The 1988 celebration of the Millennium of Christianity in Holy Rus’

Left to Right: Archb. Anthony of S.Fr. and W. America, Metr. Vitaly, First-Hierarch of the ROCOR, Archbishop Laurus of Syracuse and Holy Trinity at the liturgy in the memorial-church in Jackson on the day of the popular celebration of St. Vladimir. July 1988

Fr. Serge Lukianov speakes about the event consolidated all Russian church diaspora. No celebration on this scale has taken place since then. This interview was recorded as part of the graduate class Russian Church Abroad: Its History and Identity offered at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary, Jordanville, NY

Born in the year 2000, growing up I would hear about 1988 knowing it was the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’ — but never thought much about it. That is until this past summer when Fr. Serge Lukianov (Rector at St. Alexander Nevsky’s Cathedral in Howell, NJ) brought it up in conversation, recalling what he experienced and remembers at that anniversary celebration. I was intrigued listening to his recollections. Months later, in deciding who to interview for our ROCOR History assignment, I approached Fr. Serge to ask if he would like to be interviewed. He agreed and when I asked him if he wanted to talk about a specific topic, he suggested to discuss about the anniversary celebrations of 1988. From what snippets he told me over the summer, I just knew that the interview would be a success. And that, once published, the readers would be in for a treat. Enjoy!

Reader John Keller

The Millennium of Christianity was marked by the Baptism of Rus’ in 988 under Holy Great Prince Vladimir. What’s so significant about that anniversary that Orthodox Christians, primarily those in the Russian Church, should appreciate?

The mitred Archpriest Serge Lukianov, rector of St. Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Lakewood, NJ

It’s a very significant date. For years and years, the Russian and Slavic people have been celebrating that anniversary. In 1938, there was a huge celebration of the 950th anniversary, in Jackson, NJ, of the founding of the St. Vladimir’s Memorial Church dedicated to the Baptism of Rus’. And that was the first service there. Then, 50 years later, in 1988, there was a huge preparation during the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’. The Synod of Bishops sent decrees and said that we must constantly be reminded that we came from Kievan Rus’, from the Dnieper River. This is how Mother Russia started. We must never forget where we came from, which is very important. And that’s why every single year on July 28, on the feastday of St. Vladimir’s, and then also on the closest Sunday in Jackson, we (local clergy) all assemble, closing up our churches, and come to Jackson to remember this event. This tradition was started by Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko) when he was assigned as the Diocesan Bishop of the Eastern American Diocese. He came down to Jackson which was not far for him because Vladyka Vitaly at that point was in Jersey City, which is across the river from New York City. Way before we had the Synod of Bishops on 93rd Street in Manhattan. With God’s help, he came to Lakewood, NJ in 1936, and founded St. Alexander Nevsky’s Church. That was the first church Vladyka Vitaly founded in America as a bishop. And two years later, he founded St. Vladimir’s church, on the 950th anniversary of the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’. And the reason he founded it was when he saw the hill that St. Vladimir’s is built on, it looked just like Kiev. It was perfect. And that’s why they call it “Владимирская Горка”, (the Mount of St. Vladimir). This was a great, great feat. Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko)  shared that with Archbishop Averky (Taushev), who shared it with Archbishop Nikon (Rklitsky), who shared it with Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky), who shared it with Metropolitan Laurus (Škurla), who shared it with Metropolitan Hilarion (Kapral). And of course, Metropolitan Nicholas (Olhovsky) is a big supporter of the St. Vladimir’s weekend services. So it’s been going on for a long time- thank you, dear Lord. Every year, we must remind ourselves where our origins came from.”

How were the 1988 celebrations held in ROCOR?

The architect Roman Verkhovskoy designed St. Vladimir’s memorial church in Jackson, NJ marking the 950-th anniversary of the baptism of Rus. The same architect designed the cathedral in Jordanville, NY

Before I discuss about 1988, in present-day ROCOR, all parishes are to serve on St. Vladimir’s Day (July 15th/28th) and, after the Divine Liturgy, serve the Lesser Blessing of Waters. At St. Vladimir’s church, they had всенародная торжество (the entire people coming together). Many years ago, before computers and before the internet, especially after World War II, many Russians would come to places like St. Vladimir’s, which had an organization society called “РОВА” (Russian Mutual Aid Society)- a big center right next to St Vladimir’s church. There was a hall, a restaurant, a bar, a place for dancing, and a place for socializing so that people could come together. And that was a huge weekend. And not only that weekend in July, but they would come all summer. And there will be little cottages around that area, and people will come, enjoy, and relax. The church was next door; they had Russian food and Russian music, and they danced outside. It is a beautiful lake, so they will go swimming. It was indeed a resort area. And unfortunately, as years passed, the older generation (which appreciated that) all passed away. Then, the Internet came in. And, of course, the young people were gone. Other people go to the Caribbean, Florida, and other places like that. And they don’t come as much to St. Vladimir’s Day. Even though we always get a good crowd of people and priests. We, for example, at St. Alexander’s Cathedral, every year, always close that weekend. Last weekend in July, we are closed. It’s the only time we close the parish. And we go to Jackson, all of our clergy, to celebrate the Baptism of Rus’.

The construction of the belltower in Holy Trinity Monastery marked the millenium celebration on the East coast of the US

So the 1988 celebrations really didn’t start in 1988. The planning actually started back in 1985 and 1986 because there was so much prep work. In 1985, we lost our First Hierarch Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky) of blessed memory. He passed away on November 8/21st on the Synaxis of the Holy Bodiless Hosts. In early 1986, Archbishop Vitaly (Ustinov) of Montreal and Canada was elected the First Hierarch of ROCOR. He was extremely Russian, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual. Vladyka Vitaly continued to push preparations for this celebration. When they started organizing, they had several committees in every single Diocese of ROCOR around the world. And not only one but maybe even several. And they united. They united the Russian schools on the East Coast (Nyack, Lakewood, Boston, and Toronto in Canada), as well as in the Midwest and the Western American Diocese. Everybody was preparing for 1988. How are they preparing? They had a master plan, which was just amazing. Master plan of concerts, plays, and, of course, the church services. There were three main church services scheduled on the East Coast. Most importantly, was in Jackson, NJ, at the end of July. The other one was in Synod. And the third one was in Jordanville, where the new belfry was blessed. So the belfry that stands in Jordanville was blessed on the Millennium, for the Millennium, built for the Millennium. And in Canada, they built a beautiful church in Ottawa to the Protection of the Mother of God. That memorial church was built for the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’, which stands today. And other dioceses in ROCOR did the same. They built churches, monuments, and things to remember this most important anniversary. From our Russian schools, they started to prepare skits for plays. And there was a huge play done in New York City. I participated, our Russian school in Lakewood, and all the Russian schools in the area participated. And they all went into this huge play based on how Russia was baptized. There were choir singers. I mean, we’re talking about a huge production. And on the day of the concert in this humongous hall in New York, I can’t remember the name of it, but it was packed with over a thousand people. Also, our Russian scout camps ОРЮР, HOPP, ОРПР (in Chicago) celebrated in July 1988 with big plays in camps, with songs of the baptism, all of that was done. So for two years, all this huge preparation. One of the biggest preparations was to consecrate St. Vladimir’s church in July of that year because it was not consecrated. It took 50 years to build that church. They built the lower church, then the upper church, and then Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov) painted the frescoes of the upper church. A few weeks before the day of this consecration, the main conductor at St. Vladimir’s suddenly had a stroke and couldn’t perform his duties. And I remember Archpriest Boris Kizenko, God rest his soul, calling me, and he says, “Oh, please help put together a choir.” So I put together a mixed choir for the Sunday before the Millennium celebrations when we had the actual consecration of the church, and that choir was able to sing. We were able to consecrate St. Vladimir’s church officially, and then the following Sunday, there was a huge celebration. All ROCOR bishops were there- and I mean all of them. All the old timers were there. It was extremely hot. It was probably the hottest weekend of the year, which it always is in July. But this was just really hot- with no air conditioning. Peter Fekula was conducting the choir upstairs. It was a beautiful choir that prepared months in advance. And they sang so unbelievably! It was just so top-notch, almost like a professional choir. I remember Fr. Andrei Papkov was the canonarch. I was asked to read the canon dedicated to the Millennium, and it was a great honor. Because of the huge number of clergy and bishops, they literally put a Holy Table in the middle of the church, a second one (because the first one was consecrated), and the center of the church was used as the Altar. Nobody was allowed into the church. Only the choir was allowed to sneak in and go upstairs. All the doors were open, and they had video recordings going so the laity could watch. There were literally over 100 priests. The Synod made a beautiful medallion. Each clergyman (priests, bishops, deacons, and even the two senior subdeacons) were awarded to wear the commemorative medallion. I still have mine to this day. It’s a beautiful red and black ribbon with the cross of St. Vladimir. Also, the Romanovs were invited to the celebrations in Jackson. I remember them pulling up in these beautiful old white Cadillacs, and Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich came out with his wife and family. During the service, they stood on kliros. They were even commemorated during the Litany as the Romanov Legacy there. Unfortunately, he passed away years later. Then, the biggest thing was Lakewood during that whole week between the consecration of the church and the Millennium service. There was an All-Diocesan Youth Conference in Lakewood. We had several hundred young people. We did a whole conference for the week. We literally didn’t sleep for two weeks- it was unbelievable. There was so much to do! We didn’t have the cathedral yet; we just had the old church back then. But we had the hall. Jackson didn’t have a hall in 1988- it hadn’t even been built yet. So our hall was used, and all the bishops came here. The young people came with the whole conference for a whole week. One night after the big services in Jackson, we also had all the Romanov nobility dinner at the Rodina Hall, next to St. Alexander’s. And all the bishops came, and all the Romanovs came. They had the Millennium celebrations in Jordanville during the Labor Day weekend. That was also very, very huge. So, as you can hear, there was so much going on for two years for this celebration. And it really went off without a hitch. It was just amazing. You know, except, of course, it being so hot. Everybody was just really dying. It was so hot, but our bishops pushed through wearing their full vestments. They didn’t complain. They did things in San Francisco, Chicago, Europe, and Australia. It was wonderful; it was just really amazing. I probably will never see something like this again.

The Millennial Council of the Moscow Patriarchate sent an address to the ROCOR. In contrast to the Patriarchate’s previous appeals to the ROCOR, the new statement [1]The initiator of this new approach was Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), the Moscow Patriarchate Bishop of Britain. In his speech at the Council, he praised ROCOR for retaining the Russian spiritual … Continue reading did not condemn them as schismatics and did not demand their return under the Moscow Patriarchate but merely invited them to reestablish relations in a unity of worship. Did ROCOR reply?

From the Jubelee epistle of the ROCOR Bishop Council. 1988

Metropolitan Vitaly (Ustinov) did not want to have anything to do with the Moscow Patriarchate. And our old bishops didn’t trust the system. It was way too early. They never answered [the MP]. They wouldn’t allow it. Our bishops were not ready. And honestly, we (ROCOR) were not ready back in 1988. It took quite a few years to get to 2007 [Reunification]. It took Metropolitan Vitaly and many of the old bishops’ passing away, especially Archbishop Anthony (Sinkevich). He and Vladyka Vitaly were Anti-MP and “No Grace MP”-the whole thing. They were just adamant. Archbishop Anthony (Medvedev) in San Francisco was softer, and so was [the future Metropolitan] Laurus and some other bishops. But with Metropolitan Vitaly, it was impossible. He would not budge for an instant.

How do you confess your faith? You build churches. You build [church] schools. You make these organizations, and you share your knowledge.

1988 was the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’. ROCOR’s centennial anniversary was celebrated in 2020, although COVID-19 put a damper on the celebrations. This past September 2023, Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary celebrated its 75th anniversary. God-willing, 2030 will be the centennial anniversary of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY. 

What would you tell someone who might look at the celebration of anniversaries, whether commemorating an event or the founding of a Church and think- what’s the big deal? What’s all the fuss?

Because we want to live! And we want to confess our faith! And how do you confess your faith? You build churches. You build [church] schools. You make these organizations, and you share your knowledge. That’s important. That is what our bishops understood. That’s why I said the Millennium in 1988 started in 1986. Two years of preparation. They printed books and materials and got the people to understand how important this was. That’s why these celebrations with the people coming together are very important. Last year, for the 75th anniversary of our seminary, how wonderful that was! How many thousands of people benefited from that? Seeing it online, seeing the photographs. The camaraderie, people working together for the glory of God- it’s phenomenal. It’s absolutely phenomenal. We must always share these celebrations with others. We have to keep doing that- we just have to keep doing that. Unfortunately, fewer people want to do anything. That’s a problem. I tip my hat off to the MP (Moscow Patriarchate) in Russia. They are very good at celebrating anniversaries. They look at the Church calendar years in advance. If I’m not mistaken, next year (2025) is the 100th anniversary of the repose of St. Patriarch Tikhon, and they are doing something already big in Russia.

Thank you, Fr. Serge, for your time.

Conducted by Reader John Keller



1 The initiator of this new approach was Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), the Moscow Patriarchate Bishop of Britain. In his speech at the Council, he praised ROCOR for retaining the Russian spiritual traditions, passing them on to the younger generations of Russian emigres, and publishing large quantities of service books, which were used by the Moscow Patriarchate parishes inside Russia (Timeline of the Orthodox Church 1917-1998 by Monk Benjamin (Gomartely)

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