Fr. Matthew Francis
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Posts by Fr. Matthew Francis
No one knows for certain when and where the first Orthodox Divine Liturgy was served in Canada. The first documented Liturgy was served in June 1897 by the Seattle-based missionary Fr. Dimitri Kamnev (assisted by Vladimir Alexandrov, then a reader) in a field belonging to Theodore Nemirsky at Wostok, Alberta. At this Liturgy, approximately six-hundred Greek Catholics and others were united to the Orthodox faith. Nevertheless, local lore abounds about the presence of much earlier Orthodox activities spread out across the vast Dominion – now the most expansive territorial diocese in world Orthodoxy.
Unsubstantiated reports suggest that the Greek seafarer Ioánnis Fokás (a.k.a. Apóstolos Valeriános, or “Juan de Fuca”) may have brought his Orthodox faith with him in some sort of meaningful way as he explored the west coast of North America in 1592 for King Phillip II of Spain. The Strait of Juan de Fuca which separates Vancouver Island from the U.S. Pacific Northwest mainland is named for him. While precious little is known about Fokás’s own life and religious commitment, the mere presence of an Orthodox Christian explorer in the archipelagos adjacent to Alaska – more than two hundred years before the Valaam mission – is a historical episode that begs further study.
In an article entitled “110 years of missionary efforts in Canada” published in the Summer 2007 edition of The Orthodox Church, OCA Archivist Alexis Liberovsky mentions accounts of Orthodox activity in Quebec in the 1860s or 1870s. There is indeed historical evidence of Orthodox Syrian or Lebanese merchants in Quebec at this time, both in Montreal and in the ‘eastern townships,’ which were then primarily English-speaking. Little to no documentary evidence, however, indicates that any clergy-led Orthodox services actually took place during this time. The plot thickens. In 1879, Bishop’s College in Lennoxville, Quebec received a gift of a rare and valuable book, an 1862 edition of the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus. The letter accompanying the donation reads as follows:
November 11, 1879. To the Principal of Bishop’s College, Lennoxville, from the Russian Minister to the U.S. on behalf of the Emperor of Russia. Concerning the donation of the Codex Sinaiticus at the request of Mr. James Simpson.
The story, as it is often relayed in Orthodox circles is that this donation on behalf of Tsar Alexander II was in some way in thanks to the College for allowing Orthodox services to be held in their chapel. Bishop’s College, an Anglican school then primarily concerned with the formation of clergy, has a reputation for such hospitality. The mysterious aspect of the story, however, is that if indeed there were services held, no Orthodox clergyman is named, and the local newspapers have no record of such an event. If it did happen, this is strange, since such services would have been in the public interest – if only as a liturgical curiosity.
Could the story of Orthodox services in Quebec in the 1870s possibly be true? At the time, Orthodox clergy in the ‘lower 48’ were pretty thin on the ground. The See of the Diocese of the Aleutians and Alaska had only been transferred from Sitka to San Francisco in 1872, during the episcopacy of Bishop John (Mitropolsky). At the time of the gift of Codex Sinaiticus, there were certainly less than a half-dozen Orthodox priests in North America, outside of Alaska. The only priest based in the region, who could plausibly have served in Quebec during this time, would have been Fr. Nicholas Bjerring, pastor of the Russian chapel of the Holy Trinity in New York City. His metrical book which is preserved in the OCA archives, contains only records of sacraments performed by Bjerring at his New York Chapel, so cannot prove that he served in Quebec. The timeframe of the gift of Codex Sinaiticus and gaps of time in his documented record suggest the off-chance of his presence in Quebec. In 1877 and 1878, we know that Bjerring made a trip to St. Petersburg, and perhaps he travelled through Quebec to serve the Syrian Christians there en route from Europe to or from New York. Conjecture would be that Bjerring may have been informed of the existence of this community during his time in Russia, and made arrangement to visit them on his return voyage.
Not much more can be said conclusively about the stories of Orthodox services in Quebec in the 1870s. It remains possible that services were held in Lennoxville, at Bishop’s College, but this has not been proven. The letter provided with the gift of Codex Sinaiticus is equally mysterious, particularly because in 1879 there was, due to the controversial behaviour of the previous representative – Konstantin Katakazi – no formally appointed Minister of the Russian Empire to the U.S. The military attaché, Alexander Gorloff, served in this capacity, but it is unknown which official was responsible for the donation. The next Minister, Karl von Struve, was not appointed until 1882. It is not known who “Mr. James Simpson” was, either.
Anyone with further information on Orthodox activity in Canada prior to the 1890s, would be most welcome to provide details in the “comments” section below.
So, as Alexis Liberovsky stated in his 2007 article, “the documented historical roots of Orthodoxy in Canada can be traced with certainty to the late 1890s.” The intrepid missionary activity of Frs. Dimitri Kamnev and Vladimir Alexandrov in western Canada is an essential aspect of this story. The work of other missionaries, such as Fr. Michael Andreades, Fr. Jacob Korchinsky, and Igumen Arseny (Chagovstov) fill out the early days of Orthodoxy in Canada. Future articles will explore their contributions.
[This article was written by Deacon Matthew Francis.]
(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.]