Orthodox America

  Builder of the Church – Archbishop Vitaly Maximenko

      A teacher, missionary, printer, pastor, preacher, church builder, monastic father, hierarch, confessor of the Faith... How did Archbishop Vitaly do it? His mentor, Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, said of him: "He crucified himself for the sake of the Church and the people." And Archpriest Nicholas Deputatov, at the time of Vladika Vitaly's repose thirty years ago, wrote in tribute: "Vladika Vitaly had no personal life: he gave everything to the Church; he disappeared entirely into the interests of Church life. The Church was his first love; his concerns for the Church were so encompassing as to leave no room for any thoughts of self..." 

Archbishop Vitaly came into the world on August 8, 1873, as Basil Maximenko, the son of a village deacon in the southern Russian district of Taganrog. To support the large family of seven children, the father supplemented his income by fishing. One spring, while fishing in the ice, he contracted pleurisy and died. At the funeral, seven year old Vassily stood by the coffin with a blossoming cherry branch to ward off the flies. Within a year, grief led his mother also to the grave. Vassily was shunted from one relative to another before being placed in a parochial boarding school on the shore of the Azov.

       "Here I was at first all alone: the other lads went home for Nativity, Pascha, summer vacations, and I strolled by myself around the spacious school grounds... But I have good memories even of this time.

       "For breakfast we were given only a slice of coarse rye bread. The wealthier boys had sugar and drank tea, while we--proletarians--would take our bread and a handful of salt and go out to a place where there grew a patch of bitter greens. We called it salad-cress. Eaten with these greens, the bread was very tasty. We compared ourselves to the chosen people who spent Pascha (Passover) in the wilderness with bitter herbs and unleavened bread."

       A good student, he went on to seminary and then to the Kiev Theological Academy. There, one of his professors made a lasting impression with his exhortation to the class of future priests: "Know your flock and go in front of it; lead it; don't be like hired servants who don't know their flock and barely keep up with it. Be genuine evangelical pastors and not Gadarene swineherds." But in his first year he ran into trouble.

       "We were weak students. Although as seminary graduates go we were the cream of the crop and each' of us started out with high ideals, many were later led astray by various pleasures and there hung over us a spirit of discontent." After participating in a student protest against mismanagement in the dining hall, Basil found himself among those dismissed at the end of the year with a "wolf's ticket," i.e., without the right to transfer to another academy. Denied a teaching position in a parochial school, he had to accept a job in a public school.

       "There was a God-forsaken village called Priadivka in the Yekaterinoslav district, fifty miles from the district capital. There I was sent on a salary of ten rubles a month. It wouldn't have been so bad had I not been preceded by a reputation as a revolutionary and a rebel. The local peasant who oversaw the school was supposed to keep an eye on me and report to the authorities. But I had interesting work teaching children--and I didn't suffer much grief from that quarter.

       "I made the schoolhouse habitable, I installed glass panes in the windows, gathered firewood and worked with the children from morning to evening. The locals were so pleased that they began feeding me pies and all sorts of goodies. At the examinations my school, which for several years hadn't had any graduates and was considered the worst, came out on top and, thanks to my labors, my successor began receiving a normal annual salary of 300 rubles."


      His correspondence during that year with some of his former classmates came to the attention of the rector of the Kazan Theological Academy, young Bishop Anthony Khrapovitsky (later to become the first chief hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad) who was sufficiently impressed to have his "wolfs ticket" cancelled and admit him directly into the second class.

       "Here I encountered a completely different atmosphere. The rector was very approachable and students often spent whole evenings with him, drinking tea and discussing theological questions, or simply everyday matters. The Academy had some outstanding professors...

      The students devoted a great deal of time to public lectures, readings and sermons--in factories, prisons, inns., and likewise to debates with Old Believers. The Academy provided us with a great deal in the way of knowledge and practical experience for our future work in the Church."

      While at the academy he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. As if in defiance of this condition, Bishop Anthony gave him the name Vitaly-"full of life"--when, in his fourth year, he tonsured him a monk. Soon afterwards he was ordained to the priesthood. Upon graduating he was assigned to teach at a seminary in the Caucasus, and after three years in the mountain air he was cured.

      Two incidents from this period reveal that self-sacrifice which was so characteristic of Vladika Vitaly throughout his long years of service to the Church. When, out of fear, local priests declined to respond to a call from a dying patient at a nearby leprosarium, Hieromonk Vitaly volunteered at once to take him the Holy Mysteries, and thereafter began to visit the lepers regularly. Again, when a seminarian accidentally knocked a hanging kerosene lamp and was set afire like a blazing torch, teachers and students stood nearby, paralyzed with horror, while Fr. Vitaly came running with a blanket and smothered the flames, burning himself in the process. He must have recalled this incident when, at his consecration as bishop years later, a painfully turbulent time for Russian Orthodox in America, he forcefully addressed his listeners: "What's to be done in a crisis situation? Refuse to help, knowing one's weaknesses and unpreparedness? No! When there's a fire you don't ask yourself: Do I know how to extinguish fires? When someone is drowning, you don't pause to reflect on your expertise as a swimmer. You plunge in to save the situation."

       And plunge in he did when, in 1902, his mentor, Bishop Anthony, summoned him to Pochaev to help with missionary work, placing him in charge of the print shop. The following year he was raised to the rank of archimandrite. Under his management the print shop was transformed into a major enterprise occupying an immense three-story building and engaging up to 150 monks. As Bishop Anthony later recalled, "He slept little, often right at the printing press, somewhere underneath the machines, and he turned his archimandrite's cell into a regular dormitory for the monks." Using the most modern equipment, the shop produced service books, books for schools, popular religious literature and five periodicals. In the years before the war, the shop's annual turnover exceeded 150,000 rubles.

      Work in the monastery printshop was well suited to his nature which preferred action to words. In his memoirs, Vladika Vitaly notes, "All my peculiarities can be explained by the fact that I was raised exclusively in a school and church environment, without experiencing the influence of family or society, and even fearing them." He forced himself to overcome his social reticence for the sake of his pastoral work: he organized church processions through local villages, gave sermons along the way, led discussions with pilgrims who came to the Lavra. He also helped organize the Volhynia Russian People's Union, a unique democratic institution of peasant cooperatives and banks, formed to peacefully resolve the question of land distribution; the union was so successful that the revolutionaries were unable to gain a foothold in that part of the country. Of all his ecclesiastical "awards,' a pectoral cross, a gift from the peasants, was Vladika Vitaly's most cherished decoration.

      A complete lack of self-interest enabled Vladika Vitaly to direct all his energies wherever he saw a need. During one church procession, for example, his attention was drawn to a place where, in the seventeenth century, a vastly outnumbered force of Cossacks were annihilated by the Poles. They were never given proper burial, and more than two hundred years later their bones still lay there, partially exposed, a shame to their descendents and all Russian Orthodox. Vladika Vitaly took immediate action' he built a large sepulchre and above it a stone church with an enormous altar extending into the open courtyard so as to accommodate the crowds which came for the memorial services in honor of these heroic defenders of Orthodoxy.

      1919. It was there at "Cossacks' Graves" that Vladika Vitaly, in the middle of serving Liturgy, was arrested by the Poles and charged with organizing a revolt. He was imprisoned in the bowels of a fortress at Demblin, in a damp hole in the wall whose single window was submerged beneath the waters of the Visla. In the presence of Catholic priests, who bore him a grudge for a critical brochure he had written years before, he was interrogated, beaten and threatened with execution. Preparing himself in case of death, Vladika Vitaly communed himself, using his own chest in place of an antimens, after the example of Hieromartyr Lucian. Finally, through the efforts of his faithful abba, now Metropolitan of Kiev and Galicia, Vladika Vitaly was released, first to Warsaw and then to Yugoslavia to join the Metropolitan at the headquarters of the Russian Church diaspora.

      During these unsettled years of war and revolution, Vladika Vitaly never abandoned his responsibility for the St. Job Press, which he had had to evacuate from Pochaev ahead of the German advance. Almost the entire stock of books had to be left behind, as well as two presses and part of the type. The rest of the equipment he managed to get by wagon and rail to Kiev, Odessa, Zdolbunov and Kazatin. During the Revolution nearly all of it was seized by Bolsheviks and Ukrainian nationalists It was in hopes of restoring the St. Job of Pochaev printing brotherhood and its missionary witness that he volunteered to fill a request for an Orthodox priest from the Carpatho-Russian village of Vladimirova, near Czechoslovakia's border with Poland. Many Carpatho-Russians had gone to America temporarily to work, and there these "Americhans ,as they were called on their return, rediscoverd the Orthodox faith of their fathers. Entire parishes began voluntarily leaving the Unia and returning to Orthodoxy. But they were rather timid in face of the area's still Catholic majority and greeted the zeal of their new priest with apprehension. On the way from the station he was asked to "bald himself", i.e., to shave, and to put on a black "reverend" coat for the sake of appearances. He refused on both counts.

      Archimandrite Vitaly's only "luggage" was a bundle containing a New Testament, eucharistic vessels and vestments. At first life was very difficult: he had no money, no church, no apartment. Nevertheless, his eleven years in Vladimirova left him with the happiest recollections of his life. He arrived on the eve of Annunciation.

      "That evening I served the vigil in an old inn bought by the Americhan.... The service, with congregational singing following Latin books, was animated. In the morning the old women rebelled: 'Why should we have services in the inn! Let's go into the old church; it's also ours.' They went. The service was already in progress. But this didn't stop the women. They carried the vested Uniate priest out of the altar. I did not, however, enter the church and served in the yard, under some willow trees. Later the women had to appear in the circuit court. Only then did the people understand that they couldn't use the old church; they had to build their own. They wrote to America asking for help. Meanwhile, services had to be held somewhere; the Orthodox priest had to be lodged somewhere. They asked a young couple, Ivan and Maria, who had bought another old inn, to give the adjoining cottage for services and for my residence. It was crowded, but there was nothing to be done. And so I began to fulfill my spiritual duties without any funds whatsoever. The women fed me by turns, as they did the village shepherd."

      Within six months he had acquired some printing equipment which had been evacuated to Prague from Omsk via Vladivostok and Trieste. It consisted of a press (an 'Amerikanka"), 450 pounds of loose Russian type, 900 pounds of poor paper and some 65 pounds of ink. Two young volunteers arrived from Yugoslavia and, in April 1924, the historic St. Job of Pochaev Press resumed operation.

      The press was located temporarily in a nearby town, but within two years it had its own building in Vladimirova. By that time a stone church had been built, and, as the brotherhood grew, a refectory and guest house were added. Archimandrite Vitaly himself took an active part in these undertakings, digging foundations, setting type, proofreading. Hearing of his labors, Pochaev Lavra sent a large icon of St. Job, in which was embedded a piece of his relics. "This blessing," wrote Vladika Vitaly, "was for me and for the printing brotherhood gathered there in Vladimirova a great joy and strengthening: in this way my alma mater, Pochaev Lavra, transferred to us the right and the blessing to continue in Vladimirova the great work of St. Jobs service to the Church and to the Russian people by means of the printed word." Every morning the brethren went to this icon for a blessing from their heavenly patron.

Within a short time Vladimirova became a treasury of service books for the entire Russian diaspora, and, in the Pochaev tradition, the brotherhood began publishing a newspaper, Orthodox Carpatho-Rus', still published today as Orthodox Rus' by the St. Job of Pochaev Press at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jotdanville, New York. The brotherhood also labored locally as pastors and missionaries, continuing the Pochaev tradition of church processions through the countryside, which spiritually inspired the area's inhabitants.

In 1933 Metropolitan Anthony asked Archimandrite Vitaly to fill the vacancy left by Archbishop Apollinary's death, as ruling hierarch of North America and Canada, a position which, in view of the sharp jurisdictional conflict with the followers of Metropolitan Platon, demanded strong leadership. Archimandrite Vitaly had already refused the episcopal rank six times, but this time, after Metropolitan Anthony threatened to refuse to be his spiritual father any longer, he agreed. Before his consecration he promised God to put all his strength into making peace within the Church. More than any other hierarch he burned with the desire to unite ecclesiastically the entire Russian diaspora. Although to his great sorrow he did not succeed, one of his staunchest opponents, the future Metropolitan Leonid of the American Metropolia, later paid tribute to Vladika Vitaly as "a man of God" whose name will live "from generation to generation, from age to age." 

     Despite his demanding new duties as hierarch, Vladika Vitaly's thoughts were never far from his monastic family. He arrived in America just as a foundation was being laid for Holy Trinity Monastery, and he was asked to bless the newly built wooden church. The very same day, this fruit of five years' labor went up in flames. Here at this baptism of fire, as it were, a bond was forged between Vladika Vitaly and the new brotherhood. Eleven years later it was joined by the St. Job brotherhood, evacuated from Czechoslovakia because of the war, and together they formed one family with Vladika Vitaly at the head. A seminary was established, a stone church was built, and everywhere Vladika Vitaly's energy and wholehearted dedication to the work of God stood as a most compelling example.

      Fr. Michael Pomazansky provided a wonderful verbal illustration of this father of monks:

      "Here is Vladika at Holy Trinity Monastery. There's the nocturnal ring of the small bell; Vladika is first to make his way through the snow to morning prayers in the church and the midnight service; after compline he is almost the last to leave. Here is Vladika in his cell: you pass by, the door is open, he is sitting at his table working; you can see how the  room is furnished: a table, chair, an icon corner, a small chest of drawers--almost empty, no doubt, a bed... That's everything. The mail arrives; he receives a gift of a book; it is sent off straightway with a note: "for the monastery library." Vladika makes the daily rounds, checking on the brothers at their obediences: he greets them with a kind word, gives them guidance, strengthens them in their labors. In the fall there's the potato harvest; basket in hand, Vladika goes out to the field with the brothers... Vladika usually leaves on weekends to serve in New York; he carries his heavy suitcase--filled with vegetables and other provisions which the brothers are sending to those working at the diocesan headquarters. In leaving he would often say, 'If need be, use my bed.'

      It is said that Vladika rarely laughed or even showed more than a shy half-smile, which is not to say that he lacked a sense of humor. Once, during a vigil service in his church in the Bronx, the choir was so miserable that he came out of the altar and asked, "What is this you're singing, goat's tone (kozi glas)?!"


      Vladika Vitaly died peacefully on March 8/21, 1960. He willed to be buried in St. Vladimir Memorial Church in Jackson, New Jersey, a project he had conceived as a unifying focal point for Russian Orthodox. Although this hope was never realized, he continues even in everlasting rest to call all to selfless dedication to the work of building up the Church, following his brilliant example.


Compiled with quotations from Motifs from My Life by Archbishop Vitaly, Jordanville, 1955; "Archpastor-Builder of Russian Church Unity" by Archbishop Anthony of Western America and San Francisco, in Pravoslavny Put, Jordanville, 1973; "Archbishop Vitaly, a True Disciple of St. Job" by Abbot Laurus, in The Orthodox Word, Platina, CA May-June, 1965.

Guidelines for Proper Conduct in Church

Orthodox Christians, brothers and sisters!

On our sinful earth the holy Church is the only place where we can get away from life's storms and inclemency, from the world's moral filth. The Church is an image of heaven on earth; within the temple the heavenly powers serve invisibly. Remember and know: the Holy Temple is the House of God, in which God Himself is invisibly present. For this reason, our behavior in the temple should correspond to its holiness and its greatness.


1. Enter the church with humility and meekness, so as to leave justified, as the humble publican of the Gospel.

2. When you enter the temple and see the holy icons, think about the fact that the Lord Himself and all the Saints are looking at you; be particularly reverent and have the fear of God.

3. Always come to the beginning of the service, If for some important reason you are late, be careful not to disturb the prayer of those already there. If you come to church during the reading of the Gospel, stand at the entrance doors until the end of the reading: when it is finished, quietly go to your place.

4. When you take your place in the church and others are standing nearby, greet them with a silent nod; never, even with close friends shake hands or ask any questions, Be sincerely modest in church

5, If you come to church with children, see that they behave themselves properly, meekly, that they not be noisy; teach them to understand and know how one should behave in church; accustom them to pray. If the children have to leave the church, tell them to cross themselves and to leave quietly or take them out yourself.

6. Pray in church as if you yourself are participating in the Divine services and not simply attending, that those prayers and hymns which are being read and chanted come from your heart; attentively follow the holy Service, in order to pray together with everyone and to pray for that which the whole Church is praying for.

7. While still at home, before going to church, prepare your money for candles, prosphora and the collection plates; avoid having to make change at the candle counter; this necessitates talking and disturbs the service and those praying.

8. Never, without extreme need, leave the church before the end of the service; this indicates disrespect for the holiness of the church and is a sin before God. If it happens that you do leave early, you should mention this to the priest in confession.

9. Approach Holy Communion humbly and reverently, crossing your hands on your chest; with faith and love receive the Holy Mysteries of God; then, without crossing yourself, kiss the chalice, so as not to bump It accidentally, and quietly return to your place, and do not leave the church without listening to the thanksgiving prayers to the Lord God, after communion.

Archbishop Vitaly