Archbishop NAFANAIL (Lvov)

The Early Years of Our First Hierarch Metropolitan Philaret

In ancient Russian Lives of Saints and chronicles, one often finds the phrase: “He was a good offshoot of a good root.” I would like to apply these words to our First Hierarch, Metropolitan Philaret.

His father, protopriest Fr. Nikolai Voznesenky, who later assumed the monastic life and became the archbishop of Khailar, where he was one of the finest, if not the very finest, clergymen of the Far East diocese of Manchuria, already rich with good pastors.

Having graduated Moscow Theological Academy, Fr. Nikolai had an impressive and multi-faceted theological and scientific education. He wrote the finest textbooks on the Law of God, which were used by Russian youth throughout the Far East. It must be noted that in the Far East, the study of the Law of God was not abbreviated, but expanded, similar to the way it was taught in pre-revolutionary Russia.

In Harbin, Fr. Nikolai Voznesensky moved from the city of Blagoveshchensk, which bordered Manchuria, as soon as the Amur region fell to the Bolsheviks. In Harbin, Fr. Nikolai became the rector of the magnificent Iveron Church, which before the revolution was the church of the Amur Military District.

Soon upon his arrival in Harbin, if not back in Blagoveshchensk, Fr. Nikolai lost his dear wife and enthusiastically assumed the rearing of his children—two sons and three daughters.

The family of Fr. Nikolai was suffused with enlightened, purely Orthodox, deeply religious spirit. The author of these lines was friendly with every member of the family. There interests were so multi-faceted! So many varying and profound were the topics of their conversations during teatime and in the cosy rectory of Iveron Church!

It was in this gracious atmosphere that the young Yura grew up, later to become the student Georgii Nikolaevich Voznesenky, already in those years become Fr. George and soon Fr. Philaret, and now our First Hierarch, His Eminence Metropolitan Philaret.

Harbin was an anomaly at that time. Built by the Russians on Chinese territory, it was a typical Russian provincial town for another 25 years after the revolution. There were 26 Orthodox churches in Harbin, of those, 22 real parish churches, a whole network of middle schools and 6 institutions of higher learning. By the mercy of God, Harbin continued its normal, pre-revolutionary life for a quarter-century.

Even the recognition by China of the Soviet Union in 1924 and the transfer to Soviet hands of the railroad, with all the rights pertaining to it which Manchuria enjoyed under the Tsarist government, the arrival in Harbin of the emissaries of Moscow only superficially changed the way of life in the city.

More noticeable was the cessation of material support for the Church by the railroad administration and the seizure by the Soviets of a portion of the higher and middle educational institutions in Harbin and Manchuria.

There were many higher and middle educational institutions in Harbin. But there was one thing missing there: there were no higher theological schools.

There was a polytechnical institute, a legal educational institution, an institute of commerce, of Eastern languages, a pedagogical institute, at one time a medical school, which closed as a result of lack of funding for equipment.

Yet there was no religious school. It seemed to many that there was no need for one, because Harbin had few young people interested in a clerical profession. Yura Voznesensky was one of the first. From his early years, he loved the Church with loving devotion. He heard deep, often inspired, broadly-knowledgable words of witness of the Church. Attentively reading the works of the Holy Fathers with love, he was literally infused with their words.

He loved mathematics for its pure, dispassionate clarity. For this reason, with the lack of a theological school, he enrolled in the Polytechnical Institute and graduated with honors.
Yet the thirst for religious studies remained unsatisfied in him.

Fr. Nikolai began to work towards gaining a religious education for his son outside of Harbin. The young engineer, G.N. Voznesensky was accepted into the American Theological Institute in Wisconsin. His acceptance hinged on certain conditions, and in the end, Georgii Nikolaevich had to decline his acceptance.

Another young student who sought to become a clergyman tried to take advantage of the same plan, but also could not. When several years later he told his sad story to the renowned Serbian hierarch and sermonizer, Bishop Nikolai Okhriditsky, the latter responded: “Thank God for that…I studied there for eight years and learned the same things I learned in two years at an Anglican school.”

After this setback, Fr. Nikolai began to try to create a theological school in Harbin. In connection with the option at the American school, it was revealed that besides G. Voznesenky there were other young people who wished to follow a religious calling.

Finally, Fr. Nikolai Voznesensky was able to establish Pastoral-Theological Courses, which were immediately approved by the Synod of Bishops as a fully-accredited institution of higher theological learning, however, the Manchurian government only recognized it as such some years later.

Fr. Nikolai was the very soul of these courses. He was the President of the Pedagogical Council, a lecturer on Holy Scripture, Church History, and Apologetics. But there were other brilliant and fascinating professors and teachers at the Theological Courses. There were primarily professors of the Kazan Theological Academy. The Course offered 15 subjects. There were 14 students in the first class, and eleven in the second. Almost all of these students fervently and selflessly devoted themselves to their studies.

Enrolling in the Courses, G. Voznesensky immediately outshone the others as the best student. At the same time, he was ordained into the deaconate as a celibate, that is, not marrying yet not entering the monkhood. In due time he became a priest, also celibate.

At the same time, living in Harbin, Bishop Nestor of Kamchatka, who lived in Harbin yet did not join the diocese and so independent, created a so-called House of Mercy—an orphanage for orphans and a refuge for the elderly.

A magnificent church was built at the House of Mercy. A need for clergymen arose. In 1929, Bishop Nestor tonsured into the monkhood one of the students of the Theological Courses, a friend of Fr. George Voznesenky. Fr. George began to visit the House of Mercy and a short time later decided to become a monk, settling there with another priest-monk. Upon his tonsuring, Fr. George was given the name Philaret. This began the life of a monastic community at the House of Mercy.
Along with his friend, Fr. Philaret lived in a cell for 8 years, and, recently, remembering those days, he told the nuns of Lesna Convent in France: “We lived with Fr. NN for eight years in one cell and did not quarrel once.”

Both young monks daily, in turn, performed divine services in the church, read the rules and the Holy Fathers. Still, they had little knowledge of special monastic services, such as midnight office and compline.

But in 1930, two monks of the Holy Trinity Monastery, so-called Shmakovsky, the holy lavra of the Far East established in the end of the 19th century by the great Spirit-bearing strugglers, Fathers Sergii and German, arrived from the Primoriye region, which they fled. The monastery was halfway between Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, 20 kilometers from the railroad station of Shmakovka. Since the founders of the monastery were tonsures of Valaam Monastery, the monastic rule of the latter was introduced.

This monastery had been very active: there were workshops, a tailor works, shoe manufactury, metalsmithy, woodshop and blacksmithy. There were also a printshop and bindery. The monastery’s books educated all of the Russian Far East. There was an apiary and a dairy farm with a special area for reindeer breeding. There were orangeries and nurseries under the supervision of Hegumen Sergii, who had finished the Higher Agronomical Institue, in which the monks acclimatized for the Far East all sorts of vegetables and fruiting plants of Russia. There was a candle factory and a school. There were up to 300 monks and novices there. The Monastery owned 3753 dessiatins [transl. note: each dessiatina is equal to 2.7 acres] of land, mostly in the remote areas of the coastal, semi-tropical taiga.

Most importantly, there was a high level of spiritual struggle in the monastery, to which Orthodox souls were drawn from the entire Far East, seeking the “Lenten life,” as to a lantern. Among the brethren were not only Russians but Orthodox Chinese as well, and Koreans and a few Japanese.
All this was rooted out by the communists in 1926. The monastery was closed, monks driven away, the workshops and means of production seized and collectivized. But in two years, nothing was left: the reindeer died off, the acclimatized plants disappeared.

The priest Father Vasiliy Bystrov had become a widower a few years earlier (the reposed archimandrite of New-Root Hermitage in Mahopac, Fr. Innokentii), and the novice, Brother Andrei, who lived in Shmakovsky Monastery, four years after its closing fled to Manchuria to Bishop Nestor, whom they knew from frequent visits of the bishop to the monastery.

Fr. Vasiliy and Brother Andrei, soon tonsured into the monkhood with the name of Kliment, settled in a room besides the cell of Fr. Philaret and the other hieromonk. Fr. Vasiliy and Fr. Kliment introduced the monastic Rule of Shmakovsky Monastery, that is, that of Valaam, into the newly-expanding monastic community of the House of Mercy.

The monks arose every morning at 4:30 a.m. At 5 a.m. they read the midnight office. Following was the liturgy, which was served by rotation. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Fr. Philaret served. Wednesdays and Thursdays, his friend, Fridays and Saturdays, Fr. Vasiliy Bystrov. On Sundays, Bishop Nestor served along with all the clergymen of the House of Mercy.

After dinner, the monks served compline. Tha canon was read, including the akathist. The spiritual fervor of the monks urged them to seek out additional readings which could be included.
After compline until the end of midnight office, all conversations were forbidden.

Spiritual fervor is always contagious. The young monks of the House of Mercy were gradually joined by young people who loved the Church and were drawn to the monastic life. Some of them assumed monasticism. By the middle of the 1930’s, there were already 9 monks at the House of Mercy.
Among these we will note the close friend of Fr. Philaret, Hieromonk Mefodii (Kyrill in his temporal life) Iogel, who later became the eminent sermonizer, who died a tragically-young age. Also to be noted is Fr. Niel, K. Nosov in his temporal life, a selfless youth who in 1934-5 secretly went to Russia with anti-communist assignments from patriotic organizations in Harbin. He also died young, having contracted a cold and tuberculosis as a result of immersing himself in the cold waters of the Amur in October during his return from Russia. We also note the Chinese Fr. Ilya, who established a candle factory at the House of Mercy.

In 1932, Fr. Philaret, together with scouts from the Harbin brigade, walked 107 kilometers to Maoershan Station, where he was to set up a children’s summer camp.

This distance was covered by the brigade in three days. On the first day, 40 kilometers was hiked, the second, 35 and on the third, 28 kilometers were to have been traveled, but since the difference between the verst and kilometers, the scouts were mistakenly told that the distance between Harbin and Maoershan was 103 kilometers instead of 107.

These last four extra kilometers were particularly difficult for the young men and children. It was dry and hot that summer.

There was no river, no stream on the road for a long time. Water from canteens was long ago finished. Their thirst was intolerable. Suddenly, a small swamp appeared.

“Fr. Philaret,” resounded the voices of the children, “bless this water, we’ll drink from it then, and nothing will happen to us.”

Fr. Philaret read the Lord’s Prayer and blessed the “drink for the servants of God.”
The scouts threw themselves into the water.

“Fr. Philaret, I swallowed a tadpole,” said one boy.

“That’s alright, this water was blessed. ‘For he who drinks of poison will not be harmed,’ it says in Scripture,” said Scout Semyon wisely, one of the frequent worshipers and the monastic services at the House of Mercy.

When during the final two “additional” kilometers to Maoershan, the children reached their limits, sitting down and refusing to continue, the lone voice of Fr. Philaret began, quietly at first: “I crossed the water as on dry land, and escaped the wickedness of Egypt…” The holy words were caught up by the children, of which some half sang in their church choirs. A flash of courage flashed through the tired faces of the children. They gathered themselves up and with the singing of the irmosi reached Maoershan Station, where they were met by a group who had traveled by train.

In camp, Fr. Philaret and his friend, with the help of the scouts, built a camp chapel from intertwined branches, in which daily monastic services were performed, the midnight office and compline, all-night vigil on Saturdays and divine liturgy on Sundays.

They accompanied the scouts on long hikes. Especially interesting was the hike to Maoershan Mountain, at which the visited a Buddhist monastery, and found a cave in which there was a fossilized image of an ancient saber-toothed tiger.

Besides the scout camp, Fr. Philaret ministered to a similar camp of another youth organization competing with the scouts.

Not far from the scout camp was a large raspberry garden belonging to a Chinese merchant, who would allow the scouts in for 10 cents a person. The children were able to eat all the raspberries they could there, but couldn’t take any with them.

One time, Fr. Philaret joined the children on a visit to the raspberry garden. Before eating a berry, Fr. Philaret crossed himself. The children followed his example and one of the little “wolf cubs” said: “It’s so good that a priest is with us—before we gulped raspberries without crossing ourselves!”
Seeing how some children eagerly attacked the raspberries and quarreled over them, Fr. Philaret said:

“We are stuffing ourselves with delicious raspberries now, but the ancient fathers did not have the same approach. One holy hermit father was brought as a gift a large frond of ripe, sweet grapes. The holy father thanked them, but did not eat of it himself, but sent it to a neighboring hermit. He did the same. And all the holy fathers of the desert did so, too. Finally, the grapes returned to the first hermit, and he rejoiced that all the hermits of the area turned out to be just as restrained.”
“But what happened to the grapes?” asked one scout.

“I don’t know, but I think that the first hermit squeezed the juice out of them, and then, when it became wine, used it for liturgy,” said Fr. Philaret.

“So, does that mean that we shouldn’t eat the raspberries?” asked one crestfallen boy.
“No, children, eat the raspberries as you like. But do not give your entire souls over to it. Do not be enslaved by raspberries, or any other food. Eat with your mouths and stomachs, but do not give your souls to it. I told you about the ancient hermits, great giants of spirit, not to spoil your appetite for the raspberries, but to remind you that our guides, our examples, are not those who are enslaved by bodily instincts, but those who could master them, those who did not touch the delicious grapes, although, of course, they very much wished to no less than we wish to eat the raspberries, but they could subject their desires to the effort to struggle in spirit and to their care for their neighbors. That is what we must learn.”

* * * * *

To a great degree because of Fr. Philaret’s influence, the main readings in the House of Mercy were the works of the Holy Fathers. The young monks tried to sate their souls with their holy guidance and shining examples.

The young monastics of the House of Mercy were greatly impressed by the lessons of the Holy Fathers on how to be tactful with one another. It is said that one of the ancient monks would often recline and cross his legs, which was considered unseemly for a monk. Not wishing to insult his brother by rebuking him, but wishing to help correct this behavior, two holy elders agreed that one would recline in the same position and the other would make a remark. They did so, and the young monk corrected his unmonk-like habit.

A couple of years after the establishment of the House of Mercy, one of the monks began to read a temporal book. Brother Semyon saw this and was troubled. But remembering the testament of the Holy Fathers on the importance of tactfulness, he kept circling the monk and finally asked:
“Fr. N., what are you reading?”
“Mowgli, by Kipling.”

“I also used to read useless books before I entered the monastery.”


* * * * *

Not all the young people who attended the House of Mercy became monks, but all became close to the Church.

In the mid-1930’s, the Soviet authorities sold the Eastern Chinese Railroad to Japan. Tens of thousands of Russians who worked on the railroad were dismissed and had to choose: to depart for the USSR or to remain jobless in Manchuria. Among those who remained were many young people, educated in Soviet schools, where they were drawn away from the Church and persuaded that religion was incompatible with science and was a sign of ignorance.

Among these young people, the monks of the House of Mercy did missionary work, using the simplest methods.

Fr. Philaret always loved to fish. The fishing in Manchuria was very good. On days free of church services and other obligations, Fr. Philaret and other young monks invited the former Soviet youth to go fishing with them, and often around the campfires at night on the beautiful banks of the Sungari River or at small lakes, after inspired conversations, the spiritual eyes of these young people would be opened to the founding tenets of the faith.

Once three such young Soviet-educated people came to matins being performed by Fr. Philaret and his friend. After service, the five of them had to leave for an overnight fishing trip. But suddenly one of the parishioners requested a service of need. The young people had to wait.

“Read something here,” said the monks to them.
“What is there to read, this is only religious stuff, it’s not interesting,” protested the youths wanly.
Fr. Philaret opened the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 27 and 28, and gave it to them to read during the service of commemoration. Twenty minutes later, finishing the service, the monks approached the youths.
“We’re ready to go fishing.”
“Wait, let us finish reading, this really is interesting.” And so those who had never read Holy Scripture became acquainted with it.

* * * * *

Besides daily services, the monks of the House of Mercy carried obediences in the teaching of the Law of God in an orphanage and in various middle schools of Harbin. The students of the girls’ Aksakov Gymnasium would say later: “Of all the classes in the Law of God, we only remember those of Fr. Philaret.”

Having become a monk and settling at the House of Mercy, Fr. Philaret continued to preserve close ties to his father, Protopriest N. Voznesensky, who also soon after assumed the monkhood with the name of Dimitriy, and became bishop (later archbishop) of Khailar.

Despite the fact that the House of Mercy and Iveron Church, where Bishop Dimitriy lived, were in opposite ends of the city, Fr. Philaret often visited his father. Once, returning from a visit to his father, Fr. Philaret came upon a beggar asking for alms in the name of Christ. Fr. Philaret only had 10 cents with him, the price of a ticket from Iveron Church to the House of Mercy.

Still, he gave these 10 cents to the beggar, and continued on foot, some 5-6 kilometers away—an hour and a half away at a brisk pace. On the way, Fr. Philaret thought about the fact that they say that if one gives in the name of Christ, that it will be returned to you a hundredfold, but this does not happen on earth.

Returning to the House of Mercy, he remembered that the marriage of two of his spiritual children was scheduled that day, which he was to perform. Donations for services of need were collected in a common cup, which was then distributed for the maintenance of the orphanage and old persons’ home, and a part going to the clergymen.

But in this case, the newlyweds, putting in the corresponding amount into the cup, gave Fr. Philaret 10 dollars, saying:

“Dear Father, please, take these ten dollars for yourself personally, it’s from our love for you.”
This way, Fr. Philaret, a few hours after giving away 10 cents in the name of Christ, received exactly a hundredfold in return. Approaching his monk-friends, he said sadly:

“For today’s kind deed I will receive nothing in the Kingdom of Heaven, since I received my reward in its entirety here on earth.”

* * * * *

Metropolitan Anthony was still among the living then. The young monks of the House of Mercy nurtured endless respect and love for the great elder bishop, father and teacher of the Church. His works, especially “Testament,” “Pastoral Theology,” “Lexicon for the Works of Dostoevsky,” were favorite readings of these young monks. They were raised on Metropolitan Anthony’s writings, they absorbed them, maturing in spirit, and kept the image of these works before them.

Despite the 10,000 kilometers separating them, the Metropolitan found these young admirers of his, Fr. Philaret and his friend, who wrote to him. Burdened by great labors, serious concerns in heading our much-suffering Church in exile, the elderly Metropolitan found time to respond to these two young monks, who seemed so insignificant then.

Soon afterwards, one of the monks of the House of Mercy [the author of these lines—ed.] was to accompany Bishop Nestor during his trip to the Council of Bishops convening in Yugoslavia, and saw Metropolitan Anthony there himself.

Metropolitan Anthony greeted the young monk with fatherly love and asked him about each of the monastics of the House of Mercy by name, especially Fr. Philaret, whom he especially loved among the group. It may be that as early as 1933, his grace-filled spirit allowed him to foresee the great bishop, that the lantern he lit in the diaspora would be passed to the hands of this very young hieromonk.

One episode showed this especially cleary. Not long before his departure from Yugoslavia, sitting at the table with Metropolitan Anthony, the monk from Manchuria turned to the First Hierarch with the request to give him an autographed photo as a memento. Vladyka Anthony eagerly complied. The Metropolitan’s aide, Fr. Archimandrite Feodosii brought him a photograph for his inscription.
The Manchurian monk looked over the shoulder of Vladyka and froze. The Metropolitan wrote: “To my dear and favored Fr. Hieromonk Philaret, with heartfelt love, Metropolitan Anthony.” Despite that fact that another hieromonk was standing beside him, some half a meter away, the mind and heart of Vladyka Anthony were with the one he chose, never having seen in person, ten thousand kilometers away.

The disappointed sigh of Fr. N. distracted Vladyka Anthony from his writing. He raised his head, looked at Fr. N. warmly and said:

“Oh, yes, this photograph was meant for you,” and taking another one, he made a similar inscription upon it.

So, for thousands of miles, a thread was stretched between two blessed leaders of our holy Orthodox Church Abroad, the great Metropolitan Anthony and our present [third-ed.] First Hierarch, the blessed, humble spirit-bearer, Metropolitan Philaret.

From the compendium “Conversations on Holy Scripture and Faith,” New York, 1995.

Home Page |News | Dioceses | History | Our Legacy