4 Hierarchs,30 clergy and nearly 800 Orthodox people gather to pray
- March 12, 2004
Heading Home, After 55 Years in U.S.
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
he sad-eyed woman and the man-faced child have many tales to tell: fleeing the perils of World War II, astonishing fishermen by hovering over a lake, helping repulse armies, curing the sick.
Now, after a 55-year stay in the United States - a fleck in its two-millennium story - comes the latest chapter for the miraculous icon of the Mother of God of Tikhvin. It is returning in July to its centuries-old home in Russia, a monastery in Tikhvin, near St. Petersburg. The icon arrived yesterday in New York City for three days of veneration and services.
Beyond its long history, church officials and scholars see the icon as a potent symbol of Russian national feeling and the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church after communism's fall.
Just as much, it is the story of how three generations of one family tended a revered religious symbol that was spirited away from the Soviet regime, and then kept a promise to give it back.
"Many people told us that by now the icon is ours and you could do with it what you want, but we felt differently," said Alexandra Garklavs, the wife of the Orthodox priest in Chicago who has custody of the icon. "We thought if we could do something for our former fatherland, which suffered so much, let them have it. And may it help them."
Mrs. Garklavs's husband, the Rev. Sergei Garklavs, drove the icon to New York, where it was received yesterday at the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection in the East Village. The cathedral belongs to the now-multiethnic Orthodox Church in America, which was granted independence by the Russian church in 1970.
Pilgrims and priests trickled into the church, prostrating themselves on a carpet before the icon and kissing the protective glass cover over the wooden case holding it. They prayed and lighted candles. A man carried a severely handicapped child up to the icon, which is painted on wood, measures 34 inches by 43 inches and weighs about 85 pounds in its case.
One woman, Nelly Kartvelishvili, 52, came from Hoboken, N.J. She hugged Father Sergei. "Thank you, thank you, a million times, thank you," she said, weeping.
A native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Ms. Kartvelishvili said the icon was always a symbol of hope during Communist persecution. "We had very hard times - he kept this icon," she said of Father Sergei.
A prayer service was held last night to honor the icon. Today, it will travel uptown to St. Nicholas Cathedral on East 97th Street, the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States. The Russian patriarchate oversees its own 32 parishes in the United States.
The Garklavs family spoke with ambivalence about parting with the icon, which depicts the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus and is protected by a jewel-encrusted covering made of gold-plated silver.
The Rev. Alexander Garklavs, Father Sergei's son, said his father once compared the icon's departure to a child growing up.
"There's a certain nostalgia, maybe a weeping of joy that your little babies are going off to college," Father Alexander said. "But at the same time there's a great deal of pride that they are coming of age."
Father Sergei, 76, himself seemed reluctant to talk about his feelings at giving up the icon, which he has tended for 60 years. Having it was a joy but a great responsibility, he said, and giving it up is like losing a family member. "At the same time, it is a great honor," he said.
The icon ended up in the Garklavs family during World War II, when the Germans took it from the monastery in Tikhvin to Riga, Latvia, where the bishop was John Garklavs. Bishop John ended up in a displaced persons camp in Germany at the war's end and cared for the icon there, displaying it for the faithful. A young man named Sergei - who was adopted by the bishop and became Father Sergei - helped lug it around starting at age 16.
In 1949, the bishop immigrated to the United States, becoming bishop of Chicago in 1956, and kept the icon with him, always intending to return it to Russia once communism fell. Bishop John died in 1982 and stipulated in his will that his son, Father Sergei, send it back when the time was right.
That time appeared on the horizon several years ago, Father Alexander said. The Soviet Union had fallen, the Russian Orthodox Church had returned to prominence and the monastery at Tikhvin had been sufficiently restored, he said.
"It seemed clear to us the time was right,'' he said, "that the people were ready for its return and it would be well taken care of."
The son acknowledged that his father had faced criticism for the delay from museum and church authorities, who wanted the icon back sooner, and from church members in the United States who objected to Father Sergei's close control of the icon.
The intense interest was not surprising. "It's on the short list of famous icons," said Nadieszda Kizenko, an associate professor of Russian history at the State University of New York at Albany. "They're not just pious things. These are icons that are connected with wars and victories."
She said that according to church history, the icon left Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, for Russia shortly before the empire's fall.
"So the Tikhvin icon is intimately connected with the notion of Russia's election and being a chosen haven for Mary," Professor Kizenko wrote in an e-mail.
The icon's return ends 10 years of negotiations, said the Rev. Hieromonk Joseph, secretary to the administrator of the patriarchal parishes. "In a sense, it could be viewed as the restoration of the former beauty and the state of the Russian church," he said.
The Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States will share the icon while it is in New York, but left out of the equation is yet another branch, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which during the Soviet years considered itself the true representative of Russian Orthodoxy.
Because of friction with the other bodies, the Russian Church Abroad, as it is informally known, will not have a chance to host the icon.
"It's a sad fact that there is this kind of rift," Father Alexander said. "It goes back many years and it's a complicated thing."
The dean of the Russian Church Abroad cathedral on East 93rd street, Archpriest Andrei Sommer, said he would venerate the icon at St. Nicholas, along with believers from all branches. But he said he was disappointed at not being allowed to take part in the liturgy because of the division. "My whole heart wishes and desires to participate," he said.
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