The Labors of Bishop Nektary (Kontzevich) of Seattle in the Field of Spiritual Nurturing of Children and Youth

Professor Alexander KORNILOV

February 6, 2008, was the 25th anniversary of the blessed repose of the vicar bishop of the Western American Diocese, Bishop Nektary (Kontzevitch) of Seattle. The life path of Vladyka Nektary deserves a separate study; this article is dedicated merely to one of the aspects of his service to the Church – his labors with children and youth.

Bishop Nektary (1905-1983), while still just a priest, was many times singled out by the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia as well as by the ruling bishops of the Western American Diocese for his untiring work with Orthodox youth.

In 1956, on the basis of the recommendation of the Archbishop Tikhon of the Western American Diocese, the chairman of the Synod of Bishops of ROCOR, Metropolitan Anastassy, awarded a gold pectoral cross to the Hieromonk Nektariy in the name of the Holy Synod. Following that, on 13/26 September, 1956, the Synod of Bishops in New York heard an oral presentation on this subject by Metropolitan Anastasiy and confirmed the award to Hieromonk Nektary "for his zealous and assiduous service to the Holy Church."(1)

It is hard to glimpse the real qualities and endeavors of a priest by merely reading a dry, official document. The following document, dated 1959, gives a more detailed characterization of Hieromonk Nektary’s service. On 18/31 August, 1959, Archbishop Tikhon (Troitskiy) sent an official request to the Synod of Bishops of ROCOR to have Hieromonk Nektary promoted to the rank of abbot. In explaining the basis of his request Vladyka Tikhon wrote: "In view of his exemplary and spiritual struggle filled life hieromonk Nektariy appears to be the best pastor in my city of San Francisco. By his skilled and experienced guidance (sic A.K.) Hieromonk Nektary also renders great services to the Church and the Russian emigre society through his involvement with the Scout Organization which has 200 members, and which does not do anything important in its life and perform any actions without his advice or blessing… Humble servant of the Holy Synod, A.T."(2)

One should emphasize the fact that Californian scouts deeply respected Father Nektary. In his childhood, while still living in the Russian Empire, Oleg Kontzevitch was a boy scout, and after arriving to San Francisco he fairly soon became a spiritual instructor of the local scouts in the state of California. One of the spiritual children of Vladyka Nektary, someone named, Paul, wrote in his 1983 obituary the following:

"One can’t help thinking back to the time when, while he was still a hieromonk and then abbot, Fr. Nektary used to go to scout camps and spent summers there with us, teaching us and giving us spiritual instruction. He held discussions not only with large groups during lessons and campfires but also with each scout individually. The path to his tent was a well beaten one for it was the path that many spiritually hungry young people took in order to consult with their batyushka on the topics that concerned them."(3) One can fully rely on the accuracy of Paul’s recollections because Fr. Nektary had been trained in the Optina Hermitage in the spirit of Optina. He always well remembered the living example – elder Nektariy (Tikhonov), who exuded love and who was obeying the commandment of holiness: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." (Galatians 5, 22). And that Spirit Fr. Nektary never extinguished even in far off California, following the admonition of Apostle Paul: "Do not quench the Spirit." (I Thessalonians 5, 19)

Archbishop Tikhon’s petition for awarding the rank of abbot was reviewed at the Synod meeting on 4/17 September, 1959, 18 days after the petition had been drafted in San Francisco. Thy Synod took into consideration "successful work" of Fr. Nektary, his pastoral zeal especially as far as his endeavors in the area of religious education of young people, as well as the fact that the preceding award of the golden pectoral cross was received by Hieromonk Nektary in 1956. The Synod accordingly resolved:

"To elevate hieromonk Nektariy to the rank of abbot in view of his excellent and assiduous pastoral labors, especially in view of his endeavors in the field of moral and religious education of youth."(4)

In 1962 there took place the elevation Fr. Nektary to the rank of a bishop. Even as a hierarch Vladyka Nektary continued to concern himself with the youth, with the children – about the future of Orthodoxy outside of Russia.

Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco (Maximovitch) in general highly valued the activities of Vladyka Nektary. He especially highly valued the work that Vladyka Nektary did with young people; children of all ages were drawn to him. It was often possible to observe Bishop Nektary, a large man, coming out of the cathedral surrounded by a crowd of little children. He exuded warmth and coziness. We have already mentioned the special connection that Vladyka Nektary had with the Russian Orthodox Scouts. While still in Germany, he got acquainted with the Russian scouts, and in San Francisco the Organization of Russian Young Scouts chose him to be their spiritual father. He would visit their summer camps in the forests of California, and within few days of his arrival the camps would be transformed. Quarrels and foul language would cease, all sorts of crudities would stop, which are often so common among men and young boys. In his tent he would carry out discussions both day and night with children and their counselors, heard confessions, spoiled the kids by distributing fruit and candies to them, and also gave camp fire talks.

While his health permitted it he used to go on hikes with the children and liked to tell jokes and scary stories which the children liked very much. Once in a while Vladyka used to hide himself in the forest from where he would call out like a cuckoo or growled like a bear thereby delighting the children very much. Once, as he was approaching the summer camp, he noticed from afar that the children were bathing at the bend of the river. Vladyka got out of his car, took off his podriasnik, and wearing only his long white monastic shirt got into the river just around the bend beyond which the children were swimming. Grabbing a handful of river weeds he dove under the water and swam towards the children – after all, he had been a swimming champion during his youth in the Ukraine! And then, all of a sudden, when he was in the midst of the totally unsuspecting children, he would put on himself the river weeds and with a great noise emerged from under the water like some bearded, longhaired Neptune, emitting a stream of foamy white water from his mouth. The initial screams of the children (and of their adult counselors as well!) changed to delighted laughter, and all those who could, swam towards Vladyka. And the resulting scene: Vladyka Nektary is swimming toward the shore, while a whole bunch of gleeful kids is hanging onto him. Having excused himself for his quite unbishoplike appearance, Vladyka got all the children to the shore, and then turned back, dove under the water, and disappeared! One could only see a trail of air bubbles slowly moving away in the slow flow of the river. In 15 minutes, another surprise: emerging from the forest and moving sedately towards the beach there came smiling Vladyka Nektary already wearing his cassock, wearing a panagia and carrying his bishop’s staff, his beard and hair under the skoufia still wet and dripping. And again, all the children with squeals and joyful shouts would run to their beloved "Vladyka Bear" as they, in their childish simplicity, dubbed Vladyka Nektary. That same day, beginning with the sunset and lasting until deep in the night "Vladyka Bear" had individual talks with all the children beginning with the youngest and ending with the oldest. Affectionate children easily opened up their innermost hearts and souls to kind Vladyka and eagerly listened to his affectionate talks about the Law of God.

The following stage of his activities began in 1966-1968 when Vladyka was temporarily in charge of the Western American Diocese. To that time belongs the appeal of Bishop Nektary concerning intensification of the work with children and youth. On 15/28 of September, 1966, the magazine "Orthodox Russia" (publ. by the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville) published an appeal by the just deceased St John. In it, St John fervently appeals to all the Russian people to lend a hand in the establishment of a Russian church school at the newly built cathedral in San Francisco. Vladyka Nektary in turn follows up on this appeal with his own commentary and appeal revealing his own ideas about the importance of Russian schools in the Diaspora. Anticipating the appeal of the saintly Vladyka John he pointed out, among other things, the following:

"Not too long before his death Vladyka John turned to his flock with an appeal to organize a church school at the new cathedral … This appeal of the now reposed Vladyka without a doubt has an extremely important meaning for all Russian Diaspora over which hangs the threat of losing its Orthodox Faith, loss of its Russianness, as well as the threat of denationalization. This appeal must stir up whole Diaspora to action, especially in those places where the children are not close together under the roof of the Church, where there are still no church schools – inspire all to organize such, and where such do exist – inspire all to improve them, paying special attention to the preservation and the strengthening of the Orthodox Faith, engendering the habit of prayer, nurturing in the children the best qualities of the Russian soul, and, of course, enriching the knowledge of the Russian language, correctly interpreted Russian history and other subjects."(5)

It should be noted that in carrying out the task of working with children and youth Vladyka Nektary was absolutely tireless. In the United States, where society is considered to be well off from the point of view of material wealth (even considering the relativity of the meaning of the concept “well off”) there is a great danger of forgetting one’s Christian norms and values, cooling of the faith, devaluation of the Holy Mysteries to the status of mere rites and traditions that must be followed as a custom.

That is why in his capacity as the temporary head of the diocese Vladyka continued the God-pleasing task of strengthening church schools. The chief responsibility for this work was laid on the shoulders of a very experienced organizer, protopriest Leonid Upshinsky. The Ukase (Edict) No. 8 of the ruling bishop Vladyka Nektary, dated 28 September/11 October, 1966, stated:

"1. With the approval and blessings of His Eminence Metropolitan Philaret, the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, in answer to the request of Protopriest Leonid Upshinsky and the parents of the students (in the house at 573 on 22nd Avenue) a school church was established in honor of the Iveron Icon of the Theotokos, being blessed with the sprinkling of holy water and the deposition of an antimins on the altar.

2. Protopriest Leonid Upshinsky, according to his request, is hereby released from serving as a rector of the church of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk and is appointed as the rector of the church of the Iveron Icon of the Theotokos, as well director of the said school who will be responsible for administering the school in accordance with the established rules.

3. Besides the usual lessons according to the program of study, Protopriest Leonid Upshinsky is also to teach the pupils of the school choral singing, serving in the altar, etc., for the sake of the spiritual education and churching of the children’s lives, which is one of the principal aims of establishing a church school..." (6)

Vladyka did not place these duties on the shoulders of Fr. Leonid Upshinsky by accident. According to the contemporary witnesses, Fr. Leonid Upshinsky was a quiet administrative clergyman, for many years serving either as a secretary or the managing officer of the diocese. He had his own small parish in San Francisco which had a well established school. Bishop Nektary, as in his time St John (Maksimovitch), could always rely on him since Fr. Leonid was an able executive, complaisant, calm, and conscientious. To be sure, Vladyka did not have a very close personal relationship with Fr. Leonid, but that fact did not hinder the latter from successfully fulfilling either the administrative or educational tasks with which Vladyka entrusted him. In general, Fr. Leonid tried to keep distance from all authorities, except when closer contact was necessary for the carrying out of his administrative duties.

As for the children, through their lessons in school and attending services in the church they learned how to preserve their faith as well as their Russianness in order not to lose their identity and become absorbed in the famous American "melting pot". The Russian children living in San Francisco could always see the triumph of Orthodoxy – the holy uncorrupted relics of the Archbishop John (Maksimovich) which were kept in the cathedral. Their faith was alive and real. Vladyka Nektary well understood the role of the school and often thanked the parishioners for their zeal in supporting the development of the church high school at the cathedral. Thus, in his Ukase No. 12, in his capacity as the ruling bishop of the diocese, he called God’s blessing on fifty persons, mentioning them all by name, for their active participation in the successfully completed church high school in the cathedral. This Ukase was dated at the beginning of November of 1966. From that it follows that the school was finished only four months after the publication of the appeal of the recently reposed St John. It was not by accident that Vladyka noted in his Ukase that "spiritual education, churching of the lifestyle and the preservation of the best qualities of the Russian soul in our children is an extremely important and holy task."(7) He clearly saw how the industrial society mercilessly breaks up souls of the believers and hence called for a churching of the lifestyle of the faithful. Only Christ could and can protect a young person from the corruption of modern world; Christ is not a tradition – Christ is a living God, eternally present until the end of days along with the Christians.

Vladyka Nektary’s efforts in the pedagogical sphere were often recognized by the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. During the Third All-Diaspora Church Sobor in 1974, Vladyka Nektary participated in the discussion of the education of youth outside of school. In his detailed report Bishop Nektary vividly described those harmful phenomena which presently affect Russian youth in the schools and in the social environment surrounding it in general. He proposed several concrete measures which the Church, the clergy, and the laity ought to undertake in order to protect the youth from various temptations and to give the youth an impetus to preserve and augment their faith.(8)

In connection with that one should again mention the spiritual guidance rendered by the Vladyka to the Russian Boy Scout movement in the Western states of the United States. Bishop Nektary was the spiritual leader of the Russian Boy Scout pack in San Francisco. His authority was very visible and significant. In accordance with his proposal, the words of the anthem of the Russian Scouts were amended. Instead of "Firmly believe that you are young and strong" by the order of the Senior Scoutmaster Pavel Andreevich Urtyev No. 40/182 dated August 5, 1979, new wording was established: "Firmly believe that with God you are strong." Well known social activist of the Russian Diaspora and the Scout Movement, Rostislav Vladimirovich Polchaninov, who reported this fact to the present author, adds that in 1969, in New Pavlovsk, state of New York, there took place the 60th jubilee Russian Scout Jamboree. For that jamboree Vladyka Nektary compiled 26 pages of "Spiritual Instructions." Each lesson was accompanied by a religious teaching for each day and was connected with the principles governing the lives of youthful scouts.(9) It was during that jamboree that R.V. Polchaninov became acquainted with Bishop Nektary. Thus, the spiritual influence of Vladyka Nektary on the movement of Russian Boy Scouts spread far outside California and Washington state. Because of his modesty and humility Vladyka tried to hide his endeavors, and now we learn about them not from his personal documents but from the truthful witness of his contemporaries.

Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia

Translated from the Russian by Priest Anatole Lyovin


NOTES

1. Ukase of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia to His Eminence, Archbishop Tikhon, Archbishop of San Francisco and Western America, dated 23 October/5 November, 1956, New York City. No. 1789// Archives of the Western American Diocese of ROCOR. (Henceforth abrrev. to AWAD)
2. Archbishop Tikhon, [Letter to the] ROCOR Synod of Bishops, dated 18/31 August, 1959, No. 751. Copy// AWAD.
3. "Our Spiritual Father – Bishop Nektary". In "Leader’s Newsletter. Organ of Communication for the Leaders of the Russian Boy Scout Organization." Falls Church, VA, U.S.A., February 1983, No. 304, pg 2.
4. Ukase of the ROCOR Synod of Bishops to His Eminence Tikhon, Archbishop of San Francisco and Western America, dated 12/25 September, 1959, New York City. No. 1494//AWAD.
5. Bishop Nektary, "One of the last wishes of the recently reposed Archbishop John – the building of the church school at the newly erected cathedral of Our Lady of All Who Sorrow"// In "Orthodox Russia" –12/28 September, 1966. No. 18, pg 4.
6. Ukases of His Grace Nektariy, Bishop of Seattle, temporarily in charge of the Western American Diocese of the ROCOR (hence "Ukases"). Ukase No. 8, Tuesday, 28 September (11 October), 1966.// AWAD.
7. Ukases. Ukase No. 12, Sunday 24 October (6 November), 1966.// AWAD.
8. Acts of the Third All-Diaspora Sobor.// "Orthodox Russia," 15/28 September, 1974, No. 18, pg 17.
9. Letters of R.V. Polchaninov to the author from New Hyde Park, New York State. Letters dated 20 December and 22 December, 2007.

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