Monthly Archives: February 2012

At the Grave of Saint Raphael

by Jamil Malone

Since our youth we have been told that the saints are always around us. Whether we’ve lost something and need help finding it, or we need comfort in our lives, we have been told the saints are there. But how true is that? How do you actually know the saints are there with you, helping you and inspiring you in your daily lives?

Picture with me a dark, cold night in the mountains of Pennsylvania, on the edge of a forest filled with dark trees. The air is crisp and there is no sound except the breeze creeping through the trees as it chills your skin. The only light is from the candles that a few college students are holding as they came to pay their respects. As they draw near, the light catches on a tall gray stone and they feel the emptiness of the night upon them. These college students are members of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship Student Advisory Board, and they’ve come to pay their respects to an American saint. As they surround his grave, they begin chanting his Kontakion, breathing warmth into the night air.

“Today the memory of blessed Raphael hath shone on us;”

Together, they feel a warmth come upon them. At this moment they know they are not alone but another has joined them. Bringing these young adults together to sing praises at his grave, he inspires them to use their voices. And so they do. In the dark of the night, on this little corner of the world, these students begin singing more than just to St. Raphael. Having never sang together, they begin singing “The Angel Cried” and as if part of an angelic choir, their voices join together in four parts. They sing on and on, bringing warmth to the cold, knowing that the presence of St. Raphael is filled within them.

The Grave of St. Raphael

Back in the lodge, they explain the joy of what has just happened to the rest of their friends. Reflecting on this experience, they look into this wondrous saint they have just experienced. St. Raphael journeyed around America finding the lost sheep of the church and preformed marriages, baptisms, heard confessions, and celebrated Divine Liturgies at homes and in 30 parishes that he started. Much like St. Raphael, we as members of the Student Advisory Board were charged to spread Orthodoxy and find lost sheep on college campuses. From this point on, we knew St. Raphael would be with us.

“For having received Christ’s call, he faithfully took up his cross and followed Him becoming a fisher of men.”

St. Raphael has touched more than just a group on college students. In 2001, another group of individuals were inspired by him. Just over a year after he was proclaimed a saint, a group dedicated to the youth in the central United States formed Camp St. Raphael. St. Raphael has given inspiration to the youth. An activity done by many counselors of the younger children every year helps explain how real the saints are. Sitting in cabin time, the campers are given a black and white picture of an old man. When asked who this person is many say some bishop. An icon of St. Raphael is then passed around and everyone knows who the icon is of. When told that these two images are of the same person, the children are shocked. A photograph of a saint? They learn the story of St. Raphael, and how each of us is called to be saints. St. Raphael wasn’t a wonder-working saint per se, he lived his life through Christ, much like we all should live. He is an example to the campers and staff to live a Christ-centered life, much like our patron saint. Eleven years and over one thousand campers later, St. Raphael continues to inspire.

St. Raphael

“Let us cry aloud to him saying: Rejoice O Father Raphael!”

Like we were told as children, the saints are always around us. Having an experience where you can feel the presence of a saint adds to that realization. We find safety in the saints, and we find familiarity in our American saints. A saint who walked on the same streets we walk on every day. A saint who started churches that we still sing praises in today. A saint who has touched and continues to touch the lives of many. Through the intercessions of this great American saint who passed away 97 years ago on February 27, May God have mercy on us all!

Canonization of St. Raphael

More information about Saint Raphael.

Saint Innocent’s Rules

by Mr. Andrew Boyd

In 1853, while he was a missionary bishop in Alaska, Saint Innocent wrote a letter to a priest in the Nushagak region of Alaska and gave some simple instructions on how to do missionary and evangelical work among the native people. In 2008, I shared some of these with an OCF chapter, and we had a long discussion about how these rules might be applied to evangelical work in a campus setting. Saint Innocent started with this instruction:

Nushagak River, Alaska

On Arriving at Some Settlement of Savages, thou shalt on no account say that thou art sent by any government, or give thyself out for some kind of official functionary, but appear in the guise of a poor wanderer, a sincere well-wisher to his fellow men, who was come for the single purpose of showing them the means to attain prosperity.

This rule was obviously specific to the context of St. Innocent’s work in Russian America where the government, a private corporation, and the Church were sometimes confusingly intertwined. He tasks missionaries with having “the single purpose of showing them the means to attain prosperity.” I am going to go out on a limb and assume that St. Innocent was not trying to indoctrinate people into some sort of pyramid scheme, but instead the prosperity of eternal life in Jesus Christ. That is the single purpose of missionary work, the good news of the Kingdom of God and his Christ.

From the moment when thou first enterest on thy duties, do thou strive, by conduct and by virtues becoming thy dignity, to win the good opinion and respect not alone of the natives, but of the civilized residents as well. Good opinion breeds respect, and one who is not respected will not be listened to.

Respect is key to evangelical work, as are loving relationships. One student used the example of a man shouting outside the student union for hours about how all college students were going to Hell. Perhaps that is an example of not being respectful or seeking to attain the good opinion of people in the society. Better instead to forge respectful relationships with people and to give room for the Holy Spirit to work.

On no account show open contempt for their manner of living, customs, etc., however these may appear deserving of it, for nothing insults and irritates savages so much as showing them open contempt and making fun of them and anything belonging to them.

There is much “open contempt” for the college “lifestyle” from many religious groups. College has become synonymous not with growth, education, and responsibility, but rather excesses, debauchery, and “finding yourself”, whatever that means. As destructive as these behaviors can be, a person has no hope, no ability, no resources to change them without a relationship with Christ in the context of His Church. If we bring people to Christ, and Christ to them, then behavior will change as they encounter Him more. Many college students have made Christians into judgmental and uptight caricatures, and perhaps this is largely our fault as so often we only have a word of judgment towards them, not a word of the good news of Jesus Christ.

In giving instruction and talking with natives generally, be gentle, pleasant, simple, and in no way assuming an overbearing or didactic manner, for by so doing thou canst seriously jeopardize the success of thy labors.

This may not be an effective strategy

This is where we Orthodox so often fall into the traps of the richness of our faith. We are rarely simple in presenting our faith, and often overbear people with our eagerness and didactic presentation of our history. There is a temptation to define ourselves against another group (for example “We’re like Catholics, but different”). Our OCF chapter challenged each other to explain our faith without reference to the Byzantine Empire or certain events in the year 1054. We all found this very difficult. Rarely do we start speaking to non-Orthodox using the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We’d often rather start with a complex and nuanced history lecture.

When a native speaks to thee, hear him out attentively courteously and patiently, and answer questions convincingly, carefully, and kindly; for any question asked by a native on spiritual subjects is a matter of great importance to the preacher, since it may be an indication both of the state of the questioner’s soul and of his capacity, as well as of his desire, to learn. But by not answering him even only once, or answering in a way at which he can take offense, he may be silenced forever.

Do we listen when we engage non-Orthodox people? Or, do we bury them with our well-rehearsed theological and historical arguments? St. Innocent argues that how we answer questions is paramount. Often we don’t give very good answers, eager instead to force our agenda, or to give an “easy” answer, or say that we will “find out” but never follow up. If we have people who are interested enough to ask questions about our faith, we have a duty to do everything we can to give them complete and satisfactory answers, answers which not only convey information, but our care and concern for individuals. Paying careful attention to questions is necessary for missionary work.

Saint Innocent ends his instructions by commanding his missionary priests to wish well and treat well those who reject conversion and baptism. This is also helpful advice, if people reject Jesus Christ; we are still called to treat them with respect, keeping in mind that how we treat people is in itself a missionary effort. Matthew’s Gospel is quite clear, that we are all called to missionary work, to teach and baptize in every context. Even though Saint Innocent was writing for a very specific context (work amongst native Alaskans), his instructions are useful for us today in almost any setting. Our campus ministry group attempted to draft some rules for missionary work on our campus. What would some specific rules be for yours? How would they help you and others in missionary work?

St. Innocent by the hand of Fr. Andrew Tregubov

The English translations of Saint Innocent’s writing were taken from “Orthodox Christians in America” by John Erickson published by Oxford University Press in 1999.

More Information on Saint Innocent.

Saint Innocent's Rules

by Mr. Andrew Boyd

In 1853, while he was a missionary bishop in Alaska, Saint Innocent wrote a letter to a priest in the Nushagak region of Alaska and gave some simple instructions on how to do missionary and evangelical work among the native people. In 2008, I shared some of these with an OCF chapter, and we had a long discussion about how these rules might be applied to evangelical work in a campus setting. Saint Innocent started with this instruction:

Nushagak River, Alaska

On Arriving at Some Settlement of Savages, thou shalt on no account say that thou art sent by any government, or give thyself out for some kind of official functionary, but appear in the guise of a poor wanderer, a sincere well-wisher to his fellow men, who was come for the single purpose of showing them the means to attain prosperity.

This rule was obviously specific to the context of St. Innocent’s work in Russian America where the government, a private corporation, and the Church were sometimes confusingly intertwined. He tasks missionaries with having “the single purpose of showing them the means to attain prosperity.” I am going to go out on a limb and assume that St. Innocent was not trying to indoctrinate people into some sort of pyramid scheme, but instead the prosperity of eternal life in Jesus Christ. That is the single purpose of missionary work, the good news of the Kingdom of God and his Christ.

From the moment when thou first enterest on thy duties, do thou strive, by conduct and by virtues becoming thy dignity, to win the good opinion and respect not alone of the natives, but of the civilized residents as well. Good opinion breeds respect, and one who is not respected will not be listened to.

Respect is key to evangelical work, as are loving relationships. One student used the example of a man shouting outside the student union for hours about how all college students were going to Hell. Perhaps that is an example of not being respectful or seeking to attain the good opinion of people in the society. Better instead to forge respectful relationships with people and to give room for the Holy Spirit to work.

On no account show open contempt for their manner of living, customs, etc., however these may appear deserving of it, for nothing insults and irritates savages so much as showing them open contempt and making fun of them and anything belonging to them.

There is much “open contempt” for the college “lifestyle” from many religious groups. College has become synonymous not with growth, education, and responsibility, but rather excesses, debauchery, and “finding yourself”, whatever that means. As destructive as these behaviors can be, a person has no hope, no ability, no resources to change them without a relationship with Christ in the context of His Church. If we bring people to Christ, and Christ to them, then behavior will change as they encounter Him more. Many college students have made Christians into judgmental and uptight caricatures, and perhaps this is largely our fault as so often we only have a word of judgment towards them, not a word of the good news of Jesus Christ.

In giving instruction and talking with natives generally, be gentle, pleasant, simple, and in no way assuming an overbearing or didactic manner, for by so doing thou canst seriously jeopardize the success of thy labors.

This may not be an effective strategy

This is where we Orthodox so often fall into the traps of the richness of our faith. We are rarely simple in presenting our faith, and often overbear people with our eagerness and didactic presentation of our history. There is a temptation to define ourselves against another group (for example “We’re like Catholics, but different”). Our OCF chapter challenged each other to explain our faith without reference to the Byzantine Empire or certain events in the year 1054. We all found this very difficult. Rarely do we start speaking to non-Orthodox using the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We’d often rather start with a complex and nuanced history lecture.

When a native speaks to thee, hear him out attentively courteously and patiently, and answer questions convincingly, carefully, and kindly; for any question asked by a native on spiritual subjects is a matter of great importance to the preacher, since it may be an indication both of the state of the questioner’s soul and of his capacity, as well as of his desire, to learn. But by not answering him even only once, or answering in a way at which he can take offense, he may be silenced forever.

Do we listen when we engage non-Orthodox people? Or, do we bury them with our well-rehearsed theological and historical arguments? St. Innocent argues that how we answer questions is paramount. Often we don’t give very good answers, eager instead to force our agenda, or to give an “easy” answer, or say that we will “find out” but never follow up. If we have people who are interested enough to ask questions about our faith, we have a duty to do everything we can to give them complete and satisfactory answers, answers which not only convey information, but our care and concern for individuals. Paying careful attention to questions is necessary for missionary work.

Saint Innocent ends his instructions by commanding his missionary priests to wish well and treat well those who reject conversion and baptism. This is also helpful advice, if people reject Jesus Christ; we are still called to treat them with respect, keeping in mind that how we treat people is in itself a missionary effort. Matthew’s Gospel is quite clear, that we are all called to missionary work, to teach and baptize in every context. Even though Saint Innocent was writing for a very specific context (work amongst native Alaskans), his instructions are useful for us today in almost any setting. Our campus ministry group attempted to draft some rules for missionary work on our campus. What would some specific rules be for yours? How would they help you and others in missionary work?

St. Innocent by the hand of Fr. Andrew Tregubov

The English translations of Saint Innocent’s writing were taken from “Orthodox Christians in America” by John Erickson published by Oxford University Press in 1999.

More Information on Saint Innocent.

My Journy with Saint Alexis

By Fr. Steven Voytovich

I grew up with two parish homes: St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis, and St. John’s Orthodox Church in Huron, Wisconsin.  St. Mary’s began as an Eastern Rite Catholic Church community, to which St. Alexis Toth was called as first resident pastor.  St. John’s began as a country parish community built by immigrants from the Carpatho-Rusyn region of Galicia of which I am a descendant.  Growing up in Minneapolis I spent many hours in the parish hall where a large picture of Fr. Alexis Toth hung.  It was known already then in the parish that one day he might be recognized as a saint.

St. Alexis was of Carpatho-Rusyn heritage, worshiping in the Easten-Rite Catholic faith.  His father and brother were also priests, and his uncle a bishop.  He married, was ordained an Eastern-Rite priest, and served as parish priest.  Fr. Alexis lost his wife and child while there.  He eventually taught Canon Law and Church History in the Prešov Seminary and served as Chancellor of the Diocese.  In 1889 he arrived in Minneapolis, called to be parish priest of this Eastern-Rite parish. After being refused by the Catholic bishop John Ireland, he eventually made a trip to San Francisco to seek the restoration of this parish community to the Orthodox Faith.  Bishop VLADIMIR visited on the Sunday of Orthodoxy in 1891 to receive the parish, pending approval by the Holy Synod in Russia.  Because of St. Alexis’ witness and action, many Eastern-Rite parishes here in the US and abroad returned to the Orthodox Church.

Exhuming of St. Alexis's Relics

During Great Lent in 1994, several of us clergy drove to St. Tikhon’s to be present as the relics of St. Alexis were exhumed, following his death in 1909, now in preparation for canonization services.  Fr. Nicholas Timpko, a former St. Mary Cathedral pastor, drove his spacious station wagon.  Along the way steam began pouring forth from the engine as we drove on the highway.  We headed for the first exit at just before 8am.  As we reached the end of the ramp, an auto parts store was to our left, the doors being unlocked as we drove in.  We purchased and installed the necessary hose and in minutes were on our way.  We all agreed that St. Alexis had been watching over us as we traveled.  We arrived on time for these services that were very meaningful and moving.

Fr. Steven carries the relics with his brother clergy

In May 1994, St. Alexis was canonized, and I was blessed to participate in the services. The relics of St. Alexis were taken in procession to the large outdoor chapel area for the Divine Liturgy.  Then at the Little Entrance, after “Blessed is the Entrance of Thy Saints” was proclaimed, the relics were brought into the altar through the royal doors.  What a powerful fulfillment of this prayer!

St. Alexis's Canonization Liturgy

By September of the same year I was called to journey with a brand new “mission station” from its first steps.  When it came time to select a name to forward to our bishop, we placed the names of several saints in the chalice after the Divine Liturgy.  Two young members of the parish drew out the names of St. Alexis and St. Herman to be forwarded to our Bishop.  St. Alexis was chosen in the spring of 1995, so that this St. Alexis parish has celebrated each annual observance of St. Alexis Feast Day of May 7th since he was proclaimed a saint.  On the iconostas of St. Alexis Church, Clinton, CT, now a full parish, to the left is an icon of St. Herman, reflecting the missionary origins of the Orthodox Church in America, and St. Alexis to the right, reflecting later immigrant origins.

St. Alexis Church

I initially struggled with St. Alexis having been chosen, however, with concern about how to share about our patron saint in greater ecumenical circles and in the community.  Then I reflected upon the blessed saint’s journey following Bishop Vladimir’s embrace.  His bishop recalled him to Prešov after the meeting he held with other Eastern Rite clergy. Bishop Vladimir was recalled to Russia, and a year went by before Bishop Nicholas arrived with word of approval of the Holy Synod. During this time the parish refused to pay Fr. Alexis thinking that he sold them out to the Russians, forcing him to work in a bakery.  Through all of this the blessed saint remained faithful to his calling to pastor his flock, initiating another parish community in Wilkes-Barre where he would eventually become pastor.  I became aware that St. Alexis had been most meaningfully selected as our Patron Saint to aid us in remaining faithful as we moved through “mission station” to full parish status.

Several years later, in March of 2001, I prepared a retreat day around the life of St. Alexis to lead our parish and those joining us.  During the preparation phase, I came upon a two volume series relating a psychological profile of the Slav.  Being a third generation descendant, I only ever had seen myself as an American.  In reading this profile, however, my Slavic heritage was awakened. “The Slav of today in general is strong and prolific, capable of doing, as well as of suffering, anything when his heart is in it; he is at the bottom pious, simple, kind, and loves peace; he is very patient, sober, thrifty, capable of laborious effort, peculiar to an agriculturist life, possessed of great powers of endurance and perseverance, home-loving, devoted to religion and enthusiastic for the ideals of humanity.” (Radosavljevich, p.100-101)  As I shared these elements of Slavic identity, I observed the energy among the mostly Slavic attendees rise through the course of the day, also connecting with their heritage.

In closing, St. Alexis’ canonization appeared to have been met with skepticism by some in elevating him to the ranks of the saints “simply” by leading the Eastern-Rite Slavs, a small ethnic group. Here are my thoughts about St. Alexis’s witness in our American context.  He could have remained quite comfortable in his service and station in Prešov.  Instead, he stretched beyond familiar cultural, ethnic, and religious orientations in order to encounter others in and beyond the Orthodox Faith.  By doing so, St. Alexis encountered his own faith with greater depth and authenticity, while reaching out to others in a new cultural and pluralistic-faith context.  His identity was not lost, but deepened, and many others – sharing his ethnic background or not – were edified by the opportunity to interact with and learn from St. Alexis.  I continue to significantly draw upon St. Alexis’ example as a Slavic-American, and priest chaplain serving in ecumenical and interfaith contexts.  As we still work to make good on our Mission as the Orthodox Church in America to bring Orthodoxy to this American context and people, let us be strengthened in this effort by the example of blessed Saint Alexis.  Holy Father Alexis, Confessor of Orthodoxy in America, pray to God for us!

Holy Father Alexis, Pray to God for us!

Radosavljevich, Paul R., Who are the Slavs? A Contribution to Race Psychology, Boston, Gorham Press, 1919, vol 1. (Digitized reference)

For further reference, please see Radosavljevich’s six fundamental emotional-volitional or temperamental traits for the Slav, p. 365

Further information on the life of St. Alexis Toth.

Matushka Olga Michael: A Helper in Restoring the Work of God’s Hands

By Fr. John Shimchick

While all of the canonized Saints of North America have so far been men, over the past few years an Orthodox woman, native of North America, has slowly become known to more and more people, particularly other Orthodox women.

Matushka Olga Michael, wife of the departed Archpriest Nikolai O. Michael from the village of Kwethluk on the Kuskokwim River in Alaska, as described in Fr. Michael Oleksa’s book, Orthodox Alaska, was neither a “physically impressive or imposing figure.” She raised eight children to maturity, giving birth to several of them without a midwife. While her husband was away taking care of many other parishes, she kept busy raising her family and doing many things for other people. One is reminded of the story of Tabitha in the book of Acts (9:36-ff) when hearing that “[i]n addition to sewing Father Nikolai’s vestments in the early years and crafting beautiful parkas, boots and mittens for her children, she was constantly sewing or knitting socks or fur outerwear for others. Hardly a friend or neighbor was without something Matushka had made for them. Parishes hundreds of miles away received unsolicited gifts, traditional Eskimo winter boots (‘mukluks’) to sell or raffle for their building fund. All the clergy of the deanery wore gloves or woolen socks …[which she] had made for them” (p. 203). While fulfilling many of the other tasks (like preparing the Eucharistic bread) that are often assumed by other priests’ wives, she also knew the hymns of many feast days, including Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Pascha in Yup’ik (her Eskimo language) by heart. After, miraculously surviving an initial bout with cancer when it seemed that nothing could be done, she eventually succumbed to a return of the disease, preparing herself for death which took place on November 8, 1979 with great courage and faith.

Metropolitan Jonah and Bishop Benjamin arriving in Kwethluk, AK

It appeared that the normal snow and river ice of that time of the year would prevent many people from attending her funeral. But, the weather uncharacteristically changed and a southerly wind helped to melt the ice and snow allowing parishioners from the neighboring villages to make the journey to Kwethluk. “Hundreds of friends…filled the newly-consecrated church on the extraordinary spring-like day of the funeral. Upon exiting the church, the procession was joined by a flock of birds, although by that time of year, all birds have long since flown south. The birds circled overhead, and accompanied the coffin to the grave site. The usually frozen soil had been easy to dig because of the unprecedented thaw. That night, after the memorial meal, the wind began to blow again, the ground refroze, ice covered the river, winter returned. It was as if the earth itself had opened to receive this woman. The cosmos still cooperates and participates in the worship the Real People [i.e. the name native people give to themselves] offer to God” (p. 205) .

However, it is not just her story, that has been so special and life changing to others, but the actual encounter with her presence that has taken place in remarkable ways. One woman, originally from Kwethluk but now living in Arizona, had a dream in which Matushka Olga appeared, assuring her that her mother would be alright because she was coming to join her in a bright and joyful place. This woman did not known her mother was sick at the time, that she had been rushed to Anchorage, and that she would soon die. But the next day she received news of her mother’s emergency evacuation and rushed from Arizona to Alaska, comforting her mother with the news Matushka Olga had brought her about her eternal destiny. The woman died in peace and with her daughter without the shock and grief that would have certainly ensued if the dream had not reassured her.

His Beatitude leads a memorial service for Matushka Olga in Kwethluk

Another woman, after viewing a picture of Matushka Olga, experienced a “compassionate, loving, gentle, and very real – very accessible presence.”

The most detailed account comes from an Orthodox woman who, as in the previous example, had suffered for many years from the consequences of severe sexual abuse experienced as a child. This is her testimony of meeting Matushka Olga:

One day I was deeply at prayer and awake. I had remembered an event that was very scary. My prayer began with my asking the Holy Theotokos for help and mercy. Gradually I was aware of standing in the woods feeling still a little scared. Soon a gentle wave of tenderness began to sweep through the woods followed by a fresh garden scent. I saw the Virgin Mary, dressed as she is in an icon, but more natural looking and brighter, walking toward me. As she came closer I was aware of someone walking behind her. She stepped aside and gestured to a short, wise looking woman. I asked her, “Who are you?” And the Virgin Mary answered, “St. Olga.”

St. Olga gestured for me to follow her. We walked a long way until there weren’t many trees. We came to a little hill that had a door cut into the side. She gestured for me to sit and she went inside. After a little while some smoke came out of the top of the hill. St. Olga came out with some herbal tea. We both sat in silence drinking our tea and feeling the warmth of the sun of our faces. I began to get a pain in my belly and she led me inside. The door was so low I had to duck like bowing in prayer.

Inside the hill was dry and warm and very quiet. The light was very soft coming from a shallow bowl and from the open hole on the top of the hill. Everything around me felt gentle, especially Mother Olga. The little hill house smelled like wild thyme and white pine in the sun with roses and violets mixed in. Mother Olga helped me up on a kind of platform bed like a driftwood box filled with moss and grasses. It was soft and smelled like the earth and the sea. I was exhausted and lay back. St. Olga went over to the lamp and warmed up something which she rubbed on my belly. I looked five months pregnant. (I was not pregnant for real at that time.) I started to labor. I was a little scared. Mother Olga climbed up beside me and gently holding by arm, she pretended to labor with me, showing me what to do and how to breath. She still hadn’t said anything. She helped me push out some stuff like afterbirth which kind of soaked into dried moss on the box bed. I was very tired and crying a little from relief when it was over.

Up until this she hadn’t spoken, but her eyes spoke with great tenderness and understanding. We both got up and had some tea. As we were drinking it, Holy Mother Olga gradually became the light in the room. Her face looked like there was a strong light bulb or the sun shining under her skin. But I think the whole of her glowed. I was just so connected to her loving gaze that I didn’t pay much attention to anything else. It was the kind of loving gaze from a mother to an infant that connects and welcomes a baby to life. She seemed to pour tenderness into me through her eyes. This wasn’t scary even though, at that time, I didn’t know about people who literally shone with the love of God. (It made more sense after I read about St. Seraphim). I know now that some very deep wounds were being healed at that time. She gave me back by own life which had been stolen, a life that is now defined by the beauty and love of God for me, the restored work of His Hands.

After some time I felt like I was filled with wellness and a sense of quiet entered my soul, as if my soul had been crying like a grief-stricken abandoned infant and now had finally been comforted. Even now as I write… the miracle of the peacefulness, and also the zest for life which wellness has brought, causes me to cry with joy and awe.

Only after this did Holy Mother Olga speak. She spoke about God and people who choose to do evil things. She said the people who hurt me thought they could make me carry their evil inside of me by rape. She was very firm when she said, “That’s a lie. Only God can carry evil away. The only thing they could put inside you was the seed of life which is a creation of God and cannot pollute anyone.” I was never polluted. It just felt that way because of the evil intentions of the people near me. What I had held inside me was the pain, terror, shame, and helplessness I felt. We had labored together and that was all out of me now. She burned some grass over the little flame and the smoke went straight up to God who is both the judge and the forgiver. I understood by the “incense” that it wasn’t my job to carry the sins of people against me either. It was God’s, and what an ever-unfolding richness this taste of salvation is. At the end of this healing time we went outside together. It was not dark in the visioning prayer. There were so many stars stretching to infinity. The sky was all shimmer with a moving veil of light. (I had seen photos of the northern light but didn’t know that they move.) Either Matushka Olga said, or we both heard in our hearts — I can’t remember which — that the moving curtain of light was to be for us a promise that God can create great beauty from complete desolation and nothingness. For me it was like proof of the healing — great beauty where there had been nothing before but despair hidden by shame and great effort.

His Beatitude praying at Matushka Olga's grave

What is one to make of these accounts? If nothing else, for now, one can acknowledge the special place that Matushka Olga has had in the lives of certain native people and a growing number of contemporary women. But it is in the slow and gradually expanding process of knowledge which moves from local veneration to broader awareness that God reveals how He can be “wonderful in His Saints.” Matushka Olga was herself a midwife and may have also known from personal experience the traumas of being abused earlier in her life. Perhaps it is in this role as an advocate for those who have been abused, particularly sexually, that God will continue to use Matushka Olga in drawing “straight with crooked lines”, His work of “creating beauty from complete desolation and nothingness.”

If God wills, may it also one day be possible to exclaim: “O Blessed Mother Olga, pray to God for us!”

O Blessed Mother Olga, pray to God for us!

[Special thanks to Fr. Michael Oleksa, and to Fr. John and Lyn Breck for their support and help in providing the source materials for this article.]

This article was originally published in 1997 by “Jacob’s Well”  a publication of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, and can be accessed here.

More information on Matushka Olga.

Matushka Olga Michael: A Helper in Restoring the Work of God's Hands

By Fr. John Shimchick

While all of the canonized Saints of North America have so far been men, over the past few years an Orthodox woman, native of North America, has slowly become known to more and more people, particularly other Orthodox women.

Matushka Olga Michael, wife of the departed Archpriest Nikolai O. Michael from the village of Kwethluk on the Kuskokwim River in Alaska, as described in Fr. Michael Oleksa’s book, Orthodox Alaska, was neither a “physically impressive or imposing figure.” She raised eight children to maturity, giving birth to several of them without a midwife. While her husband was away taking care of many other parishes, she kept busy raising her family and doing many things for other people. One is reminded of the story of Tabitha in the book of Acts (9:36-ff) when hearing that “[i]n addition to sewing Father Nikolai’s vestments in the early years and crafting beautiful parkas, boots and mittens for her children, she was constantly sewing or knitting socks or fur outerwear for others. Hardly a friend or neighbor was without something Matushka had made for them. Parishes hundreds of miles away received unsolicited gifts, traditional Eskimo winter boots (‘mukluks’) to sell or raffle for their building fund. All the clergy of the deanery wore gloves or woolen socks …[which she] had made for them” (p. 203). While fulfilling many of the other tasks (like preparing the Eucharistic bread) that are often assumed by other priests’ wives, she also knew the hymns of many feast days, including Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Pascha in Yup’ik (her Eskimo language) by heart. After, miraculously surviving an initial bout with cancer when it seemed that nothing could be done, she eventually succumbed to a return of the disease, preparing herself for death which took place on November 8, 1979 with great courage and faith.

Metropolitan Jonah and Bishop Benjamin arriving in Kwethluk, AK

It appeared that the normal snow and river ice of that time of the year would prevent many people from attending her funeral. But, the weather uncharacteristically changed and a southerly wind helped to melt the ice and snow allowing parishioners from the neighboring villages to make the journey to Kwethluk. “Hundreds of friends…filled the newly-consecrated church on the extraordinary spring-like day of the funeral. Upon exiting the church, the procession was joined by a flock of birds, although by that time of year, all birds have long since flown south. The birds circled overhead, and accompanied the coffin to the grave site. The usually frozen soil had been easy to dig because of the unprecedented thaw. That night, after the memorial meal, the wind began to blow again, the ground refroze, ice covered the river, winter returned. It was as if the earth itself had opened to receive this woman. The cosmos still cooperates and participates in the worship the Real People [i.e. the name native people give to themselves] offer to God” (p. 205) .

However, it is not just her story, that has been so special and life changing to others, but the actual encounter with her presence that has taken place in remarkable ways. One woman, originally from Kwethluk but now living in Arizona, had a dream in which Matushka Olga appeared, assuring her that her mother would be alright because she was coming to join her in a bright and joyful place. This woman did not known her mother was sick at the time, that she had been rushed to Anchorage, and that she would soon die. But the next day she received news of her mother’s emergency evacuation and rushed from Arizona to Alaska, comforting her mother with the news Matushka Olga had brought her about her eternal destiny. The woman died in peace and with her daughter without the shock and grief that would have certainly ensued if the dream had not reassured her.

His Beatitude leads a memorial service for Matushka Olga in Kwethluk

Another woman, after viewing a picture of Matushka Olga, experienced a “compassionate, loving, gentle, and very real – very accessible presence.”

The most detailed account comes from an Orthodox woman who, as in the previous example, had suffered for many years from the consequences of severe sexual abuse experienced as a child. This is her testimony of meeting Matushka Olga:

One day I was deeply at prayer and awake. I had remembered an event that was very scary. My prayer began with my asking the Holy Theotokos for help and mercy. Gradually I was aware of standing in the woods feeling still a little scared. Soon a gentle wave of tenderness began to sweep through the woods followed by a fresh garden scent. I saw the Virgin Mary, dressed as she is in an icon, but more natural looking and brighter, walking toward me. As she came closer I was aware of someone walking behind her. She stepped aside and gestured to a short, wise looking woman. I asked her, “Who are you?” And the Virgin Mary answered, “St. Olga.”

St. Olga gestured for me to follow her. We walked a long way until there weren’t many trees. We came to a little hill that had a door cut into the side. She gestured for me to sit and she went inside. After a little while some smoke came out of the top of the hill. St. Olga came out with some herbal tea. We both sat in silence drinking our tea and feeling the warmth of the sun of our faces. I began to get a pain in my belly and she led me inside. The door was so low I had to duck like bowing in prayer.

Inside the hill was dry and warm and very quiet. The light was very soft coming from a shallow bowl and from the open hole on the top of the hill. Everything around me felt gentle, especially Mother Olga. The little hill house smelled like wild thyme and white pine in the sun with roses and violets mixed in. Mother Olga helped me up on a kind of platform bed like a driftwood box filled with moss and grasses. It was soft and smelled like the earth and the sea. I was exhausted and lay back. St. Olga went over to the lamp and warmed up something which she rubbed on my belly. I looked five months pregnant. (I was not pregnant for real at that time.) I started to labor. I was a little scared. Mother Olga climbed up beside me and gently holding by arm, she pretended to labor with me, showing me what to do and how to breath. She still hadn’t said anything. She helped me push out some stuff like afterbirth which kind of soaked into dried moss on the box bed. I was very tired and crying a little from relief when it was over.

Up until this she hadn’t spoken, but her eyes spoke with great tenderness and understanding. We both got up and had some tea. As we were drinking it, Holy Mother Olga gradually became the light in the room. Her face looked like there was a strong light bulb or the sun shining under her skin. But I think the whole of her glowed. I was just so connected to her loving gaze that I didn’t pay much attention to anything else. It was the kind of loving gaze from a mother to an infant that connects and welcomes a baby to life. She seemed to pour tenderness into me through her eyes. This wasn’t scary even though, at that time, I didn’t know about people who literally shone with the love of God. (It made more sense after I read about St. Seraphim). I know now that some very deep wounds were being healed at that time. She gave me back by own life which had been stolen, a life that is now defined by the beauty and love of God for me, the restored work of His Hands.

After some time I felt like I was filled with wellness and a sense of quiet entered my soul, as if my soul had been crying like a grief-stricken abandoned infant and now had finally been comforted. Even now as I write… the miracle of the peacefulness, and also the zest for life which wellness has brought, causes me to cry with joy and awe.

Only after this did Holy Mother Olga speak. She spoke about God and people who choose to do evil things. She said the people who hurt me thought they could make me carry their evil inside of me by rape. She was very firm when she said, “That’s a lie. Only God can carry evil away. The only thing they could put inside you was the seed of life which is a creation of God and cannot pollute anyone.” I was never polluted. It just felt that way because of the evil intentions of the people near me. What I had held inside me was the pain, terror, shame, and helplessness I felt. We had labored together and that was all out of me now. She burned some grass over the little flame and the smoke went straight up to God who is both the judge and the forgiver. I understood by the “incense” that it wasn’t my job to carry the sins of people against me either. It was God’s, and what an ever-unfolding richness this taste of salvation is. At the end of this healing time we went outside together. It was not dark in the visioning prayer. There were so many stars stretching to infinity. The sky was all shimmer with a moving veil of light. (I had seen photos of the northern light but didn’t know that they move.) Either Matushka Olga said, or we both heard in our hearts — I can’t remember which — that the moving curtain of light was to be for us a promise that God can create great beauty from complete desolation and nothingness. For me it was like proof of the healing — great beauty where there had been nothing before but despair hidden by shame and great effort.

His Beatitude praying at Matushka Olga's grave

What is one to make of these accounts? If nothing else, for now, one can acknowledge the special place that Matushka Olga has had in the lives of certain native people and a growing number of contemporary women. But it is in the slow and gradually expanding process of knowledge which moves from local veneration to broader awareness that God reveals how He can be “wonderful in His Saints.” Matushka Olga was herself a midwife and may have also known from personal experience the traumas of being abused earlier in her life. Perhaps it is in this role as an advocate for those who have been abused, particularly sexually, that God will continue to use Matushka Olga in drawing “straight with crooked lines”, His work of “creating beauty from complete desolation and nothingness.”

If God wills, may it also one day be possible to exclaim: “O Blessed Mother Olga, pray to God for us!”

O Blessed Mother Olga, pray to God for us!

[Special thanks to Fr. Michael Oleksa, and to Fr. John and Lyn Breck for their support and help in providing the source materials for this article.]

This article was originally published in 1997 by “Jacob’s Well”  a publication of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, and can be accessed here.

More information on Matushka Olga.

Volume 3, Number 2, Authors and Contributors

Mr. Jamil Malone is an advertising strategist in Wichita, Kansas. His home parish is St. George Cathedral in Wichita. Jamil holds a bachelors of arts from The University of Tulsa, and served on the OCF Student Advisory Board for four years, chairing the board for three of those years while at Tulsa. His other “jobs” include helping with administrative work at Camp St. Raphael, teaching Church School and singing in the choir.

Mr. Andrew Boyd is the Managing Editor of this blog and a member of the OCA’s Department of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministries. Originally from Connecticut, he attended the University of Connecticut where he was very active in the local chapter of The Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF). He is now in his final semester in a Master’s program at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, NY.

Archpriest Steven Voytovich is the Director of the Department of Institutional Chaplaincies for the Orthodox Church in America. He holds M.A., M.Div., and D.Min degrees from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He works in institutional settings training hospital and institutional chaplains. He is attached to Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in New Britain, Connecticut.

Archpriest John Shimchick is the rector of Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Medford, New Jersey. He studied music at Concordia College in Bronxville, New York and completed his seminary studies at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1980. Since 1990 he has been the editor of “Jacob’s Well” a publication of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey.