In 1982-1990 Xenia worked for the Synod of Bishops in New York. She shares with us her reminiscences of Metropolitan Philaret, Bishop Gregory, and also addresses the conventional wisdom that ROCOR converts are less steadfast than those who imbibed Orthodoxy with their mother’s milk.
Could you please tell us about yourself?
I was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island in a Presbyterian family. I received a BA in Russian and German from SUNY Oswego, an MA in Russian from Vanderbilt University, an MS in TESOL from Molloy College. I started studying Russian when I was in 9th grade and began to develop an interest in Russian Orthodoxy through reading Dostoevsky. During and after my college years, I traveled to the then Soviet Union three times on cultural exchanges, after which I moved to England to work as a translator and archivist at Keston College in Kent. During my first year in England, I became a catechumen and was baptized into the Orthodox Church by Schema-Archimandrite Alexis on Holy Saturday, 1978; my godparents are Prince Dmitri Galitzine and the Nun Pelagia of the Lesna Convent. I attended the ROCOR Dormition Cathedral throughout my three years in England (1978-1981).
When I decided to become Orthodox, I knew I wanted to be baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church because of all my contact with the Russian language and culture and because of my travel to the Soviet Union, where I had attended church many times and became convinced that I had found my spiritual home. I decided to join the ROCOR because it was clear to me that the Moscow Patriarchate was not free and some clergymen were collaborating with the Communists.
When I returned to New York, I began to work at the Synod of Bishops, where I remained from 1982-1990. In 1990, I married Victor Nenchin and moved to Vineland, NJ, where we raised our son Christopher and daughter Kateryna. In 1998 we returned to Long Island for family reasons. I am a professor at Molloy College in the Graduate Program of the Division of Education, preparing ESL teachers; I also teach Russian literature in the English Department. I am currently writing my doctoral dissertation in applied linguistics at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, via distance mode. I sing soprano in the choir at Holy Virgin Protection Church in Glen Cove and attend services at the Synodal Cathedral when possible.
You worked for the Synod of Bishops for nearly a decade between 1982-1990. What were your duties there?
I started working at Synod in 1982. Fr. Vladimir Shishkoff hired me as an administrative assistant. While he was there, my duties were broad and mostly had to do with the running of the household: negotiating with the rather fearsome lot of cooks, organizing the meals for the sessions of the Synod and the Council of Bishops, ordering supplies, making sure the reception desk was covered, helping in the archives, and so on. Around the time of the arrival of Bishop Hilarion, now Metropolitan, I took over the responsibility of the Synod Bookstore, helped with English-language correspondence, worked on translations, and taught in the Cathedral Studies Program, which was an adult education program in which I taught Russian and others taught liturgics and other church-related subjects.
Can you share your reminiscences of Metropolitan Philaret?
I remember Metropolitan Philaret most of all for his saintliness, his humility, and his prayer. One Sunday evening he asked me if his sermon had been too long. I replied that it hadn’t, but he was always concerned about this. He did not believe in lengthy talks and thought that it was better to be brief and to the point. Indeed, no one ever accused him of giving long sermons. They were always brilliant.
I was perhaps the only American to ever attend Metropolitan Philaret’s “kruzhok,” which often took place on Sunday nights after service or after other services. The Metropolitan often taught about the church, talked about saints, and, on a lighter note, loved to tell anecdotes about Russian émigrés in China and even about his father, Archbishop Dimitri. He would reminisce about the time when he lived with Vladyka John and how they never exchanged a cross word. He also loved to recite episodes from the lives of the Optina Elders, especially the Elder Ambrose. One of the stories he told me frequently when I was anxious about my future was how someone went to the Elder Ambrose because he was worried about what would be in the future. The elder answered, “What will be will be. And what will be, God arranges, and what God arranges, He arranges well.”
I used to keep a journal of some of the stories. Here is another one:
“I knew a boy once – we were at school together – who, when he was much smaller had been frightened in a thunderstorm in St. Petersburg and ran for shelter to the house of St. John of Kronstadt. While he was there, a woman came in with a sick daughter. She beseeched the saint to entreat God for her seriously ill daughter’s recovery. St. John took hold of the child, embraced her tightly, and prayed fervently to God for several minutes. The way he prayed was interesting, for he prayed boldly yet humbly, demanding from God her bodily health. And when he gave the child back to her mother, the girl was well. So you see that we must pray with faith, knowing that God will hear our prayers.” The interesting thing was that he told me this story when I was feeling weak in faith, though I hadn’t said anything to him about my problem. He seemed to always know what I was thinking. He predicted that I would get married and did not recommend monasticism for me.
About the ways of God, Metropolitan Philaret told me, “Be careful not to talk about God as if everything He does could be understood by us or as if He thinks as we think. Some things are a mystery to us and will remain so; therefore, do not put words into God’s mouth, for we do not know everything.” (on the Sunday after Sretenie, 1983)
Perhaps the most dire prediction for all of us, and the Mokhoffs would remember this too, was on his namesday in 1984 when he predicted that he would not live to see his next namesday. We wept. He also predicted that Fr. Nikita would not live long after his repose. Both predictions came true.
Fr. Andrew Philips recently wrote on his Web site:
http://www.orthodoxengland.org.uk/rocorold.htm , “There is no doubt, as the late Fr. Roman Lukianov pointed out two years ago, that Metr. Philaret would have been for the rapprochement today.” Because I was close to Metropolitan Philaret, many people have asked me what I think he would have done about reconciliation. The answer is, “I don’t know.” The conditions that made the rapprochement possible could not have been predicted in 1985, when Metropolitan Philaret died. Adherents of each side of the issue have claimed that Metropolitan Philaret would have done this or that to validate their own choices, but no one can say for with any certainty, and we do him a great injustice when we presume to say what he would have done and to use those presumptions to validate our own action.
Do you have memories of Bishop Gregory Grabbe?
As Paskha approaches, I remember how Bishop Gregory sent me out on Holy Friday to deliver paschal treats such as syrnaya pascha and kulich to the elderly parishioners who were housebound. I also remember what a gracious host he was at every paschal reception he hosted.
In my daily personal encounters with Metropolitan Philaret and Bishop Gregory during the years I worked at Synod, I found that they worked together harmoniously and showed each other the utmost respect and reverence. Theirs was not a relationship based on uneven power – one strong and one weak, but rather an equal relationship between two churchmen totally dedicated to the cause they served – the Church and their flock – a cause which occupied them for the better part of their lives, and which they served together for 21 years, from 1964 when Bishop Philaret became Metropolitan until 1985 when he reposed in the Lord.
In general, I found him to be devoted to the Church and the leading expert on ROCOR. He was extremely knowledgeable, an excellent thinker, and a bright conversationalist. One thing I remember was how he reminded me that spiritual food is essential and that I should not make excuses for not going to church.
It seems to me that an attempt to establish an American Orthodox Church under the auspice of the ROCOR has failed. I believe this failure was due not just to the fact that many American parishes left the Church in 1986, but also to the phenomenon that “converts” are not that stable as “ethnics” since many people who joined the ROCOR in the 70s and 80s ended up leaving Orthodoxy at one time. Do you agree?
I never heard of any attempt by ROCOR to ‘establish an American Orthodox Church’ under its auspices. The hierarchs I knew were unanimous in their belief that America was not ready for its own Church. They were not at all inclined to accept the claims of the OCA to autocephaly. They felt that the granting/recognition of it was (a) a ploy on the part of Metropolitan Nikodim (and of the MP in general, and by extension the KGB) to further divide the Russian Orthodox Church in the diaspora, and (b) on the part of the OCA to enhance and consolidate its position among the ‘jurisdictions.’ I have no idea where this talk of an American Church originated, but it certainly did not originate at Synod.
I meant here American Orthodox Mission headed by Bishop James Thomps in the 1950s and than Fr. Panteleimon’s “healthy alternative” to the “World Orthodoxy.”
The Synod of the period when I came to work there was most concerned with making the Truth of Orthodoxy available to non-Russians as a way of fulfilling the Lord’s command to ‘go into all the world, baptizing…’ I never felt that they had any ulterior motive in welcoming converts to the extent they did. They took up the missionary task mostly, in my opinion, because they wanted to represent Orthodoxy the right way. Orthodox Life is the oldest publication in English and has made a considerable contribution to missionary work in America, but it comes out of Jordanville, as you know. Metropolitan Philaret insisted that there should be at least two litanies and the Epistle and Gospel in English at every liturgy in all the parishes of ROCOR in English-speaking lands. He told me that himself, but he also noted that Fr. Nikita Chakirov, his deacon and cell attendant, did not want the Metropolitan to stand through longer services because of his frail health, so this practice was not instituted at Synod Cathedral, but there were always services in English in the St. Sergius Church downstairs.
While ROCOR never tried to organize an American Church, Fr. Panteleimon and the Boston Monastery are widely seen to have sought to create something like a ‘Church-within-a-Church,’ (not an American Church), but the Synod, even in my time, did what it could to prevent that. Archbishop Anthony of Western America of blessed memory in particular sought to limit Fr. Panteleimon’s influence across diocesan boundaries, though given the availability of telephone communication his efforts did little to stem the tide.
ROCOR’s missionary effort among English-speaking peoples was blunted to a significant degree by the shortsighted opposition of the then Archbishop (later Metropolitan) Vitaly to the use of any language but Church Slavonic in our churches. What missionary outreach there was in the Eastern American Diocese (at least) was accomplished in spite of, not because of, him. His idea of missionary work (as expressed in my hearing) was to get non-churchly Russians to attend church, which is a good thing, though it lacks the breadth of vision of St. John of San Francisco. Metropolitan Vitaly’s perception of English was that it was defiled by a thousand years of apostasy. (He told me that himself.) Speaking as a linguist, I can tell you that what he said is a linguistic absurdity and that neither Modern nor even Middle English existed when England was Orthodox, and Old English was largely a mix of Anglo-Saxon dialects that we would be unable to recognize or speak today, whether or not we believed it to be sanctified. In the history of the Russian Church, missionaries always used the language of the local peoples and to this day, the example of the Russian missionaries in Alaska serves as a model not only of missionary work itself, but also of bilingual teaching.
As to the stability of ‘converts’ as opposed to ‘cradle Orthodox,’ I don’t think such comparisons are either useful or indicative of anything at all except bias. After all, ROCOR has many parishes with no discernable contingent of young people in them. There are whole generations of Russian parishioners who have abandoned their Church—far, far more than the few converts who give up the struggle. Precious little has been done to hold onto our youth. It is not enough for them to serve in the altar or choir, or to stand in church throughout their childhood. As they transition into adulthood, they need to know what they believe, what the Church teaches, why we worship as we do, and so on. They need a real alternative to the secular world. They need a reason to stay Orthodox.
Many Russians use the word “convert” as if it had a negative connotation. The word itself is neutral. People give it a negative connotation when they speak of converts in a derisory fashion. But if we look at the history of the Orthodox Church, we can see many saints who were converts, starting with St. Paul and continuing through the 20th century with the Holy New Martyrs the Empress Alexandra and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. So I do not agree with your assessment.
I especially agree with her point on the so-called ‘instability’ of converts as opposed to cradle Orthodox. As Vl. Kyrill pointed out (in defense of the discussions with MP), there would be no one in the ROCOR parishes if it weren’t for the 2nd and 3rd immigrations. I know more Orthodox Russians with accents that without. Some people like to point out that all of the ‘summer boys’ of Jordanville became priests — but these are also the only significant part of that generation that is still in the Church.
The primary reason for this loss is language (which must be distinguished from culture). It is hard enough to assimilate Orthodoxy in a secular world. For an American-born person to do so through the medium of a specialized language (in addition to a second language used only in the home and in the church hall) is simply impossible, except perhaps for the clergy. The exclusive use of an incomprehensible church language is, for the American-born Orthodox a ‘grievous burden, heavy to be born’ and it is senseless to lay it on the shoulders of the children of the new immigrants. But this is what we are doing when we insists that Church Slavonic must be used in order to make them ‘feel at home’ or to ‘preserve Russian culture.’ The language will not die any more than it already has, but the people who do not understand it certainly will.
We also shouldn’t mistake stability in culture for stability in faith. A person whose entire family identity is involved in the Church, who will be ostracized if he leaves, can hardly be said to be more stable in the faith than one who has been ostracized, lost all of his friends, his family, and his entire former way of life by becoming Orthodox — and this applies to a lot of Orthodox converts. When a Russian comes to America, the Church is his first recourse for support, even if he was unchurched at home. The convert loses external support and often doesn’t find much in the church, either.
I also do not agree with your assessment! From what I have been told of the American Orthodox Mission of Archbishopo James (Toombs), he was given a wide autonomy, like the Romanian and Bulgarian Dioceses under ROCOR. Thjis autonomy also turned into almost a separation prior to his leaving ROCOR-one of his clergy told me that there were several Bishops of ROCOR who were very much openly against the work of Abp. James, and that contacts between the Synod and Abp. James were pretty much limited to his serving at Feastday Services at Mahopac, Jordanville, etc. So the ‘failure’ of the American Orthodox Mission might not be solely the fault of Abp. James.
The former Archimandrite Panteleimon, most unfortunately, did not have as his agenda anything else but creating a little earthly ‘paradise’ for himself -not create a ‘healthy alternative to World Orthodoxy.’ The ‘alternative’ that he strove for was an alternative to anyone supervising him, or discouraging him from his perversions. Also unfortunately, there were a number of American converts who lost their way due to an association with the Panteleimon group, but this was not out of any inherent ‘American convert instability;’ I have heard over and over agian that the Panteleimon group was ‘not representative’ at all of the Russian Church Abroad, and how its ‘anti-World Orthodoxy’ stance was never the stance of the Church Abroad. I have heard this from clergyman of the Church Abroad, most of all from one who is now a Bishop of the Church Abroad. It seems that there was a great deal of lack of both supervision of discipline meted out to the Panteleimon group, and that what was needed was a ‘healthy warning’ to convertsa before it turned out to be too late in many cases. In other words, the story has been represented to me as one of ever increasing and more outrageous offenses committed by the Panteleimon group in their campaign against ‘World Orthodoxy,’ yet little or nothing was done to stop them, or even slow them down.
And, finally, by this time, we all ought to know the criticism or condemnation of entire groups is usually counterproductive, as well as most certainly never true. While some individual ‘converts’ may have been ‘unstable,’ it is pretty silly to attempt to label them as all (or majority) ‘unstable.’ Believe me, EVERY ‘unstable convert’ has a story about ‘crazy cradle Orthodox’-or MANY such stories! I have ‘learned’ from ‘cradle Orthodox’ that pouring is the correct form for baptism, because that is ‘how they do it in Russia;’ I have been asked by ‘cradle Orthodox’ the important questions, such as, ‘What does ‘Otche Nash’ mean in English?’ ‘Wow, that’s the ‘Our Father? Really?’ , and ‘You know when the priest reads out of that big book-the Evangelie-what is that book and what is he reading out of it?’
It is sad that these ‘two camps’ have become ‘two camps’ at all-we ought to work on overcoming those types of impressions and
prejudices, and feeling that ‘we’ are better than ‘them,’ and simply strive to ‘love one another that we may confess the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in Essence and Indivisible.’
Glad to see your website, Andrei, and I wish you every success with your work on Vladika Leonty!
I disagree completely with Fr Andrew Philips’ assertion about Metropolitan Philaret’s support for the union with the MP.
I don’t think there’s even the tiniest possibility that the great Metropolitan could have gone along with that!
Anyway, more to the point here, Xenia has mixed up the monastic with whom then-Father Philaret shared a cell without a single unpleasant word. It was never specified clearly but almost certainly the later Vl. Nathanael [Lvov] of Vienna. He told the story in his reminiscences about his dear friend, presumably humbly not mentioning his own name as that young monastic.
The other even closer friend of the young Fr Philaret was Fr Methody, who died a tragic early death. He would be the only other possibility.
As for Vladyka John, as we know, he was in Serbia for his early monastic years, and could not have met Father Philaret, who never left China until the early 1960s. Fr Philaret’s friends were all monastics raised in Harbin.
I apologize for having mixed up the monastic here. I wrote Vladyka John in my journal, but we also spoke of Vladyka Nathaniel on occasion, so it may well have been him, but I can’t say for sure. I don’t remember him talking of Fr. Methody.
Vladyka John was in China because of his appointment to Shanghai in 1934 and remained there until 1946, but Harbin and Shanghai are over 1,000 miles apart, and life for Metropolitan Philaret, the Russian emigres, and the Chinese under Japanese occupation, which the Metropolitan himself described as the worst of times, would not have been conducive to visits between him and Vladyka John, so I was certainly wrong.
As for what the Metropolitan would have done about reunification, I have my own opinion, as does everyone it seems. But I really think it does him an injustice to speak for him.
I was not at Synod or even Orthodox when Archbishop James Toombs was there, so I cannot offer either a personal recollection or an historical perspective. Hopefully, later in the summer, when Dr. Seide’s book is published on this site, there will be more facts about the situation.
About Fr. Panteleimon, my personal contact with him was quite limited, but I would like to point out that the monastery did produce some good fruit in the form of the English translation of the Psalter and other works and in the service of one or more priests. It is to be hoped that we all learn from the past and avoid repeating past mistakes, and that the grievous individual sins of some do not continue to damage missionary work of others.
What is clear is that there is often cold welcome for the convert and far too little missionary work being done both in the Russian community and beyond. I have heard criticisms of other jurisdictions and how they lack this or that, but the same jurisdictions have organized missionary outreach to such places as prisons (where Muslims, Baptists, and Pentecostals have very active missions), mental hospitals, and drug rehabs. We often forget to emulate the great examples of Christian love set before us in the persons of Metropolitan Philaret and Vladyka John. We may argue about what they would have done about reunification, but we know what they did about the sick and the suffering, the orphaned and widowed, the Orthodox and non-Orthodox.
I would like to thank Xenia for her labors in translating the work of Father Georg Seide, a history of the Russian Church Abroad-the most complete and extensive by very, very far-into English. Serge Nedelsky also labored on the translation-it is too bad that the English version has never ‘seen the light of day’!
Metropolitan Viatly had many faults ,he was human . A terrible character to deal with. But let’s don’t create things that are not true. The small brochure the metropolitan authored re “Liturgical languishes “ is taken out of context .You are correct in one thing He forgot re st Bede , Alban etc . But did not liked the sophistic ated English created by many translators like Mr. Lamberstenn or Fr Lawrence of Jordanville (all those old archaic pronouns etc that no one but Linguists like you understand ) To say that Metropolitan Viatly persecuted converts and was against English completely would be like saying that Metropolitan Hilarion knows is a god administrator .He is a great pastor bur no administration skills at all . Metropolitan Vitally was opposed to the use of vulgar English .He had French speaking parishes and served in English and French as well. Published books in all those languages and served in Portuguese in Brazil . It is known to many that you have a personal disagreement and dislike His Eminence that is all. You did not liked Bishop Gregory Grabe departure from Synod and many, many other things like Fr. Mark Medinnski situation… Now he can’t speak for himself and we can blame him for all the mistakes. But I think there is a Canon that states : ” the 1st hierarch can’t do anything without the agreement of the Council of Bishops and vice versa?” You decided to omit the fact that it was he who ordained several English Speaking priest for St. Segius chapel and never worked. There was no serious commitment from parishioners and priest. You also omit the fact that Metropolitan Vitaly considered you and Isaac Lambersten CIA FBI agents or informants inside Synod… He was oppose to homosexual as priest and parishioners ( Fr Nikiphor and oders) and you are not. Now all the maladies of ROCOR have an origin .Metro Vitaly and his tenure. Many in Canada, Australia, and Germany etc think of him as a Saint after his work in the German camps. All decided to focus on his humanity and forgot his strong faith and monastic discipline that bothered many in dwelling at 75 E 93rd street (SYNOD) . As fas as many know you disliked Fr. Protodeacon Nikita …. To say that Metropolitan Filaret was inclining to unite with MP is a fabrication. You like many were opposed to it many that overnight changed their views for convenience … many know that Vladyka Viatly corresponded with Metropolitan Pitirim of the MP. Many know of a video greetings going back and for. ( not far away from Synod the tapes were made by 2 brothers photographers ) And much more. So leave the memory of the late Metropolitan in peace. At the end many like you will be afraid to express your opinions tet a tet. So limit yourself to correct my poor English; the English of an old Russian man who is tier of all this bickering and shallow mildness. Some also know that Metro.Vitaly covered the rent of many old Synod parishioners …
Mr. Psarev : It would be nice to get those who really suffered under his thumb but also knew Metropolitan Vitaly and his “good side” and Metropolitan Filaret as well much better than mrs Nianchin together and talk. Like fr Paul Ivanov , the Ivoshevich brothers ,Bishop Gabriel and maybe 2 more But Xenia Enders?
I truly enjoyed reading Xenia Enders reminiscences, and I find them to be fairly accurate. The question of people who come and go from the Church is a question of faith that does not really get tallied up until ones final breath.
In my life in Synod, I had many wonderful experiences, and some not so wonderful experiences either because of my own short comings, or the influences and examples that surrounded me and put in jeorpardy my spiritual journey . Having survived until now, I bear no ill for defamatory or unsubstantiate attacks on my person. I would like to remind everyone that our spiritual journeys are different. I would never reveal or attack anyone in a public forum any person. Vladika Vitaly has a strong spiritual life, that we might argue ended less than perfectly.
I knew Vladida Vitaly from the the age of 7, when I went to the Summer Camp in Mansonville. I served as his cell attendant and driver for one summer. I also served in the Synod traveling from Jordanville to sing the services when Isaac Lambertson would go on vacation. I was the cell attendant of Metropolitan Philaret for six months, and was tonsured Elias by him. My problems with the church were complex and did not hinge on one thing. Nothing at all like that. I left in essence because I could not do what I had promised to do in my own pitiful monastic offering. I can tell you if it makes you feel any better that I suffered a great deal because of my leaving my vows. But life is longer that one season. People change. I try to focus of the good things that I have learned from people. When we forgive one another, it should be for keeps. I think that Metropolitan Laurus knew this when he made the decision to just let things go with me. He was a wise man.
We should all be so lucky as to have listened to the sermons of Vladika Philaret and Vladika Vitaly who were very effective speakers. Lest we forget that Vladika Vitaly was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimers and was under the control of a group who, I think never represented him nor protected him. During this Covid-19 how many people are ostracized from their family and church, and I would suggest that we exercise compassion when dealing with people. Father Elias (Mark) Midensky is still working on his salvation. I suggest you tend to yours.
Dear Mark, Many thanks for these reminiscences. I would like to share this foto of you with Metropolitan Philaret, but I cannot append it here. Therefore I am posting a link:
Thank you for your supportive comments, old friend. I think that we were part of an very important time in the history of Synod and ROCOR in general. I wouldn’t trade those days and experiences (both good and bad) for anything. They really changed my life for the better. You are so right about those wonderful sermons. I still quote parts that I remember, and, most recently, told my son about Metropolitan Vitaly’s words on world peace — that there will never be world peace until each person has found the peace of Christ in his heart. I hope that we all find it.
Enormous thanks to Xenia Endres-Nenchin and Fr. Deacon Andrei for doing and posting this interview, which so nicely and clearly depicts the administration of the Synod as I remember it from my childhood and youth. Xenia’s descriptions of Metropolitan Philaret and Archbishop Gregory reflect them as I remember them, too. Truly, Metropolitan Philaret was a saintly and very wise hierarch and spiritual director. I agree with Xenia, that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to say whether the Metropolitan would have supported reconciliation with the Moscow Patriarchate or not. Things were very different back then, and such a step seemed a very remote possibility, if not a fantasy, then. I, too knew Metropolitan Philaret, and heard him say very different things about the Moscow Patriarchate and the future of the Church in Russia on various occasions. Perhaps the most important thing that Xenia describes is the relationship between Metropolitan Philaret and Archbishop Gregory: their mutual respect and devotion and dedication to the Church. Thank you again.
I so appreciate M. Evfrosinia’s supportive comments. Thank you. I would like the two of them to be remembered as they were, as I knew them in those years, and as I and others experienced them on a daily basis. I wouldn’t like to echo Shakespeare’s words “the good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar), but rather have people remember a spiritual and personal friendship that endured for many years. Though they may not have always thought the same way, they were always able to come together in the end.