Ancient Faith Publishing recently released a wonderful biography of Fr. Nicola Yanney, the remarkable Syrian priest from Nebraska who died in 1918. I can highly recommend it — the title is Apostle to the Plains — but I’m hesitant to review it because I’m a bit conflicted, as I wrote the afterword for the book. Fortunately, Ancient Faith has agreed to let me publish the afterword here. I should say… there are spoilers (if that can be said of a historical work), and the afterword assumes that you’re familiar with Fr. Nicola’s story. But I offer it to you here as a sort of preview of the book, which you can order from Ancient Faith’s website or from various other retailers.
The Legacy of Father Nicola
by Matthew Namee
The end of this story seems like a bit of a downer—Father Nicola’s sacrificial death was followed by the decline of his community and troubles in his family, leaving him an almost-forgotten footnote in history. Yes, his missionary travels as a circuit-riding priest were impressive, but there were a lot of those priests in American Orthodox history. Yes, he was the first priest ordained by St. Raphael, but of course, someone had to be the first. He’s important to members of the Antiochian Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America, but beyond that, what’s his significance? Why does he matter for the rest of us?
Nicola did not seek the priesthood, and by accepting the call to it, he knew that he was giving up the farm life that he loved, and time with his children, and the possibility of remarriage. Young widowhood, single parenting—these are involuntary crosses that Nicola bore well. To these he added the cross of a missionary priesthood. It’s exhausting to read about Fr. Nicola’s missionary travels—the months-long trips away from his children; the journeys across vast areas of land, mostly by train and sometimes by horse and buggy; the nights spent in all manner of uncomfortable and makeshift beds; cold, heat, loneliness, discomforts of every sort.
Fr. Nicola was a homebody, happy to spend months on end working diligently on his little farm. His correspondence with his children reveals how deeply he loved them. He was not some kind of escapist who wanted to be away from home to avoid family life. He wanted to be with his children, farming the land, but he sacrificed that for the sake of his ministry, to bring the sacraments to Syrian immigrants who otherwise would starve spiritually.
All this would have been sacrifice enough, but then—in an episode that calls to mind the long-suffering Job—Fr. Nicola, on a mission trip serving sheep of Christ’s flock, got word that his eleven-year-old daughter was gravely ill. He rushed home, but it was too late to say goodbye. An event like this would have broken some men—his service to Christ meant that he wasn’t there for his daughter as she lay dying. But, like Job, Fr. Nicola did not curse God or abandon his post.
It would have been completely understandable if Fr. Nicola had cancelled his long missionary journey at this point. His daughter was dead, his sons needed him, and his parish in Kearney needed him, as they too mourned the loss of Anna. How could you blame him for staying home for a long while? But no—Fr. Nicola remained in Kearney for only two or three weeks, and then he was back on the road, back to seeking out those scattered Antiochians, serving liturgies and baptisms and weddings and funerals. His duty to his God came before all else.
Fr. Nicola endured immense tragedy. He also suffered injustice. After St. Raphael’s death, his priests were divided about whether they should be under the Church of Russia or the Patriarchate of Antioch. Fr. Nicola was totally removed from church politics, trying to make the best decision in an impossible situation, with two really poor options. He suffered for his choice: at the time of his death, Fr. Nicola was on the verge of losing his house—fallout from the lawsuit filed against him. And then the Spanish flu pandemic hit.
He probably first heard about this new wave of the flu during his travels, in early October. He made it back to Kearney in late October, just in time for the flu outbreak to hit the town. The local and state governments imposed a quarantine. But he did not rest. I wonder if it even occurred to him to rest—would it have even been a temptation to a priest who had already so crucified his own will, his own self-interest, for the sake of Christ and his flock? A lesser man—a normal man, really—could have rationalized the need for rest. After all, he had great responsibilities—his parishioners needed him, as did all the other Syrians throughout mid-America. His grandchild would be born any day. His family needed him. But Fr. Nicola did not stop visiting his people, anointing them, giving them communion, helping them either to heal or to prepare for death.
This, in fact, was his own preparation for death. He ministered to his people until he physically could not continue and literally collapsed. This calls to mind the Lord Himself, whom Fr. Nicola imitated and served—having loved his own, he loved them to the end (John 13:1).
In the middle of the third century, a terrible epidemic beset the great city of Alexandria, in Egypt. The pagans of the city deserted the sick and dying and tried to protect themselves. The Christians did the opposite. In the words of St. Dionysius the Great of Alexandria:
Most of our brother-Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead, turning the common formula that is normally an empty courtesy into a reality: ‘Your humble servant bids you good-bye.’
The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation, so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.
What, then, is the legacy of Fr. Nicola? It is not merely that of a pioneering priest, a founder of parishes, the first ordination by St. Raphael. No, the legacy of Fr. Nicola is much more than that—it is a legacy of martyrdom. By the choices he made in his life, culminating in his self-emptying death, he bore witness to the reality of the Gospel. No man of little faith could have endured such suffering and accepted such tribulation. No man of little faith could have so disregarded his own self-interest to care for the sick and dying.
By his life, and most especially by his death, Fr. Nicola declares to us loudly that Christ is indeed risen, that it is all true, that the Lord reigns and is coming again. Like the long-suffering Apostle Paul, Fr. Nicola cries out to us with his death,
Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him . . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:8–11)
And so in the end, like all the martyrs and saints, Fr. Nicola draws our attention not to himself, but to the One whom he serves, who has revealed Fr. Nicola to us in these recent years, whose Gospel Fr. Nicola continues to preach even now, this very day, through his life and his death and his prayers before the Throne of God.
To order Apostle to the Plains from Ancient Faith’s website, click here.