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Patriarch Tikhon: God Chose the Kindest

St. Tikhon of Moscow, American Period of His Ministry

St. Tikhon of Moscow

“Truth be told, my position is rather unenviable and sorrowful, a sentiment I won't conceal from you. All the misfortunes stemming from frequent travel could still be endured and navigated, but the true challenge lies in the futility of it all. It does not contribute to the cause because I find myself helpless, lacking both people and means.”

These poignant words were penned by St. Tikhon (Belavin) to the Exarch of Georgia, Flavian (Gorodetsky), upon his return from his inaugural hierarchical visit to Alaska. This marked the commencement of his ministry in America, a land where today the Orthodox Church thrives, flourishes, and multiplies.

Bishop Tikhon

Bishop Tikhon shortly before his arrival in America

Last autumn, I embarked on a mission trip to the United States. During my sojourn, I delved into Orthodoxy in America and beheld the fruits of the arduous labour undertaken by the future All-Russian patriarch, whom I frequently remembered with gratitude.

St. Tikhon received news of his appointment unexpectedly. Throughout this period, he often shared his sentiments with Georgian Metropolitan Flavian. Despite the disparities in age, education, and ancestry, these two men became fruitful colleagues and steadfast companions. This camaraderie sustained and fortified St. Tikhon during his tenure in the United States. In a missive to Vladyka Flavian upon learning of his imminent departure across the ocean, he wrote:

“For almost two months, I have been in confusion, anxiety, and uncertainty, unsure of when I will find rest, probably not anytime soon. It is solely for the sake of obedience that I am journeying to the United States. One solace comforts me: this is something I neither sought nor desired, and if this is happening, it is not without the will of God. Therefore, I believe the Lord will not abandon me without His help!”

The journey undertaken by the young Bishop Tikhon spanned over a fortnight. It began with a train ride from St. Petersburg to Berlin, then Paris, followed by a steamer voyage to New York, a passage that consumed nine full days! In our contemporary era, the trip to America requires less than a day — a plane ride from St. Petersburg, a layover in Amsterdam, and an eight-hour flight over the Atlantic landing in Virginia or New York. This was the route I traversed when I unexpectedly embarked on my mission trip.

The USA in the beginning of the XX century

U.S. in the early 20th century

Similar to St. Tikhon, I had not sought this expedition. This shared happenstance made his letters resonate with me as I journeyed to America, retracing his historical path. I too received an unforeseen blessing from the clergy to go to the US and traversed through Europe. Naturally, my journey was swifter, with the only inconvenience being the adjustment to time zones. I can only fathom the hardships St. Tikhon endured after nine days of stormy weather in the Atlantic Ocean! Here is his account of the arduous voyage:

“On the 21st of November, we departed for Le Havre, and from there, at midday, we ventured into the ocean. A considerable wind arose from the first evening, relenting only just before New York. Thankfully, there was no severe storm. I did not suffer greatly from seasickness — only for a single day. Due to the strong wind, our oceanic crossing spanned nine days, and we arrived in New York only on the 30th of November at 10 a. m.”


Bishop Tikhon of the Aleutians (later of the Aleutians and North America) arrived in New York, while his episcopal see was in San Francisco, California. To assume office, Vladyka had to embark on the long journey to his diocese. The new bishop frequently traversed the country, visiting parishes and communities, which were still scarce at that time.

“My diocese is almost boundless. I have examined only four parishes, but I have already had to travel at least five thousand miles,” writes Vladyka Tikhon. He halted in Chicago, visited neighbouring Wisconsin, and ventured south to the heat of Texas. However, the most remote part of the diocese was Alaska, where Holy Orthodoxy commenced its march across the vast country.

Unexpectedly, I retraced the route of St Tikhon, forming my own acquaintance with the U.S. However, I never managed to visit Alaska. Initially, I explored Washington DC and Baltimore (East Coast), then Chicago and Kansas City (Central States), followed by Los Angeles on the West Coast. Finally, I journeyed to Philadelphia and New York. The hours spent in flight over the vast, cloudless expanse of America, as St. Tikhon eloquently described it, resonated with me.

Photos of  Ansel Adams

Photos by Ansel Adams

The boundless diversity of America's nature unfolded below — green, yellow, and red fields, forests, rivers twisting like snakes, mountains, lakes, and deserts. Megacities reached for the sky with towering structures, colossal in scale, much like the nation itself.

“There are twenty-storey houses here!” exclaimed St. Tikhon in 1900. “Now there are houses here a hundred stories high!” I responded, gesturing at the skyscrapers of Manhattan. This is the modern visage of America. Amidst the jungle of concrete and metal, majestic churches and cathedrals, crowned with Russian "onion heads," stand tall. Thanks to the efforts of St. Tikhon, such beauty adorns not only New York but the entire American continent.

Quiet, meek yet resolute and farsighted, Vladyka Tikhon tirelessly journeyed through his "immense diocese," securing funds for church construction and appointing clergy and laity for challenging service, especially in remote parishes like those in Alaska and Canada. Simultaneously, he maintained constant vigilance, frequently consulting with Vladyka Flavian regarding candidates for diocesan posts.

In one of his letters, St. Tikhon addresses a request from a graduate of the Chelm Theological Seminary seeking an appointment to serve in the USA:

“The other day I received a letter from Yakubyuk. Again, he asks me to accept him as a psalmist: he is ready to go to distant islands, and no harsh conditions disturb him. I am strongly perplexed: at the seminary, Yakubyuk was nothing of the kind, and I doubt that his subsequent service instilled such missionary enthusiasm in him. Where does this come from?...”

Today, Orthodox churches dot the American landscape, with dedicated individuals serving within them. I was astonished when a taxi driver in Los Angeles took me to Hollywood to attend a liturgy at the Transfiguration Parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

Russian Orthodox church in Alaska

Russian Orthodox church in Alaska, 1990

Many churches conduct two liturgies on Sunday afternoon — one in English and one in Church Slavonic — each attended by a substantial number of parishioners. St. Tikhon and his staff meticulously built this vibrant ecclesiastical presence, turning the Orthodox Church in the Americas into a true island of tranquillity and piety amid the tumultuous world.

Vladyka Tikhon longed for his homeland, experiencing bouts of homesickness as discernible in his letters. Nevertheless, he found solace in the bosom of the Holy Orthodox Church. This sentiment of being at home permeates his letters:

“On the 6th of January, we went to celebrate Epiphany on the Hudson River in New York (for the first time with the bishop). Many people gathered, including numerous American onlookers. Five priests, one deacon, and eight sailors from Philadelphia, who sang with all their hearts (and at the top of their lungs) in the streets of New York, were present.”

Such a Russian act! The spirit of these processions, liturgies, and fasts undoubtedly warmed St. Tikhon's heart during challenging times. As I navigate the streets of New York in the midday heat, I can almost hear the choir of sailors from Philadelphia singing Epiphany hymns, envisioning the steadfast stride of St. Tikhon before a gathering of curious, smiling Americans.

New York, America's largest city, will forever remember this procession. Likewise, the wilds of Alaska will not forget Bishop Tikhon, who held a deep affection for the region. Vladyka was unafraid of inconveniences. On his journeys, he spent nights on cargo ship decks “sleeping on coal, and covering himself with his cassock.”

swampy bogs

In Alaska, he waded through swampy bogs and slept on the ground:

“I have recently returned from far Alaska. The journey was not easy... At times we had to walk across the tundra... For 12 nights, I slept on the ground in a tent; we had... very limited supplies; but the hardest part was enduring the mosquitoes and, excuse me, lice.”

The American land is grateful to Vladyka Tikhon. In every parish, whether in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia or the Orthodox Church of America, you will find his icon surrounded by a host of new martyrs and confessors of the Russian Church. America became an extremely humbling school of humility, perseverance, and trust in the Providence of God through all hardships. Leaving his "boundless" diocese in 1907, he imparted an important admonition to his flock:

“Orthodox people must take care to spread the Orthodox faith among the non-Orthodox... For each of us, the spreading of the Christian faith should be the first and foremost cause, close to our hearts and precious to us....

Forgive me, fathers and brothers... You are not only close to me spiritually but have also become dear to me through common prayer, labour, and life. I am also asking for forgiveness from the rest of the flock scattered throughout this vast country! Forgive me also those in the deserts, in the mountains, in underground mines... and those living on islands far out at sea! May this land be blessed... may the blessing of the Lord be upon all of you!”

Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990

Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in America, 1990s

I would like to conclude this eulogy to St. Tikhon and his ministry in America with words of consolation. These words belong to Protopresbyter Alexander Shmemann and are dedicated to Orthodoxy in Alaska. Why this consolation? Simply because St. Tikhon often wrote about the hardships associated with the "distant islands." He, of course, sees and knows everything clearly now. Yet, I dare, with these lines, to please him, my beloved Saint Tikhon, Holy Patriarch of All Russia.

“The cathedral was packed to capacity with worshippers — local Orthodox (Tlingit Indians), as well as numerous pilgrims from other parts of Alaska — Aleuts and Eskimos, from Canada and from the 'lower forty-eight,' as Alaskans call the other American states. It also hosted a multitude of black-haired, dark-eyed children, little Indians, who stood through the long services with a reverence that we have almost forgotten in our lax and disordered age. Different people, a different race, but when they approach the icon, they cross themselves, bow, lay their hands on it, accept the blessing — silently, measuredly, gracefully, in the way they have been taught from generation to generation, as probably St. Herman himself taught their ancestors. Suddenly, a burning joy floods the heart from realising that we are one, all members of the same family of Christ, heirs of the same Holy and Sacred Tradition... A huge choir sings measuredly, prayerfully, beautifully, directed by a young Orthodox girl from Ohio, who is now a teacher of church singing at the Pastoral School on Cadiak Island. This singing seamlessly and naturally combines Slavonic, English, and Eskimo languages, as well as Indians, Aleuts, Eskimos, a bishop born in faraway Kiev, a girl from Ohio, Russian emigrants from Vancouver and San Francisco, as well as an engineer from Seattle and a doctor from Sitka, recently converted to Orthodoxy.”

The United States

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November 15, 2023
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