Orthodox America

  A “Local Saint” – Archimandrite Nicholas Pekatoros

+ Feb 13/26, 1996

       The royal Psalmist wrote, The righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance, and this can certainly be said of Archimandrite Nicholas Pekatoros, who departed this life on 13/26, February, 1996, the first day of Great Lent. He had reached the venerable age of 97, having served for many years as rector of the Saint John the Baptist Cathedral in Washington DC before his retirement in 1980. Altogether, he served in the priestly rank for seventy-three years. His meek and quiet spirit, cultivated by his lifetime devotion to God, was an inspiration for many -- Greeks and Russians -- who will forever cherish his memory.

        Fr. Nicholas was born in Russia in 1899. Under the influence of an uncle, a well-known professor at the St Petersburg Theological Academy, he decided to become a priest, undaunted by the fact that the Church -- clergy in particular -- was at that time enduring severe persecution. He was ordained in 1922, and the following year was assigned to assist Archbishop Alexander and Bishop Onouphry (who died in 1938 as a New Martyr). However, because his father was Greek, Fr. Nicholas was considered a Greek subject, and in 1929 the civil authorities forced his dismissal from this position. That same year he left for Greece, where he soon received the monastic tonsure. He served for a number of years at the church of the former Imperial Embassy in Athens, before emigrating, in 1952, to the United States at the invitation of Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko). Appointed rector of the newly-formed parish of St John the Baptist, Fr. Nicholas worked selflessly, spiritually guiding and nourishing his flock, as well as directing the construction of a church and church house. In recognition of his exceptional service to the Church, the Synod of Bishops awarded him two gold pectoral crosses and the right to celebrate the Divine Liturgy with the Royal Doors open, as in a hierarchal service. In 1969 Ir. Nicholas was elected to become Bishop of Brisbane in Australia, but he had to decline this honor because of his weak health and responsibilities towards his invalid sister, who was living with him at that time.

      For the last ten years of his life, Fr. Nicholas suffered with cancer. When someone asked how he was enduring his illness, he replied with his habitual meekness, "God gave me this trial so that I would think over and remember better my sins from birth and repent of them, so that by this very means I would prepare myself to answer before the Lord God.'

      One of Fr Nicholas' most treasured possessions was a signed photograph of Bishop Onouphry, a gift from the New Martyr, who had inscribed it: "To a dear and esteemed pastor of God's Church as a blessing for further service to the Orthodox Church.... A faithful and diligent Orthodox pastor is a great acquisition for God's Church. Kharkov 1926." And indeed, over the succeeding seventy years Fr. Nicholas proved himself worthy of the bishop's confidence.

      Among those American converts fortunate to have met Pr. Nicholas is the author of the following account, Elizabeth Baranova, who has drawn for us a more intimate portrait, based on her personal acquaintance.

I first met Father Nicholas Pekatoros when I was staying with the family of Father George and Matushka Deborah Johnson in Washington DC. They were talking about some man who had been quite holy, and Father George remarked, "He looked almost transparent when he died." Then he added, "Father Nicholas is looking similarly transparent," This was the first I had heard of Father Nicholas. When Father George said that many people went to him for advice, I felt a strong desire to meet him.

      Later that week, Matushka Deborah and I decided to visit Father Nicholas. He lived on a suburban street in one of several identical small brick houses. Letting us in, he excused himself and shuffled over to a table to take his medicine. The room was cluttered: an old couch, various chairs, a large dining table. Lining the walls were pictures of priests and parishioners, and of old relatives in black and white. In a corner was a burning vigil lamp and three icons of the Mother of God with the Christ Child.

      Over his faded black cassock, Father Nicholas wore a gray sweater-vest of the type that priests often wear. Hobbling to his hollowed armchair, he told us to pull close two fold-up chairs, and we talked for a while in a smattering of his broken English and Russian. He showed us pictures of his relatives, speaking lovingly about each of them. Then suddenly his eyes lit up as he said, "Glory to God." And from then on he spoke only of spiritual matters. He mentioned how he pitied those who are without Christ. He looked at us, "such as those who do not like the company of old priests." He held up a piece of paper which cut off his eyes, and said, "Such people put a newspaper in front of their faces."

        "Father Nikolai," Matushka asked, "do you fear death?" "I do not fear death, I fear nursing homes, and operations, and hospitals -- not death. When death comes, I'll already be gone." Matushka persisted: "But don't you fear the tollhouses after death, the demons throwing at us our sins?" He replied, "I believe in God's love for mankind. He came to earth and suffered on the Cross for our sins: 'Who for us men, and for our salvation...' and through this He has washed away our sins. As Saint John Chrysostom said in his Paschal Sermon: Christ has taken away the sting of death."

       I was deeply troubled by the question of what happens to people who are not baptized. Father Nicholas answered, "I don't know," He motioned upwards: "God knows. But I believe that in the Lord nobody will fall by the wayside."

       At that time I was struggling to decide whether to get married. "Were you ever married,' I asked. "No," he said. "Is it possible to become close to God when you are married?" "Yes, if you are with the right person. Pray to God: 'O Lord, and Queen of Heaven, send me a good person.' Marriage is a mystery. In it God's grace comes down like in an ordination. Saint John of Kronstadt lived with his wife like brother and sister, and she helped him." I told him about a friend in Russia, whom I wanted possibly to marry. "Go to Russia and come back," he advised, "Go two, three, four times before you marry him, to be sure that this is a person whom you can trust, who also wants to know God. I was chased out of Russia for being a foreigner (my father was a Greek) and a priest. Children made fun of me and the Komsomol destroyed icons and churches. There were great books people used just for paper. And people were so hungry that they would eat such books. Five people in my family died of hunger. There are good people in America, and there are bad people in America. There are good people in Russia, and there are bad people in Russia. They say that the people who destroyed the churches are the same ones now building churches. Welt, maybe it is for real -- if it lasts. May God help them. If not, well... Be careful."

       After we had talked for a while, he led us into his cell. Matushka Deborah and I stood there, speechless for a long time. The room had the most powerful feeling of prayer I have ever felt. It was as if we had stepped into a beating heart. The walls were covered with icons, from floor to ceiling. The focus of the room was an enormous icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. Finally we spoke a few words and then followed Father Nicholas back into the living room. "Why," I asked, "do we pray to the saints?" Father Nicholas looked sharply into my eyes as if to see whether I was mocking the faith, and when he was assured that I was serious, he explained so simply that I have never struggled with this question again, "We pray to saints because they are close to God.'

       We sat down to talk more, and this time Father Nicholas spoke more directly and looked us in the eyes. He spoke about love, and about laughing and crying with people. He spoke about God's power, and as he said the word he shook with intensity. Several times he interrupted our talk to shuffle back to his rooms to bring us gifts. He gave us each an icon of Saint John the Baptist, the poem "Angel" by Lermontov, and a copy of Derzhavin's poem, "God." "This is the best poem ever written about God," he declared emphatically. "It is very deep. A lot is said in a few lines. You must read it slowly, very slowly. What I love most is how it describes how great God is, and how small I am -- and yet I can become great through God's light in me. We are all created in the image and likeness of God. We are not created for our own selves, but to be like God."

       When Father Nicholas was in the back rooms, there came in a friendly American woman holding a vacuum cleaner. She had greying hair and spoke with a plain, rural American accent. "Isn't Father great? My son is Greek Orthodox and goes to him for advice. My husband is Greek, and my son learned Greek and went off to Mount Athos a few years back. When he came home, he decided to become a priest. I'm not baptized, but now, after being around Father, I'm planning to get baptized in a couple of months. The Greeks all think Father Nikolai is our local saint."

      When at last we got up to leave, Father Nicholas blessed us many times, and prayed for my travels. He kissed me on the forehead, held my hand close, and said, "When you go to Russia, pray for me, for the Russia of old. Go to the icons and light a candle for me. I left the New Russia, but I believe in the Russia of old.' 

    I did in fact go to Russia, and my friend Volodya and I became engaged, and yet I felt I could not give my final word until we had the blessing of Father Nicholas. With trepidation we traveled to see him. He was ninety-four. In the unchanged dark house, he was sitting hunched over in his chair; his brown cassock hung loosely over his sunken chest. He blessed us, smiled, and asked, "Is it Liza?" He was almost blind. When we had sat down, he asked us directly, "So, what advice do you need?"

      ''We both want to get married. And we want to know if this is a good thing, and also when we should."

After coming half-way around the world for the answer, I was not prepared for his, “Well, that is your decision.”

      We simply looked at him, dumbfounded.

      He repeated, "That's your decision. I cannot tell you what to do."*

      Finally Volodya found words. "Well, Batiushka, will you at least pray for us?"

      We began to talk. His Russian was old fashioned, as if retained from the last century. After a while, he asked met ''Where are you from?" I explained that I was not Russian, but an American from New Jersey.

      He was surprised and his eyes lit up. "No Russian relatives? Going to Novosibirsk? How did you end up there?"

I told him.

"That is God's will."

Volodya caught my eye and smiled.

      There was a knock at the door. A Greek man entered with his two curly-haired daughters. The older one was shy and hid, but the little one went up to Father Nicholas, who gave her a big smacking kiss on the forehead. His eyes shone.

      We gave Father Nicholas some small framed icons as a gift, explaining that they were from St. Sergius-Trinity Lavra. "From Saint Sergius,' he said. His eyes were watery, and seemed especially so when I said I had lit a candle for him as he had asked, before the relics of Saint Sergius.

      We returned one last time to see Father Nicholas before Volodya, my future husband, returned to Russia. Volodya asked him about his health. "Bad," he replied. "On Saturday I had a problem with my heart, and I could hardly breathe." He panted to illustrate. He gave us little prayer books, miniature Bibles and books of Saints' lives to take to people in Russia.

      When my questions had at last ceased, Father Nicholas said plainly, 'I am going to die Soon, and I will not see you again. Let me give you my card in remembrance of me."

      He went to his room and I burst into tears as I realized what he had said. Returning, he gave us two pictures of himself. On the back of one he had written, in old (i.e., pre-Revolutionary) orthography: 7/9/1993 Dear Vladimir and Elizaveta in the Lord. For prayerful memory and in blessing. Unworthy Archimandrite Nikolai.”

      "Come," he said, "I will bless you." I thought he meant at the door, but he headed for his prayer room. He told us to come in and we stood, just inside the doorway. He put on a faded epitrachilion, turned around and prayed, "Lord Jesus Christ and Queen of Heaven..." He carefully spoke the prayers: "O Heavenly King..." Then he went to his cabinets and pulled out two tiny icons of the Protection of the Mother of God. He blessed them three times over his large icon of the Protection of the Mother of God, and then gave one to each of us. "This is the powerful protection of the Mother of God." He blessed each of us with the icons. "Live in peace, and the blessing of Jesus Christ and the Heavenly Queen will be upon you."

    The Greeks who loved him insisted that he undergo an operation to prolong his life. So he did not die as soon as he thought he would. He suffered for two more years. The last time I saw him he did not get up from his chair, and breathed with effort. He said he was waiting to die, but -- he raised his hands heavenward -- "as God wills."

      Father Nicholas died on February 13/26, 1996. At a memorial service we had in Siberia, the priest concluded, "By the prayers of Father Nikolai, may we too be saved."

      So at last Father Nicholas has gone to the land of his beloved poem:

The Angel

At midnight an angel was soaring on high,
And his chant seemed to rival the hush of the sky.
The stars and the moon and the clouds in a throng listened enrapt to the heavenly song.
He sang of the souls that are stainless and white,
Who in gardens of Paradise dream in delight;
His music rose high like a jubilant flame,
A luminous hymn to the Holiest Name.
He carried a soul to the portals of birth,
Down to the vales of the grief-harrowed earth;
But the sound of his chant the new soul had caught,
And forever retained its wondrous, great Thought.
And long that soul languished amid earthly woe,
Yearning for the song it had heard long ago,
And no weary earth-song could for it blight
The long-cherished chant of the angel in flight.

-- Mikhail Lermontov

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