A century after his repose, the great archpriest St. John of Kronstadt remains an iconic figure: a man of ferocious dedication to God who was graced with a deep and miraculous prayer life, yet manifested a radical sympathy for the poor that still astounds with its creative and vigorous solutions. After an impoverished childhood in Russia’s remote Archangelsk region and seminary in St. Petersburg, Fr. John Sergiev was assigned to the tumultuous naval port of Kronstadt, where he not only served daily liturgy and prayed long into the night, but actively worked to alleviate the spiritual and material needs of each person he met. A support for Russia’s tsars, clergy, merchants, students, paupers and monastics, he interceded for and assisted everyone who approached him: Russian or foreigner, Christian, Moslem, Jew, or agnostic.
Archangelsk and St. Petersburg
Arkhangelsk, northern pearl of Russia
Saint John’s wisdom comes to us today through his candid written reflections in My Life in Christ (*) and through his intercession, but for the pilgrim fortunate enough to visit Russia and Estonia, there is also a substantial material legacy of his life and ministry, preserved and newly restored through the selfless labors of many contemporary Orthodox. These holy places are an alternative form of iconography, another form of the “stones crying out,” that they, too, have been touched by grace.
St. Petersburg, The Venice of the North
These restored and accessible sites of St. John’s life and labors include the Monastery of St. John the Theologian for women, founded by St. John in his native village of Sura in the Archangelsk region in the far north of Russia; Pühtitsa Convent of the Dormition in the Republic of Estonia, which he nurtured and shepherded through its first decades; St. John’s much-venerated relics in the famous women’s monastery of St. John of Rila in St. Petersburg, Russia; the site of his own Church of St. Andrew in nearby Kronstadt where he served throughout his priestly life—along with a second even larger Kronstadt church, the Navy Cathedral of St. Nicholas, for which he initiated the building and laid the foundation; and finally, Fr. John’s own home, a second-floor apartment in Kronstadt where he lived with his wife Elizabeth for a half century until his repose in 1908.
ARCHANGELSK REGION, RUSSIA
The village of Sura
Sura Monastery of St. John the Theologian
The village of Sura on the upper reaches of the Pinega River, in the Arch- angelsk region of northern Russia, is the birthplace of St. John of Kronstadt. Sura is one of the most ancient villages of the native Chud people, and even today has both pagan activity and Old Believer influences. In the only autobiographical sketch composed by St. John, and published in an 1888 issue of the magazine Sever (North), he describes his early childhood:
I am the son of a churchman from the village of Soursk, district of Pinezhsk, province of Archangelsk. From very early childhood, as early as I can remember, at the age of four or five, perhaps even earlier, my parents taught me to pray and by their religious frame of mind made me a religiously-minded boy. At home, in my sixth year, Father brought me a primer, and Mother began to teach me the alphabet; but reading and writing came to me with great difficulty, which was the cause of no little sorrow to me. I just couldn’t master the identity between our speech and writing; in my time reading and writing were not taught as it is now: we were all taught ‘Az’ (for ‘A’), ‘Boukee’ (for ‘B’), Vedi,’ etc., as if ‘A’ were one thing and ‘Az’ a different thing. For a long time did this wisdom elude me, but having been taught by Father and Mother to pray, grieving over my failures in studies, I prayed fervently to God, so that He would grant me understanding—and I remember how, suddenly, it was as if a veil were lifted from my mind, and I began to comprehend studies well. When I was ten I was taken to the Archangelsk parish school. My father, naturally, received a very small salary, so that it must have been terribly difficult to live. I already understood the real position of my parents, and for this reason my inability at school was indeed a calamity. I thought little of the significance my studies would have on my future, and grieved especially over how Father was needlessly spending his last means to support me.
Left in Archangelsk completely alone, I was deprived of my parents and had to arrive at everything myself. Among the boys of my age group in class, I did not find, nor did I seek, support or assistance; they were all more able than I, and I was the last pupil. Anguish took hold of me. Then it was that I turned for help to the Almighty, and a change took place in me. In a short time I moved forward to such an extent that I ceased to be the last pupil. The further I went, the better and better I became in my studies, and by the end of the courses was among the first transferred to the seminary, which I finished first in 1851 and was sent to the Petersburg Academy on a full scholarship…
Father John returned to Sura throughout his life, and after his ordination established a six-year grammar school for the village children. In 1899 he founded an informal women’s community, first comprised of a wooden church dedicated to St. John the Theologian and a few monastic cells. This was followed by a beautiful stone church dedicated to St. Nicholas, and after Fr. John’s repose, the Dormition Cathedral, built in 1915, about which he correctly prophesied that the church would be built but that no one would serve in it.
St. Nicholas wooden church (1687), Zachachie, Archangelsk (Arkhangelsk) region
Church of St John the Theologian, Plesetsk, Arkhangelsk Region
The monastery began with two nuns: Barbara, the superior, and Riassaphore Nun Angelina with thirty-three novices that Fr. John had blessed to live in the newly opened community. On July 20, 1900, the wooden church was consecrated in Fr. John’s presence and in the fall of the same year the community was officially recognized. Father John instructed the novices through his own teaching and sent them for preparation to the Leushino Convent under the well-known Abbess Thaisia, who directed over 700 nuns! Several letters still survive from Fr. John to Abbess Thaisia about the reception of the novices.(1)
St. John with Abbess Thaisia, late 19th century.
The convent priest was Fr. Dimitri Fedosikhin, formerly a train engineer who was healed by Fr. John after a revolutionary bombing of his train had left him near death. Father John later encouraged him to accept the priesthood, and Fr. Dimitri became rector of the Archangelsk cathedral and the last spiritual father of the Sura women’s monastery. The Sura convent was closed on Dec. 8, 1920 by the local Soviet and the sisters dispersed, arrested and exiled. The newly built Dormition Church was turned into a club, and St. Nicholas Church destroyed. In 1920 Fr. Dimitri was arrested along with 140 other Orthodox, including a number of the nuns, who protested the closing of the monastery. He was sentenced to five years in the gulag camps and the remaining nuns were dispersed and exiled.
On returning to Arkhangelsk in the spring of 1925, Fr. Dimitri petitioned for the reopening of the cathedral, which had been closed after his departure. His request went unanswered and on Pascha he opened the church and served on his own initiative. He was re-arrested, sentenced to three more years in the camps and a further five-year exile in Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, he and his wife were tonsured as monastics and he was secretly consecrated to the episcopate as Schema-bishop Peter. On his return from exile Fr. Dimitri traveled from place to place, confessing and serving liturgy for his spiritual children, until he was arrested for the third time in 1941 and sent to the camps again, from which he never returned.
St. John with Sura relatives, 1890.
On Oct. 31, 1994, the archbishop of Archangelsk blessed the formation of the revived St. John the Theologian Convent in Archangelsk. The initial attempt to regain the property and buildings was unsuccessful, however, and the community relocated to the village of Yershovka, where they organized a new monastery, also dedicated to St. John the Theologian. A local committee of clergy and laypeople, meanwhile, continued to press for the return of the Sura monastery territory and eventually succeeded. In October 2012, the Holy Synod passed a resolution reopening the Sura convent, and naming Nun Mitrofania (Mikolka) as abbess. A new community of sisters has formed at Sura and begun restoration of the badly damaged buildings.
Future plans include rebuilding the churches and cells, a home for orphaned girls, a domicile for the elderly, a Sunday school, and the revival of local handicrafts. The ruined Dormition church is now being restored, a house-church dedicated to St. John has opened in Sura, and the monastery welcomes pilgrims, most of whom visit from the well-known Monastery of St. Artemy of Verkola, about thirty-five miles away. Pilgrim accommodations will be made available as the monastery is revived.
In the summer of 2013, a cross procession/pilgrimage voyage was held in honor of the 185th anniversary of St. John of Kronstadt’s birth. The aim of the event was not only the restoration of pilgrimage to the shrines of the Russian north, but to attract attention to the Sura Convent of St. John the Theologian. Participants in the cross procession sailed 2,000 kilometers along the Neva River, through Lake Ladoga, the Svir River, Lake Onega, the White Sea to Archangelsk, and further down the North Dvina and Pinega Rivers to the village of Sura. This was the same route that St. John would have taken on his own visits to Sura. Prayer services and processions involving local churches and parishioners were held during the frequent stops.
Neva River and Lake Ladoga
Svir River and Lake Onega
White Sea to Archangelsk
North Dvina and Pinega Rivers
Getting to the Sura Ioannovsky Monastery is not terribly difficult if you have the time, but neither is it for the faint-hearted. From Moscow to Archangelsk is about 1200 km (21 hours by train). From St. Petersburg it is 25 hours by train. From Archangelsk, take a second train (running every other day) several hundred kilometers to the town of Karpogory. From Karpogory, there may be an infrequent bus to Sura, but the best option is to hire a taxi or private car. Sadly, the river steamboats that St. John customarily took to Sura from St. Petersburg were discontinued after the Russian Revolution.
St. John of Kronstadt with wife, Matushka Elizabeth.
(1 ) Abbess Thaisia’s memoirs of her conversations with St. John of Kronstadt are included as an appendix to: Abbess Thaisia of Leushino: The Autobiography of a Spiritual Daughter of St. John of Kronstadt, St. Herman of Alaska Press, Platina, CA, 1989.The following “Conversations” provide an intimate, realistic glimpse into the life of a magnificent Saint of God, showing us his endearing, human side, and then calling us beyond the earth to the eternal realm in which his soul constantly abided. We give thanks to God that God that Abbess Thaisia was able to record so precisely these soul-saving talks. It was not in vain that the Lord gifted her with an almost photographic memory! Both her Autobiography and the “Conversations” are fascinating and soul-saving readings!
My Life in Christ: Extracts from the Diary of Saint John of Kronstadt
For the 2nd Part, go to His Life In Christ: Pilgrimage To The Holy Places Of St. John Of Krostandt — Part II