During the Great Patriotic War, Orthodox churches, previously transformed by the godless regime into warehouses, clubs, and outbuildings, were being reopened in eastern Belarus. It was necessary not only to repair church buildings, but also to restore parochial life, completely ruined in the 1930s.
This was possible with people like Archimandrite Seraphim (Shakhmut) and Priest Gregory Kudarenko. They went to places where the flame of faith still glimmered among people with war-broken souls yearning for spiritual communion and guidance.
They have travelled many roads together. One of them, Archimandrite Seraphim, died a martyr's death for the sake of Christ and was glorified as a saint. We would like to tell you about him in this article.
Roman Romanovich Shakhmut was born on July 15, 1901 in the village of Podlesie, Lyakhovichi district, Baranovichi region, Grodno province. There were ten children in the peasant family: three brothers and seven sisters.
Roman's father died in 1915, and his widowed mother with children suffered extreme poverty. In spite of this, in 1915 Roman graduated from the Lyakhovichi two-year folk school, and the following year, in 1916, he entered the Minsk Holy Spirit Monastery as a novice.
Soon Roman was forced to return from Minsk to Podlesie because of the hostilities that began in 1917.
At a time when many were leaving the Church, Roman Shakhmut diligently and purposefully moved towards monastic life. In 1921 he passed the exam to become a psalmist and served at the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in the village of Velyatichi, Pinsk district.
In 1923, after living for a year in the Zhirovichi Holy Dormition Monastery, Roman took monastic tonsure with the name Seraphim. Thanks to his rare singing abilities, the monastery choir became his main obedience. The young monk became a good precentor.
In 1926, Father Seraphim (Shakhmut) was ordained a hierodeacon, and in 1935—a hieromonk. In the same year, he was assigned to a parish in the village of Kurashevo, Velsky district, Bialystok Voivodeship. He served there until the end of 1937.
“Father Seraphim came to Kurashevo in 1935, I remember this with certainty. In the spring of the following year, I received his blessing and left for the Army on March 17, 1936.
For some time during his stay in Kurashevo, Father Seraphim stayed with our family. The parish house was occupied at that time by a Uniate priest. In 1925–35, the church of St. Anthony of the Caves was in the hands of the neo-Uniates. The Orthodox could not accept this. People were actively resisting the violence of the Polish authorities.
A whole book could be written about Kurashevo residents' struggle for Orthodoxy. After many dramatic events, the church passed into the hands of the Orthodox in 1935.
In summer, we would often gather under the pear tree in our garden, talking on religious and historical topics, and reading the Bible. Father Seraphim explained to us hard passages [from the Bible] and answered questions. He explained what the church union really was and what evil it could bring. These meetings under the pear tree were attended not only by Kurashevo residents, but also by people from the surrounding parishes. Father went from house to house reading akathists and praying. He was a good preacher.”
Father Seraphim (Shakhmut) with Kurashevo parishioners
“In the winter, several years before the Second World War, Father Seraphim said the words that only aroused a terse smile at that time. It was on one of the Sundays after Liturgy. He said, 'A time will come when the local youth will have to leave here, not by their choice, but under the compulsion of a foreign people. Pray and remember that hard and terrible times will come soon. Do not despair however: your village Kurashevo will survive. It will be saved thanks to one God-fearing and faithful soul.'
As you know, during the Second World War, our village was not burned down. The heavy German artillery did not even come here.”
“He had a great voice. I sang in the children's choir. Father Seraphim loved children. He always brought us something. It could be a candy, a gingerbread cookie, or a holy icon.
On his initiative, the Kurashevo Church Brotherhood was formed. Father Seraphim organized walking pilgrimages to Zhirovichi, Yablochin and Bielsk-Podlaski."
“During a pilgrimage to Bielsk-Podlaski, Father Seraphim healed a sick man in Vidovo, which I personally witnessed. In Kurashevo, he healed 17-year-old Kuzma, who was most likely from the village of Narew.”
Before long, Fr. Seraphim left the village of Kurashevo. He continued his missionary work, returning to the bosom of the Church Christians who were led astray by renovationism, Uniatism and other post-revolutionary heresies. He had extraordinary abilities as a preacher, and was tireless in pastoral work. In 1938 the Zhirovitsky Icon of the Mother of God was carried with a procession across Belarus. Together with the holy icon, Father Seraphim visited Grodno, Brest, Volkovysk, Yablochin, Velsk, Pruzhany and many other cities, towns and villages.
Divine services were performed both in churches and in the homes of Christians. The icon was received solemnly and reverently.
Father Seraphim led a strict ascetic life. In Zhirovichi, he lived at St. George's cemetery church, which was never heated, and wore boots both in the cold and in the heat.
St. George's cemetery church in Zhirovichi
In the 1930s, Fr. Seraphim met Archbishop Panteleimon (Rozhnovsky), exiled to the Zhirovichi Monastery as a punishment for resisting the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Poland, proclaimed in 1925.
The personality of Archbishop Panteleimon had a great influence on Fr. Seraphim. Vladyka was an example of a highly spiritual monastic life. By the end of 1939, he raised Fr. Seraphim to the rank of abbot, and soon after this—to the rank of archimandrite.
In the summer of 1941, Gregory Kudarenko, a close friend of Fr. Seraphim was ordained a priest. From that point in time, they joined their efforts in organizing parochial life, destroyed by the Soviet regime.
In August 1941, with the blessing of Archbishop Panteleimon, Archimandrite Seraphim and Priest Gregory set out from the Zhirovichi Holy Dormition Monastery towards Minsk.
They travelled on horses, trying to visit as many villages, cities and towns as possible. It was a long and difficult journey through the land, occupied by fascist troops.
They entered villages of the Kopyl, Slutsk and Uzda regions, opening churches and serving in them. This was indeed the first necessity: in times of trials and human suffering, the only hope is always in God.
With the efforts of Fr. Seraphim and Fr. Gregory, churches were opened in Kopyl, Timkovichi, Semkovichi, Romanov, Vorobievichi, Leshna, Kievichi, Bystritsa, Evangelevichi, Slutsk, Grozov, Gresk, Trukhanovichi, Baslovtsy, Uzda, Pesochny and Semenovichi. During this period they opened 74 churches.
Every time, this was fraught with difficulties. In each village, the missionaries gathered believers with whom they drew up a petition in the name of Bishop Panteleimon, requesting to re-open the parish churches . They preached tirelessly, holding Divine services, baptisms, marriages and funerals whenever possible. Together with local residents, they inspected the desecrated churches and created construction committees to repair them.
Archimandrite Seraphim and Fr. Gregory devoted their lives to their missionary work. Only once did they stay for a short time in one place, serving in the Transfiguration Church at the former convent in Minsk until January 1942. After that they travelled to Eastern Belarus.
Father Seraphim and father Gregory Kudarenko
On Palm Sunday, 1942, the missionary friends arrived in Senno, where they held the first service since the closing of the local church. More than 1,000 worshippers came, about 200 children were baptized, and an extraordinary spiritual uplift was in the air.
By Easter, Father Seraphim (Shakhmut) and Father Grigory Kudarenko were already in Vitebsk, in the parish of the Kazan Church in Markovshchina, which they made their temporary residence, to the delight of the parishioners.
Soon a note about Fr. Seraphim appeared in the Vitebsk newspaper titled the New Way.
It said, “The people rejoice, vigorously cleaning the churches from collective farm grain, as well as furniture and garbage left from the newly minted clubs and theatres based in church buildings.
People bring to the reopening churches vestments, crosses, Gospels, Antimensions and other church accessories that they have preserved; they help to repair the buildings and attend services, praying fervently, baptizing children and requesting memorial services for their previously deceased fathers and mothers who were buried without a due blessing and rituals.
Even young people and children visit churches, making them overcrowded on major holidays.”
After Vitebsk, there was Orsha with a stop en route in Bogushevsk, where many received holy baptism. Bykhov, Zhlobin, Mogilev and other cities and villages of Eastern Belarus received the prayerful support of the missionary fathers and their real active help.
Having reached Gomel in their horse wagon, the missionaries began to serve in Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral. They continued to visit rural parish churches, and do missionary work there.
In Chenki, not far from Gomel, they founded a convent with thirty sisters, including the abbess, nun Polixenia. Archimandrite Seraphim tonsured the future Venerable Saint Manefa Skopicheva to rassophore. Unfortunately, in September 1943 the monastery was closed.
In September 1943, the fathers left for Bobruysk, and then returned to Minsk. Their missionary travels were over.
Travelling through all of Eastern Belarus during the war years, Archimandrite Seraphim (Shakhmut) became the first chronicler of the suffering and persecution that the Orthodox people were going through during the times of the Red Terror. Listening to eyewitness accounts, he wrote them down and collected relevant information about the hardships experienced by the Church under the Communist rule.
In his notes, Fr. Seraphim regretted that by the beginning of his missionary work there was not a single bishop remaining in eastern Belarus, and not a single church open for worship anywhere, except Orsha [the existing church in Orsha was run by Renovationists].
"Most of the clergy have been exiled, imprisoned, and many even shot; churches have been turned into clubs, theatres, and barns. Many of them are ruined; almost all church property has been destroyed by the atheists," he writes. “People rejoice at the opening of churches. In Vitebsk, during the opening of the Holy Intercession Church, the people were so touched that the entire congregation started to cry. The priests were unable to serve, and there was a temporary break ... In Gomel, too, all the people cried when we were leaving."
Travelling is always difficult, and even more so in times of war. It was not easy for the missionaries, but the Lord did not leave them. This is illustrated by the following episode:
In one of the cities, Father Seraphim developed an abscess in the inguinal region. It kept getting worse and eventually became life-threatening. The patient was examined by a German doctor who said that, unfortunately, it was already too late to do anything, and that he could not help.
Father Seraphim was suffering from pain. To climb onto his bed, he had to be leaning on a stool. When a bomber raid began, he was unable to quickly go down to the basement. Father Gregory Kudarenko refused to leave his friend and stayed in the apartment.
When their house was hit by a bomb, the missionaries were not injured, but one fragment from the bomb hit Archimandrite Seraphim precisely in his abscess, lancing it and letting all the purulent fluid out. Soon Fr. Seraphim recovered, having miraculously undergone an operation without surgical intervention.
Returning to Minsk, Fr. Seraphim and Fr. Gregory solemnly opened the Holy Spirit Church, today’s main city cathedral. The church was repaired; engineer Anton Vasiliev and artist Nikolai Gusev worked on the iconostasis.
The monastery was reopened; the liturgical books and church utensils were returned to it from the historical museum. For some time, the missionaries served in the Holy Spirit Monastery. Father Seraphim took care of Minsk hospitals, nursing homes and orphanages.
View of the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Minsk, during the Great Patriotic War
After June 1944, the missionary friends moved from Minsk to Grodno, where they also visited hospitals, gave communion to the wounded, and brought them words of consolation. The war was ending, and the crippled souls needed pastoral advice. At the same time, with the end of the war, the persecution of people who had been under occupation resumed with particular ferocity. This was especially true for the clergy.
After being arrested in Grodno on September 6, Fr. Seraphim and Fr. Gregory were interrogated for five days, and then redirected to a Minsk prison. The accusation of collaborating with the SD and other unthinkable crimes sounded ridiculous; the authorities themselves did not believe in them. The missionaries were arrested for their ascetic deeds during the years of occupation.
During interrogations, the convicts behaved courageously and did not change their views. When asked what he had been teaching in his sermons, Father Seraphim replied that he often addressed people with these words:
“Russia has always been a believing country. Our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers believed, and now we will again live happily with faith. It is not a good thing that the atheists closed our churches, that our fathers and mothers died without the Holy Mysteries and were buried without a priest. It is not a good thing that our children grew up unbaptized and did not get married in church."
God alone knows what the prisoners went through... We can only guess by reading the protocols with the interrogations of Father Seraphim:
"December 5, 1944
Question: You now have every opportunity to tell us about your affiliation with the German counter-revolutionary institutions. Go ahead.
Answer: I have never been affiliated with any German counter-revolutionary institutions.
Question: Your testimony is not true. You continue to conceal the fact that you were an agent of German counterintelligence.
Answer: My testimony is true. I have never been a German counterintelligence agent.
Question: For the second time, I suggest that you tell us about your connection with the German counterintelligence agencies.
Answer: I have already told you everything about my connection with the said entities; I have no other evidence on this issue.”
The protocol notes that this interrogation began at 13.00 and ended at 16.15. It lasted 3 hours and 15 minutes, yet it consists of several phrases. It is not difficult to imagine what was hidden behind the "blank spots" of the protocol.
The "investigation" lasted 10 months, at the end of which the investigators were unable to force the suspects to give a "confession".
By a special committee of the USSR security forces held on July 7, 1945, both prisoners were sentenced to imprisonment in a concentration camp for a period of 5 years.
Although settled 12 km apart in the camps of the Gorky region, the friends managed to keep in touch. One day Father Gregory found out about Fr. Seraphim's tragic death.
Father Seraphim's niece Nadezhda later shared her memories of receiving letters from Father Seraphim, in which he mentioned being ill and asked to send him some food and later some garlic and wild berries. After sending him the second parcel, Nadezhda received no reply. The connection was interrupted... Less than a year after the verdict was pronounced, Archimandrite Seraphim (Shakhmut) died in the camp. The official version claims that he died of heart failure, but according to the testimonies of prisoners, he was brutally executed.
Priest Gregory Kudarenko served his term of imprisonment, returned to the Zhirovichi Holy Dormition Monastery and took monastic vows with the name Ignatius. Archimandrite Ignatius peacefully reposed in the Lord in 1984. He was 89 years old.
One Sunday a few years ago, together with Ivan Fedoruk, today's chairman of the Sts. Methodius and Cyril Brotherhood in Hajnowka, we attended a Liturgy at the Church of St. Anthony of the Caves in the village of Kurashevo.
There, among the crosses surrounding this modest village church, we were particularly interested in a blue monument, looking like an analogion with a cross and an open Gospel book. The inscription carved on the monument seemed mysterious to us. It said:
Archimandrite Seraphim, lived 50 years. Died March 5, 1946
Servants of God Roman, Elena, Gregory.
Kurashevo Church Brotherhood etc. November 1, 1949
Church of Sts. Anthony and Theodosius of the Kiev Caves in Kurashevo
Then for the first time we came across the name of a person who left a good memory and a deep mark in the hearts of local residents.
As they say, there are no chance meetings. When we were standing near the monument, wondering who this archimandrite was, an old woman approached us. Her working hands with fingers twisted from hard labor immediately attracted our attention. She told us about Father Seraphim, whom she remembered very well. Before the war, while he was still in Kurashevo, she cleaned the church, weaving linen and carpets for the services and helping with the communal dinners on Sundays. When Archimandrite Seraphim was arrested, she received several letters from him, in which he was asking her to confirm his innocence.
Unfortunately, this woman is no longer alive. Her name is Paraskeva Kuzmyuk. Father Seraphim was a model of a priest who lived only for God. He helped poor people, and everyone who needed support. He was always with those in need. He was always ready to give away his last penny to someone who asked for it. Once, he gave money to a poor young couple in the village of Kurashevo, so that they could get married. He pitied all the sick, the poor and "offended by fate".
His memory continues to live in the hearts and minds of people.
True are the words engraved on the pedestal: Memorable Pastor.
Icon of the Venerable Martyr Seraphim in the Holy Dormition Zhirovichi Monastery
On October 28, 1999, with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexy II, the Holy Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church numbered Archimandrite Seraphim Shakhmut among the 23 martyrs and confessors of Russia and the Belarusian land, and in August 2000 the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church glorified him in the Synaxis of New martyrs and Confessors of the 20th century.
Cross Procession and Akathist on Memorial Day of St. Seraphim of Zhirovichi
Memorial Day of the Venerable Martyr Seraphim of Zhirovichi is celebrated on September 6. This is the day of his arrest and the beginning of his martyrdom. On September 5, the Divine Liturgy at the church in Slonim, named after St. Seraphim, is performed by the Ruling Bishop. After the service, the faithful walk in a procession carrying an icon of St Seraphim and heading to the Holy Dormition Zhirovichi Monastery, from where back in 1941 archimandrite Seraphim set out on his ministry in the name of Christ.
After Liturgy on September 6, a procession is made from the Cathedral to the Church of the Apparition, where a prayer service with an akathist is served.
Saint Elisabeth Convent in Minsk (Belarus) is an international one. The Sisters here come from different parts of the world. Two of them are from neighboring Poland.
Nun Salome (Zakrojszczyk) is from Kurashevo, the village where Saint Seraphim of Zhirovichi began his missionary work. In her youth, she was a parishioner of the church where the Saint once served.
Mother Maglalena (Tikhoniuk) with her grandparents
The grandparents of nun Magdalena (Tikhoniuk) lived in the village of Kojly, four kilometers from Kurashevo where her mother worked as a teacher.
Such a wonderful connection between our Convent and the Saint! We believe in Father Seraphim's prayers and intercession before God for all of us. May his example strengthen us in faithfulness and love for Christ.
* From the Orthodox leaflet Brother, 12/10/2000. No. 232.