Editor’s note: The essay below was written by Father Christopher Morris, pastor of St George Orthodox Church in Kearney, Nebraska. Fr Christopher wrote this in the wake of the tragic death of Fr Matthew Baker, a young priest who died in a car accident on Sunday night. Fr Matthew left behind a wife and six small children. Fr Matthew’s family is doubtlessly experiencing incomprehensible suffering, and this great suffering calls to mind the similarly great suffering experienced by Fr Nicola Yanney, who, as a young man, was himself widowed and left alone with small children. In the essay that follows, Fr Christopher describes the struggles in Fr Nicola’s life, and reflects upon the glory of God that was revealed through Fr Nicola’s great faith in the midst of such sorrow. I should also note that Fr Christopher and Fr Matthew knew each other from their time at St Tikhon’s Seminary. Finally, to help Fr Matthew’s widow and children, please consider making a donation here. – Matthew
Nicola Yanney gathered with his loved ones for a last goodbye. It was a heart-rending farewell. Only nineteen, he had already said many goodbyes in his short life. Years earlier, he had watched his mother die, and, not much later, an older brother. His closest sister had married and followed her husband to Pennsylvania, and his younger brothers had set sail across the sea only months earlier. This time, however, was different. Nicola was the one who was leaving. And he knew that he would never return.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, he would eventually be reunited with some of those who gathered to see him off. Others, however, Nicola would never see again. Leaving his seventy-five year old father was hardest. His father was too old to make the voyage. Nicola did not know how many years the elder had left, and he hated the thought of leaving his father alone. Yet, he had no choice. His father’s survival, as well as that of many in their village, would soon depend on those who could make the crossing to America.
Their region’s once promising economy had collapsed years earlier. Though Nicola’s family continued to scratch a living out of the earth, survival grew harder each year. Brutal soldiers demanded heavy taxes from the Christians even during such times. Worse still, the age-old religious tensions were flaring up. The young women of Nicola’s village were afraid to go out alone. Wandering Muslim gangs were on the prowl and might rob them and do worse. Perhaps it was this threat more than any other misery that convinced Nicola. Together with his newlywed bride, Martha, he finally decided to leave his homeland. He would sail across the sea to raise his family in peace. God willing, he would make enough money to send home and maybe even help bring some of his loved ones to America.
After a month-long journey on heavy seas in a wretched steerage, Nicola and Martha arrived in the New World. They immediately boarded a train to join a colony of their fellow Syrians in Omaha. There, Nicola would find the freedom about which he had heard for so many years and which had lured so many of his fellow countrymen to America. Nonetheless, he would still have to struggle to make ends meet. Carrying a heavy pack, he would be away for a month at a time as he peddled goods from town to town and house to house across the Great Plains.
Returning from one of his peddling trips, Nicola received joyous news. A few days after their one-year wedding anniversary, Martha gave birth to their first child, a son. Nicola named him Elias after his own father. Their already small apartment became cramped, especially after their daughter Anna was born a year and a half later. Desiring to escape the crowded lodgings and the noisy city, Nicola and Martha and their children moved to a homestead two hundred miles away. Though isolated, they were not lonely. Several Syrian families from their village had also settled in the area.
The family’s life on the homestead was pleasant. In between visits from their friends, they enjoyed the quiet and peace of the countryside. Nicola returned to working the land. Over the next few years, Martha gave birth to two more sons. A happy day came when Nicola was reunited with his younger brother George. Together, the brothers built up their small farm and sold dry goods and household items on the side. With their small savings, Nicola and George sent money back to their village and eventually helped others join them in rural Nebraska.
On one autumn night, the family received a most unexpected visitor. A traveling Orthodox missionary had come to the area. After learning about Nicola and Martha from their friends, the saintly priest wanted to visit their homestead. At midnight, hearing a commotion nearby, Nicola and Martha raced to the door of their small home. Seeing a priest standing with their friends at their doorstep, the young couple fell to the ground to kiss his feet, weeping and thanking God. They had been without their church or its sacraments for seven years. The priest was St. Raphael of Brooklyn, and his visit would change the course of Nicola’s life.
During St. Raphael’s visit, Nicola and Martha received Confession and Communion, and watched as their four children were baptized. Though small, the local Syrian community was inspired by St. Raphael’s visit. Nicola became one of the leaders of the group, gathering the Orthodox Syrians together for feast days and celebrations. Talk began amongst the community about founding their own church.
Nicola soon received more joyous news from his wife. Martha was pregnant again. Their farm was successful, their family was growing, and they might soon have a local Orthodox church. Sadly, tragedy struck. In the midst of their preparations for the birth of their fifth child, Martha became deathly ill. Friends traveled to the isolated homestead in mid-winter to help as they could, but to no avail. Martha grew worse. She went into labor and died giving birth to a daughter.
With St. Raphael a thousand miles away, there was no one to administer the sacraments to Martha as she lay dying or to serve her funeral. Nor did Nicola have any cemetery plot in which to bury his wife. Hearing of the family’s tragic loss, a neighboring farmer offered to let them bury Martha in his family cemetery. Gathering with his children and the Syrian community a few miles north of their homestead, Nicola and his friends dug a shallow grave, gently lowered Martha’s body into the ground, and mustered what prayers they could. Nicola was only twenty-nine years old.
The return home was bleak. His children–ranging from the ages of eight to two–were saddened and confused. Far worse was the state of his infant daughter. She was weak, and her health was quickly failing. Despite their efforts, Nicola and the children watched helplessly as the baby’s life faded away. Eight days later, Nicola returned to his neighbor’s cemetery where he placed his infant’s body in a small grave beside her mother. He had named his youngest daughter Nour (“Light”).
The subsequent years were difficult. Nicola had to keep up with all the farm work while trying to raise the children by himself. The deaths of Martha and Nour left him in deep mourning. At times, grief overwhelmed him and the dreams that had brought him to America now seemed empty. Slogging tirelessly in the fields, he questioned the direction of his life.
The Syrian community watched for almost two years as Nicola grieved and struggled with his loss. Their number had grown enough that they returned their attention to building a church. The leaders contacted St. Raphael, demanding a priest and promising to provide a salary and build a church. St. Raphael had no priests to send, and told the community to choose a worthy man from amongst themselves.
The community’s choice was obvious. In the midst of a sometimes contentious and divided community, Nicola Yanney was well respected and liked by all. He was pious and very knowledgeable of his Orthodox Faith. But his knowledge was not mere schooling. He had been tried by suffering. His response to his grievous loss was a struggle both honest and authentic, and, thus, holy. In moments of deep despair, he never despaired of his faith. In the young widower, the local Syrians saw a man who could stand with them in their own sorrows and struggles. He could be their priest and shepherd.
The choice to accept ordination would demand much of Nicola. Just 31 years old, he would never be able to remarry. He would remain a widower, and his children would remain motherless. As one of the few priests in the Syrian diocese, he would have to accept responsibility not only over the local congregation, but over Orthodox Christians scattered across a vast territory. From the moment of his priestly ordination, Father Nicola also became a traveling missionary.
The burden of accepting God’s calling would bring more suffering into his life. Often, he would have to be away from his home and children for six months at a time. His younger brother George and his wife took care of the children while Father Nicola was traveling. His priestly ministry meant that he missed many important moments in his children’s lives. One moment brought Father Nicola perhaps the greatest suffering of all.
One year, after celebrating Pascha with his congregation, Father Nicola left town on an extended missionary journey. First, he traveled east into Missouri. Then, he turned westward toward Kansas and Colorado. While visiting Syrians in the mining communities of southeastern Colorado, Father Nicola received an urgent message to return home immediately. His eldest daughter Anna had long suffered from heart problems and was now grievously ill.
Father Nicola raced home. Going to his brother’s house, he found Anna unconscious. Kneeling next to his eldest daughter’s bed, Father Nicola anointed her and said goodbye. It was too late to hear her confession or to offer her Holy Communion. Anna slipped away not long after her father’s return. She had just turned 10 years old while her father was away. With no other priest nearby, Father Nicola himself presided over his daughter’s funeral the next day. Any words or prayers offered before her small coffin had to be offered by him. One month later, after grieving with his three sons and offering condolences to his congregation as their pastor, his demands as a missionary priest took him to the road again.
Throughout the remaining years of his priesthood, Father Nicola would continue to suffer under the weight of his heavy pastoral burden. He would bury more of his congregation, including members of his family and his lifelong friends. In the wake of St. Raphael’s death, he would be caught up in the painful chaos and divisions that split the congregations and the families he served.
Finally, God, in His Providence, allowed Father Nicola to suffer to the very end. In the last days of World War I, a fearsome epidemic spread across the face of the globe. Even on the Great Plains, quarantines were enacted and churches were closed. Going from house to house, Father Nicola visited the sick and dying, anointing, confessing, and communing them. In doing so, he himself inevitably became ill. Yet his own illness did not stop him. There were still others to attend, funerals to serve, and families to console. Exhausted, Father Nicola returned home and collapsed into bed one last time. Saying goodbye to his sons, he died mere hours later.
From his early years, Father Nicola Yanney was a man well acquainted with sorrow. The sorrow of living under the threat of violence and persecution. The sorrow of having to leave his home and his loved ones far behind. The sorrow of watching helplessly as those closest to him died. The sorrows that the sacrifice of his priesthood required of him. Yet even more than sorrow, Father Nicola was a man well acquainted with faith. Like us, his loss overwhelmed him at times and his grief threatened to overcome him. Yet when all else vanished, faith remained. Through his suffering, Father Nicola met God, and was thus able to console and guide others in the midst of the shadow of death.
May his memory be eternal. And may his holy example inspire and console all those in the midst of such sorrow.
Many thanks to Fr Christopher Morris for this essay. As noted above, please consider making a donation to help Fr Matthew Baker’s young family here.