The synaxis of Belarusian saints numbers nearly 80 God-pleasers - hierarchs, martyrs, venerables, right-believers, and one blessed saint. During their lifetimes, they were princes, monks, peasants, priests, or laypeople. Each of them served Christ and the people in different ways, with the love of God and the neighbour.
Some - like Saint Euphrosyne of Polotsk - have been evoked for centuries. Others were glorified more recently, like the righteous John of Korma, or John Pankratovich. Some were first canonised as locally venerated saints.
Fifty-one Belarusian saints out of 77 have been glorified as martyrs.
Of them, the Holy Martyr John (Pankratovich) of Chizhevichi was one.
He was born on 27 September 1870 in Kletsk, a small town in the Slutsk Country of Minsk Governorship, where he spent all his childhood years. Nothing is known about Father Johns's early years. After completing a teachers' seminary in Nesvizh, he served as a primary school teacher at a public school in Kletsk.
The teachers’ seminary in Nesvizh, a 20th century photo
A local priest encouraged him to take an interest in the questions of faith and ask questions about the meaning of life. Eventually, he began to read religious literature, and study liturgics and Orthodox sacraments. Soon, he was serving as a reader in the Church of the Holy Protection in Kletsk. John remained single for many years, living as a pious man. He met his future spouse, Lubov Skorokhodova at church. She was fifteen years younger than him and came from a family of priests. When the young teacher came to his parents to ask for her hand in marriage, they consented, on the condition that he would become a priest.
Lubov Skorokhodova, first from the right in second row
We cannot let our daughter marry a school teacher, they said. John went to study at the religious seminary in Pinsk. After graduation, he was ordained a priest and posted at the Saviour and the Transfiguration church of Yazvinki Village. "Wondrous are the Lord's ways, but it was love that brought us to believe in Christ," remembered the newlyweds. They were a close-knit family, and an atmosphere of love, understanding and happiness reigned among them. Lubov became a true helper for her husband. They had two sons and six daughters together, but when his youngest daughter was only three, Lubov died, leaving all the children in his care. Father John successfully combined his service at church and housework with looking after the children.
Father John Pankratovich
He presided over an active parish life that left no one indifferent. Father John's predecessor had secured almost everything the parish needed. However, the church needed some repair and renovation, and Father John immediately proceeded with the work. He completed the reconstruction by December 1910, and the parishioners a large number of church items. Soon, the newly rebuilt church was consecrated with great cheers and in the presence of the faithful from across the neighbourhood.
Father John also engaged in teaching. He tried to reach out to as many parishioners as possible. He often complained that too many people were indifferent to learning to read and write because of their ignorance, and too few were sending their daughters to school.
In his homilies at church and at the church meetings, which he often conducted for the enlightenment of the churchgoers, he persuaded the peasants to send their children to school to learn to read and write and to give girls an equal chance to receive an education. His calls had a visible effect. By the end of his service as a parish priest at Yazvinki, the number of students at the parochial school had increased remarkably.
Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour in Yazvinki Village
Frequent holy cross processions took place throughout his term dedicated to the church feasts and key dates in the history of the homeland. For example, a large holy cross procession in 1908 commemorated the 300th anniversary of the repose of Konstantin Ostrozhsky, a fiery advocate of Orthodoxy in Minsk Governorship. This celebration was attended by many and was highly popular among the people. Father John served a special funeral service and delivered a sermon that touched the hearts of many.
In 1912, he celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Borodino battle with a procession of the cross. Most processions were to Luninets and the nearby villages of Kazan-Gorodok and Vichyn, commemorating the feasts of the parish and church patron saints, with the serving of a Moleben or a Divine Liturgy. With deep sympathy for the peasants' lot, Father John also led the Holy Cross processions and Molebens in the surrounding fields and grazing lands during mass epidemics and droughts. He had a great gift of prayer, and he also taught his flock to share their needs with God in prayer.
His genuine love for the people strengthened them in their faith and united the flock around their shepherd. Father John understood very well that his parish's spiritual life was the foundation of stability and permanence in his community, and that he as the parish priest had primary responsibility for the spiritual well-being of his parish.
Father John's good works extended beyond his parish and benefited the spiritual unity of the neighbouring communities. Frequent processions of the cross passed through multiple villages and were evidence of good neighbourly relations and genuine love among the faithful of multiple parishes.
With his dedication to his work, Father John inspired many of his flock to attend church and pray with fervour. He launched the chronicle of his parish, and one of its entries read: Another welcome change is the visible and steady increase in attendance at every church service. The people have developed the habit of visiting the church. They started bringing their children along, which they had not done before. Many have been taking an interest in the reading sessions on Sundays and church feasts. The number of students at the parochial school has doubled. Parents have been sending more girls.
At the end of November 1913, Priest John Pankratovich asked for a transfer to the Church of the Holy Protection in Chizhevichi village, and his request was granted. As evidence of his great social standing among priests, he was elected member of the Building Committee of a church diocese in Slutsk soon after his arrival. At Easter in 1918, he was also awarded a Skufia for his hard work and outstanding performance. However, service in the new location was difficult from multiple perspectives.
Holy Intercession Church in Chizhevichi Village
World War 1 started in 1914 and brought massive loss of life and brought economic hardships to the areas affected by the fighting. Under Soviet rule, things deteriorated even further. By the time the fighting stopped, Father John's hometown Kletsk had become a part of Poland, but the church in Chizhevichi where he was serving was in Soviet territory. Father John did not accept the Soviet rule. It is still a mystery why he did not return to his home town when the new border was forming, and massive population movements were ongoing on both sides. We still do not know if it was his conscious decision to remain with his parishioners, or if it was some other reason that prevented him from leaving.
Church historians liken the persecution of Orthodoxy in the first decades of Soviet rule to those of the early Christians in the Roman Empire. The 1930s were perhaps the most difficult years for the Church. Newspaper reports give an idea of the poisonous atmosphere of that decade. One newspaper of the time, Rabochy reported with great joy and excitement about a rally in Minsk occurring on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord: The fire was raging, and its flames were reaching high into the dark sky. The people were burning icons. A group of participants had just brought a small coffin and placed another dozen or so of icons inside and threw them into the fire. Another batch of icons has been forever expelled from the homes of the working class. The fire was in the middle of Liberty Square. Thousands of workers came from all over Minsk to demand the handover of churches to the workers and their conversion into palaces of culture. The holy churches that for decades had been places of worship and prayer were becoming clubs, or, worse still, converted into warehouses or grain elevators. As one party document reported, 1371 churches had been closed in Soviet Belarus by December 1936, and only 74 active churches were remaining.
The church of the Holy Protection in Chizhevichi closed its doors in 1934, but Father John Pankratovich did not stop his priestly service and continued to perform sacraments and offices in people's homes. He had made a principled choice to which he stuck for the rest of his life. During the all-Union population census, he asked his parishioners to be open about their faith and declare themselves as members of the Orthodox Church.
His activism drew the attention of the Peoples Commissariat of Internal Affairs, the Soviet secret police, which arrested him on 23 August 1937. When the secret police operatives came to take him, all the children stood at the door to say goodbye but were prevented from doing so. A neighbour tried to give him a loaf of bread, but the officers held her back. Father John Pankratovich, the parish priest, was charged with openly professing his faith in God, secretly giving baptism to children, serving funeral services for the dead, and collecting signatures for the reopening of the village church. Following interrogation, he faced further charges. He was accused of agitating among peasants against collectivisation, spreading fears of a future war and change of government, and misinterpreting the Soviet Constitution.
The Holy Martyr John Pankratovich
We can learn a lot about a person's life from his final days and hours. Father John withstood the questioning with courage, declined all offers to rescind the priesthood in exchange for sparing his life and remained loyal to Christ to the end. He denied all accusations and insisted that refused to admit to any wrongdoing. He knew he could expect no mercy, but remained true to the oath he had given at his ordination, and performed his duty to the end.
A three-member extraordinary judicial panel of the USSR secret police sentenced him to death and ordered the confiscation of all his property.
He was executed on 6 October 1937. Despite his imminent death, Father John remained calm until his last breath, praying for his tormentors and asking for God's mercy and enlightenment, as they did not know what they were doing. Only recently were his family revealed the approximate location of his interment fifteen kilometres from Slutsk.
On 15 March 1989, the Procuracy of Belarus dropped all the charges and rehabilitated Father John Pankratovich posthumously. Ten years later, in 1999, the Synod of the Belarusian Church canonised Priest John Pankratovich as a locally revered saint along with 22 other new martyrs of the Diocese of Minsk. The Jubilee Archbishop Council of 2000 in Moscow glorified him for veneration in the whole of the Russian Church.
Icon of the Synaxis of the New Martyrs of the Minsk Diocese
A new church in honour of the Holy Martyr John Pankratovich was consecrated in Chizhevichi in the summer of 2017.
Father John's youngest son Vadim never left the village, but until 1991, he rarely spoke about his father to his children and grandchildren. Many villagers knew about Father John's martyrdom. Most sympathised, but some pointed their fingers in condemnation.
Admittedly, many people in the Soviet years were willing to forget their relatives among the clergy. For a long time, the topic of religion remained taboo among John Pankratovich's relatives. His son Vadim who saw him being led away for his execution in 1937 and took responsibility for his younger sisters, was too afraid for his children and grandchildren. But faith lived on within the family.
In 2020, Father John's granddaughter ValentinaGolub, her husband and son donated to the state the house and land that belonged to Father John, along with his personal belongings and an archive of family photos towards the creation of a museum to keep the memory of Saint John of Chizhevichi, a model of deep faith, loyalty and devotion to God and the Church.
The museum prepares to celebrate its first anniversary on 6 October 2023.
House-Museum of the New Hieromartyr John Pankratovich
The lives of the new saints bring alive to us our recent history, with which their lives were intertwined so closely. Their fates and actions add a spiritual aspect to these events. The new saints loved life and their homeland, they stood up for the truth and faith and they followed Christ into eternity. They show us the way that we must all follow.