Fr. Alexey Ohotin, ” I am Going to Jordanville, No Matter What”
During his formative years, mitred Archpriest Aleksei Ohotin (Dean of the first deanery of the Eastern American Diocese, rector of the Annunciation Church in Flushing, and spiritual father for the National Organization of Russian Scouts) set his sights on the examples of self-abnegation presented by Archbishops Vitaly (Maximenko) and Nikon (Rklitsky). Serving the flock of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, Fr. Alexei shared their daily hardships; he worked as a draftsman, a chauffeur and in many other capacities in order to feed his family. On January 18, 2013 Fr. Alexei stepped from his labors into the eternal life. May his memory be eternal!
When did you first arrive in Jordanville?
I first went to the St Vladimir’s “Gorka” celebration. This was in 1951, when I was 18 years old, and from there I went to Jordanville with Fr Kiprian and Fr Averky, and in general I had the desire to follow the spiritual life. I really liked Jordanville, but we had a disagreement at home: There were two jurisdictions then, ours and the American Metropolia. My elder sister’s husband was a teacher in St Tikhon’s Seminary in Pennsylvania, and he was an eminent figure there (Vladislav Maevsky). He said to me “Alyosha, come here to St Tikhon’s.” Jordanville was in the north, he said, it was cold and stormy. There was one monk there (later Archbishop Alypy), who had a bad cough and they decided that he had tuberculosis. They said “You will get sick, too, and they have no food.” But that’s where I wanted to go, and that was that.
Why did you feel that way?
I don’t know, I just did. So I went with Fr Kiprian and Fr Averky for a couple of days, arriving for Saturday evening service. I saw a young monk there, already wearing a monastic mantle. I bowed to him and saw two others walk in, also wearing mantles, and also young. Some forty people eventually gathered, and the service was very solemn.
When was this?
This was in the summer, after July 28. I was still in high school then. Later, visiting St Tikhon’s, I saw a monk walk out of the kitchen and light a cigarette. And they said “Today we’re having meat kotleti.” The church didn’t have many people at service. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I went home and said that I am going to Jordanville, no matter what!
I moved there in 1953, in time for the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God, when the seminary school year began. That year a Council of Bishops convened. All the bishops gathered there to see how the establishment of the monastery was progressing. Fr Panteleimon was already working there in the fifties, and Fr Joseph was the choir director. After the war ended, the monks from Pochaev Monastery moved to Jordanville. Fr Panteleimon was very lucky to get the new workers.
When did you arrive from Europe?
In 1949, on the feast day of the Protection, we left Bremen. Ships were already carrying refugees. We left on October 14 and arrived on October 25. Thank God, we made it safely, because there was a hurricane then. We arrived in Connecticut. There were eight of us: my father and other, two sisters and three little nieces. We lived there until 1950, then we moved to Sea Cliff and settled there.
Were you the youngest?
Yes, I was the youngest. When I finished high school, I went to Jordanville during that Council meeting, where I met the bishops. I had remembered Vladyka Anastassy from my time in Yugoslavia.
What memories do you have of Vladyka Averky and Vladyka Anastassy?
I had seen Vladyka Anastassy in Yugoslavia, then in America, at the Synod. He was very weak, fragile, thin, but his mind worked brilliantly.
Did you have the same impression when he served in church?
Yes. His subdeacons would hold him up. He would tell them to get away, but they held onto him.
This was in the 1950’s?
He had already arrived in the late 1940’s and always lived at the Synod. Later, when I graduated from Seminary, in 1958, I went home and began to work as a draftsman. I met my wife during the wedding of my classmate, Fr Boris Kizenko. In 1960 I was ordained to the diaconate. That is, after I got married in June, I was ordained, and served under Fr Mitrofan (Znosko-Borovsky) in Sea Cliff. Our wedding was on July 31st. A week later, Metropolitan Anastassy summoned me and said “Okay, you’ve had your fun, now you will be ordained” [to the priesthood].
I said: “It’s only been a week that I am married.” He replied: “But how much time do you need?”
At the end of September, Protopriest George Grabbe telephoned me and said that Vladyka Metropolitan asked to tell me that the following Sunday I would be ordained to the priesthood and assigned as rector of St Nicholas Church in Poughkeepsie. So I came, and Vladyka Metropolitan himself ordained me.
Did he treat you like his protégé?
He would visit and ask how parish life was, what the conditions were, about my relationship with the parishioners. He asked how I served, and said that the Lord would bless me, not to worry. He was very busy and could not devote much time to me, but he immediately made me rector, while new priests are usually assigned as second or third priests for the first few years.
Did the priestly duties come quickly for you?
Yes, pretty quickly, although I had a difficult life, because even in Poughkeepsie I had to work. One person got me a job at IBM, but he was also the reason I asked to be released from the parish. The problem was that he was a Freemason, and tried to persuade me to join, that I had to be a member, otherwise I would lose my house, my job, etc. That very evening I called Vladyka Nikon, who was our Vicar. He said that a position at a parish in Jackson Heights, NY, was opening, and I would be transferred there. This was a parish of intellectuals: a commander of the personal convoy of His Imperial Majesty, he was a member of the closest security detail of the Tsar. There were counts, princes, generals. This was closer to my heart, and I felt at home there, where I was to spend nine years. By the time I left, there were only six people left.
What was the name of the Jackson Heights parish?
It was dedicated to St Alexander Nevsky.
Who among the bishops made the greatest impression upon you?
Vladyka Vitaly (Maximenko) was the most impressive, he was a monk, as they say, “to the marrow of his bones.” When I arrived in Jordanville in 1953, the cabbage was ripe for harvest, and Vladyka Vitaly himself was in the fields collecting it. I asked “Aren’t you a bishop?” He said that a monk must do manual labor. He was strict—very strict. He canceled one semester so that the students could finish building the new gateway. And so once I came upon Vladyka Vitaly and he said “Remember, Alyosha, that you enrolled in seminary. As long as you are in the monastery, you are a monk.” And he gave me a cassock, a belt, a skufia and prayer beads. He explained nothing, just blessed me to wear them. He said “when you finish seminary, you will make a choice to either stay with us or go into the world. But until that time, you are a monk, and there is nothing more important than obedience.” He gave me a few examples, and this stuck in my mind. Anyway, a few years later I became a cook.
How often did you work in the kitchen?
Every day except Saturday and Sunday, but before that I worked in the cow barn. I did my studies, then went to work on my obedience. When I was a cook, and Vladyka Vitaly was already sick and bedridden in his cell, I would bring him food, but he refused, saying he would go down to the refectory. All he had in his cell was a pitcher of water, a glass and his pills. He had a summer cassock and a winter cassock, and that was all, plus the icons in the corner. There was no television, no couch, no armchair, really nothing at all. He spent his life there. He was very severe with himself. He would inspect the other cells and make sure the monks were at work. If he found a monk lying in bed, he would poke him with his staff and say “Get up, monk, go to work.” I have to say—I loved him, but I feared him. Everyone did. But soon thereafter he got sick, moved to the Bronx, where he died. Vladyka Averky succeeded him. Even back in 1953, he had been ordained a bishop and he became Vladyka Vitaly’s assistant.
Then he was named Bishop of Holy Trinity Monastery and Syracuse. He was very intelligent. He was a social monk, very urbane. He taught me homiletics, and never spoke in the informal, but always addressed me as “Brother Alexei” and would say “You must remember that the ideal sermon should be no less than five and no more than seven minutes,” while his sermons were always a half-hour long, if not longer! He gave very good sermons, on the instructions of the Apostles, the Gospels. He spoke well and also wrote well. He would visit me at St Nicholas Church on our feast day. I worked in the Synod in 1962-63, excerpting newspaper articles, and received a small salary. I also worked as a chauffeur for Vladyka Anastassy. When I was called to take him somewhere, I would drive him in a giant Cadillac. I did that until he became too sick to conduct divine services. The young Vladyka Philaret was chosen to replace him.
Which teachers do you remember?
I remember them all. Vladyka Averky, who taught the New Testament and homiletics. Ivan Mikhailovich Andreev taught psychology. The history of the Russian Church was taught by Nikolai Talberg. Patrology, patristics and pastoral theology was taught by Archimandrite Konstantin (Zaitsev). It was difficult to understand him, but he was the spiritual father of many of the seminarians. He was also the editor of Orthodox Rus. Later, Fr Alexander Kalesnikov joined us, who had recently immigrated, and taught church law. He had a very strict system. Either you know something or you don’t. I also studied singing under Fr Joseph. That was my favorite pastime. My favorite subject was dogmatic theology. Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky taught that, plus Greek. He would say “Alyosha, Greek must be studied for eight years to know it well.” He was a very interesting teacher.
What about Ivan Mikhailovich?
Oh, he was very nice, and oh, how interesting he was! He would tell jokes, he would give all sorts of psychological examples. He would talk about all sorts of illnesses; the definitions of words like “idiot” and “degenerate.” That was interesting. He also taught literature.
And Nikolai Dmitrievich Talberg?
He was a good teacher, very interesting to listen to and then ponder his words.
Who was most loved by the students?
Nikolai Dmitrievich and Ivan Mikhailovich, but Nikolai Dmitrievich most of all.
When I enrolled, there were only three of us, Vanya Levinsky, a Serb and me. The Serb fled after a week. Vanya was taken away by his parents. I was the only one who stayed, so I can’t speak for the others.
Many left Fr Konstantin because he was very severe. My spiritual father was Fr Kiprian. He was a spiritual and straightforward man. He had a very narrow cell. He was a kind, amusing person, very hot-headed, but he could also ask forgiveness.
Whom do you remember among the bishops and priests? Are there any stories you can tell?
I remember many of them; Fr Michael Pomazansky… When I once went to Jordanville many years after graduating seminary, my cross chain broke, so I went to Fr Kiprian and said “My chain broke, Fr Kiprian, can I borrow one from you?” He said “Let’s go look for one.” He got Fr Michael’s old cross, and I asked if I could keep it. He had been one of my favorite teachers.
I didn’t maintain too many contacts, because I was a working priest. I worked five days a week, and Saturday and Sunday I served all-night vigil and Liturgy, then back to work the next day.
Two or three times I went to a clergy conference for a day, that was all I could afford to do. I couldn’t get time off work. Other priests had different lives; their matushkas would work while they tended to church life. But I felt sorry for my wife—I know from working how you have to endure pranks and difficult interrelationships and quarrels in the workplace, and I didn’t want to subject her to that. Vladyka gave me a blessing to have a job, and so unfortunately I didn’t have much time to socialize with other clergymen.
How can a priest manage with a civil job?
You use oikonomia. I was once a cab driver. Once I smelled something like burning hay, and when I dropped off the fare, I realized what they were smoking. Once I had to drive a drunk man, because cab drivers don’t have the right to refuse a fare for any reason, so I let him in the cab. Once a fare sat down in the front, next to me, not in the back. I began to pray, sensing that something was not right. He suddenly said “Stop!” He threw money at me and ran away; it seemed that he saw some cops. I had been praying to St Nicholas while driving, and I think he saved me.
I was a cab driver, but I also installed fire safety systems, I helped build the Lunar Explorer Module, for which I got an award. I had to adapt to working during holidays. I would serve all-night vigil, at least, if I couldn’t get the day off; that would happen sometimes. I had no other choice.
Do you remember Fr George Grabbe?
He was well-bred, very reserved. He was the product of a bygone age. One could say something rude to him, and he would react very calmly. He never once raised his voice. But try to cross him…
What do remember of Vladyka Nikon?
He looked like Santa Claus. A white beard, rosy cheeks, and he loved children. He was a nice, mild-mannered man. He published the Vestnik. I don’t remember him as a priest. He was restrained and peaceable; in fact, most of the bishops were like that.
I remember Vladyka Anthony of San Francisco. My brother-in-law attended the Cadet Corps with him. After my brother-in-law was killed by the [communist] Partisans in Yugoslavia, Vladyka Anthony visited his grave.
I remember Vladyka John of Shanghai. When Vladyka Anastassy ordained me, he said “Fr Alexey, come to my diocese in France.” He was a nice, charming man. He would walk barefoot or in sandals. His hair was always disheveled. He did not have the appearance of a bishop at all.
I was working at the Synod at the time they were electing a new metropolitan. Vladyka Savva had just two weeks earlier asked me to draft the ukase to consecrate Fr Philaret to the episcopacy.
I remember another spiritual father, Fr Adrian, later Archbishop Andrei Rimarenko.
They were all educated, well-bred, and they were all angels of the Church, princes of the Church. They cared for their Church, they helped priests. They would administer Communion, gave counsel when needed. This was their duty…
- Eastern American Diocese of the ROCOR
Conducted by Deacon Andrei Psarev. Translated from Russian by Nikolai Ohotin