Archpriest George Larin:
“I Think of the Joy of Knowing St John of Shanghai My Whole Life”
The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia celebrates two anniversaries this year connected with one of the most venerated saints of the diaspora: St John of Shanghai and San Francisco. June marks the 125th anniversary of his birth, and the 55th anniversary of his death is this July.
Archpriest George Larin, the Rector Emeritus of Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack, NY, is a treasure-house of the history of St John. He met Vladyka as a boy in his native Shanghai in the early 1940’s, and has felt his patronage his entire life.
Vladyka John said: “If God Had Intervened and the Bethlehem Children Spared, They Might Have Later Screamed ‘Crucify Him’ in Jerusalem.”
I remember well how I first met Vladyka John. I was about 6-7 years old. My parents bought a house which was walking distance from the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God “Surety of Sinners,” where Vladyka John lived and served. I also studied in a French school next door to the cathedral for a few years.
My father was very close to the church, often manned the candle counter. My whole family attended services: vigil on Saturdays, Liturgy on Sundays and holidays.
Shanghai was hot and humid in the summer. During vacation we kids would gather to play in the cathedral courtyard. Once it was especially hot, and I decided to go inside to rest, since it was always cooler in the cathedral.
It was a weekday, a service was being performed, led by some priest with a few people around him. Vladyka John had his own place in the cathedral, to the left of the entrance under the vaulted ceiling. He had a small ambo and analogion where he prayed. That day I noticed him there. I was curious, so I stood next to him. He noticed me but said nothing.
After the service, Vladyka, as usual, venerated all the icons around the cathedral. I was amazed. I followed him carrying his staff. Then he invited me to his residence: “Come, we’ll talk.”
My parents often spoke of him at home, and I knew from others that he always prayed. Indeed, he participated in all divine services, even if he wasn’t serving himself.
Vladyka lived on the second floor of the neighboring house where the bells were rung. I noticed that when we entered his rooms, he began to make prostrations. In the corner was a large working desk with papers, and next to it a lot of icons. He sank to his knees and prayed for a long time.
Suddenly a man walked in—it turned out to be his secretary—I think his name was Kantov. He took me to a room next door and gave me tea, and after he finished praying, Vladyka began to ask about my life. That’s how we became acquainted.
Since then I began to visit him almost every day that summer to talk, and I asked him everything I was curious about. Of course, I didn’t speak like an adult, just asking him schoolboy questions. I was very interested in the way he lived.
Vladyka was able to explain everything clearly. For instance, I was very confused as to why the Lord did not take the soul of King Herod before he ordered the massacre of infants in Bethlehem with the aim of ridding himself of Christ. Once I asked Vladyka, and he said “Well, let’s think about this. If God had intervened, and Herod had died, the Bethlehem children would be spared. But what if the Lord had done so? All of them would have been alive, the same age as Christ in His earthly life, meaning they might have later screamed ‘crucify Him’ in Jerusalem. They may have grown up, rejected Christ and had gone to Hell. But today we honor them as martyrs for Christ.”
Vladya Was Transformed With Unearthly Light
I liked watching Vladyka as he served. Many would say that on Pascha he virtually flew around the cathedral with the greeting “Christ is Risen!” He moved with such speed that the altar boys could barely keep up.
I witnessed one event: There was a big holiday and we served in white vestments. Vladyka was in the middle of the altar, acolytes were vesting him, and then they left, while I, as staff-bearer, remained alone with him.
They were reading the hours in church as people lit candles. Suddenly I saw the Vladyka was entirely transformed with an unearthly light, and his eyes were filled with joy. He probably had a vision of some kind, but I only saw him and the light. A few seconds passed, and lowered my head, thinking I was just seeing things, and when I lifted my head again, I no longer saw the light. Vladyka continued to serve.
I Once Tried to Emulate Vladyka
A year or two had passed since we met, and I became very attached to Vladyka, I loved him, and decided to emulate him during Lent. He led an ascetic life, he slept in a sitting position and ate no meat, so I decided to copy him. I ate very little, and my parents noticed. Once at night when we all went to bed, I got out of bed, put my sheet on the floor and lay down. Mama saw this and the next day she and my father took me to Vladyka, told them what happened and that I was not listening to them.
Vladyka was very troubled and said “What are you doing? You think that this pleases God? You must listen to your father and mother, that is the most important thing!”
I cried a little then. Vladyka called the security guard, gave him some money and sent him to the store. About 15 minutes later he returned with a package—it contained some ham. Vladyka offered it to me, saying “Eat!”
I responded: “It’s Lent, how can I?”
“No, obedience is the most important thing. Eat this now, and listen to your mother and father.”
So, in tears, I ate the ham, maybe not all of it, but enough.
Vladyka Led the Russian Diaspora in Shanghai When the Japanese Executed People
There were other instances in my childhood; for example when I was about 10-11, a couple of other altar boys and I made slingshots, and during vigil, while Vladyka was anointing the worshipers, we went to the sacristy, removed our vestments, ran to the fence and started to fire our slingshots, shattering the windows of our neighboring Catholic school. We broke two or three windows and returned to the cathedral, put on our vestments and entered the church. Suddenly, two Catholic monks came in. They saw that I was holding the staff, and didn’t guess that this kid was just breaking windows. I realized then that I would not be caught.
Of course, Vladyka learned of this and gave us a stern scolding: “Never do such things! This is against the will of God!”
This was a lesson for the rest of my life. I understood that such things are displeasing to God.
There was another unpleasant episode in my life. During World War II, Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese. Not far from our house, wealthy Germans and French people lived. The Japanese confiscated their homes and put their soldiers in them. Once my friends and I entered these “barracks.” There was a chapel there, empty except for a statue of some idol. We threw it into the toilet and fled. Only later I grasped that had they caught us, we would have been shot. We didn’t tell anyone about it, but I am sure that Vladyka knew everything and prayed for us, so we weren’t caught.
So here was a paradox: on one hand, I very much loved Vladyka and tried to be like him, on the other hand I did such crazy things.
We had our own diaspora in Shanghai, and the community elected a sort of leader for the Russian refugees. If they refused to obey the Japanese, they would be secretly executed, one after the other… It came to be that people were afraid to be elected. Vladyka agreed, however, and officially became the chairman of the Russian society in Shanghai.
The Japanese left him alone. Moreover, when they declared martial law and would execute anyone found outside at night, Vladyka could move around untouched. They knew that he was visiting his flock at anytime of day or night, and let him be.
When a Soviet consulate opened in Shanghai after the war, which took over the premises which once belonged to the Russian diplomatic corps, many of those who weren’t close to the Church fell for the agitprop and obtained their Soviet passports. Vladyka called upon everyone not to listen to the propaganda and warned that nothing changed in the USSR, but those people didn’t listen. Unfortunately, two of my mother’s brothers, Uncle Kolya and Uncle Shura, who rarely attended church, were among them. But Uncle Kolya’s wife didn’t want to go back, and he secretly took their little son with him. My grandmother Varvara also went with them. She said that she just wanted to die in her Homeland, and she didn't care what kind of government it had.
My mother was greatly troubled by this. She later tried to find them, but only found Kolya, and started to correspond with him. In the end, by the 1960’s, he came to us in Australia, not long before I enrolled in Seminary.
The American Senators Said That This Russian Saint Annoyed Them, So They Accepted the Refugees
When by 1949, the Communists took over China, the Russians were forced to evacuate. The only country that would take them were the Philippines. For this, the island of Tubabao, a former American military base, was provided, where we set up camp, in which most of the refugees spent 10 months.
I was 14 at the time, and for me and my friends, this was a great holiday. We lived in tents, which made us feel like we were in a scout camp, every day we’d go to the beach and swim in the ocean. Most of all, we didn’t have to go to school. The little kids had lessons, probably because there were suitable teachers for them among the refugee population. For us high-schoolers, there apparently weren’t enough teaching materials.
Vladyka John did not live on Tubabao but he visited there and served in the church we were able to erect. As it turned out, I never served under him there.
He then headed for Washington DC to plead with the USA to receive the Russian refugees. He would visit the offices of Congress and tried to persuade senators to agree. The problem was that America had strict quotas, and they did not receive anyone from China.
Vladyka spoke English well, and finally rumors began that the legislators would say to each other that “this Russian saint” grew tiresome, and they had to pass a law to receive these refugees just to get rid of him. One senator flew to Tubabao and saw that healthy and decent people lived there, there was no crime, and so a law was quickly passed.
Letters to Australia
But our family did not end up in America but Australia, where even before the war, the godmother of my older sister Tatiana had moved. She and her English husband sponsored us to immigrate there.
Vladyka often wrote to me and my younger brother Seraphim. I think that he was clairvoyant: no one told him that I no longer attended church as earnestly as before, my faith grew cold, but somehow he knew. In one letter he wrote just that: “You can live comfortably, but think about your old age. Then it will be too late, you will regret not doing what your heart always strove for—serving the Church.”
He taught me a very important thing—nothing happens by accident, for Divine Providence works everywhere
Vladyka guessed right: by that time I did indeed start moving away from the Church, I didn’t attend services regularly and was planning out my career.
Thank God, I still had this thread—his letters. The main thing he wrote about was about the need to serve God. Besides, he taught me a very important thing—nothing happens by accident, for Divine Providence works everywhere. I remembered that for the rest of my life.
In his letters, Vladyka expressed dismay that the Russian Church Abroad had a dearth of clergymen, entire nations and regions had no priests. He proposed that I give it some thought. That was another thing that made its way into my heart.
In the end, these missives from Vladyka took hold, and I headed to Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY. I had a good job with a financial company in Australia, and they were surprised by my decision to go to the US, they even laughed at me.
In any case, I headed to America on a ship, which was cheaper than flying. In Miami I boarded a bus, and with a few transfers, reached the seminary in northern New York State.
Vladyka Defended Me From Slander in the USA
It was in seminary that my sole meeting with Vladyka in America took place, when he visited Holy Trinity Seminary. Before then we had last seen each other when I was still a boy, and by now I was a young man in a cassock, with a beard. Still, he immediately recognized me when he entered church and approached me. I spent the entire evening in his room, we spoke at length, and I asked him many questions. I was very pleased to see him again. I was also very grateful for the letters he wrote to me in Australia. Thanks to them I got into seminary. At first I wanted to be Vladyka’s cell-attendant, but he wrote that the Church is in need of priests. I remember thanking him for giving me this guidance.
Vladyka certainly knew that I was already in seminary. That first year I was slandered—some other seminarian wrote that I studied under Jesuits who sent me to seminary to take control of it. This accusation was based on the fact that in Shanghai, I did indeed attend Catholic school. But it had nothing to do with Jesuits.
Still, the renowned iconographer Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov), who was the spiritual father of most of the students, was very concerned about this story and wrote to Vladyka John. Vladyka responded that he knows our family well, that we are Orthodox, and that satisfied Fr Cyprian. He read this letter aloud during a meeting of the monastery’s spiritual council, during which time I answered the accusations before the Cross and the Gospel.
Many of the Righteous Were Persecuted in the Church, and Vladyka John Did Not Escape That Fate
Vladyka knew personally what slander was. As far as I know, many people disliked him, but that is also a sign of holiness: many of the righteous were persecuted in the Church, and Vladyka John did not escape that fate.
In San Francisco, he was accused of certain financial machinations, though he lived a life of poverty and did not accept a penny for himself. The matter came to court, but the American judge found no infraction.
I heard that during Vladyka’s funeral, many of his accusers approached him in tears and asked his forgiveness. I’m sure that he forgave them, as he always forgave everyone. He always fulfilled one of the most difficult of God’s commandments—to love your enemy and be kind to those who hate you.
I Always Sense Vladyka’s Presence
There were no concrete miracles in my life which could be connected to prayers to St John, still, I always sense Vladyka’s presence. I’ve served at Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack for over 50 years, and many things can only be explained by his intercession. Sometimes some trifling thing pops up, for which Divine Providence responds: first I ended up in Jordanville, then I served together with the founder of our parish, Fr Seraphim Slobodskoy, who wrote the famous textbook The Law of God, and I learned a great deal from him. Often we wouldn’t have funds for something important—and unexpectedly a donor would appear ready to contribute the needed sum.
For example, Fr Seraphim very much wanted to have a separate school building, but we didn’t have enough space. We only had the church, and the kids were taught in the basement. But then Mikhail Konstantinovich Kluge of Shanghai came and purchased two houses for us which stood next to the church. Later, Artemis Joukovsky-Volynsky gave us money to build the school.
When it was in full operation, we needed $3-4,000 to buy a new copy machine. We didn’t know where to get this money, but the father of one of the students came to the rescue and donated $10,000.
All This Demonstrates Divine Providence
All this demonstrates Divine Providence, and I believe that Vladyka John also prayed that things would work out.
I also consider providential that I was able to serve along with many bishops of ROCOR at the canonization of Vladyka in July, 1994.
Divine Liturgy took place in the Cathedral of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow” in San Francisco, which Vladyka helped build and where his relics now lie.
At one time I heard that soon after Vladyka’s repose, someone had a dream in which he appeared and say: "Tell everyone that though I died, I live.”
When we served on that day, there was no sense that we were burying someone. On the contrary, we were glorifying a living person, and it felt like a little Pascha. I was filled with joy, that this great man was finally being glorified, and that I, a sinner, was deemed worthy to have known him.
Archpriest George Larin
Recorded by Dmitry Zlodorev
8 June 2021