Through the grace and great mercy of God, His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH and the delegation of the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West has safely returned to the United States. The group returned home after a most successful visit to many churches, monasteries, art galleries and historic sites in St. Petersburg, Moscow and surrounding areas, filled with spiritual refreshment and vigor after witnessing an ongoing great rebirth of Russia and her Holy Church. The delegation consisted of:
His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH
Archdeacon George Shishim
Subdeacon Michael Habib
Subdeacon Peter Samore
Robert and Adrianne Andrews
James and Jasminka Gabrie
Dr. George and Maha Madanat
William and Hazel Nassir
We are all indebted to Almighty God and the Russian clergy and faithful who made our trip most memorable and spectacular. We pray that the All-holy Spirit continues to descend on Russia to restore it to its fullest piety and splendor.
Visits to the OCA Representation Church, Donskoi Monastery and Tretyakov Art Gallery, and Dinner with His Grace, Bishop NIPHON - 06/17/08
The delegation’s last full day of touring in Moscow started with a fraternal visit to St. Catherine the Great Church, the Metoxion (representation church) of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Fr. Zacchaeus warmly greeted the group and immediately began with a tour of the church, now under renovation. Fr. Zacchaeus says that has been a challenging and restrictive process. The church is covered in scaffolding from the ceiling to the floor so that the iconographers can restore the frescoes on the walls; some were covered in paper-mache to be protected from Communists seeking to destroy them. Whatever gets restored has to match or come close to what originally existed to meet Russian government laws, not to mention it costs about $200 per square centimeter to bring the frescoes and other art work back to life.
Fr. Zacchaeus then hosted the delegation for a light breakfast, and presented His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH with a beautiful icon and the rest of the delegation with a photo book of St. Catherine’s activities and visitors. The Metoxion grounds also boast a shop where vestments, fabrics icons and other church items are sold. Fr. Zacchaeus presented Sayidna with more gifts: an exorasson (large black outer cassock) and two skufiyas (clergy hats). The delegation remarked afterwards that the visit to St. Catherine was one of the most memorable and heart-felt of the pilgrimage.
Next, the delegation went to the famous Donskoi Monastery, home to the relics of St. Tikhon, martyred Patriarch of Moscow and “Apostle to America.” St. Tikhon served as an archbishop in America, along with St. Raphael Hawaweeny, bishop of Brooklyn, at the turn of the 20th century. He also founded the monastery and seminary that bear the name of his patron saint, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. St. Tikhon was elected Patriarch of Moscow in 1917, right as the Communists that took his life came to power. Like so many visits to whole-body relics of Russian visits, the monks guarding St. Tikhon’s lifted the glass over his sacred head so that Sayidna and all the delegates can venerate them directly—a rare gesture that so few are privileged to.
After Donskoi came a visit to the Tretyakov Art Gallery, perhaps the finest treasure house of Russian religious and non-religious art. Brothers Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov started the collection in the 19th century, which has grown to over 40,000 works dating back to the 11th century. Perhaps the most famous is the Trinity Icon of Andrei Rublev, dating back to the 15th century. It depicts the three angels that represent the Holy Trinity in an ascetic, simple way yet displays full mannerism as a Byzantine icon would. Thus, the Trinity Icon is one of the golden standards in all of Orthodox Christian iconography.
The delegation’s last stop for the entire trip was another enjoyable visit to His Grace, Bishop NIPHON at the Antiochian Metoxion. Vladika gave the delegation a tour of his chancery (residence and office) and treated the group to dinner around his dining room table. At Sayidna JOSEPH’s request, Vladika NIPHON sang “O Come Let Us Worship” from Great Vespers in his beautiful basso-baritone voice, much to the delight of everyone in his salon. Vladika regaled the group with stories of his travels and official trips on behalf of IGNATIUS IV, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.
By: Subdeacon Peter Samore
Visits to Red Square, Two Churches, the Kremlin and Cathedral Square - 06/16/08
The delegation’s tour of Moscow continued Monday with visits to the city’s center of civic life. The group walked through Red Square, home to many churches, museums, parades and the residence of Russia’s president. The name “Red Square” does not come from the color of the bricks, nor the red on the former Soviet flag, but from the archaic word krasnaya that can mean “red” or “beautiful.” The restored Kazan Cathedral, the State Historical Museum, whose outlines echo those of Kremlin towers, and the Iberian Gate and Chapel have been rebuilt and combine the words “red” or “beautiful.” The best exemplification of the two is really the picturesque St. Basil the Russian Cathedral (actually called the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin). This 16th century cathedral is famous for its multi-colored cupolas (“onion domes”) and is perhaps the most recognizable monument in the city. It consists of nine chapels on one foundation, and is the final resting place of St. Basil the Russian. The cathedral (now a museum) is one of the few structures in Red Square that survived the Communist era.
The group visited a small chapel in the Square during yet another service. The clergy came out to greet His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH, and the delegation prayed with the local believers until the service finished. Then the chapel treated the group to a quick tour of its bells, which were being played at the end of the service. The delegates had to climb up a tiny, narrow passageway to get to the top, but they arrived to see one man playing a dozen bells with several cords and a foot pedal.
After this visit, the delegation made a quick trip to another active parish away from Red Square: St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. This 17th century church has only been closed for two weeks in its entire history during the war with Napoleon in 1812. The church is home to several miracle-working icons, including the “Mother of God Helping Hand to Sinners”, which at times produces streams of myrrh. The clergy who greeted Sayidna JOSEPH and the delegation told them that the church can even produce its own light at night, not aided by any earthly force.
After a quick lunch, the delegation came to the Moscow Kremlin, the center of government activity. Its existence dates back to the second millennium B.C. It now boasts several museums, including “The Armory”, which contains several collections of artifacts dating back to the 13th century. One room is devoted to carriages the that carried the royal family; another to their collections of gold, silver and other precious metals and jewels; another to regal gowns and robes worn by Russian rulers at their coronations and other civic functions; yet another to vestments worn by bishops and priests dating back to the 16th century, featuring embroidery with pearls and other jewels into the shapes of religious figures in icons.
The delegation’s last stop on Monday is the famed Cathedral Square, one of the former centers of Russian Orthodox Christian life. It used to house the patriarch and his leading clergy, but since Communist times, its five cathedrals and other chapels have been converted into museums. Annunciation Cathedral is under reconstruction; Twelve Apostles Cathedral used to be the Russian Patriarch’s private “chapel”; Holy Trinity Cathedral sits at the Square’s center; and the delegation visited the remaining two. Archangel Michael Cathedral and Dormition of the Virgin Mary Cathedral (the former patriarchal cathedral) boast marvelous frescoes on every square inch of the upper walls, as well as the tombs of bishops and clergy that served these buildings when they were functioning churches. Like in St. Basil Cathedral, visitors were treated to a quintet singing beautiful Russian Orthodox hymns, giving guests an idea of what the cathedrals sounded like when they were active.
For the delegation’s last full day in Moscow—and on the trip to Russia—scheduled visits include a trip to St. Catherine Church, the Metoxion parish of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA); Donskoy Monastery, where the relics of St. Tikhon, martyred Patriarch of Moscow and enlightener of North America, lie in state; and a final dinner with His Grace, Bishop NIPHON at his residence at the Antiochian Metoxion.
By Subdeacon Peter Samore
The Antiochian Metoxion (Representative Parish) for Pentecost Services, Visit to Christ the Savior Patriarchal Cathedral - 06/15/08
Orthodox Christianity in three nations bore witness together in Moscow on the Sunday of Holy Pentecost, as the American delegation joined the Antiochian representative parish in Russia for a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy and Great Vespers for Pentecost. Their Graces, Bishop JOSEPH and Bishop NIPHON concelebrated both services held consecutively amidst hundreds of the local faithful who worship at the Antiochian Metoxion (pronounced “meh-TOH-kee-ohn”) regularly. Vladika NIPHON and the entire parish received Sayidna JOSEPH warmly at the entrance of the church. Vladika, though he was the celebrant, graciously invited Sayidna to say Kairon (prayers before celebrating a Divine Liturgy) and to vest in their midst at the center of the church.
The Church of the Archangel Gabriel had little standing room remaining for these highly anticipated services. Though they were heard predominately in Russian, Vladika NIPHON ensured that some parts were heard in English and Arabic to make our delegation feel welcome. Like all the other services the delegation attended, the church was filled with believers of all ages, from the tiniest babies to little children, teenagers and adults young and old. Attendance of resilient faithful after the fall of Communism has grown dramatically and new churches are built constantly.
Immediately following Divine Liturgy, Their Graces began Great Vespers with the Kneeling Prayers for the actual anniversary of Holy Pentecost. We knelt as the Disciples did in Acts (Chapter 2) to await the descent of the Holy Spirit 50 days after the Resurrection. Vladika NIPHON read the Kneeling Prayers aloud in Slavonic while the delegation followed along in the English translation provided them. The prayers invoke the Holy Spirit to descend upon the world and restore the grace given to it at its creation; to redeem it from sins; to deliver it from danger; and to bestow all the blessings it gave to the disciples on the original day of Pentecost. The disciples received the gift to speak different languages to preach the Gospel to all the nations, and the parish, as mentioned before, had three spoken on this particular day.
Vladika NIPHON welcomed Sayidna JOSEPH and the entire delegation afterward. Vladika expressed his gratitude to Sayidna and the group for joining the parish that Sunday, which revealed the strong ties between the churches in Russia, Antioch and America. Sayidna expressed his thanks to Vladika and his congregation, and told the people how proud he was of them for believing as strongly as they did both during and after the dark times of Communism. One could tell their appreciation of this acknowledgement simply by looking into their delighted faces.
The delegation got a history of the Metoxion from Vladika NIPHON. He said that it was established in the 19th century, but reduced to ruin during the Communist era. In his 30 years in Moscow, he has led rebuilding efforts and expansion so that his residence and offices can be on church grounds. Vladika NIPHON says the Antiochian Patriarchate owns the grounds, just as the Russian Patriarchate owns the grounds its metoxion sits on in Damascus, Syria. His community has only a few families from the Middle East, so his congregation mainly consists of his Russian neighbors. Nevertheless, the primary reasons for the Metoxion’s existence are for fraternal and loving relations and representation between the Antiochian and Russian patriarchates.
After a sumptuous home-cooked lunch and gifts from Vladika NIPHON, the delegation left immediately for a tour of Christ the Savior Cathedral in downtown Moscow. This is the official parish of His Holiness, Patriarch ALEXI II. Originally built in the 19th century, the massive complex is the tallest church in the Orthodox Christian world, sitting just minutes away from the Kremlin. It was dynamited and completely destroyed in less than ten minutes in 1931 by order of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and later was the grounds of a large public swimming pool. Reconstruction of the cathedral began almost immediately after Communism’s fall, funded entirely by private donations of money and materials totaling $1 billion (American).
Christ the Savior Cathedral stands 10,000 people and is the center of Russian Orthodox civic life. Just last year, His Holiness, Patriarch ALEXI and His Eminence, Metropolitan LAURUS of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) signed the “Articles of Reunification” on the Feast of the Holy Ascension at the cathedral, thus rejoining the churches split after decades of division caused by Communism. The two hierarchs and their delegations concelebrated Divine Liturgy together, with then-Russian Premier (and Orthodox Christian) Vladimir V. Putin in attendance. Unfortunately, photographs are not allowed inside Christ the Savior, but the cathedral has provided a website full of photographs and history: http://www.xxc.ru/english.
The delegation expects to visit the Kremlin and its churches, including picturesque St. Basil Cathedral, as it continues its historic pilgrimage on Monday.
By Subdeacon Peter Samore
His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH Meets with His Holiness, Patriarch ALEXY II of Moscow and All Russia, The Delegation Visits Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra and Sofrino Factory - 06/14/08
His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH and the delegation spent Saturday afternoon at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra outside of Moscow, where His Holiness, Patriarch ALEXI II of Moscow and All Russia presided over the Vigil Service for the Great and Holy Feast of Pentecost. His Holiness warmly greeted Sayidna as he processed into Holy Trinity Cathedral, and also in the altar, where he was introduced both times by His Grace, Bishop NIPHON, the Antiochian Patriarchate representative to the Russian Patriarchate.
Thousands of local and visiting faithful waited with great anticipation for His Holiness’ entrance into the cathedral. They lined his path from his monastery residence to the cathedral and crammed inside with all the clergy and monks just to catch a glimpse of him. About 15 minutes prior to his arrival, the monastery sounded a series of bells which grew louder and louder as the Patriarch drew near. At their loudest point, His Holiness came out of his residence and went into the cathedral. Dozens of cameras and cell phones flashed to record a glimpse of the Patriarch’s entrance.
Even though many people could not get a good view of the Vigil (the services of Vespers, Litia-Artoklasia and Orthros combined), all they wanted to do was be in the 15th century cathedral with all the saints of all ages depicted on the walls, and one saint in particular whose intact body lies in state: St. Sergius of Radonezh. In a rare move, the monastery opened the glass top of St. Sergius’ casket so that the delegation could directly venerate his sacred head covered by an aer—the vestment piece that covers the communion chalice and the faces of clergy and saints at their burials.
The words “out of this world” best describe the singing inside the cathedral. The voices of the Patriarch, bishops, clergy, monks, nuns and all the people marvelously resonated off the walls without any microphones or artificial amplification. Even the deacons and subdeacons gathered together sang “Come Let Us Worship” and “Vouchsafe, O Lord” from the back of the altar when they were not attending to the Patriarch and the four bishops. Everyone felt as if they were lifted into heaven.
Holy Trinity Cathedral is just one of several parishes that sanctify the grounds of the grand monastery, built by St. Sergius in the 14th century. It is called the “Russian Vatican” because it used to house the patriarchs of Russia, along with countless clergy and monastic. It is still the epicenter of Russian Orthodox Christian monastic and spiritual life. Dormition Cathedral sits just a few feet from Holy Trinity, easily recognizable with five massive cupolas (a gold one in the center, surrounded by four blue ones with gold stars). The Lavra has an additional ten churches, chapels and refectories, which boast more than a full cycle of services daily. The thousands gathered for Saturday’s festival and worship for Pentecost crammed into the churches, which held services simultaneously.
The trip to Holy Trinity-St. Sergius simply capped off an extraordinary day. Saturday (the delegation’s first full day in Moscow) began with a trip to the Sofrino factory, a giant complex where the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgical supplies are produced, including clergy vestments, icons, altar tables, gospel covers and much more. The five-story facility has a museum featuring the craftsmanship of its gifted artists, especially their work in gold and jewelry. The tour also included a look into the factory chapel where yet another baptism took place, and some of the workshops where some of the finest embroidery was produced.
God willing, the delegation will spend Pentecost (June 15) at the Antiochian Metoxion (representative parish) and at the Patriarchal Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.
By Subdeacon Peter Samore
Farewell to St. Petersburg with Four Church Visits and Trip to Moscow - 06/13/08
Saint Petersburg, Moscow
The delegation’s first stop on Friday morning (the last day in St. Petersburg) was perhaps the most moving: Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral and Fortress. The cathedral sits inside the fortress next to what are now a mint, the Trubetskoy bastion, the City Museum and other official buildings. Peter the Great built this citadel in 1703, and it did not see combat until 1917 in the period leading up to the Revolution. It too was bombarded by the Nazis, but faithfully restored after World War II.
All that the group needed to see was the cathedral. Even though it exemplifies classic Russian Orthodox design with its elaborate iconography, polished marble and gold gilding, it houses all of the internments of the great Russian nobility. The delegation stood next to the graves of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and all the Russian czars, czarinas and their families through the end of the Romanov dynasty. The tombs were crafted out of white, black and red marble and stood above ground inside the cathedral, as thousands of people weaved their way through them, reminded especially of the tribulations and deaths of the latter generations of royals immediately before the Bolshevik Revolution.
Next stop was the Church of the Resurrection, known also as the “Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.” Built in 1883 by Alexander III, it got its nickname in commemoration of the exact site where his father, Alexander II, was assassinated. That is marked with a black marble shrine. An anarchist bombed Alexander II’s entourage as it traveled by, killing several people. Alexander got out to help them just as another bomb was thrown, which ended his life.
“Ornate” does not begin to describe this cathedral, inside and out. The cupolas (“onion domes”) are gilded with gold and multi-colored tiles. Inside, 7,500 square meters of mosaic icons cover the walls, depicting dozens of saints and practically all of the most important events of Gospels and New Testament, from the Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, to His healing of the demoniac in Matthew (12:22-37).
The delegation moved on to St. Panteleimon Church, which is experiencing tremendous renovation and rebirth. It was one of many churches left to destruction and decay during the Communist era. Scaffoldings fill this church as a precursor to the glory that will eventually return. The church boasts an icon with a relic of St. Panteleimon, as well as an active life of worship. This time, instead of a baptism, the delegation walked in to a wedding held in a side chapel.
The last stop before lunch and departure from St. Petersburg was Holy Transfiguration Cathedral. It opened in 1837, and saw renovations throughout the 20th century. It was also the church our tour guide, Julia, attended as a teenager. The delegation felt extremely welcome here by two of the seven priests that serve 3,000 people in the community. Fr. Sergei and Fr. Michael opened the massive gold-gilded royal doors for His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH to enter through so that he could venerate the altar table and gospel. The two priests even invited Sayidna to serve with them on Sunday; he thanked them, but had to decline because of the delegation’s plans to be in Moscow on the Sunday of Pentecost (June 15). Like many other cathedrals, Holy Transfiguration also boasts three altars so that several Divine Liturgies and other liturgical services can be offered on the same day to accommodate the multitudes of faithful returning to the Church.
Our lunch at a local restaurant was a sad one, as we had to say goodbye to our tour guide, Julia. She provided such loving, informative descriptions of her city that it felt like our home, and we did not want to leave. (We would take her with us to Moscow if we could!) She gave us farewell gifts to remember St. Petersburg: coffee table books of the “Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood” and icons of a famed local holy woman, St. Xenia the Holy Wanderer. Julia’s 8-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, left Sayidna with a small gift of a hand-stitched flower inside a small picture frame. The group told Julia that she must call us if she is ever in California.
We boarded a train to Moscow that afternoon, and arrived later that evening at the Danilovskaya Hotel right on the grounds of the St. Daniel Monastery and the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Complex and Residence. The delegation’s planned excursions for Saturday include a trip to the Russian countryside, Sergiev Posad (known as the “Russian Vatican”) and Trinity Monastery in time for Pentecost Vespers.
By Subdeacon Peter Samore
Visit to Peterhof Summer Residence and Three Cathedrals: Ss. Peter and Paul, St. Nicholas Patron of Sailors, St. Isaac the Syrian (Museum) - 06/12/08
Saint Petersburg, Moscow
The delegation spent its second full day by stepping outside of St. Petersburg to the nearby Petrodvortsovy District. The group visited Peterhof (Dutch for “Peter’s Court”), a grand series of gardens, fountains and palaces laid out by Peter the Great in the early 18th century. Peterhof sits right just off the eastern shore of the Gulf of Finland, and was Peter the Great’s summer residence. It is called the “Russian Versailles” and the “capital of fountains”, featuring 144 fountains and five cascades throughout the lush, green acres.
Most of Peterhof had been pillaged and destroyed by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944. Russia has been restoring it ever since, yet most of the grandeur and magnificence of the complex had been completed decades ago. Outside, the Grand Cascade sits directly below the Grand Palace, shooting water in every direction through the golden statues that sit in front of it; the most famous is “Samson and the Lion.” Inside, the delegation feasted its eyes once again on the deep richness of Russian architecture and design. Family portraits and tapestries adorned the walls richly laden with gold leaf; bowls for boiling water rested on the main dining table underneath the main dining dishes so that dinners warm; and even the massive furnaces boasted unique patterns painted on them so as to fit in with the rest of the palace.
As one would already realize, Russia’s grand decorative style was not reserved just for royal houses, but for the houses built for God. These, too, are returning to their original glory and activity after the dark years of the 20th century. The delegation visited three cathedrals on Thursday, each more jaw-dropping than the rest. The first was Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, which is just minutes from Peterhof (not to be confused with Saints Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg proper). This cathedral opened in 1905, and its three priests actively serve 1,000 local families. The delegates were surprised to walk in on a baptism in the middle of the week, a sacrament usually saved for weekends to accommodate busy schedules in America. Nevertheless, the priest briefly stopped the routine weekday baptism to greet His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH and welcome the entire group. After a quick tour of the altar area and the church, the priest resumed his ministry, saw the family off, and proceeded to baptize another baby.
After lunch, the group made its way to St. Nicholas Patron of Sailors Cathedral in St. Petersburg. This parish was designated the official bishop’s cathedral after the Communists took control of the others, including Kazansky. Therefore, St. Nicholas never closed its door, though its sister parishes would face decay and destruction. Like at Ss. Peter and Paul, the priest here was performing a baptism, but he too briefly stopped the service to receive Sayidna’s blessing and welcome the delegation. Like the first parish, the priest resumed and finished the baptism, only to start another one right after. The group venerated a special icon of St. Nicholas that bore one of his relics, and sang his Troparion Hymn in English and Arabic.
The tour of St. Nicholas continued upstairs, where the group encountered a “church on top of a church.” This much grander and ornate parish was reserved for the royal family and its private services, and was much wider open than its counterpart downstairs. Now it is used for great feasts and holidays throughout the church year. As the bishop has his throne set in the center of the church, the royal family had its “booth” closer to the front. Though each “church” had completely different looks, the settings for prayer can take the worshipper out of this world to dwell in the next with equal power.
The grandest of all the visits was the last of the day: St. Isaac Cathedral, just moments away from St. Nicholas. Easily the largest church the delegation has visited, St. Isaac can stand 14,000 people, who can feel as though they were walking into heaven when the royal altar doors (standing at least 60 feet tall) open to reveal a gigantic stained glass icon of Christ “welcoming” them from the back of the altar. Its icons contain a total of 45,000 mosaic tiles of all color shades, and every single inch of the cathedral is covered in painted icons or at least some sort of artistic design.
St. Isaac was seized by the Communists, but the Russian government has kept the cathedral to preserve it as a museum. Russia has given a side chapel in honor of St. Alexander Nevsky back to the Church, which holds services there a few times a year. The cathedral, especially the altar, is still being restored after the Communists had converted it into the “Museum of Atheism.” However, St. Isaac is just one of many examples of how the Russian Orthodox Church bravely shone forth during this dangerous era. In 1981, His Beatitude, Patriarch IGNATIUS IV of Antioch visited Russia with 27 delegates. Among them was Sayidna JOSEPH, who at the time was a priest. Worship was forbidden in the “Museum of Atheism”, but the Patriarch along with His Eminence, Metropolitan ANTHONY (the ruling hierarch of Leningrad at the time), miraculously managed to openly concelebrate a Divine Liturgy with the delegation and thousands of local St. Petersburg faithful.
Later that evening, the delegates sampled a little bit of local culture called “Feel Yourself Russian”, a folk show at the Nikolayevsky Palace. It opened in the early 19th century, commissioned by Grand Duke Nicholas, a son of Czar Nicholas I. The folk show opened with a quartet singing Russian Orthodox and patriotic hymns, and then featured dozens of costumed dancers from Russia’s leading performing arts schools, singing and performing with such vigor and energy that it was hard for the audience to keep up!
The delegation will spend most of Friday once again in St. Petersburg, then voyage by train to Moscow in the afternoon to see even more sites that bear witness to Russia’s holy endurance after the fall of the godless regime.
By Subdeacon Peter Samore
City tour of Saint Petersburg with visits to Kazan (Kazansky) Cathedral, St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra, the Winter Palace/Hermitage Museum - 06/11/08Saint Petersburg, Moscow
The delegation started its first full day through the streets of the holy city of St. Petersburg. Though founded in 1703 by Emperor Peter the Great, it was not named after him. All along, it had been named after the glorious Apostle Peter, whose life has been a model for a city and area that boasts hundreds of churches, cathedrals and monasteries. St. Petersburg was the capital of Russia for more than 200 years up to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918. The city has also been called Petrograd (the Russian name match for the German “Petersburg” meaning “Peter’s City”) and Leningrad, after Communist Party leader Vladimir Lenin. In 1989, the people voted to restore the city’s original name of St. Petersburg. It is still considered the culture capitol of Russia.
After a brief stop for sight-seeing above the picturesque Neva River, the delegation came to the Russian Orthodox Christian Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan (Kazansky Cathedral). This holy and glorious house of worship can stand—not seat—7,000 people in front of three altars. Kazansky is also the see of His Eminence, Metropolitan VLADIMIR of the St. Petersburg Archdiocese. The cathedral gets its name from a famous icon of the Virgin Mary that had disappeared but had been miraculously rediscovered in the village of Kazan. The new Kazan Icon is bedecked in thousands of diamonds and precious stones and protected in glass on the iconostasis at the front of the cathedral, yet readily available for the constant stream of people who venerated it and prayerfully asked the Theotokos to intercede with Christ for deliverance from their everyday tribulations. Each delegate took a turn praying before this miraculous icon.
Because Kazansky has three altars, the daily cycle of services and Divine Liturgies are constantly offered for all the local faithful. The delegation walked into the cathedral as the priest offered Holy Communion. He and his brother clergy—like many other locals did on Wednesday—came and asked for a blessing from His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH, who prayed at the remainder of the Liturgy with his delegation. A small choir, standing at least 25 feet above the faithful at the southern altar, sang “Eis polla eti, Dhespota” to Sayidna. The cathedral clergy then took him on a tour inside the massive altar area, which could easily stand several hundred clergy. Kazansky also has icons of Nicholas II (the last Russian czar) and his entire family, as they have been declared saints by the Russian church, martyred by the Bolsheviks. His special throne remains in tact near the sanctuary’s center, above which hangs his icon.
Next stop was St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra (“grand monastery”). Hundreds of monks dwell in this capital of Russian Orthodox monasticism named after the 13th century saint that was a great prince and military leader of Novgorod. He successfully defended the land from invading Germans, and struck great treaties with surrounding lands. Among the icons the faithful venerated were those of St. Alexander, a famed icon of the three angels that represent the Holy Trinity (which has been copied for veneration in churches worldwide), and another made of metal shaped like an iconostasis that had several small icons and little dots of wax that held tiny relics of saints. The delegation also prayed before the casket that bears the body of St. Alexander. Sayidna JOSEPH then anointed the delegates with holy oil kept there.
Perhaps the most moving part of the visit to the lavra came during a tour of the monastery cemetery. Hundreds of bishops, priests, deacons, monastics and faithful have their final resting places here, many after enduring excruciating martyrdoms at the hands of the Communists. One bishop had been crucified in front of his altar; another had been poisoned before leaving for a diplomatic mission at the Vatican, where he eventually collapsed. Along a green wall, the delegates saw bullet holes and broken concrete where forty monks had been lined up, shot and killed. Many graves had no names; these marked the people who had been killed for the faith yet their bodies have never been recovered.
The delegation then trekked to the Czars’ Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum to view Russia’s treasured civic, art and historical tradition. Our tour guide remarked that if one would spend three minutes viewing each display in the massive museum, it would take 11 years to see the entire collection. Catherine I commissioned the extravagant palace be built starting in 1754, but she never lived to see its completion. It opened in 1762 under Catherine II, who started the Hermitage next door to the palace, bringing in priceless artifacts and works of art from all over Russia and the world. The royal Romanov family continued to fill the halls until their reign came to an end in World War I.
The entire complex is now a museum, and it receives 35,000 visitors daily. The delegates made their way through four wings to view original paintings by Rembrandt, da Vinci and other masters that adorn the walls. The architectural splendor of the palace includes a massive reception room, a throne room named in honor of Peter the Great and countless pillars and doors covered in gold leaf. The wooden floors, which boast of more than two dozen types of parquet carved and laid into intricate designs and shapes, are heavily protected with at least 1 cm of lacquer. In addition to all the furniture and fine china, the Hermitage hangs a special a white chandelier personally crafted by Peter the Great for Elizabeth I. The Hermitage also displays the original pure silver sarcophagus that used to hold the body of St. Alexander Nevsky.
The delegation will spend Thursday again in St. Petersburg, visiting more holy and cultural sites to, in the words of Sayidna JOSEPH, arouse spirituality and education.
By Subdeacon Peter Samore
Arrival in Saint Petersburg - 06/10/08
Saint Petersburg, Moscow
By the grace of God, the Diocesan delegation traveled safely from Los Angeles to St. Petersburg, Russia, after a brief layover in Munich, Germany. His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH led a prayer before the journey, invoking the intercessions of the Theotokos and Virgin Mary as he recited the Kontakion of the Annunciation (“To Thee, the Champion Leader”). The group left Los Angeles International Airport around 8:40 P.M. on Monday, June 9, and arrived in St. Petersburg just after midnight on Wednesday, June 11. The entire journey in the air lasted over 14 hours, but the delegates arrived refreshed and ready to visit the holy and historic sites that reveal the glory of Russia.