News of the death of Vladyka Nektary was unexpected for everyone who knew him. We all knew that he was sick, we knew for many years of his exhausting suffering, but somehow we grew accustomed to it. It seemed nothing warned us of his speedy departure from us, just the day before he attended all-night vigil at the Cathedral in San Francisco and prayed to the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. The very feast day of the newly-canonized passion-bearers, and the end of early Liturgy, news spread that Vladyka had died.
Bishop Nektary, born Oleg Mikhailovich Kontsevich in Latvia in 1905, spent his childhood and early years in Malorussia [Belarus—transl.]. Graduating from school, Oleg Kontsevich enrolled in the Communications Engineering Institute, ultimately earning a graduate degree. He then held factory jobs, and finally emigrated, first to Germany, then to America. It would seem his fate differed little from hundreds of thousands of “displaced person,”—known as DP. But these mundane facts hid something much greater.
The late Vladyka served as a living bond with Optina Pustyn [Hermitage], and with the New Martyrs of the Russian Church. One of the most sacred recollections of Vladyka was how in his youth he was in the altar as an acolyte during a divine service celebrated by Patriarch Tikhon. Vladyka told us how Hieromartyr Onufry of Elizavetgrad would visit their home; Vladyka knew other New Martyrs personally. Vladyka would speak out with great Divine joy about their canonization by the Church, and about the first church dedicated to their name, located in Oregon, which was part of Vladyka’s vicariate.
Vladyka would say to the author of this article: “Just imagine, when we prayerfully raise our voices with the words ‘Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, pray to God for us,’ they all turn to the Divine Throne and exclaim; ‘Lord have mercy!’ and the Lord, by their prayers, bestows mercy on the Russian Church.” Vladyka firmly believed this. I remember how during the canonization service, when the powerful magnification of the New Martyrs was sung, the tears of endearment and fervent prayer that accompanied Vladyka’s participation in this prayer. It might seem strange that it was noticeable with so many clergymen and worshipers present. But it really was, because of all our hierarchs, Vladyka was the only eyewitness to the events of the 1920s and 30’s, when so many passion-bearers shone forth. It is worth noting that Vladyka himself was tonsured a reader in 1930 in Taganrog by Bishop Iosif (Chernov), and so was a member of the clergy of the persecuted Church.
Other sacred memories of Vladyka were from when Optina Pustyn was not yet closed, and his entire family was under the spiritual guidance of the last inspired elder, Hieromonk Nektary. Even before it was closed, the Kontsevich family continued to receive spiritual nourishment from the elder, who was in exile at the time. In his memory, Vladyka’s mother was tonsured a nun with the name Nektaria, and later our Vladyka received this name. By this time, Vladyka came to know Archbishop Andrei (Rimarenko), who was then just a young priest, Fr Adrian, and also sought spiritual the guidance of the great elder. Their friendship rekindled in Kiev during the German occupation, and Vladyka Nektary was evacuated with a group of believers under Fr Adrian to Berlin, where Fr Adrian became the senior priest of the cathedral, and Oleg Mikhailovich served as a subdeacon in the same cathedral. Vladyka often said: “I am a chronic subdeacon.” This was noticeable in the way he served, which was marked by its ritualism, ceremony and pious prayerfulness. There was not a single unneeded motion, everything was perfectly measured, and Vladyka’s giant stature have him an unusual stateliness, none of which was feigned, everything was natural and simple. One of Vladyka’s characteristic traits was what he himself called “my pathological punctuality.” Everyone who served with him knew that one could set one’s watch by the time of his arrival at the cathedral, exactly at 9:45 am.
Upon Vladyka’s arrival in America (in 1953), he entered monasticism, and, ordained to the deaconate and then the priesthood, he was appointed to the cathedral in San Fransisco. There his pastoral service continued until 1962, when he was called to the episcopal service.
The archpastoral service of Vladyka began in the difficult period of church troubles in San Francisco connected with the construction of the new cathedral, and the Enemy of Mankind was fanning the flames of human passions and meddled with this good task. Vladyka suffered many blows himself for this, which he staunchly endured. After Vladyka John (Maximovich) died, and before Archbishop Anthony (Medvedev) arrived in San Francisco, Vladyka Nektary wisely and calmly ran the diocese, directing church life back into a normal routine.
As Vicar of the Western American Diocese, Vladyka had to tend to its northern region, providing fatherly care for the spiritual needs of Orthodox Christians scattered throughout various regions without a parish church. Vladyka also loved St Herman’s Skete in Platina [where Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) lived—ed.], and shared its joys and sorrows.
Probably most dear about Vladyka to us, his spiritual children, to whom he had limitless paternal love, was that after making confession to Vladyka, we would depart like we were walking on air. His gift as a spiritual father was uncommon. Even if he had to rebuke us for something, Vladyka always did it gently and with his ever-present humor, so the person accepted the criticism without anger, but happily.
This is the Vladyka we keep in our memory. Simple, gentle, accessible, he loved to say: “I don’t know how to be a bishop,” and at the same time was staunch in matters of faith and principle.
The funeral and burial of the late hierarch was performed at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, on Thursday, February 10, 1983. Leading the services was Archbishop Anthony of San Francisco and Western America, along with Archbishop Laurus of Syracuse and Holy Trinity, twelve priests, two protodeacons and four deacons. The coffin was carried around the church to the singing of “Helper and Protector,” and interred in the earth behind the altar in the monastic cemetery. The sorrow of loss was eased because there was deep snow all around and a bright sun shone, like in Russia, which Vladyka so loved.
We believe that it was no accident that Vladyka departed from us on the feast day of the Holy New Martyrs of Russia, but that his labors towards their glorification were pleasing to the Lord, and that now he is with the Church Triumphant together with the New Martyrs, praising the Lord and praying for us sinners. By his prayers, o Lord, have mercy on us!
Protodeacon Andre Papkov
(now Protopriest and Senior Priest of the Cathedral in Chicago).
Pravoslavnaya Rus’, No. 3, 1983.