They Sang of Paschal Joy
On Bright Friday, April 17, 2015, the youth choir of St Vladimir’s Association performed a concert and sang a festive Liturgy in St Vladimir Memorial Church in Jackson, NJ, followed by Divine Liturgy the next day glorifying the wondrous Resurrection of the Savior of the world and kicking off celebrations honoring the 1000th anniversary of the death of Grand Duke Vladimir, the Baptist and Illuminator of Russia. Under the pines, a tent was set up adorned with multi-colored lights, and bonfires burning on either side, which drew together young singers of the St Vladimir Youth Association. This youth group originated in the 1950’s, founded by Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko) and his helper, Protopriest Serge Shchukin.
This year the Orthodox world celebrates the 1000th anniversary of the death of Holy Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles. By the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, the Russian diaspora has already begun celebrations of this important year. The Youth Association of St Vladimir, based in New York, thus began the celebrations.
The organization can be considered a successor to the renowned St Vladimir Circles of the last century. Their work is based on the experiences of the former youth groups and their traditions, applied to new circumstances. “In the 1950’s, in Jackson, at the Memorial Church, it was a tradition to gather youth with the aim of preserving within our youth the Orthodox faith and the culture of our parents; every parish had its own St Vladimir Circle,” says Protopriest Andrei Sommer, head of the Association. “We decided to renew the traditions of these circles, and unite young people in this anniversary year of its honored saint. We are already at work, the young and talented participants of this choir, who sing in various parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in the United States, got together this evening of Bright Friday to perform, and to sing Divine Liturgy on Bright Saturday. It is the first event of the new St Vladimir Youth Association, marking the 1000th anniversary of the death of the great prince. This concert is a symbol of our respect and a form of sacrifice in honor of the Baptist and illuminator of Russia, on one side, and also a way of educating the faithful and young people who are seeking a path to Church, making people aware of the lives of our saints, including Prince Vladimir”
This initiative was warmly received by the people at the Memorial Church, which was founded in 1938, dedicated to Prince Vladimir and the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Russia, which was celebrated in 1988. That was a great anniversary which occurred before the fall of the godless regime in Russia, sparking the resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the celebrations were also organized by Russian youth in America and other continents. It is noteworthy that the choir which sang during the official consecration of the Memorial Church was led by the father of the youth choir director, Peter Fekula, who is now the choir director of the Synodal Choir of the Cathedral of Our Lady “of the Sign” in New York.
“This concert united us and also brought us a great deal of joy,” said Adrian Fekula, the choir director. “Before this evening we never sang all together as one choir, though we knew each other from various summer camps, St Herman Youth Conferences and other youth events. Most of our singers are from churches in Long Island, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. We met at the Synod building in New York during Great Lent to rehearse. Our repertoire included the prayers of bright Pascha, and prayers to mark the Jubilee of Great Prince Vladimir. Some of the works we sang in English, but mostly we sang in Church Slavonic. It is interesting to note that following our first rehearsal we came to understand that we are able to sing more complicated compositions than we initially thought. For this reason our repertoire included works of the great church music composers Konstantinov and Tchesnokov.”
Adrian, who is only 23, is already an experienced choir director. He directs the parish choir in Glen Cove, NY, which he began to do at the age of 17, with a brief hiatus while studying on the West Coast.
Another one of the singers, Anisia Temidis, has also been singing in a choir for several years. She is now a member of the Synodal Choir in New York, though she began her singing career at Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack, NY, at the age of 13, and continued to sing at St Sergius Chapel at the Synod in New York. “Adrian is just great! Over a very short period of time he gathered together young people and organized rehearsals on Saturdays. We grew up with Adrian, we attended the same church, and sang in Glen Cove and Sea Cliff. This gave us the wonderful opportunity to get together in one big choir! I love to sing with young people, and when I studied in California, we organized a youth choir and performed at youth conferences. This time it was a special treat to sing together: Pascha is the most joyous holiday, and we wanted the audience to sense our elation.”
Participating in this choir was also a great delight for Natasha Pshibelski, who is from the English-language Parish of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia in Norwich, CT. She also is not a newcomer to youth choruses, and she conducts the choir in her church. “Adrian is a great choir director! We managed to sing very well together with the other singers. I will absolutely participate in other such events.”
Peter Antchoutine is only 15, the youngest singer in the choir. He and his brother Anton, who is also a choir member, have been altar boys at Intercession Church in Glen Cove. After graduating school, he intends on enrolling in Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordaville, NY, and, if God grants it, will be the first of all the boys in his family who will continue the work of his father, Protopriest Alexander Antchoutine.
The singers and audience were greeted by His Grace Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan, who was recently given blessing to head the St Vladimir Youth Association on the East Coast. “We are happy that we have this wonderful Jubilee, while also celebrating Bright Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave us eternal life. During divine services on Bright Week there is almost no reading, except for the exclamations of the bishop, priest and deacon. All the sticheron are sung, the soul rejoices and the believing faithful are ecstatic. Today we are especially happy that during this anniversary year we have such a magnificent performance devoted to the Plluminator and Baptizer of Russia, Prince Vladimir.”
His Grace noted that St Vladimir Memorial Church in Jackson was built with donations from people throughout the world, including Australia and Europe, and for over 30 years it has stood as a beacon of Orthodoxy in the world. “I vividly remember the words of Metropolitan Laurus of blessed memory, who said that Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko) and Archbishop Nikon (Rklitsky), who are laid to rest here, poured their souls into the construction of this church. Russian people would flock to this church, Russian youth as well. Now the time has come for us to pour our souls into this important temple, so that it flourishes and glorifies Holy Prince Vladimir.”
At the end of the concert, Protopresbyter Valery Lukianov, Rector Emeritus of St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in neighboring Howell, NJ, was the last active participant of the St Vladimir Youth circles of the last century, and he reminded the young people how this important tradition began. In the early 1950’s, ships brought thousands of Russian people to New York from Europe and China. Anticipating the importance of preserving their faith and culture far from their historic homeland, and recognizing the importance of uniting Russians, Archbishop Vitaly took upon himself the organization of a youth movement, which resulted in the St Vladimir circles, which were then headed by the Rector of Holy Trinity Seminary, Archbishop Averky (Taushev). Among the most important activities of these circles were trips to various parishes on Sundays to organize local youth and spark interest in divine services. These trips were of colossal success; Russian youth began to actively participate in divine services, and gradually the young people began to establish Orthodox families, noted father Valerie. A singing society was organized within the framework of the St Vladimir Youth circles, which at times included as many as 80 people.
On Bright Saturday, after the youth choir sang matins and the hours, followed by the greeting of the bishop and festive Divine Liturgy, which was jointly celebrated by Bishop Nicholas and Bishop John of Naro-Fominsk, along with a multitude of clergyman of the Russian Church Abroad and the Moscow Patriarchate. The choir director of St Sergius Chapel in New York, Eugenia Temidis, said: “Everything that we see proves to us the continuity among us Russian Orthodox Christians, who take upon ourselves responsibility for the faith and the work of the St Vladimir Association. There was a time when we studied under the great choir directors and singers who found themselves outside of their historic homeland. Now we are not worried about the craft of singing, we hear how our children sing Liturgy and we are truly overjoyed. They are young but they already have experience; they took upon themselves the challenge of singing difficult compositions without fear. They rehearsed, and their fervent desire melded with their young confidence and inner joy. We saw the results, their resounding, bright strong voices blended under the vaults of Memorial Church.”
I would like to add that the wonderful acoustics of the church helped the young singers. These youthful voices could not have flooded the church with Paschal joy any more beautifully. The celebrations in honor of the heavenly patron saint of this church and his wise grandmother, Holy Grand Duchess Olga, in whose honor the lower church of the Memorial Church is dedicated, is eagerly anticipated later this summer.
At the end of Liturgy, Bishop Nicholas, emerging to the ambo together with his brother archpastor Bishop John, thanked the young singers, welcomed everyone who gathered for the service and spoke the following words: “We have a common beginning, and we both established at the beginning of our archpastoral service joint prayer mutual understanding, together with our common flock. During Great Lent, together with our clergymen and faithful, we prayed more than once in the Synodal Cathedral and St Nicholas Patriarchal Cathedral, and it is providential that in this Jubilee year, on Bright Week, we are now serving together in this Memorial Church dedicated to Grand Duke Vladimir, our ‘godfather’ and the Illuminator of Russia.”
Bishop John confirmed that what is most important for us is common prayer, which strengthens our faith and unity. Vladyka John, the Administrator of the Patriarchal Parishes in the USA, especially mentioned the Senior Priest of the Cathedral of Our Lady “of the Sign,” and Vice President of the Synodal Youth Department, Protopriest Andrei Sommer, and with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow and All Russia, in recognition of his 50th birthday and for the many years of his missionary service, awarded him the Order of St Innokenty, Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomensk, Third Degree. Bishop John congratulated Fr Andrei on receiving this lofty award and wished him divine aid in his further service.
At the conclusion of the celebrations, the Deputy Rector of St Vladimir Memorial Church, Priest Serge Ledkovsky, thanked the clergyman and worshipers, noting the importance of this church for the faithful of the Russian diaspora.
“Times change, forms of service to mankind change. But traditions which may have been long forgotten are being reborn, which were established by the fathers who laid the foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in America,” said FrAndrei. “This is only the beginning of our youth service within the framework of St Vladimir Association. From the life of this great prince, we know that he was not only the Baptizer and Illuminator of Russia, but also the unifier of what was to become Holy Russia. Despite the fact that a thousand years have passed since his death, the legacy of Prince Vladimir is real even in our time. Unification even today remains an inseparable part of Christian duty. Our challenge is to rear our young people upon this example and teach them to live by the legacy of Prince Vladimir, who through his wisdom, patience and prayer was able to unite people who lived far from each other, in what is now Russia, Ukraine and Crimea, unifying people to the glory of God, to firmly adhere to traditions of the Orthodox faith. This is what we are trying to impart to our young people today.”
Photos: Alecsey Boldeskul