St. John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco
This man, who appears weak is, in fact, a miracle of ascetic steadfastness and determination in our time of universal spiritual weakening.
Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev (+1936)
If you desire to see a living Saint, go to Bitol to Father John.
St. Nikolai (Velimirovich) of Zica (+1956)
The future St. John was born June 4, 1896 in the southern Russian village (present day Ukraine) of Adamovka in the Kharkiv province to God-loving aristocrats Boris (+1954) and Glafira (+1952) Maximovitch. He was baptized with the name Michael, receiving the Holy Archangel Michael as his Heavenly patron. The Maximovitch family includes in its family tree the illumined teacher and writer, St. John (Maximovitch) of Tobolsk (+1715), for whom the future St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco had a fervent devotion. In his youth, Michael was sickly and had a poor appetite, but he was zealous for the spiritual life, especially for the Divine Services. He was educated at the Poltava Military School (1907-14), the Kharkiv Imperial University, from which he received a law degree (in 1918), and the University of Belgrade, where he completed his theological education in 1925.
He and his family fled their country for Serbia during the Bolshevik Revolution. There, he enrolled in the Department of Theology of the University of Belgrade. In 1926, he was both tonsured a monk and ordained a hierodeacon by Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev (later the first primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia) in the Milikov Monastery. Metropolitan Anthony tonsured him with the name John after St. John of Tobolsk. Later in 1926, Bishop Gabriel of Chelyabinsk (+1933) (his bio is the first one here) ordained him hieromonk on November 21, 1926 on the Feast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple. After his ordination to the priesthood, he began a particularly active life of ministry wherein he both taught at a Serbian high school and, at the request of local Greeks and Macedonians, served the Divine Services in Greek. It was at this time that he met St. Nikolai (Velimirovich) of Zica (+1956) and St. Justin Popović (+1979), both of whom had a great love for St. John. As his humility and closeness to God became increasingly apparent, the bishops of the Russian Church Aboard resolved to consecrate this man of prayer a bishop.
Hieromonk John was consecrated bishop on the Feast of the Day of the Holy Spirit, May 28, 1934, in Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in Belgrade with Metropolitan Anthony serving as principal consecrator. He was then assigned to the Diocese of Shanghai. Upon arriving in Shanghai, Bishop John began working to restore unity among the Orthodox Christians of different ethnicities and jurisdictions. In time, he worked to build a large cathedral dedicated to the Surety of Sinners Icon to the Mother of God, with a bell tower and large parish house.
Surety of Sinners Cathedral, Shanghai
An inheritor of the noble heritage of Christian civilization, St. John inspired the building of churches, hospitals, and orphanages among both Orthodox Christians and others with hearts sensitive to beauty and mercy. In his heart, he set for himself no limit to the the self-sacrificial love celebrated by those who follow Christ.
In the slums of Shanghai, there were cases in which dogs would devour baby girls who had been thrown into garbage cans. When the newspapers announced this, Archbishop John told Mrs. Shakhmatova [the headmistress of the St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Orphanage that he founded] to go and buy two bottles of Chinese vodka–at which she cringed in horror. But her horror increased when he demanded that she accompany him into these very slums, where it was common knowledge that grown-up people would be murdered. Fearless as ever, the young Bishop insisted on going there, walking through dark alleys in the worst neighborhood. She recalled what horror seized her heart when they, in the darkness of night, walked and encountered only drunkards, shady characters, and growling dogs and cats. She held the bottles in her hands, following him with trepidation, when suddenly a growl was heard from a drunken man sitting in a dark doorway and the faint moan of a baby was heard from a nearby garbage can. When the Bishop hastened towards the cry, the drunkard growled in warning. Then the Bishop turned to Mrs. Shakhmatova and said, “Hand me a bottle.” Raising the bottle in one hand and pointing to the garbage can with the other, Blessed John, without words, conveyed the message of the proposed sale. The bottle ended up in the hands of the drunkard, and Mrs. Shakhmatova saved the child. They say that that night he returned to the orphanage with two babies under his arms. This fearlessness, however, had not been aired without a deep inner struggle. (From “The Price of Sanctity: Memories of Archbishop John Maximovitch”)
He was intensely active, constantly praying and serving the daily cycle of services, while also visiting the sick with the Holy Gifts. In order to avoid praise, he would act the fool, exhibiting some qualities of foolishness for Christ.
In 1946, St. John was elevated to be Archbishop of Shanghai by Metropolitan Anastasy (Gribanovsky) (+1965) and the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad.
With the end of World War II and the rise of Communism in China, Archbishop John led his community of 5000 to safety. In 1949, he traveled with them from Shanghai to a refugee camp on the island of Tubabao in the Philippines. During this time, he travelled to Washington, D.C. in order to successfully lobby for the amendment of a law that would permit the refugees to enter the United States. It was while on this trip that Archbishop John established a church in Washington dedicated to St. John the Forerunner.
During the typhoon season, when fierce typhoons would overwhelm Tubabao, one of the Russian refugees shared his fear of typhoons with a Filipino. The Filipino assured the Russian that there was no reason to worry because of the prayers of St. John: “your holy man blesses your camp from four directions every night.” Sure enough, while St. John was in Tubabao, no typhoon struck the camp. However, after St. John oversaw the relocation of the refugees to the United States and Australia and left for his next position, a typhoon destroyed the camp.
In 1951, Archbishop John was assigned to the Archdiocese of Western Europe with his cathedra first in Paris and later in Brussels. E. G. Chertkova describes what she observed about St. John’s prayer life while he was in France:
On several occasions I visited Vladika when he lived in the Cadet Corps building near Paris. He had a small cell on the top floor. In the cell were a table, an armchair and several chairs and in the corner – icons and a lectern with books. There was no bed in the cell since Vladika did not lie down to sleep, but prayed by leaning on a tall stick with a cross-bar on top. Sometimes he prayed on his knees; most likely when he prostrated himself he would then fall asleep for a little while in that position on the floor. That is how he exhausted himself! Sometimes during our conversation it seemed to me that he dozed. But when I stopped, he would immediately say: “Continue, I hear you.” (from Archbishop John the Wonderworker)
Once when St. John was in Marseilles, he resolved to serve a panikhida on the site of the assassination of King Alexander of Serbia. Taking a broom, he arrived at the site in the middle of the street, swept with the broom a small portion of the pavement, opened his suitcase, unfurled an orlets (small oval rug on which a bishop stands), and removed a censor and epitrachelion, which he donned. None of the clergy accompanying him joined him out of embarrassment so St. John prayed alone. The people of Marseilles were amazed to see a clergyman in unusual dress, with long hair and beard swinging a censer and praying in the middle of the street. Soon the police stepped in and began redirecting traffic around him, enabling him to continue to the end of the prayers.
During his time in France, he also served as archpastor of the Orthodox Church of France, whose restored Gallican liturgy he studied and then celebrated. He was the principal consecrator of the Orthodox Church of France’s first modern bishop, Jean-Nectaire (Kovalevsky) of Saint-Denis (+1970). Wherever St. John travelled, he was deeply interested in researching and venerating that region’s local pre-Schism saints. One of his spiritual children recalls:
His love for saints was amazing. Often I would ask him questions, and he would give us little pieces of paper with troparia and kontakia to various obscure and forgotten saints. In the right cliros of the Cathedral, there was attached to the iconostasis a special wooden stand which served as an analogion for Archbishop John; and there he would place rare canons to forgotten saints not found in the monthly menaion. During Matins and Compline, it was a customary picture to see Archbishop John leaning on that analogion and enthusiastically reading the main canons to these saints, of which he was very fond. He spoke to us of how important it is to evoke the love of saints, who are alive in heaven and who hear us on earth. At other times, this analogion served as a confessional. I myself confessed several times to Archbishop John on that analogion. He had the habit of confessing people in a very simple, ordinary way, always emphasizing the necessity of humility, duty, honor and devotion to one’s state or post. When he heard confessions, he did not make it a big thing. He was a promoter of frequent Communion, but with confession before Communion. Therefore, he called confession a “dusting off” – that is, dusting off the layers of ungodly impressions which settle upon the soul automatically if the soul does not resist and preserve its freshness. After each confession from Archbishop John, which as I said was nothing extraordinary, I felt very enlightened, although I must confess I always feared him because I knew he was clairvoyant. (From “The Price of Sanctity”)
In 1962, Archbishop John was assigned to the Diocese of San Francisco, succeeding his long time friend Archbishop Tikhon (+1963). Archbishop John’s days in San Francisco were to prove sorrowful as he attempted to heal the great disunity in the community.
St. John visiting a church in Monterey, California, 1959.
While in San Francisco, St. John blessed the formation of the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood as a missionary brotherhood and personally instructed two of its co-founders, including the future Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (+1982). Fr. Seraphim’s relationship to St. John was not unlike that of St. Justin (Popović) to St. Nikolai (Velimirovich) four decades earlier.
Deeply revering St. John of Kronstadt (+1908), Archbishop John played an active role in the preparations for his glorification, which occurred in 1964. During the same May 27, 1964 Council of Bishops wherein St. John of Kronstadt was glorified, Metropolitan Anastasy retired as first hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad (ROCOR). Many wanted St. John to replace him as first hierarch and, in the meeting, there were repeated votes for Metropolitan Anastasy’s successor that resulted in a tie between St. John and Archbishop Nikon (Rklitskii) of Washington and Florida (+1976). St. John brought peace and paved a path to the future when he resolved to remove himself from candidacy and suggested that, for the sake of peace, Archbishop Nikon do the same and “let it fall to Benjamin,” meaning the “youngest” (by year of consecration) of the bishops: Bishop Philaret (Voznesensky) (+1985), who had only been a bishop for one year. This is precisely what happened. Metropolitan Philaret, whose relics are incorrupt like those of St. John, would go on to serve the Russian Church Abroad as its first hierarch for twenty-one years.
St. John brought a measure of peace to the community of Russian faithful in San Francisco, perhaps best represented by the completion of the new Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral in 1965, whose construction had stalled before St. John’s arrival. Nevertheless, St. John was slandered with unsupported accusations of concealing financial dishonesty. Later exonerated in court, such persecution allowed him to further exhibit Christ-like patience and peacefulness in the face of betrayal, such as exhibited by so many of the saints, including the contemporary of St. John, St. Nectarios of Aegina (+1920).
St. John served the Divine Liturgy every day and would only break his fast after midnight, eating a single meal from a single bowl, always with prayer rope in hand and praying the Jesus Prayer. From the day of his tonsure as a monk, he only slept sitting up. As a result, he had swelling of the feet and it was painful for him to wear shoes so he would wear sandals or go barefoot.
St. John prayed without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17) and was known to be seen in uncreated light while praying in the Altar. The natural world responded to his grace-filled being, resulting in a gentle and inexpressible rapport with animals, including a San Francisco pigeon that he befriended and which loved him.
Reading the Gospel in Tunis, Tunisia, 1952.
He reposed while praying before the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God in an apartment behind St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Seattle on July 2, 1966 while taking the icon to the faithful of the Pacific Northwest. In this respect, his repose was not unlike that of his beloved St. John of Tobolsk, who also died while in prayer. He was laid to rest in a crypt chapel under the main altar of Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral on Geary Blvd. in San Francisco, whose construction he oversaw.
In 1993, when St. John’s tomb was opened, his relics were found to be incorrupt. The relics were transferred from the burial-vault beneath the church into the Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral during his glorification on July 2, 1994.
Relics of St. John in Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral.
His relics are the only intact relics open for veneration in North America. Numerous pilgrims come from all over the world to ask for his prayers. On Saturday nights before Vigil in the Cathedral, a molieben is always chanted before St. John’s relics. Blessed olive oil from the continually burning lampadas hanging over the relics is sent around the world to those who ask for St. John’s prayers. Many healings have been wrought through the prayerful application of this oil. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated daily in the Cathedral and there is access during all services to the holy relics, which rest in a shrine along the south side of the Cathedral’s nave.
Additional Resources on St. John
The Life of St. John
- A more complete life of St. John is here.
- Recollections of St. John by Bishop Peter of Cleveland, one of his spiritual sons, are here.
- Memories of St. John by Monk Herman, another of his spiritual sons, are here in an abbreviated article with the full article in six parts available starting here.
- More photographs of St. John are here and here.
The Writings of St. John
- Selected homilies of St. John are here.
- Selections of Episcopal Decrees and Instructions from St. John are here.
- A reflection on “Sternness and Sanctity” in the life and writings of St. John is here.
Video on the Life of St. John
Watch the Life of Saint John Maximovich DVD in six parts: