Orthodox America

  Orthodox Missions: Lessons from the Past

by Priest Stefan Lyashevsky

The experience of missionary activity in the past has made a rich contribution to the work of the Orthodox Mission in the West, and it ought to be studied by future and current Orthodox missionaries in the West. Those attempts which were made in the 19th century, with the exception of Alaska and Japan, proved to be premature, but the missionary activity in America and Czechoslovakia in the first half of the twentieth century up to the Second World War was very fruitful.  The period after the Second World War does not belong to the experience of the past; it is part of the contemporary missionary experience, and therefore will not be considered in the present discussion.

The Potsdam Community

This is essentially the story of the Orthodox settlement called Alexandrovka, on the outskirts of Potsdam, and it ultimately yielded no results in promoting Orthodoxy in the West.

Archpriest Alexey Mal'tsev, on finding this Orthodox colony-which by then was already half German, with services conducted in German for several decades before his arrival-attached great significance to it in terms of planting Orthodoxy in a non-Orthodox country.  It was primarily for this colony that Fr. Alexey set himself the task of translating all the liturgical books into German, which later was a principal factor in inspiring an interest in Orthodoxy among German and English theologians. Meanwhile, the Russian colony was soon absorbed by the German population, and by the time of the first emigration scarcely a trace of it remained. Frederick the Great so admired the Russian choir he chanced to hear in St. Petersburg that Tsar Alexander I made him a gift of the choir-all its members together with their families.  (This was before the emancipation of the serfs.)  To accommodate these Russians, Frederick had constructed for them an authentic Russian village on the outskirts of Potsdam, not far from his castle, Sans-Souci.  Russian cottages, a corner of Rus', was transplanted onto the territory of the Prussian kings.  At the same time a renowned architect built there in Alexandrovka a miniature church in honor of St. Alexander Nevsky. Unfortunately, the icons in the Russian-style iconostasis were not Russian but German.  The belfry, however, was very skillfully designed, in such a way that the bell ringing was heard only inside the church and not outside, so as not to bother the residents of the neighboring castles belonging to members of the court.  The bells are located in a closed belfry above the church, and the sounds enter the church through a tiny aperture, the size of a coin, thereby giving the impression that they originate somewhere outside.  This system has been preserved to the present day.

At first services were conducted in Church-Slavonic, but within just one generation they began to be conducted in German, and that is how it was when Fr. Alexey arrived in Germany in the 1890s, as rector of the consulate church in Berlin.

This community had no missionary vocation.  It was not large and among the younger generations many naturally married outside the community, which gradually dissolved into the larger German society.  /.../  Many Germans in Potsdam have last names such as Fyodorov and Ivanov, without realizing what they signify. One of my German neighbors in Potsdam assured me that his name-Ivanov-was purely German, quite common, in fact, in Potsdam.  And this is probably all that remains of the Russian colony.

In 1914, when the war began, Fr. Alexey Mal'tsev left Germany, and the Russian colony, which by then was very small, ceased to exist.  The church in Potsdam remained as a memorial to the past.

With the coming of the first emigration, services were held there on occasion, but it was only when the second emigration arrived that services began to be held regularly every Sunday.

In the years of the Second World War the rector of the Potsdam church was a German priest, Fr. Paul Heke, a remarkable individual in the history of German Orthodoxy.  Pure German by birth, upbringing and education, he pursued theological studies in Dresden and became so interested in Orthodoxy that he went to Bulgaria, where he graduated from the Orthodox seminary, mastering at the same time Russian and Bulgarian.  He married a Russian woman, Valeria Konstantinovna, and dedicated the rest of his life to planting the seeds of Orthodoxy in Germany. He was, if one may say so, in love with Orthodoxy.  He loved well-ordered services; he loved ancient Russian icons, church vessels, vestments, the ancient melodies...

Fr. Paul tried to find traces of the Orthodox community in Potsdam, but was unsuccessful: he could find no people, no books, no service books, no music-nothing remained but the church and some icons.

Such is the fate of any Orthodox community which lacks a missionary purpose.   Within a matter of a few generations the people become assimilated and absorbed by the surrounding society in which they happen to live.

I was able to observe this process of disintegration in a city in the United States, where I served as a priest, where the younger generation was already almost non-existent-having gone off into other confessions, a majority into Roman Catholic and Episcopalian churches. Church life which consists solely in the performance of ritual-the services-soon dies out.  Without a concept of mission, Orthodox people are lost to the well-organized parish and school lives of other faiths. It is a lamentable experience -for which the leaders of the Orthodox Church abroad bear responsibility.

Resort Churches

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries many wealthy Russians would go for "cures" to various resort centers abroad.  The most popular were the mineral spas in southern Germany and the resorts of Switzerland and France.  There they built beautiful Russian-style churches, but here again, they lacked any missionary purpose.

With the Revolution the seasonal influx of Russians to these resorts was arrested, and these churches began to close, and only here and there were services conducted on occasion for small emigre groups. The German parishes were served by priests coming from Berlin or Dresden, where there were, after the First World War, fairly sizable emigre communities.  But for the most part these churches were merely beautiful architectural monuments to the past.

Church life, which also lacked any missionary vision, existed in only three cities in Germany: Berlin, Dresden and Hamburg.  The first emigration had no missionary purpose, although this is precisely what would have given meaning to its existence and for which it would have received a reward from God.  Had it not been for the second wave of emigrants which came with World War II, church life would never have left its narrow confines and would gradually have withered, as we observed in Hamburg.

There are in Germany more than ten [Russian Orthodox] churches, architectural gems, which in time will be used for the Orthodox mission. To this day, these churches belong to the Russian Church Abroad. The second emigration added to these the churches of St. Procopius in Hamburg and another dedicated to St. Procopius in Liubeck.  These belong to the local parish communities, a majority of whom are Orthodox Germans. And they are served by a German priest, Fr. Ambrose Backhaus.

What could have developed had these resort churches had a conception of Orthodox mission? What could have been accomplished in half a century if, during the Second World War and the years immediately following, so much was accomplished in such a brief period of time?

The resort churches in France and Switzerland after the Revolution became emigre parishes.

Churches attached to embassies and palaces.

There were churches attached to embassies in nearly every country, and churches adjoining royal residences in Germany and Denmark: in the Mecklinburg palace in Shwerein and in Ludwigliute, in Hessen, in Nikolaize (near Potsdam) and in Copenhagen.  Of these, the churches in Hessen (Darmstadt) and Copenhagen later became emigre parishes.

After the Revolution the majority of embassy parishes ceased to exist, and, with the exception of the St. Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Paris, built by Archpriest Joseph Vassiliev, they had no effect-neither direct nor indirect-on the spread and development of Orthodoxy in the West.

It is worth mentioning that when, in 1925, the United States wanted to build an embassy in Moscow, they included plans for a Roman Catholic church-large enough to accommodate 5,000 people. Obviously, the embassy didn't need a church of such capacity, and the Latins intended to use it for purposes of proselytizing-which appears to be the reason the Americans were denied permission to build.

The embassy churches of Argentina and Japan were a striking exception to the general rule; they provided the basis for the development of Orthodox Churches.  But this was due exclusively to the missionary labors of their founders: Archbishop Nicholas of Japan and Archpriest Konstantine Izraztsov in Argentina.  These will be examined separately

The translation of service books: the missionary outreach of Archpriest Alexey Mal'tsev.

Was Fr. Alexey Mal'tsev aware of the significance his translation work and publication of service books in German would have? He most certainly did, since there was really no practical need for the translation of service books, aside from the Divine Liturgy, which had already been in use for some time in the Potsdam community.  Was such a massive and costly undertaking called for by the needs of the small and dying Potsdam community which showed no prospect of future development?  This was, I think, clear to Fr. Alexey, although he wrote in the preface that Alexandrovka (Potsdam) had a special significance in his work of translating. Where, then, did he pin his hopes?  He himself did not engage in any missionary work per se among the Germans, with the exception of his one disciple, who later became Metropolitan of Germany, Seraphim (Liade). Who, then, would be using these books (and they were deluxe editions)? The embassy churches?  Certainly not.   The palace churches?  They likewise had no use for them; services there were conducted in Church Slavonic.  Fr. Alexey used this as a seemly pretext, dedicating each book-they came out once a year-to some [Russian] grand duke or grand duchess related to one of the German royal houses.

All these books-thousands of volumes- were distributed throughout Germany to libraries in cities, universities, seminaries, and to the private libraries of pastors and professors of theology.  This was Fr. Alexey's principal aim.  He gave evidence of this in the lengthy prefaces which he provided for each book, and which were specifically directed at Lutheran theologians.

And indeed, these books had considerable impact.  One could say that for the first time the West became acquainted with Orthodoxy, since each book also contained an extensive, explanatory introduction.

It was a tremendous accomplishment for which Fr. Alexey deserves a place in the history of the Orthodox Church in Germany-if not as its founder and builder, certainly as its model and far-sighted herald.  It is a shame that his grave is not in Potsdam, next to that of his matushka, in the church yard. Thousands of Orthodox Germans would come with love and gratitude to visit it.   /.../

It is important to mention here the concurrent, if not earlier translation of service books into Japanese by Archbishop Nicholas of Japan, and the translation undertaken just after Mal'tsev of a portion of the service books into English by Archbishop Tikhon (later Patriarch of All Russia) of America.

Next: "A Model Orthodox Missionary: Archpriest Josef Vassiliev" From "A History of Russian Missionary Activity in the West: Diverse forms of Orthodox missionary work" in Tserkovnaya Zhizn, Jan-April 1993; pp 45-64.

* When Soviet troops came to Berlin, Fr. Paul was arrested and disappeared without a trace.  He was undoubtedly executed.