(Editor’s note: Today, we are very pleased to introduce a new author here at OrthodoxHistory.org. Deacon Matthew Francis lives in Edmonton, Alberta, and is one of the leading historians of Orthodoxy in Canada. For some time now, he has been conducting independent research into the life of Archbishop Arseny Chagovtsov, among many other aspects of Canadian Orthodox history. The article that follows is helpful in understanding why so many people in Canada have such great affection for Abp Arseny, who, indeed, had a significant impact on Orthodoxy in both Canada and the United States.)
Over the past several weeks, much has been written – both on OrthodoxHistory.org and elsewhere – about the 1909 libel trials involving Archbishop Arseny (Chagovtsov). Unfortunately, for many casual observers, this episode, while very important, may be all they know of this fascinating figure, who played a significant role in Orthodox history in North America.
In the interests of full disclosure, and by way of personal introduction, I acknowledge up front that I write as both a deacon of the Archdiocese of Canada and as a historical researcher. While I was not a member of the Archdiocesan Committee that researched and prepared the Vita, I have over the past few years conducted oral history relating to Vladyka Arseny’s legacy, interviewing elder clergy and faithful that knew him personally. In December of 2009, I was asked by His Eminence, Archbishop Seraphim, to continue this research work, collaborating with Fr. John Hainsworth. I have been carrying out this task, and continue to do so. While there is much that we know about Archbishop Arseny’s life, there are also many elusive questions for which we still seek greater knowledge. So, as time permits, we endeavor to track down the various sources and pursue leads to understand more deeply the context and meaning of Archbishop Arseny’s work. It is hoped that all of these efforts, now spanning approximately twenty years within the Archdiocese of Canada, will be useful to the renewed Canonization Commission of the Orthodox Church in America as they carry out their investigative work with all prayerful diligence, faith, and prudence.
In this light, I am grateful for the work of OrthodoxHistory.org, and of both Matthew Namee and Fr. Oliver Herbel for bringing to light the sources around the 1909 criminal libel trial against the publication Svoboda. I do, however, differ from Fr. Oliver in my conclusions about the alleged 1906 rape of Mary Krinitsky. While acknowledging that it is probably impossible to establish his guilt or innocence with certainty, Fr. Oliver leans towards the possibility of Archbishop Arseny’s guilt. I believe that that there is a strong case to be made that he was, in fact, innocent. While I will articulate this claim in future posts, it should be clarified that Mary Krinitsky ultimately denied that any such assault ever happened in the first place.
The purpose of this post is not to re-state the basic introductions to Archbishop Arseny available elsewhere online, such as the Orthodox wiki article or the Vita prepared by the Canonization Committee of the O.C.A.’s Archdiocese of Canada. Rather, my purpose in writing is to briefly highlight some specific aspects of his life and career, indicating along the way some of the context behind why Archbishop Arseny has been considered for glorification as a saint. In future articles, I intend to introduce readers of this site to other aspects of Orthodox history in Canada. Along the way, I will address in detail important vignettes from the life of Archbishop Arseny, such as the occasion of his being shot in Canora, Saskatchewan while attending a clergy assembly in 1935.
Archbishop Arseny’s ministry is broad in scope, spanning continents and many different types of service over six tumultuous decades. In this post, I would like to highlight some of the historical roles that this intrepid man took on. I believe that sketching out these roles provides an appropriate balance and context to the ongoing, and essential, discussion of the serious accusations made against Archbishop Arseny. Sound discernment of whether he should be formally recognized as a God-bearing saint will emerge from this kind of balanced searching for truth, taking all things into account. While some may dismiss these themes as overtly hagiographic, they are apparent in the historical record, in letters and articles in the Vestnik, and must be given their due. St. Tikhon’s Monastery has a cache of highly relevant material easily accessible.
Archbishop Arseny transmitted Orthodox monastic life to North America
In early 1905, the young Hieromonk Arseny was serving in the North American Diocese as Rector of the Parish of St. John the Baptist in Mayfield Pennsylvania. He dreamed of developing a monastery that could serve as a spiritual heart for the mission in America. The story of the founding of what would become St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery has Archbishop Arseny as its protagonist. He traveled in a horse and buggy with St. Tikhon over the hills of Pennsylvania when the Archbishop chose the lands. He raised the money and created the plans. He fostered the Brotherhood and welcomed the first monks. He built the buildings and paid for the establishment and sustenance of the Orphanage out of his own funds. Most of all, however, Father Arseny established the first monastery in North America, rooted in the ascetic and spiritual traditions of the Orthodox faith. Working closely with Sts. Tikhon, Raphael, Alexis (Toth), and Alexander (Hotovitsky) in the years 1905-1908, Father Arseny, is described by them all with deep respect. In 1906, he was raised to the rank of Igumen by St. Tikhon, and in 1909 to Archimandrite by the Holy Synod.
I suppose such ‘external’ recognition has its place. I found it compelling, however, that in my conversations in the Summer of 2009 with a few esteemed archpriests of the O.C.A., who, as young seminarians knew the Archbishop in his last years, the word they used to describe his attitude was “repentance.” It is repentance that is at the heart of the monastic life. I hope, in due time, with their permission, to publish the transcripts of these interviews. They convey something of Archbishop Arseny’s own life and attitude – one of quietness and love, that should not be disregarded.
Archbishop Arseny proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ
During his early ministry in Canada, then Archimandrite Arseny distinguished himself and served his flock by his Gospel preaching. A few allusive quotations shed light on this aspect of +Arseny’s ministry. It was during this time, 1908-1910,
that he gained the affectionate title, “The Canadian Chrysostom” for his extraordinary preaching talents. He became famous for his sermons, which being published in an Orthodox journal of the day, The Canadian Field, eventually were read in Russia by Czar Nicolas II. The Russian Emperor was so taken with his sermons that “in order to thank him for this ‘food for the soul’ (as he referred to the articles written by Archimandrite Arseny) – bestowed on him a gold pectoral cross sent directly to him by His Majesty’s offices.” (Historical Chronology, p. 17)
We hear, for instance, in July 1909, Andrij Herbut, who was Starosta (Board Chairman) of St. Barbara’s Church in Edmonton, Alberta, about one of Arseny’s visits where many came from all over: “But when they heard the famous preacher the hearts of lost sinners were softened and many of them shed tears.” (The Life of Archbishop Arseny, p.10)
Archbishop Arseny exercised oversight of the Church
In all phases of his ministry, +Arseny intentionally looked to many dimensions of the Church’s work, both in its personal and ‘institutional’ dimensions. This is apparent in his development and initiation of many endeavours. Wherever he served for any length of time, he began to establish not only monastic life, but also pastoral schools for training potential clergy. This is evident not only at St. Tikhon’s, where he founded the school that eventually became St. Tikhon’s Seminary, but also in Canada, at Sifton, and in Winnipeg. He gave attention to such practical elements of the Church as stewardship and fundraising, personally eliciting generosity and fostering a pioneering spirit in the work of sustaining “the Mission” in North America.
These three themes are but a few of the historical threads running through the missionary career of Archbishop Arseny, whose legacy is still felt throughout the Orthodox Church in North America. This post merely sketches some of these elements, and they will be drawn together in more detail later. For now, we must let the historical task of S.O.C.H.A. and others continue to examine the life and work of Archbishop Arseny.
By way of exhortation, I hope that we will use this experience of this hierarch’s potential glorification as an opportunity for growth and maturation in the Orthodox faith. As many have said, “God knows if Archbishop Arseny is a saint, or not!” Our task is to attend to what the Lord reveals to us, and to receive from Him what is given. Let us calm our passions and endeavor to sustain wholesome relationships in the midst of this conversation. That is to say, let us all heed the good word of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Corinthians. Let none of us say, “I am for Arseny,” or “I am against Arseny.” I have a feeling the Archbishop himself would be aghast at such an attitude. Rather, as we pour through the historical sources, let us all, as Orthodox Christians, seek to be for Jesus Christ, to draw near to Him – Who Is the Truth – in faith and love, and to discern with all reverence and diligence, those bearers of His love to us.
[This article was written by Deacon Matthew Francis.]