Strength Perfected in Weakness: Archpriest Alexei Ionov

Mitered Archpriest Alexei Ionov (1907-1977)

Протопресвитер Алексий Ионов

Алексий_Васильевич_Ионов

The great Apostle Paul, to whom so many spiritual gifts were given, would never boast of his strengths, but rather spoke only of his weaknesses. He wrote to the Corinthians, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”[1] St. Paul had discovered a crucial spiritual principle: that Christ is closest to us when we suffer for Him, with Him. God’s way is the way of the cross. God revealed Himself most fully when He hung before the world on Golgotha. When we follow His way, we have Him as a fellow traveler, and this way is a path to joy: true, lasting joy. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Archpriest Alexei Ionov would reflect upon his sufferings, trials and hardships while serving in the Pskov Mission as the most fruitful years of his ministry.[2] This paper will touch upon some of the important events and insights contained in Fr. Ionov’s little known memoirs: “Missionary Notes.” It will also follow his continued ministry, as a refugee in post-WWII Europe, and as an important figure within the Metropolia after coming to the United States in 1948.

Alexei Ionov was born in 1907, in the small city of Dvinsk (modern day Daugavpils), in southeastern Latvia.[3] Alexei graduated at the age of twenty from the Dvinsk secondary school and enrolled in the University of Latvia. However, after only two years Alexei radically altered his life path. In 1929, he dropped out of the university and chose rather to devote himself entirely to service in the Church. He had been involved in the Russian Student Christian Movement as a member of its congress. Perhaps, the reports of the atrocities being committed against the Church in nearby Russia inspired the young Alexei Ionov to willingly enter the ranks of the Church’s defenders. After discontinuing his studies in Latvia, Alexei made the long journey to Paris to study at the newly formed St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute. In response to the closing of all theological institutions in Russia by the Bolsheviks, the St. Sergius Institute formed in Paris in 1925.[4] Here, Alexei had the unique opportunity to study with many of the major thinkers and theologians of his time, such as Sergei Bulgakov and Antoine Kartashov.

A.Jonovs1928
Alexei Ionov, 1928

In 1932, Alexei Ionov was joined in marriage with Valentina Dribinsevoy. She was the daughter of a priest, Fr. Gregory Dribintseva, and was therefore well acquainted with the joys and sorrows of ministry in the Church. It is presumed that Alexei met Valentina in Paris and was likewise married there. It is likely that her family had fled Russia after the revolution. Alexei was ordained a deacon in the fall of 1932 and a priest the following year. He also graduated from St. Sergius’ in 1933. Fr. Alexei and his new bride were sent back to their homeland, serving first in a small Church in the Pskov region of present-day Estonia. In 1937, Fr. Alexei was transferred to Riga, Latvia’s capital, to serve as the second priest at the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky. Fr. Alexei was an erudite man, knew many languages, and his articles were published in the Russian publication, Вера и жизнь, for many years. In 1937, he joined the theological faculty at the University of Latvia, in Riga. However, this service was short-lived. In 1940, the Soviet military invaded Latvia as part of a deal with Nazi Germany and the theological school was shut down shortly thereafter.

Latvia, forced to accept military “protection” by the Soviets in 1939, was invaded once more in 1941, this time by Nazi Germany. In one respect, the German army was viewed as a liberator of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). Fr. Ionov describes the German occupation in his memoirs as the lesser or two evils. He writes, “Not one of us questioned that the Germans were evil. Certainly none of us had any sympathy for the conquerors of the ‘breadbasket’ of our native land.”[5] Under the previous Soviet occupation, especially in the Pskov region, the area had been changed into a “religious wasteland.”[6] Fr. Ionov relates, “Once-beautiful churches were destroyed, desecrated, turned into storehouses, shops, dance halls, movie theatres, and archival storage places.”[7] The German occupiers at least offered some religious freedom. They had “other” priorities. In August of 1941, the Germans allowed fifteen priests from Riga to come to the Pskov region to “gather thistles,” as they put it. Among these was the 34 year-old Fr. Alexei Ionov. He left behind his wife and small son.

 

It was on this mission to the physically and spiritually starving people of Pskov that Fr. Alexei’s gifts and talents would come to fruition. It was dangerous and offered very little earthly glory. The region’s native clergy had virtually all disappeared, many had been sent to Siberia and had died, or been killed there. Metropolitan Sergei, the organizer of the mission to Pskov, was himself killed, either by Germans or Soviets in 1944.[8] Fr. Ionov notes, however, that none of his fellow missionary priests baulked at being “volunteered.” Fr. Ionov notes, “Everything was done in the framework of church discipline and obedience to the Church.”[9] Amidst unspeakable suffering and religious oppression, Fr. Ionov and the other fourteen priests found a people of intense spiritual vigor, starving for the faith, the Church, and Her sacraments. Among the “thistles” there were many, many flowers.

On the 18th of August, 1941, Fr. Ionov arrived in ancient Pskov. The Trinity cathedral, which only a few months prior had been an anti-religious museum, was overflowing with people. They celebrated vigil for Holy Transfiguration (Old Calendar) in total darkness, as all the vigil lamps and candles were blown out by the wind, blowing through the broken windows. “Such contrast,” Fr. Ionov writes, “yesterday, the laughing stock, reviled and desecrated. Today, beautiful religious singing …Images of the saints, the objects of yesterday’s ironic remarks …but today the objects before which there is a crowd on bended knees.”[10] Fr. Ionov continues, “How gratefully the Pskovites experience our arrival. How attentively they listen to the words of our first sermon. Without end they keep coming to receive our blessing.”[11]

Nonetheless, Fr. Ionov and the Pskov mission were not to experience elation only. After only three days, at about five o’clock in the morning, German soldiers roused the entire group from sleep. They were told that, by the orders of the German commander, the entire male population of the city was to be moved 36 miles north of the city. Rounded up, they were brought out into the streets where wives, mothers, and children were weeping and wailing for their husbands, sons, and fathers. Providentially, the priests of the Pskov mission were released. Tragically, for the rest it remained a bitter reality.

Within a week after this event, Fr. Ionov was sent to a small city 30 miles from Pskov. The trip was filled with danger and adventure. They were stopped by a German patrol, but allowed to continue. Food was very hard to come by. Fr. Ionov and his companion stopped at farms and collectives, but found only that the people there were virtually starving. About 6 miles from his destination, Fr. Ionov met two women dressed in black. They asked, “Where are you going fathers?” “To K.” Fr. Ionov replies. “Lord, what a blessing!” the two women in turn reply, “And we, you see, were on our way to Pskov to get a priest for Assumption [feast of the Dormition].” Reflecting on this meeting, Fr. Ionov writes, “I’ll never forget these plain Russian believers! How much hope they had.” They were willing to walk nearly 40 miles, without papers, in German occupied territory, just so that they could have a priest for the feast day. Later, in the winter of 1941-1942, Fr. Ionov recalls seeing “black spots” strewn along the side of that same road, “frozen corpses—horrible white willows in a snow storm.”[12]

Fr. Ionov was later transferred to Ostrov. Here he helped to organize the rebuilding of fifteen Churches.[13] He also started a Bible school for children. He remarks, “My best friends were the children. There were lots of them there. In rags, hungry, none the less they remained beautiful Russian kids.”[14]

oAlexIonov

In Ostrov, Fr. Ionov organized a Russian Red Cross. “On all corners of the city,” he recalls, “we set up our appeals for the collection of food for prisoners of war and took it upon ourselves to take care of one POW camp.” The camp consisted of hundreds of prisoners. After two or three weeks, deaths from starvation stopped in the camp. Fr. Ionov remembers, “the wives of the Soviet officers were very helpful to me in this endeavor. You had to note their selflessness, persistence and genuine Christian charity.” This achievement is the more extraordinary considering that the Soviets were the bitter enemies of Fr. Ionov, and yet he was able to inspire true, Christian love in their “atheist” hearts. On Pascha, 1942, Fr. Ionov was able to gain permission to celebrate the Liturgy at the camp. In all, 300 POW’s attended. Fr. Ionov writes, “I conducted the service in a very emotional state. In my sermon I exhorted them to not despair.”

Back in Ostrov, Fr. Ionov describes the revival that occurred under his spiritual direction:

“In the cathedral, which we had refurbished by our own means—the people would donate their last cent to the restoration of churches—I communicated (in the first few months of our arrival) from 500 to 800 people at one Liturgy. I also, of course, had to confess them—at a common, shared confession to be sure. We would baptize 80 infants at one time. We’d conduct up to ten funerals at once. We’d marry three to five couples at one time. Our Sunday services began at 7 in the morning and for me were done at about 4 in the afternoon …incredible, but true.”[15]

Riga Church 1941
A former church in Riga, converted into a theatre

“How eagerly they listened,” Fr. Ionov recalls. He adds, “The best time of my ministry was the time spent in the Pskov Mission, though outwardly it occurred in the harshest conditions.”

Trial and temptation awaited around every corner. Fr. Ionov was pressed to declare “sides” by the partisans, not understanding that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. Spies and informers approached Fr. Ionov, urging him to rely upon their services. One young man offered his “assistance,” promising “each evening you will know what’s going on in town.”[16] At one point, Fr. Ionov was called into the German Division headquarters and was advised to accept the New Calendar. Fr. Ionov categorically refused, explaining that Russia had its own “thousand-year traditions, and that must be respected.”[17] In the end, Fr. Ionov suggested that the general “shelve” the issue and the general agreed. But, this victory was framed by a bitter backdrop. Fr. Ionov remembers with how he gazed at horror upon “rows of females and young lads—young Communist—having been hung by the Germans …it was the first time in my life that I saw this terrible sight. In the market square, in daylight. I returned home in a state of shock.”[18]

Despite these immense struggles, Fr. Ionov continued to demonstrate unshakable courage. In Pskov, Fr. Ionov conducted a funeral for a family of five and preached a scathing sermon against the Germans, who had burned them alive. The father of the family had refused to hand over his twenty-five and twenty year-old daughters to be raped by the SS troops. In retribution, the troops had nailed the door of his house shut and set it on fire. At their funeral, Fr. Ionov exclaimed to his outraged parishioners, “If we remain silent about crimes such as this, the stones will cry out to heaven!”[19] Fr. Ionov quietly awaited his arrest all that day and through the night. No arrest ever came. He writes, “My clerical influence grew much stronger after that day—I had come into my own.”[20]

The example that Fr. Ionov provides for us today is unmistakable: to take courage in the face of adversity, to never give up hope, to look among “thistles” for spiritual blossoms. Perhaps, many might look at America as a “spiritual wasteland,” a nation burned over by short-lived revivals, religious divides, atheism and secularism. The Pskov mission demonstrates that such assumptions are wrong. All people are thirsty for true spiritual drink, even in anti-religious soviet Russia, even in materialistic, secularized America. We need to have the same courage and obedience shown by Fr. Ionov and his fellow missionaries. We need to see America as a true mission, “behind enemy lines.” We need to be uncompromising in our faithfulness to the Church and Her life. When Fr. Ionov was still in Riga his family would frequently receive threatening phone calls and they were being frquently named in interrogations. The NKVD was closing in on Fr. Ionov. Many of the priests in Riga had abandoned the traditional clerical dress. Fr. Ionov refused, despite the impending doom that it meant. One priest, dressed already in civilian clothes, called out to Fr. Ionov on the street, “Are you still preaching?” Fr. Ionov’s answer is our example: “Until my dying breath.”

Fr. Ionov, miraculously was not arrested. He rejoined his family in Riga in 1944 and somehow escaped as the Soviet’s advanced in the wake of the German retreat. The family of four sailed from Riga to Danzig, and then travelled to Berlin where Fr. Ionov served until the Soviet Red Army drew near the city.[21] He and his family then escaped to Austria, to the town of Mondsee, near Salzburg. Fr. Ionov supported the refugee community there, serving the Liturgy in the Roman Catholic church of St. Maria of Pilzburg. In 1948, the Ionov’s prepared to leave Europe, planning initially to relocate to Argentina. However, Fr. Ionov received a request from the Metropolia in the United States to serve the parish of Our Lady of Kazan, located in Seacliff, NY, on Long Island.

The family boarded the SS Marine Swallow in Bremerhaven, Germany, with six hundred other passengers. The journey was a harrowing one. The ship barely missed being overtaken by a category-4 hurricane. Finally, in September of 1948, the Ionov’s reached the relative safety of the United States, to begin a new life with the strength gained from their previous experience. Fr. Ionov faithfully served the beautiful little parish of Our Lady of Kazan from 1948 to 1974.[22] The parish recalls their “beloved priest” under whose leadership a rectory was built and the church building expanded.[23]

Kazan Church 1942
The Church of the Lady of Kazan, Seacliff, 1942
Kazan Seacliff-Present
The church as it appears presently

Fr. Ionov’s experience and erudition quickly brought him several important roles within the Metropolia. He served for many years as secretary to the Metropolitan Council under the saintly Metropolitan Leonty and Metropolitan Irenaeus. Fr. Ionov also served as editor of the Russian American Orthodox Messenger, the official publication of the Metropolia, from 1961 to 1970. He was an active member of the St. Seraphim fund, a mission to help Russian refugees with housing, food and clothing, headquartered in New York City.[24] Fr. Ionov also participated in the fund’s frequent social gatherings: evenings devoted to cultural and spiritual lectures, talks and concerts.[25]

According to Alex Liberovsky, the archivist for the Orthodox Church in America, Fr. Ionov was initially very supportive of the Metropolia and its efforts to gain autocephaly.[26] Fr. Ionov was widely respected. His name is still commemorated daily at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, in South Canaan, PA, at every Liturgy. In 1970, Fr. Seraphim Rose’s widely read journal, The Orthodox Word, published Fr. Ionov’s description of his parish’s celebration of St. Herman’s glorification. Fr. Ionov wrote,

“I was glad to hear of the great solemnity in San Francisco in connection with the canonization of St. Herman—in truth a consolation to the suffering and sorrowing souls of the faithful. With us everything, of course, was more modest, but the moleben proceeded with great spiritual elevation, and without a doubt the Saint entered into our life of prayer. I gave a sermon before the moleben and I easily and joyfully recalled everything bound up with the name of St. Herman.”[27]

In early 1970, negotiations were under way between the Metropolia and the Russian Patriarchate toward gaining autocephaly for the Orthodox Church in America. For reasons not entirely known, a large group of parishioners at Our Lady of Kazan resented and suspected these negotiations. On February 22, they wrote a letter to Fr. Ionov strongly requesting that he join them in their cessation from the Metropolia and their entrance into the Church of the Synod (ROCOR). A lengthy court case came as a result of the battle that erupted between those who wanted to keep the parish buildings of Our Lady of Kazan in their transfer to the Synod and those who wanted to keep the property under the auspices of the Metropolia.[28] Combing through the brief of the court case, it appears that Fr. Ionov took no active part in the prosecution or defense. He simply followed the majority of his parishioners into ROCOR when it appeared that no consensus could be reached. After the court ruled in favor of keeping Our Lady of Kazan under the newly formed OCA, Fr. Ionov was transferred to California where he served the parish of All Saints, in Burlingame until his death on January 22nd, 1977. According to Liberovsky, He was buried at the monastery of Novo Diveyevo, in Nanuet, NY.

Perhaps, some criticism can be raised against Fr. Ionov departure from the Metropolia. However, from examining the court files and from my personal interview with Liberovsky, who was well acquainted with the Ionov family, I believe that such criticism is unjust. Fr. Ionov was a faithful servant of the Church, still widely respected, and beloved both within ROCOR and the OCA.[29] The interval during which the OCA labored to gain their autocephaly was filled with misunderstanding and suspicion.[30] Many, very likely many of Fr. Ionov’s parishioners, believed that forming an agreement with the Russian Patriarchate meant falling under the control of the Soviet atheistic state, who had been responsible for the deaths of millions of faithful and clergy. Fr. Ionov himself was a personal witness to the demonic hatred for the Church by the Soviet state. I believe that Fr. Ionov would support the OCA today, though not without certain reservations. Fr. Ionov would encourage the OCA to renew its spiritual life and commitment to the traditional Orthodox worldview. He would beg us not to throw away Orthodoxy’s rich heritage. He would comfort us in our difficulties, showing us that through authentic struggle, real podvig, Christ becomes for us a life-giving presence; strength is made perfect in weakness. Since 2010, I have had the joy of personally hearing many stories of how Fr. Ionov lived out these ideals from his son, Cyril Ionov (Yonov). My family is honored to be good friends with Cyril and his wife Carol; they are godparents to our daughter, Katya. May Fr. Ionov’s memory be eternal and may we never forget his example.

Fr Alexei Late

Footnotes

[1] II Cor. 12:10

[2] Archpriest Alexei Ionov, Missionary Notes, translated by his son, Cyril Yonov.

[3] Information regarding Fr. Ionov’s early life has been collected from several online sources. These, in turn were based on a 2002 article on Fr. Ionov in the St. Petersburg Diocesan Gazette, no. 26 and Mitrophan Znosko-Borovsky, “In Memory of Archpriest Alexis Ionova. Orthodox Russia, No. 5 (1977), pp. 7-8.

[4] The official website of St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute. <http://www.saint-serge.net/presentation/histoire.html&gt;

[5] Ionov, “Missionary Notes,” 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 6.

[13] Ibid., 9.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 10.

[16] Ibid., 13.

[17] Ibid., 15.

[18] Ibid., 11.

[19] Ibid., 15.

[20] Ibid.

[21] All the information in this section is taken from the obituary of Serge Yonov (+2004). <https://www.classcreator.com/Seacliff-NY-Sea-Cliff-1957/class_profile.cfm?member_id=1866948&gt;

[22] From the official website of Our Lady of Kazan (OCA). <www.churchofourladyofkazan.org.history>

[23] Ibid.

[24] <www.russkije.lv/ru/lib/read/a-ionov.html?source=priests>

[25] http://old.st-tatiana.ru/text/33778.html

[26] Personal interview. April 21st, 2016.

[27] “The Glorification of Saint Herman, The Orthodox Word, vol. 6, no. 4 & 5. 188.

[28] “Russian Church of Our Lady of Kazan et el., Respondents, v. Andrew Dunkel et al., Appellants.” 34 A.D.2d 799 (1970) <http://www.leagle.com/decision/197083334AD2d799_4227/RUSSIAN%20CHURCH%20OF%20OUR%20LADY%20OF%20KAZAN%20v.%20DUNKEL&gt;

[29] The OCA monastery of St. John the Baptist, Manton, CA. is in the process of publishing Fr. Ionov’s homilies and memoirs.

[30] cf. “Orthodoxy in the Contemporary World,” The Orthodox Word, Jan.-Feb. (1970), 53.

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