Meet my role models: Babushka and Dedushka[1]

By: James Kelly[2]

 

Most people are born into a faith, usually that of our parents.   If you happened to be born in Greece, you had a 90 percent chance you would grow up Greek Orthodox. In Russia, before Communism, ditto Orthodox. Ireland: Catholic in the south, Protestant Orange in the North. Germany after Luther: Protestant.

 

Today, my Russian wife and this Irish/German Orangeman have a small united nations of based on the first two – Russian and Greek. I am a Lutheran convert. My son is married to a Greek; my daughter is married to a Catholic. Our grandchildren are a mixture of all of us. Right now we are solidly Orthodox and it is our prayer that we will stay that way.

 

But the secular world will make it an easy progression for the grandchildren and their families to come.

 

We practiced what in effect was sticking as close as we could to the core of our family: my Protestant mother, Kathryn, Nadia’s Orthodox parent’s Rev. Vasily and Mat. Pelagia Smirnov. For some years we had two of everything, going by the old calendar we went to a Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) church to be with Babushka and Dedushka as often as we could, especially Pascha.

 

That changed somewhat because we didn’t want our children trying to grow up with mixed allegiances. We chose to join OCA through St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox in Bethlehem because it was in English.

 

This year, my wife and I have reached the 50-year mark of Paschas. Many who were born in the faith can claim more. Not many can say that the first time they were in an Orthodox church was their first Pascha. For that story see “A Protestant meets ROCOR.”

 

A second sidebar on our 2020 experience explains my belief that Orthodoxy must use more livestreaming and social media to communicate with the non-Orthodox public.

 

In this article, I would like to share a few vignettes of the faith foundation at the base of our personal Orthodox history – Rev. Vasily and Mat. Pelagia Smirnov. It is my hope that other Orthodox parishioners will share the stories of their role models in every way, shape and form.

If two people were to be chosen as examples of lovers of Christ, Rev. Vasily and Mat. Pelagia would be wonderful choices. Their life stories are incredible. Both are products of rampant poverty, widespread illness and the corruption and cruelty of communism and WWII.

 

He was born in the Moscow area, one of twelve children, six of whom died early on in life. He was a son of a priest who perished in the Stalin purges which killed around 80 percent of the Orthodox priesthood of that era. Reader Vasily apprenticed as a youth in the famed St. Basil Cathedral, but that ended with the Communist Revolution. Some years later he became a deacon and married Pelagia Kadansev. Eventually he was arrested by the communist state because he wasn’t paying the unaffordable church head taxes. He was sentenced to five years of hard labor building roads by pick and shovel.

 

Pelagia was born in the country, near Smolensk. By the time she was 12 she was nursing her mother through cancer until she died. At 15, she was the mother to her sisters through famine. There was so little to eat that their youngest sister developed rickets and had to be moved about by stroller. She eventually met and married Vasily and they had a child, Nicholas, before Vasily was put into forced labor building the road from Smolensk to Minsk.

After three years, WWII prematurely ended Vasily’s Soviet labors bringing short-lived freedom to wander back toward his family in Minsk. Neither had any idea where the other was. Vasily would stop by churches and inquire whether a lady named Pelagia had been there with her young child Nicholas.  Miraculously, one priest recognized the pair and told him she would surely come to vespers.

 

The reunited family had little time to enjoy their freedom which was ruined by the chaos of the Nazi advance.  Soon, they found themselves captives of the Nazis. What followed were four more years of hard labor on German farms, doing all the dirty work the Germans wouldn’t or couldn’t do because they were fighting in Russia. They were still under guard, but they were alive and together.

 

As the allies pushed further toward victory, the skies filled with bombs. On one raid, near the end of the war, alarms sounded and all the Germans scrambled to the bomb shelters. The slave labor had to fend for themselves and all huddled around each other in a barn and prayed with an Orthodox priest who was also a prisoner. It felt like the bombs would never stop, but when they ventured out they discovered that the bomb shelters had received direct hits and many of the Germans were dead or injured.  

 

These were just a few narrow escapes that tempered their absolute belief in God and forged the intensity of their prayers. They prayed not for simple wishes for nice things. They prayed to survive, and they witnessed many miracles while surviving through numerous horrors. It took five more years in a Displaced Persons camp before they made it to America.

 

By the time Nadia and I were married, almost 20 years later, life for the Smirnovs had taken a major turn upward. They had property and a roof over their heads. Deacon Vasily was serving in multiple Orthodox churches in southern New Jersey while running a chicken farm of about 7,000 hens.

Mat. Pelagia was ever the workhorse, too. As mother she had three children to raise. Nick, who survived the war years, and Vladimir Walter, closely followed by Nadia. All the kids had duties to attend to with all those birds to feed, eggs to pick and sell.  By the time she was seven, Nadia was already serving as the family interpreter, a sign of her future life as an English teacher.

 

Mat. Pelagia also made all the church vestments and decorative covers for the feast days.  She cleaned the church, baked the prosphora. She also held a full-time job at local sewing plants, in addition to making hand-tailored clothing for Nadia as she grew up.

I must say that in the era in which we grew up, everybody worked hard. There were no grand social safety nets. My parents, like many others living in the country, kept big gardens, and everybody canned to save money. Meats were not as prevalent as they are today.

 

But my parents-in-law were on a different level when it came to work AND faith. As if the horrors of communism and the Nazis weren’t enough, tragedy visited them in the way of a t-bone auto accident a few years after they settled in N.J. Matushka Pelagia was a passenger in a car being driven by a friend. She took the worst of the accident. With numerous shattered bones and injuries, she wasn’t expected to live through the night, but God saved her. She survived and spent weeks in hospital and nine months recuperating at home in a full body cast. Nadia tells of using her small hands to reach into and around the cast to help keep her mother clean.

 

Babushka recovered slowly, lying in a body cast and put her busy hands to crochet gifts for the ladies in the hospital who had helped her so much. One lady who was large statured somehow had given mom the idea that she was not happy with her bras. So Mom set out to crochet a bra that would fit her properly, and she did.  The lady loved them.

 

She suffered from headaches after the accident, but two things happened eventually. First she got pregnant and delivered her fourth child, Eugene. Then the headaches disappeared.

 

By the time I entered the picture and married her daughter, the chickens were gone but there was a cow about to calve in one of our early year returns for Pascha. I got a very early wakeup call to get to the barn to help get Manya on her feet.   Mom called every one of her cows Manya after her youngest sister, the one who was so underfed as a child that she had suffered rickets.  Extremely heavy Manya had a very healthy baby. And nobody had a hernia afterwards. Now that’s pretty miraculous, itself.

 

Babushka did not waste time. Too much to do! When she did something, she did it fast, including walking. Nadia told me that her knee had been shattered in the accident. We took her shopping once, and I was out of breath trying to keep up with her pace. I wondered how fast she could have gone if she had good knees.

 

We would bring our three children with us, and Babushka would make all their favorite treats. They never learned Russian except for a few phrases, but they definitely knew how to eat in Russian. Seriously, with all she had to do, she always put us ahead of her personal needs, and her meals were always great.

 

Pop lived to be 89. He was ten years older than Mom and eventually his great strength began to deteriorate. Babushka took wonderful care of him, to her own detriment, until he fell asleep in the Lord. He never learned English, and I never learned Russian, but he treated me as a son, and I treated him with the respect he deserved as my father. My own dad died when I was 21. I knew Pop Smirnov more years than I knew my birth father.   I got very used to hugging and kissing a bearded man on every visit home and especially on Pascha. On feast days, Pop would pull out a bottle of vodka hand flavored with berries of some sort. In later years, a bottle of 20/20 fortified wine was on the table. Sprazdnicum Pop!

 

I had a heavenly mother-in-law who was a marvelous example. She was not educated, but she was very smart and very pragmatic.

She loved God with all her heart, body, and soul. Nadia did everything she could to keep her safe and secure. In her late 80s she asked to go to a convent nursing home in New York. She wanted to be closer to the church. For a host of reasons, that became a mistake, and a great disappointment, better left for God to judge. It became evident to us that Babushka had to come home.

 

She was entering dementia, and was in constant pain. We placed her in a home two miles from us where a very good doctor took her off all her conflicting meds and slowly brought her pain under control. She had communicated in five languages in her lifetime, but now it was Russian only. The admission nurse didn’t like that, but the doctor persisted. “Why should communicating with a Russian patient with dementia be any harder than one with dementia in an English speaker.”

 

Our priest at Holy Trinity brought communion to her regularly, and we brought church to her through Russian CDs of liturgies and varied church music. It wasn’t long before the aides became quite used to the lady they called “MaMA” and would help her turn on her music. The last five years were difficult for Babushka, now blind in a world of total darkness. But the light of Christ was still within her.

 

We would visit with her twice a day, to make sure she was eating properly and to help her wherever we could.  We were there, in person, but eventually, she lost track of us as daughter and son, but she never lost Jesus. She died at the age of 99.

 

Sometimes, when she was quiet and listening to her church music I would sit quietly and just watch her as she sat in her wheelchair and quietly repeated her never forgotten prayers.

 

For her, throughout all the ordeals of her life, God was only a whispered prayer away.

 

I had no choice but to join the Orthodox Church. I had such wonderful role models.

[1] This article is copyright © to James Kelly and is published here under licence and was first published at http://holytrinityoca.org/protestant-man-meets-orthodoxy. This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the author’s written consent.

[2] James Kelly is a retired editor, columnist and journalist with the Bethlehem Morning Call newspaper and is an active member of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Catasauqua, PA.

Fifty Paschas Plus One[i]

By: James Kelly[ii]

 

Social distancing may quell the pandemic of Covid 19 gripping the world, but to paraphrase a line from Lincoln, “a church divided cannot stand. The Orthodox Church works best within a community. Today, at my struggling home church of Holy Trinity in Catasauqua, PA only a few people actually live in the community of Catasauqua.

 

The Orthodox church that came to America in the late 19th century was a community of immigrants who brought their religion with them in their hearts and souls. The first thing they did after settling was to build churches to nurture those souls and pay tribute to God for their new lives.

 

Social distancing overtook our church long before Covid 19 came along. Most of the descendants of the Slavic immigrants, like their grandparents and parents have had to follow the jobs to other parts of America. Many have left the church for numerous reasons. The demographics of far-flung families, social distancing of the worst kind, has led to a host of problems that I am not qualified to discuss, much less solve.

 

It is my hope, however, that the leaders of the Orthodox church, having performed so diligently throughout the church crisis of Covid 19, recognize that the electronic world which became a saving grace of Pascha 2020, could become a future beacon of togetherness and communication within our struggling churches, and with potential future parishioners, as well as our ever more distanced elders.

 

We were forced to turn to live streaming in order to protect the sanctity of more than 2,000 years of Paschal love for Christ, and it succeeded beyond measure. Most of us with the ability to stream attended and visited more churches than we would or could have, by car and in person.

My wife and I concentrated on Metropolitan Tikhon and services at St. Tikhon’s Monastery. We were thrilled by the Go-pro streamed procession around the church. We walked every step with them and sang with them.

 

Over the course of Lent and social distancing, we also visited churches across America and the world.   One video showed a priest and two deacons censing people in cars as they paraded on the back of a flatbed truck, complete with bell-ringer. That joyous scene brought tears to my wife as she thought about all the priests from Russia who gave their lives for God in the dreaded days of Stalin.

In our lifetime we have traveled to Orthodox churches from Alaska to Paris, but never with the ease of live streaming. We are of the age of vulnerability. We are taking our doctor visits electronically, not the best, but something to be grateful for in a literally sick world… An adjunct physician if you would.

 

In the secular world we live in, the entertainment industry has gone from debased to basically evil.   What better way to answer than to provide our spiritual physician, Christ the healer, in answer to the sick visions that populate much of what claims to be entertainment.

 

I plan to reward those churches we attended with small gifts. Perhaps others who used live streaming will do that, too. And, no we will not give up the closeness of our home church for the ease of staying at home. That need will come all too soon. We plan to enjoy our church as long as we can.

 

The goal here would not be to replace the physical church, but to expand it; to replace dismal demographics that show many of the churches withering like grass before a fire; to rebuild the communities of like-minded people and share the beauty and glory of Orthodox liturgies. Some priests are running with the concept of social media, but many are stuck in the past addressing themselves to tens of people instead of hundreds and beyond.

 

Pascha 2020 has shown us that the electronic world cannot replace “Being There, in church!” But it can certainly be a wonderful adjunct to reach out to the “NONES” (those millions of millennials with no faith base) to turn them into the “NEW ONES,” and in the process revitalize Orthodoxy!

 

[i] This article is copyright © to James Kelly and is published here under licence and was first published at http://holytrinityoca.org/protestant-man-meets-orthodoxy. This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the author’s written consent.

 

[ii] James Kelly is a retired editor, columnist and journalist with the Bethlehem Morning Call newspaper and is an active member of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Catasauqua, PA.

Protestant Man meets Orthodoxy[i]

By: James Kelly[ii]

 

My first Orthodox service was Pascha. I was a guest of the girl I met in my senior year of college, Nadejda Smirnov. On a fateful night in Vineland, N.J., my Protestant background and her Orthodox ROCOR world collided on the eve of the first full Sunday after the Jewish Passover.

Holy Trinity Church was a classic gem of Russian Orthodoxy – a fact I would learn eventually. But on this night, it was a scene of confusion for me. There were no pews. It was 11:30 at night. Nadia was wearing a pretty dress and something I had not seen before – a scarf on her head. She introduced me to Clyde and Valya Washburn, and then we were told to stand on the right, and she and Valya went to the left side of the church.

I was dressed in the only sport coat I owned and tie. My shoes were spit shined because they were part of my Navy uniform. I had flown about 5,000 miles from Pearl Harbor where I was stationed to be with Nadia.

 

The room was filled with intricate hand-carved woodwork and paintings of haloed figures. More were on a wall in the front of the church blocking the view of the altar.

 

People were shuffling about busily placing flowers at the center of the church which I realized was the body of Jesus. I was used to the sedate world of “Lukewarm Lutheranism.” I had met the parents … and got a hug and a kiss from her mom…then a hug and a three-side kiss from her bearded Dad.  My stoic world had not prepared me for this.

 

People were hugging and kissing everyone. I shook hands with some, and they muttered some words I did not understand and moved on. I had never seen such activity in church. I saw people fuss with the flowers. Shortly afterward another woman would come and rearrange the flowers to her liking. That continued until the service began (in Church Slavonic I learned much later.) I thought it was Russian, of which I could say “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “May I smoke,” and, “Where is the bathroom?”

 

I didn’t know that this was the beginning of more than four hours of services. Nadia’s father, Protodeacon Vasily Smirnov was serving in the altar. I listened as attentively as I could but I was totally baffled. No matter where I stood, I was eventually in the way of the men who were constantly lighting candles. I was dearly coveting one of those chairs along the wall near the window which was one of the few sources of ventilation.

 

The only thing that kept me going was seeing Nadia smile as I looked to my left. My companion, Clyde, had more time in grade than I did. He and Valya had been married the year before, so he was an old hand at church. Well into the services, he gestured for me to follow him. We wound up in the parking lot where we sat in the car and had a smoke. I was surprised by all the activity outside the very full church, another variance from Lutheranism. But, then, I couldn’t remember a protestant service that lasted more than an hour.

 

Over the next 50 years I would come to know, marry (in Holy Trinity) and love Nadia – and Orthodoxy. My family of Irish, German, PA Dutch heritage had a grand time at our wedding. We invited about 125 people and more than 200 showed up. The Russian community did not know what RSVP meant, but they came bearing food galore.  My family knew German as did the Russians. The bridal dance wound up being a polka.

 

Trinity became the home base for our family for the next 30 years. I came to love hugging and kissing my family and friends.

 

I am grateful to my mother, Kathryn for providing me with a church experience in small-town Wescosville, PA. She read Bible stories to me as a child; she took me to church regularly, made me sing little songs in Sunday School that she had written. I would sing them to my children when they were kids and they would marvel and laugh with Grammy and sing them with her. They sing some of them to their children now as well as Orthodox Christmas songs.

 

For many years we had two sets of Christmases and Easters and Paschas. But all our children grew up in Orthodoxy and I eventually converted to Orthodoxy with a great friend and priest, the ever memorable Very Reverend Archpriest Eugene Vansuch.

 

That fateful night in Vineland was truly a great blessing!

 

 

[i] This article is copyright © to James Kelly and is published here under licence and was first published at http://holytrinityoca.org/protestant-man-meets-orthodoxy. This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the author’s written consent.

[ii] James Kelly is a retired journalist with the Lehigh valley’s Morning Call newspaper and is an active member of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Catasauqua, PA.

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