Saint John (Maximovitch) served as the Metropolitan of Tobolsk for a brief period of four years, from 1711 to 1715. Despite his short tenure, he emerged as one of the most venerated saints in Siberia. Each year, his blessed memory is commemorated on the feast day of the Synaxis of the Siberian Saints. Saint John was recognized for his unwavering dedication as a tireless missionary, wholeheartedly devoted to serving God and relentlessly striving to bring glory to His Holy Name.
The future saint was born in December 1651 in Nezhyn (Ukraine). The Maximovitch family, pious Ruthenian nobles, are remembered for their service to the Fatherland and their sovereign, leaving a positive mark in Russian history. This devout lineage gave the Orthodox Church two sainted men: John, metropolitan of Tobolsk and all of Siberia, and another John, bishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, named in honour of his famous ancestor.
The parents of the future Metropolitan of Tobolsk were famous for their generous contributions to the construction and beautification of churches. They were dedicated to providing a good schooling for their son, promoting a pious upbringing and a sound education in the family home. John's educational journey began at the Kiev Collegium, which would later become an academy.
His exceptional abilities were quickly recognized and he excelled in his studies. Upon completing his education, he was offered a teaching position to teach Latin at the academy. However, a deep desire to serve God was awakened within his soul, a longing that had been nurtured since childhood through the influence of monastics and his experiences at the collegium. In 1676, he was tonsured a monk at the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra.
St. Nicholas Cathedral in the city of Nezhyn
The monastery entrusted the future saint with the important role of a preacher. It was during this time that his remarkable talent for eloquence became evident. His sermons primarily focused on the significance of religious self-knowledge, and the central theme of his preaching, as well as his entire life, revolved around the question: "How can a person align their will with the will of God?" The thoughts and conclusions expressed in his sermons and missionary conversations formed the foundation for his later work, entitled Heliotropion (Sunflower) or The Alignment between Human and Divine Will, which was published towards the end of his ascetic life. The metaphor of the sunflower always turning toward the sun symbolised his belief that human beings are called to follow the sun of truth, our God.
With his brilliant education and spiritual acumen, the young monk quickly progressed in his monastic career, being ordained as a hierodeacon and then a hieromonk. Soon, John left the Lavra and embarked on the new path prepared for him by the divine providence.
In the 1870s, amidst the Russian-Turkish war and the turmoil it brought, Little Russia found itself engulfed in the flames of conflict. Turkish forces had already gained control over parts of the southern lands, and the city of Chigirin had been occupied. Recognizing the imminent threat of a Turkish attack on Kiev, the hetman dispatched an embassy to Tsar Feodor Alekseevich, seeking assistance. Among the envoy was a young hieromonk named John, who, despite his age of only 25, held a prominent and respected position within the Lavra.
The monks of the Lavra fervently implored the Tsar for military aid and also requested the option to seek refuge in another monastery if Kiev was attacked. In response, the Tsar sent his army to Little Russia and provided the Bryansk Svensky Dormition Monastery to the monks, appointing Father John as their vicar.
Details regarding Father John's life before 1695 remain unknown. However, in mid-1695, Archbishop Theodosius of Chernigov transferred him to the Yelets Assumption Monastery in the city of Chernigov. The Archbishop perceived in him a future successor and sought his elevation to the rank of archimandrite. In 1696, Archimandrite John's appointment to this esteemed rank took place in Moscow, and he subsequently became the abbot of the Yelets Monastery.
Saint Theodosius of Chernigov, 19th century icon
After the passing of Saint Theodosius, a council convened in the bishops' chambers of the monastery to select his successor. Representatives from various backgrounds participated in this decision, including envoys from the Kiev Metropolitan, the Little Russian Hetman, the army, and the bourgeoisie. Unanimously, they chose Archimandrite John Maximovitch as the successor to the deceased bishop.
On January 10, 1697, at the Great Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin, Archimandrite John was consecrated as the Bishop of Chernigov. Patriarch Adrian of Moscow and All Rus', along with a council of bishops, performed the holy act of consecration.
As the young bishop assumed his responsibilities, he prioritised enhancing the education of the clergy within the diocese. It was during this time that he founded the Collegium in Chernigov. The Collegium welcomed not only the children of the priesthood but also Cossacks, commoners, and nobles. Bishop John envisioned the Collegium as a school of enlightened piety, modelled after the Kiev Academy, and as a beacon of knowledge in "Chernigov Athens."
The educational institution established by St. John gained widespread recognition, seamlessly blending religious upbringing and theological education at an exceptional standard. It marked the first seminary in Russia and paved the way for the creation of theological seminaries in other dioceses across the country.
During the same period, St. John also established a printing house. The press published liturgical collections and theological works, including writings by domestic and foreign authors, including the bishop himself.
During his tenure as the bishop, as mentioned earlier, Bishop John placed great emphasis on education. As a theologian, he authored approximately twelve books, with the central theme being to guide the minds and hearts of readers towards the knowledge of God. A particular focus was placed on the educational institute he established in Chernigov, which eventually became known as the Slavic-Latin School. Bishop John implemented synodics, a register of donors and benefactors, to be established in all the churches of the Chernigov diocese for prayerful remembrance.
The weight of his archpastoral responsibilities was no easy burden. In moments of difficulty, Bishop John turned to his spiritual father and predecessor, Saint Theodosius of Chernigov, for intercession. On one occasion, while seriously ill, Bishop John implored Saint Theodosius for help, and the saint appeared to him with comforting words: "Do not grieve, brother. The Lord has heard your prayers, and you will be healed. Rise from your bed and prepare to serve the Divine Liturgy."
Following the vision, St. John promptly informed the governor that he would serve the liturgy the next day. Many regarded these words as the delirium of a sick person, but despite scepticism, the archbishop arose the next morning in full health and entered the altar to celebrate the liturgy.
In gratitude for his healing, Bishop John ordered the opening of the cave where the relics of Saint Theodosius rested. Within the cave, he hung a large portrait of Saint Theodosius and attached verses praising the miracle. Following this remarkable event, healings through the relics of Saint Theodosius continued. The two saints, who had shared a close friendship during their lifetimes, remained connected in eternity.
After some time, the people of Chernigov received the saddening news that their beloved shepherd, Archbishop John, had been appointed Metropolitan of Tobolsk and All Siberia. The saint departed from the warm and sunny lands of Little Russia to undertake his new mission in the harsh Siberian region.
The unexpected appointment of Saint John as Metropolitan of Tobolsk and All Siberia raises the question of its cause. According to one account, it may have occurred with the involvement of Prince Menshikov, a favourite of Tsar Peter I.
The prince intended to consecrate a church in one of his estates within the Chernigov diocese and extended an invitation to Saint John for this purpose. However, when Menshikov tried to dictate the day for the consecration, the archbishop asserted that it was his prerogative, not the prince's, to determine the timing. Furthermore, he declined the festive treat offered by the prince.
Feeling offended, the prince used his influence to facilitate the transfer of Bishop John to Siberia. Recognizing the situation, Saint John remarked that while he may be going far, the prince's destination would be even further, foreshadowing Menshikov's own exile to the provincial Siberian town of Berezov 16 years later.
On August 11, 1711, Bishop John arrived in the capital of the Siberian Territory, Tobolsk, where he was greeted with appropriate solemnity. Arriving on two rafts, Metropolitan John disembarked the next day to the resounding bells of the nearby Znamensky Monastery. At the embankment, he was met by the city's clergy, secular authorities, and the local residents, who came together to welcome their new metropolitan.
Holy Znamensky Abalak Monastery in Tobolsk
During this period, evidence emerges regarding the personal life and daily routine of Metropolitan John. The townspeople began to recognize him as a dedicated ascetic, noting his quiet demeanour, modesty, and compassion. The saint knew no rest, filling any available free time with fervent prayer, reading, and contemplation.
In secret or through intermediaries, Metropolitan John extended his assistance to those in need, offering gifts to orphans and sending provisions to almshouses, of which there were more than twenty during his time in Tobolsk. Disguised, he would approach the windows of impoverished households, knocking on doors and declaring, "Receive in the name of Jesus Christ," leaving aid discreetly and swiftly departing to ensure his anonymity. He visited prisoners in prisons, providing solace, guidance, and material support.
The words of the Gospel, "When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind," served as a guiding principle for the charitable endeavours of Metropolitan John. Throughout his service in Tobolsk, he rarely attended social gatherings, dining with the governor only once. However, Metropolitan John displayed great hospitality by initiating the custom of inviting esteemed citizens to his home following Liturgy on feast days. People gladly accepted these invitations, not solely for the refreshments, which were always modest, but primarily to hear the words of Metropolitan John. His speeches resonated deeply with his audience, and the impact of his sermons continued to be remembered and recounted by those who had the privilege of hearing him.
Metropolitan John considered spiritual enlightenment to be his paramount mission. Taking charge of the Slavic-Latin school in Tobolsk, established by his predecessor, the renowned missionary Metropolitan Philotheus (Leshchinsky), was an immediate priority. With the bishop's blessing and financial support, esteemed mentors from Kiev and Chernigov were brought to the city.
Metropolitan Philotheus (Leshchinsky)
Continuing the apostolic preaching of the Gospel, Metropolitan John fervently carried out his mission among the indigenous peoples of Siberia, successfully leading a multitude of pagans to embrace Christianity. In 1714, Saint John dispatched a mission to Beijing, led by Archimandrite Hilarion (Lezhaisky).
Resuming his publishing efforts in Tobolsk, Bishop John authored not only theological works but also spiritual verses and instructive writings.
He maintained a prayerful connection with Mount Athos, extending his involvement in the affairs of the Russian inhabitants on the Holy Mountain and providing financial support during challenging times. His episcopal letter is still preserved in the Russian Panteleimon Monastery.
Recognizing the need for fresh and youthful vigour in missionary endeavours across Siberia, the saint traversed the region, carefully selecting priests who were capable of this vital work. Through his diligent efforts and concerns, numerous new churches were established, opening doors for the faithful to gather in worship and prayer.
The deep affection the people of the entire Siberian region held for their beloved shepherd was evident throughout Saint John's lifetime, as many considered him a saint of God and sought his intercessory prayers.
When the time of his passing drew near, the Metropolitan sensed it and prepared himself accordingly by confessing his sins and partaking in the Holy Communion.
On the penultimate day of his life, June 9 (22), 1715, he celebrated the liturgy and hosted a dinner in his chambers, warmly welcoming the city clergy and the poor, personally serving them at the table. After bidding farewell to everyone, Saint John retired to his room.
At dawn on June 10 (23 N.S.), when it was time to ring the bells for matins, a priest on duty approached the bishop's chambers seeking a blessing, gently knocking on the door. However, there was no response. Concern grew among the clergy and even the governor of Tobolsk himself, causing them to eventually decide to break down the door. As they entered the room, they witnessed the serene sight of the saintly Metropolitan who had rested in the Lord, kneeling in prayer.
Bishop John was succeeded by his predecessor, Metropolitan Philotheus, who held an extraordinary foresight regarding the saint's passing, even though he was far away in the Kondinsky region on that day. Sensing the occurrence, he promptly declared to his companions, "Our brother John has entered eternal bliss. Let us make our way there," and immediately went to attend the burial.
The body of Metropolitan John was not laid to rest until the return of Saint Philotheus from his missionary journey. Despite the wait, the saint's body remained incorrupt.
Painted portrait of St. John of Tobolsk, late 17th - early 18th centuries
Soon after his passing, veneration for Saint John commenced, with people seeking his intercession through prayers and experiencing both physical healing and spiritual solace. As in his life, Saint John continued to extend his special assistance to those afflicted with mental illnesses and those suffering from the influence of unclean spirits.
Initially, the body of Metropolitan John was laid to rest in the Dormition Cathedral of Tobolsk, in the side chapel dedicated to St. Anthony and Theodosius of the Kiev Caves. After twenty-six years, when the cathedral underwent reconstruction, the grave was left uncovered.
As tradition has it, Metropolitan Anthony II (Narozhnitsky) and Sylvester (Glovatsky) received a vision wherein the saint himself appeared, expressing his distress about the neglect of his grave. "Dogs are running over my coffin. Comfort me and restore the chapel," the saint implored them in the vision. In 1753, the chapel was thus renovated and consecrated in honour of St. John Chrysostom, the heavenly patron of Metropolitan John of Tobolsk. Grateful devotees of the Metropolitan collectively gathered the necessary funds for its construction.
However, in 1826, the relics of the saint were once again reburied due to a crack in the wall and the need to dismantle the cathedral's foundation. During this reburial, Archbishop Evgeny (Kazantsev) of Tobolsk and the clergy descended into the crypt, where they discovered the remains of the saint in an entirely intact coffin, with the klobuk and mantle remaining untouched by decay.
On June 10, 1891, Bishop Justin issued an order to the Tobolsk clergy to faithfully commemorate the saint during Divine Liturgies throughout the year, except for the Great Lent, and to include prayers for his repose and memorial services, beseeching the Lord to count him among His saints and extend His mercy upon him and the sinful worshippers who venerate his holy memory. Bishop Justin personally wrote down this order calling it a testament and placing it in a frame under glass alongside the image of the saint.
During Metropolitan John's lifetime, numerous portraits of him circulated within the Tobolsk diocese. Above the area of his initial burial in the cathedral, there was an image of Metropolitan John, depicting him in a white klobuk and a blue mantle, holding a cross in his right hand and a staff in his left.
This portrait provides an image of the archbishop’s appearance—a tall man with a noble, contemplative, and gentle expression, graced with silver-grey hair and a long, luxuriant white beard.
The people of Tobolsk eagerly anticipated the official glorification of the saint, and in 1900, Bishop Anthony (Karzhavin) commissioned the creation of a silver reliquary with a gilded canopy. On October 16 (29), 1914, the revered remains of the beloved archpastor were solemnly placed within this reliquary with deep faith in the forthcoming glorification of the saint of God.
Similar to the examination conducted during the initial acquisition of the saint's relics, a commission reaffirmed their incorruptibility during the second reburial.
Ark with the relics of St. John (Maximovitch), Metropolitan of Tobolsk and All Siberia in the Intercession Cathedral in Tobolsk
In January 1915, the report of the commission regarding St. John of Tobolsk was presented in the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. Bishop Barnabas (Nakropin) prepared and presented the report, which included forty testimonies of miraculous help witnessed by individuals. However, due to the outbreak of the First World War, the glorification did not take place at that time.
The situation changed in December 1915, when Archbishop Tikhon (Belavin) of Lithuania, the future Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus', arrived in Tobolsk. Upon the highest order, his mission was to gather information about the local veneration of Archbishop John. Archbishop Tikhon examined the remains, sealed the coffin with his own seal, and documented testimonies of recent healings. In his report to the Holy Synod, he declared, "A thorough examination provides a solid foundation for pan-Russian glorification; the time has come to celebrate this luminous feast."
Saint John of Tobolsk was glorified on June 10 (23), 1916, marking the 201st anniversary of his repose. The celebrations were led by Metropolitan Macarius (Nevsky) of Moscow, with the presence of the Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod, A. N. Volzhin. Bishops, priests, and laypeople from all corners of the country travelled to Tobolsk for the occasion. It is worth noting that many of the hierarchs present at the glorification later suffered for their faith and were glorified as New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia.
Photo of the Festive prayer service in front of the St. Sophia Assumption Cathedral in Tobolsk to honour the opening of the relics of St. John of Tobolsk. June 10/23 1916.
The number of pilgrims surpassed 30,000, outnumbering the city's population itself. Cathedral Square was adorned with analogions bearing crosses and Gospels, while over 30 diocesan and city priests conducted daily confessions, prayers, panikhidas, and delivered sermons in the open air. The cathedral clergy of Tobolsk meticulously recorded numerous accounts of the miraculous assistance provided by St. John.
Today, the relics of Metropolitan John rest in the Tobolsk Cathedral, within the chapel consecrated in his honour. People from all parts of Siberia, as well as Orthodox Russia in its entirety, journey to him with their needs, sorrows, and heartfelt prayers for assistance. They experience healing, consolation, and the grace-filled presence of the saint in their lives.
Reliquary with the holy relics of St. John of Tobolsk
The life of Saint John attests to how much a person can accomplish in the Name of God and how many talents the Lord can give to one man, the highest of these being holiness. Similar to the radiant rays of sunlight, it reaches all those who gaze upon the saints of God with faith, never ceasing to give Him praise and gratitude.
"Lord, what will you command me to do? (See Acts 9:4, 6). May this question be repeated by each of us every day when we are unsure of what to do about whatever event or doubt has befallen us. Lord, what will you command me to do? What is Your will, O Most High Jesus? Reveal it to me in whatever sign You desire, that I may understand it by a good word, counsel, or any other revelation. Willingly I will follow Your good will, which You inspire in me through prayer”. (Heliotropion (Sunflower) or The Alignment between Human and Divine Will)
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