An Orthodox Life of St John of San Francisco
(+19 June/2 July 1966)
St John of San Francisco (1896-1966) is also known as St John of Shanghai, St John of Western Europe, and St John the Wonderworker. Such were the many places where he was bishop; such were his many qualities. He was considered a saint in his own lifetime and icons began to appear in Orthodox churches not long after his repose. A zealous bishop and theologian of the Orthodox Church, St John is still well remembered with great spiritual love in Australia, the Philippines, Western Europe, in North and South America and, today, increasingly in Russia, where churches have already been dedicated to him.
The Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) canonised Archbishop John on the 28th anniversary of his repose, 2 July 1994. In preparation for this glorification, the tomb containing his relics was opened. When the sepulchre cover was removed, the metal coffin was found to be in a poor state of preservation due to moisture. Rust had eaten through the coffin, and the cover was rusted tightly shut. Inside, the Gospel Book over the remains had virtually disintegrated, the cross in the Archbishop’s hand was corroded, an icon had deteriorated and the episcopal vestments were mildewed and falling apart. The relics of Archbishop John, however, were incorrupt. His skin was white and soft and his body was found to be very light due to dehydration but quite intact. Those who venerated the relics discovered that they exuded a sweet fragrance. Exposure of a body to an amount of moisture that had deteriorated metal and other objects would have caused rapid decomposition. There was no basis to argue that Archbishop John’s body had undergone mummification.
This man of God was born on 4 June 1896 in the province of Kharkov in what was then southern Russia. At baptism, he was given the name Mikhail. As a child, he was serious for his years and he later wrote, “From the first days when I began to become aware of myself, I wished to serve righteousness and truth. My parents kindled in me a striving to stand unwaveringly for the truth, and my soul was captivated by the example of those who had given their lives for it”. Following the desire of his parents, he entered law school in Kharkov. He was naturally gifted student, but spent more time reading the Lives of Saints then attending academic lectures. “While studying the worldly sciences, I went all the more deeply into the study of the science of sciences, into the study of the spiritual life”, he wrote.
After the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, he was evacuated together with his family to Belgrade in Serbia, where he entered the faculty of theology at the University. In 1926, a year after his graduation, he was tonsured a monk and given the name John, after his own distant relative who is a canonised saint, St John of Tobolsk (Archbishop John was to be buried with an icon of his saintly relative). In November of that same year, he was ordained the the priesthood. Soon, he became a teacher at the Seminary of St John the Theologian in Bitol. More than once, the bishop of that diocese would say, “If you wish to see a living saint, go to Fr John”.
His students first became aware of Fr John’s great feat of asceticism. At night they noticed that he would stay up, making the rounds of the dormitories and praying over the sleeping students. “Finally, it was discovered that he scarcely slept at all, and never in a bed, allowing himself only an hour or two each night of uncomfortable rest in a sitting position, or bent over on the floor, praying before icons”. This ascetic feat he continued for the rest of his life, bringing his body “‘into subjection”, according to the holy Apostle Paul, But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified (I Corinthians 9.27).
At the age of 38, he was consecrated bishop by the great theologian Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky, in the company of several bishops who are now saints. He was sent to head the ROCOR diocese in Shanghai. There, he took an active interest in the religious education of the young, encouraged and participated in various charitable organisations, founded an orphanage, and gathered sick and starving children off the streets. He always wore clothing of the cheapest Chinese fabric and often went barefoot, sometimes, giving his sandals away to some poor man. He served the Divine Liturgy daily, as he did for the rest of his life. In China, it became evident that Bishop John was not only a righteous man, but a true ascetic, a man of prayer and a wonderworker.
Once in Shanghai, Bishop John was asked to the bed of a dying child, whose case had been called hopeless by the doctors. Entering the apartment, he went straight to the room in which the sick boy lay, although no one managed yet to show him where this was. Without examining the child, he immediately fell down in front of the icon in the corner, which was very characteristic of him, and prayed for a long time. Then, assuring the relatives that the child would recover, he quickly left. Moreover, in fact, the child became better towards morning, and he soon recovered, so that a doctor was no longer needed. He loved to visit the sick, and if the condition of a patient would become critical, he would go to him at any hour of the day or night to pray at his bedside. There were cases when patients would cry out to Bishop John in the middle of the night from their hospital beds and he would go to see them without even being called by phone.
With the coming of the Communists, the Russians in China were forced to flee again, mostly through the Philippines. At one time 5,000 of the refugees were living in an International Refugee Organisation camp on the island of Tubabao, located in the path of typhoons. When the fear of typhoons was mentioned by one Russian to the Filippinos, they replied that there was no reason to worry, because, “your holy man blesses your camp from four directions every night”. They referred to Bishop John, for no typhoon struck the island while he was there.
In trying to resettle his flock in Christ our Lord, Bishop John went to Washington DC. There. he had to meet a committee in the Senate to appeal for the Russian refugees. However, he went only after he had celebrated the Divine Liturgy. Once the liturgy was over, he went to the Senate on behalf of the Russian refugees, but was by then late. By the time the small of stature holy man had entered the Senate, they had already moved on to another item on the agenda. Nevertheless, everyone in the Senate stood up out of respect, for they saw that a man of God had entered the room and wanted to hear his appeal on behalf of the Russian refugees in the Philippines. After Bishop John had given his report to the Senate Committee, the refugees were able to go to America and live in San Francisco. All the Russian refugees were able to go to America, including his orphanage, which he later established in San Francisco and which became known as St Tikhon’s Orphanage.
In 1951, Bishop John was sent to Western Europe and here he was later made Archbishop. Here, too, his reputation for holiness spread… and not only among the Orthodox. In one of the Roman Catholic churches of Paris, a priest strove to inspire his young people with these words, You demand proofs, you say that now there are neither miracles nor saints. Why should I give you theoretical proofs, when today there walks in the streets of Paris a saint, St Jean Nus Pieds, St John the Barefoot.
In the twelve years that St John spent looking after various nationalities in Western Europe, and also in North Africa, he gave hope to all and an example of Orthodox truth, faithfulness and piety amid the errors and apostasies of the post-war period in Western Europe. It was here especially that he became renowned as a missionary, receiving Western European Orthodox back into their ancestral faith after some nine hundred years. He also restored veneration for the ancient local saints of the many lands of Western Europe, laying the foundations of the later struggles of other Orthodox, who followed in his footsteps.
At the end of 1962, Archbishop John was transferred to America, in fact to San Francisco, where many of his former flock from China lived. As Archbishop of San Francisco, he was called on to sort out a bitter internal division among the Russian Orthodox. Many of these had become secular and politically-minded Americans and had forsaken the purity of the ancestral faith of Holy Rus. In particular, they were divided with regard to the building of the new Cathedral. Archbishop John was to suffer much, including being put on trial in a secular court, but he bore slander and indignity from false brethren with patience and humility. Indeed, this was to be his Gethsemane and Golgotha before his Resurrection. For on 19 June (2 July according to the secular calendar) 1966, during an archpastoral visit to Seattle with the Wonder-working Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God, Archbishop John peacefully gave up his soul to the Lord, whom he had served so faithfully during his earthly life.
His body was flown to San Francisco, where for six days it lay in the Cathedral he had built in an open coffin. In New York, Metropolitan Philaret wanted to attend the funeral service in San Francisco, but due to the fact that he had heart problems, it was suggested that he take the train to San Francisco. This, of course, delayed the funeral for the newly-reposed Archbishop John. However, this did not matter, because when Metropolitan Philaret arrived at the Joy of All Who Sorrow Russian Orthodox Cathedral for the funeral, Archbishop John’s body still showed no signs of decay. It was said that he looked pure, and that a sense of spiritual beauty was felt when any approached his coffin during the funeral service.
From the beginning of the first service, it was apparent that this was to be no ordinary farewell to the newly departed Archbishop. There was a sense of being present at the unfolding of a mystery… a mystery of holiness that still exists to this day. “Those present were devoutly convinced that they had come to bury a saint”. Since the repose of Archbishop John, many of the faithful came to call him Blessed John, and, for these many years, his tomb (St John was buried under the Church of the Cathedral of the Joy of All Who Sorrow in San Francisco) was a place of pilgrimage for thousands and thousands of Orthodox Christians throughout the world, before his remarkable canonisation by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia on 2 July 1994. Ever since then, St John’s reputation as a saint and powerful intercessor have grown and he has become a saint venerated worldwide.
Fr Andrew Phillips