim. "The most important thing in life is love, because without it there can be neither faith nor hope!"
With his entire essence, Batiushka internalized the commandment of Christ to love God and one’s fellow man. This became such an integral part of who he was, that being a loving person became a characteristic of his personality. Father Seraphim never made any concessions in questions of faith; however, he never went to extremes and believed that human weakness and frailty should be treated with great compassion and kindness. He easily blamed himself and often repeated: "The main thing is love." He always emphasized that love must be the fundamental core of each person’s inner life. He believed that if for any reason a formalistic approach to a question violated Christ’s law about love, the response had to be reevaluated so that it would follow the exhortation of Apostle Paul, “And now abideth these three, faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). For this reason, Father Seraphim pitied those whose flaw was that they only looked to the letter of the law. This does not mean, however, that he condoned disorder or a lack of discipline. All the manifestations of the exemplary organization of life in his parish serve as proof to the contrary.
And how did Father Seraphim and Matushka show this love? Through prayer, humbleness, piety, truthfulness, patience, humility, hospitality, care, compassion and by nurturing children. And also, in that everything they achieved, they did not do for themselves but for the glory of God and for the benefit of their fellow man.
In conclusion, I will say a final word about my parents in the words of St. Ignatius Bryanchaninov – "Seek to reveal in yourself spiritual love for your neighbors: entering into it, you will enter into the love of God, into the gates of resurrection, into the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven." Father Seraphim and Matushka Yolochka served God, the church and people with love. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven!
Thank you for your attention!