Reader John Johansson has been living in Ireland since the late 1970s. He arrived just about the time of the death of Fr. Nicolas Couriss in Dublin. Reader John has been expanding the account of Fr. Nicolas already published on our Web site explaining developments after the passing of Fr. Nicolas’ death. His informants include a number of parishioners who have now passed away themselves. He also speaks about our day church life in the republic of Ireland.
How did you become an Orthodox?
Where to start, I was not brought up, I am not Cradle Orthodox. I wasn’t even brought up in a pious household. My father, he was an immigrant from Sweden and he wasn’t terrible… He was a very compassionate being but he was not what you described as religious in a sense. In fact, in 1921-22 when he was in the Swedish navy he had actually traveled to ports in Northern Russia when he visited Russia, and he was very impressed, he was very impressed by what he saw so he always had very leftist meanings. When I was 12-13 year old, two of my cousins, who were Irish-Americans, married into an Albanian family and they were Orthodox Christians and it was a very vibrant Albanian community in Boston at that time, I presume it still exists. In fact, they had a cathedral in the protestant church. So I had Orthodox connections there. Also when I was in university, I did some Eastern European studies and Russian languages and I got very interested in these things. One of the things I know very well was watching a television program with my father and he was interested in showing me the Russian Revolution but what I got fascinated was a scene from one of the Eisenstein film, Ivan Grozny and in the coronation of Ivan there’s a deacon with a great big beard, chanting and I said, wow! I would love to go to a church like that. I mean I was very impressed by it. Now the other thing that I remember very well, when I was in university I used to do little posts [mail delivery] at Christmas, you know how cold it is, tramping from house to house. And I was in this apartment building and I had to ring the doorbell to deliver a package and this Greek priest came and he insisted that I came in, I sat down, I had some coffee, his wife was insistent on giving me things. And I remember seeing from the icons in the walls and kadilo, I thought they were maybe decorations for Christmas, I didn’t know. So there was that kind of thing. So when I finally was great trepidation set for this Russian church in Boston, one day it started curiosity and that was it. It was through that state. It’s not slow, under-weighted, it’s a very slow…
Where was this church used to be?
It’s still there.
No, Roslindale. That’s how much the latest think. That was actual Russian Church in Exile. That wasn’t there when I was young but I had a friend who was a Greek guy, who was a dentist. And he happened to say to me we have a Greek Orthodox Church, and he was Greek Orthodox and this would have been some time in the late 60s or early 70s. I was in there once.
In Roslindalee you mean?
Have you been there?
Yes, yes I’ve been there.
But the place I went was an OCA Orthodox church.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. There was a whole lot, Boston was very ethnocentric when I was there. Remember I was born in 1940 so things haven’t changed that much almost from the turn of the century. Things changed and fragmented by the end of the 60s. So for example, there was a large Ukrainian church in Boston. That was really odd. And then there was the Greek seminary there and then there was an offshoot. There was an old calendarist group, in Brookline. So you have these different things, unfortunately there wasn’t a great deal of communication between the groups. As an outsider, as a non-cradle Orthodox with no ethnic loyalties, I never had a problem. Now, I often considered myself Russian that’s where I converted, but I have no problem going to the Romanian community we have in Cork or there is an Antiochean group that comes once every couple of months. I help out in whatever way that I can. I think that’s important. It may be that the future for Orthodoxy in Ireland maybe will all end up with English speaking parishes anyway, but this was my introduction, the important thing is that the witness is there. But that was my introduction and…
And you were received into Orthodoxy at that…
Yeah. I remember meeting one of these born-again Christians, who said to me, when did you become a Christian? He almost gave me the hour and I thought it didn’t work that way with me. I didn’t have the Holy Spirit descend directly on me.
One can say that I’m still working on this…
I’m still working on this yeah and I think that’s a healthy thing. This all comes to an end when I was 33 year old and I met a 21-year old Arts student from Dublin. Funny is later we’re still together with 4 children and 5 grand-kids so I ended up moving here, in a weak moment in the late 70s. I was aware of the fact, we are getting into Father Couriss now, I was aware of the fact that there was an Orthodox community in Dublin. I had no idea where it was, nobody seemed to know anything about it. And then when we moved here I found out that Father Couriss, Father Nicolas had died a year before. Now in 1980-81 the church, the real community started here.
You mean here in Cork?
No, here in Dublin. There was scattering of Orthodox Christians throughout the country but I remember, in 1981-82, I remember going to Dublin and there was pastor. And the entire Orthodox population of Ireland afterwards went into a restaurant called the Tree of Irelanders and most of them were from the Greek Consulate Embassy. So there was a handful. What had happened however though, in 1948 the Chinese communist took over the city of Haribin and they exiled anyone over the age of 40 and anyone under the age of 40 went to the Soviet Union.
Or to somewhere else?
Somewhere else but for the most parts it was a group who no longer have children that went into exile and the Irish government in those days had a very bad record of taking refugees. Pretty awful. So a handful, I think a dozen came to live here in Ireland. Some of them married Irish people. They’re all, this is strange, most of them are buried in the Mount Jerome Cemetery, which is around our church in Dublin. It was the word of the Holy Spirit because that wasn’t deliberate. In fact, when Father George [Zavershinksy], one of the first priests who went there was amazed because this other Orthodox man who would’ve been one of the Father Nicolas Couriss’ parishioners said to him “out there, there are Russian graves.” Extraordinary, even though Father Nicolas is not buried there, he’s buried north of Dublin. I’ll tell you about him from what I know. It says he’s born in St Petersburg. I believe his born in Tsarskoe Selo and he came from a very aristocratic family and as such he was an officer, one of these prestigious lifeguards or one of these kinds of regimens.
It was not necessary that he was from a Greek origin?
He wasn’t, no. He was definitely Russian. The surname was picked up but he was not Greek, he was Russian and he ended up, I believe he was on the Turkish front somewhere. He was unaffected by the… He was with, let me get the terms straight . He was with General Wrangel who i retreated from the Crimea. He would have been one of Wrangel’s officers. He came to Constantinople, when the allies had occupied and he was there for a number of years. What happened as you know, Mr Ulianov decided to pull the passports away from all expats. So all of these people had no papers and he couldn’t go anywhere, but he was involved in raising funds for white exile movement. He met a Quaker lady. She came from Dublin, I understand. She was one of these international relief organizations and she managed to get him a Nansen passport. Armed with that and with her invitation, I don’t know her name, and again that is information lost, he was invited to come to Ireland. He had some money and they bought a farm up in North County Dublin somewhere which probably cost them 100 pounds, I mean it wouldn’t have been like land today and he evidently was the first person who introduced mushroom farming and again where we learned this, I don’t know. He and his wife and his son ran a mushroom farm. I also believe he taught equestrian studies to the Irish army which had just started, show jumping because he was a superb horsemen evidently. Now, he also started a school of Russian language in the late 30s and it went through the Second World War. Two of his students became infamous spies – Burgess and Maclean [very unlikely]. They were both his students. I suppose they came to Ireland so no one knew they were learning the Russian language. Now, evidently during the Second World War the Irish government was very suspicious about anybody who was a foreigner or anything or some kind of spy or something. Of course they found out after the Second World War about Burgess and Maclean, I guess there were some problems. But he had met Vladyka Anthony when he first came over after the war. He was convinced he was an agent or something, he was very paranoid, evidently. What happened was, when the diaspora of elderly people or aging people came from, the groups that came to Dublin. He got very friendly with them and then catastrophe happened. His son died and his wife died and I believe it was all around the same time, even a year or two different. He went off to America then and I believe he went to Jordanville. He was ordained a priest for the little community and he came back. There were never, according to several of these people I knew who were converts and as near as I could tell from them, and I have them in this book, they used different rented accommodations and chapels here and there.
May I ask you who was your source of information of Father Nicholas’s background was? How did you learn about him?
From Daphne Pochin Mould, from a guy named Rory, I can’t think of what his last name was and…
Was he of Russian origin?
No, no. They’re all converts, Daphne Pochin Mould had two spiritual parents. One was Father Nicolas and the other was Princess Ileana of Romania. She was her spiritual mother. She was a wealth of information and a lot of what I have comes from her or this guy Rory. Oddly enough, I said I was trying to find the Orthodox Church when I first came here. I saw it in the newspaper so I went and at that time the priest of Romanian of Father Ireneos and six or seven people in the old Protestant Church on Mary Street behind the post office, which had been lent to the Orthodox people, without iconostasis. It was my first experience, probably 1980. I’m not sure what month. There was a young boy there, maybe in his 20s, and his elderly mother and I said, “Can I give you a lift home because I was standing with my father-in-law and we were driving along and I referred to this boy as John and he said that’s actually my Orthodox name because I had just heard it when I went to Communion. My name is actually Drosten. And I said, “Oh, that’s interesting because I have a daughter who would have been a Drosten if she was a boy.” “Really?” he says. I say, “My wife always liked that name because she had a great friend and she said my friend had two brothers, one called Densal and the other called Drosten and they lived in the back seats.” I have two sons named Drosten and Donsal and it turns out that Drosten and his mother are old friends of my wife’s. She never knew they were Orthodox. She never knew any of this. Anyhow strange again how things work. So I ended up as a god-parent to one of Drosten’s children, but he unfortunately died a few years ago and lady died as well. I knew the people who knew Father Nicolas Couriss and they would tell me stories and I can’t tell how I get that information. He did important things in Ireland. Daphne Pochin Mould who is a geographer as well as an archaeologist is convinced he is responsible for mushroom farming. He had a small group; a couple of them were still alive when I came here in the late 70s. They were in nursing homes and Father Ireneos used to go anoint them. What really happens is in late 1980 there are several Romanian monks living in Dublin and they’re part of a kind of window-dressing thing that takes place between the Vatican on one hand and the Ceausescu regime. The Vatican will allow them to come to the West from the various educations things where they can do their PhD’s, doctor of theology but most of them only stay a year, in fact the Securitate interviewed each one and said we are going to interview you and said you are from Romania and you want to leave. That’s the important part because there were two Fathers Ireneos here and they left and Father Theophyle was a student in Maynute which was a Catholic seminary and there were two Greek Cypriots living in Dublin. One of them was ______(19:09), professor of engineering in Trinity and the other’s name was _________(19:16) and the other was an olive oil importer. They went to the Bishop Methodios and asked him,”We actually have a priest in London, community 20-30 people mostly involved in the consulate or the embassy, can we have a liturgy?” And they made an agreement with the Church of Ireland, which had awful lot of unused churches. So there was this church on Mary Street which is now a pub or something awful when I think about it which was lent to the community. Like me, there were other Orthodox people nobody knew about. So this little community started and…
So does this community incorporated those members who remembered Father Nicolas?
Yes. They were only a minority. This guy Rory, Father Nicohlas [Evseev a current priest of the ROC community in Cork] could tell you his name. I can’t tell you his name. There were only two of these families left. Now, these people were in nursing homes. Now, Vladyka Antony of Sourozh and Bishop Methodios said we will have a joint parish for all the Orthodox who live in Ireland. Unfortunately, Greek thing That’s how it started. Unfortunately, the other two Romanian monks left, one was killed in Jerusalem, we think was murdered by the security and he never went back to Romania. I don’t know what happened to the other one, maybe he went back. The priest in charge, the Greek diocese were often running.
So he was a Romanian, a clergyman of Greek diocese.
Yes, that’s what he became. Now, after he was here, about two years, it was quite obvious he was serious about getting his Phd. He was starting to get threatening phone calls. I know this because I heard them. One of the very devout parishioners who is the priest now.
You mean the phone call from the security guard?
As well as the bishop in Romania saying you have to come back. It was an unwritten agreement that you would stay for a year or two. This is only a window dressing, not a reality. There’s a priest up there in Dublin, Father Ireneos Carroll He is the priest in the Greek Church. He was an ex member of the Irish Air Force. In fact, he was a pilot. He used to fly important politicians around, like the prime minister. There was a question of whether Father Ireneos might lose his visa. He saw to it that he didn’t. But in effect, Father Ireneos ended up as a permanent exile. He would have trouble going back so he didn’t until Ceausescu regime collapsed. So the major influx is when Romania comes into the European union then we started getting lots of immigration over here. Shortly after that we got them from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania then from the Czech Republic. They say they are Russian but they actually come from countries like Poland. Father Nicholas is one of the few Russians. The point there are more Russians by tradition and language then actually living in Russia. We used to have a small group who came down, which is wonderful. The small group came down once a year. There were Serbs living down here, a Greek American girl, a couple of Romanians.
What would you do, travel to Dublin?
I would. Two of my sons were born here, had them christened up there.
To that Romanian parish that you mentioned.
It would be your church?
Speaker 1: Yes, the only church we really had. The Romanian sort of formed a sub-parish up there. Sometimes they were on a liturgy. What happened to us once the real influx of the Romanians came. There were two jurisdictions in Paris, one which is separated, [like] the Church Abroad. There was one bishop who first started coming over here and he organized.
From who? Rue Daru. I mean, the Russian jurisdiction that is based in Paris right?
No, no, no.
Oh, from Romania?
From Romania. Most people know this. There were two Romanian jurisdictions in Paris as well. One of which, I don’t even know if they’re in communion with each other both they were certainly separate.
Like Romanian Church Abroad?
Yes, exactly. One of the bishop’s came over and there was one of the parishioners who is now a priest from Romania in a Romanian Church but he was originally a Roman Catholic priest, in fact he was a jesuit, and he left the Catholic Church. He got married and he was ordained as a priest in a separate Romanian parish in Dublin and he is still there, so that original parish is really the nucleus of an awful lot that happened. The real Russian Diaspora became coming in here, Father Michael Gogoleff and he was here for years, and he started coming maybe every eight weeks to Dublin, I used to always go up to his liturgies.
So basically he started the new parish?
He started the Russian thing.
In the mid-1990s?
Yeah, but it was all still taking place in the Greek Church.
Everything was taking place. The Greek Church moved. There was a church on Mary Street which turned into a pub and we were kicked out of there on a funny thing and then we were given a totally disused building which was evidently a church for the servants of church of Ireland members. We had an old tin roof and they used to have karate classes in there during the week but we had the place. One of my sons was christened there. Finally after a number of years, I can’t remember the exact date, but we were able to purchase a building on a place called Arbour Hill where the present Greek Church is.
But Greek churches existed parallel with Father Nicolas Couriss?
No, Father Nicolas had died. So they started it up all new but supposedly it was part of a Russian jurisdiction. Bishop Anthony of Sourozh, it’s like a blessing for this.
It’s not like anything else existed?
So only his community…?
Yes, but gradually he never came over here. Bishop Kallistos you know, Timothy [Ware], came over here on several occasions. I met him several times and I just don’t think there was any kind of a Russian presence there. So it just sort of passed.
I met Father Godfrey and he told me and asked him about Father Nicolas Couriss and he told me that he remembered how Rastropovich came to play in Dublin and after his concert he asked to visit some elderly Russian people and he played for them some how he arrange so that he would play for them privately.
They would be that little remnant that came from Harbin. Oh there’s one other thing to mention. There was another priest who came here for a very short period of time. I know very little about him except he was an engineer or a chemist or something and he was here for only a matter of months and he had a coronary and he died.
And he was….
Assisting Father Couriss.
I thought there was some French professor, Professor of French, who used to be a priest for like a couple of years in the early 1970s.
No. That’s where you are confusing it. This guy, I have his name here. He wasn’t French, no.
I mean, he taught French.
No, oh possibly, I thought he did engineering.
He was a French professor but he was somebody who went to Trinity [College, Dublin].
He only lived for a year or two here. Now what you might be confusing with, it was an engineer guy. His wife was French who would be god-father, to one of my children. But he was never a priest. He was a very good musician and he directed the choir.
And that person was mostly a priest, this French language person?
Yes, but I thought he was English. I will look it up.
He was English.
Yeah, okay but he, he was ordained in…
He was not with Father Nicolas is what I’m saying?
I thought they were together? I’ll look that up, I have that written down. Anyhow, see what happens? Everything gets muddled up easily. Okay. Where am I going to? I have gone on a terrible tangent.
No, I derailed you.
Church moved its site several times. Finally in the 90s, school in a place called Arbour Hill which was quite famous in Irish history because it was a British military place base. It was where all these guys were executed after the 1916 uprising, very important nationalistic place. Upon Arbour Hill was an old working neighborhood and little small brick buildings. There was a school and that school was for the children of the British Army Soldiers and the barracks and that was turned into the first permanent Orthodox Church and it’s still there. Father Thomas Carole is the priest there. There was a long history of moving. I remember going up and Father Michael, I met him and a few months later, maybe a year later, the patriarch, he wasn’t the patriarch at that time [metropolitan] Kirill came and they had this wonderful liturgy in the Greek church. Father Michael introduced me to him and said what was going in Cork, and I said Father, we had a liturgy once a year. He took care of me because as soon as things were organized in Dublin, Father Michael and this new priest Father George came down to Dublin and I organized a meeting and we advertised in some local newspapers and we had a large gathering of Russian speakers in a hotel not far from here. That was 10 years ago.
And Father Michael was born in France? He was Russian from France.
Yes evidently, his two grandfathers on both sides were both officers in the White Army must have had some money in France. And then his parents met through them. He was trained as an engineer and he went to placed like Africa and he ended up doing a big job in Moscow while he was there he was ordained a deacon in Moscow. He knows everybody. I went to Diveevo with him and I met all kinds of people in Moscow, a lot of friends and again I met the patriarch, still director of external affairs and I met all these people like Father Chaplin, who runs the television network. Extraordinary. Another thing that happened, when the Russian Church started up this monk comes and he started the choir. The connections with this little Irish Church and the Russian churches are quite extraordinary.
Indeed. So Father George succeeded to Father Michael and now Father Nicholas.
No, I think there were eight parishes. Somebody asked me how many parishes and I started adding them up. I think there were about eight. Because Father Nicolas looks after Drogheda, he looks after Cork, he looks after Waterford and Galway, that’s four. Then there is a joint parish. Oh, this is interesting. There’s a man about my age who comes from a very wealthy aristocratic Irish background. He lives in a place called Stradbally, Stradbally Hall, which is an enormous place and he became Orthodox and on his property he built a small Orthodox Church. I remember that well because my friend Drosten, who died and I mentioned to you, I was up in Dublin one time and he introduced me to these Russian architects who were doing some work and they designed the coupola for that Church down at Stradbally. And I went down for the dedication with Bishop Mark of Berlin. I came over and there was at least one christening that day. And now Stradbally Hall, as it’s called, the church is still there but it is very famous because there’s this international rock festival at that place every year called something, I don’t know what it is called.
It’s not very far away from Cork, right?
No, it is closer to Dublin.
Yeah, Father George still goes there but that is a joint administration between the Russian Church Abroad and the patriarch.
Does this place have a congregation or is it like a house church?
Well, there were several people. It was a Latvian family. Russian Latvian family down here in Cork, they go there, there is quite a lot of people who would travel up there. It is not very far, they live in North Cork and there is this convert from Anglicanism go there as well because this man, he was very well connected. I can’t remember his name. It will come to me in a moment. It doesn’t make a difference. But again it is a mixture of things but it is reliable. The only failure was and I don’t know what happened, there was an attempted setup and Orthodox parish in Limerick and Father George was out there, and I went to the liturgy there with my wife one time and five people came to this huge, big church, it just never materialized. The other thing that should really be emphasized is how kind the Catholic authorities in this country have been towards us. I believe initially, there had been a suspicion, but the Catholic Bishop of Dublin loves coming to the Russian Church. He says “I love coming in here because no one gives me a bad time”, because of all the abuse.
So recently, that is what he said….?
Oh. A few years back. Yeah, but we were getting along well with them. But in general, I think Catholics feel, if I estranged, they don’t understand a lot of it but at the same time they are quite fascinated. Years ago, we had a pilgrimage from the Greek Church to a place called Clonmacnoise, it was very famous and the Bishop of Rome was visited in 1979, he had a liturgy there, but essentially the separation of churches… There is a thing called the Act of Settlement, which took place in 1880, where the Church of Ireland was no longer the state church and they could no longer maintain their properties so they gave them and it became known as the Board of Works. With the stipulation it was never to be used for public worship. So it’s actually against the law to go in so that’s been violated all over the time but anyhow we dutifully went to the Anglican Bishop of Dublin and said “Can we use one of your chapels?” and he said “Yes.”
An Anglican Bishop?
An Anglican Bishop, so we had this pilgrimage there. And at that time two of my children were small and they were acting up so I took them outside. The church is much bigger than this and the incense is coming out and beautiful singing and there were these ladies standing there and they were fascinated and I realized talking to them they were the holy nuns from the Catholic Church. One of them had tears in her eyes and she said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “This is Orthodox service.” And she said, “Can I go in?” So she came in. Stood for a few minutes and came out and she said, “Oh, we used to have all that. We gave it up.” I felt so bad for her.
Yes, very strong, very strong, very sad.
She was much older than me at the time so she remembered the old trident times, liturgies that they had and I found that you’re running into these misunderstandings and one time I was sitting in front of my children and this Catholic priest goes “Hello little man,” and he was chatting with them and he said “Do you mind if I bless your child?” Yeah okay. He says, “You are Catholic, aren’t you? And I said, “Well we Orthodox are consider ourselves Catholic, yes.” And he says,”That’s okay, Jews go to heaven.” And I thought okay, Father, I asked one time, he always wore a suit and you see and he was sitting in a waiting room at some hospital and somebody called “Rabbe, your next.” That’s okay. So it’s kind of funny. They didn’t quite understand who we were, they thought we were Jewish, which is okay, but they just didn’t grasp what, I don’t think it was ever taught. I know when my children were at school and I asked, “Did you learn anything about the Byzantine Empire?” No. So they knew absolutely nothing. I saw in the newspaper article one time at Christmas. It says “Saint Nicolas. Yes he was a Turkish Bishop.” Hahaha. This is what you’re up against, you see. But the point is, they have been very kind to us. Bishop John Buckley, the Bishop of Cork came to visit me, which I thought was quite extraordinary, so very good relations with them. They won’t take any rent or anything from us so we’ve got a really big hamper of food and wine. The least I can do. Take them out for lunch a few times. Just because I feel so guilty about the fact.
Thank you for taking us on this extraordinary interview and you are a link that connects with this history and it is interesting about the witness to the outsiders of Orthodox that have been able to…
Let me just… Can I add one more thing? There are two Catholic saints, in Cork, they are not really declared saints, but we regard them. One of them was a wonderful woman who started schools for poor children. She was called Nano Nagel. She came from a wealthy family, gave it all up and worked her whole life. She’s buried in a school in Cork. That’s the Romanian community worships her. Another famous person again he came from a Protestant family, he was wealthy and his name was Father Matthew. Father Matthew started the Temperance Movement, trying to get men to stop drinking so much, and he, the church he built is where we have our… So here we see the two undeclared Catholic saints here in Cork look after the two Orthodox communities, which is very nice.
Thank you very much!
Conducted by Deacon Andrei Psarev