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Saint John of San Francisco in Shanghai

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  • Basil Yakimov
    Saint John of San Francisco in Shanghai (From the memoirs of Maria Aleksandrovna Shakhmatova, matron of St. Tikhon’s Orphanage in Shanghai.) M.A. Shakhmatova
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 30, 2006
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      Saint John of San Francisco in Shanghai

      (From the memoirs of Maria Aleksandrovna Shakhmatova, matron of
      St. Tikhon’s Orphanage in Shanghai.)

      M.A. Shakhmatova witnessed the saint’s ascetic exploit in Shanghai almost
      from the very moment of his arrival there in 1934, on the feast of the
      Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. She saw Archbishop John crucify
      himself in both founding and managing the orphanage. Living conditions were
      terrible, and the needs of the children, whose parents had escaped
      Communism, were overwhelming. The young Bishop, almost from the start,
      gathered concerned ladies from his parish, asked them to found a committee,
      rented a house, and opened up a hostel for orphans or children whose
      parents were in need. The children would often be underfed, abused, and
      frightened, until Archbishop John would come and personally take them into
      his orphanage and school. Each child – and there were over three thousand
      who went through the orphanage – had a traumatic story.

      There was, for example, a boy named Paul who had witnessed his father and
      mother being killed and chopped into pieces by the Communists right in
      front of his eyes. Because of the trauma the boy had become mute and could
      not even pronounce his own name. He was like a trapped animal, afraid of
      everyone, and trusted only his fists and spitting. He was brought into the
      orphanage at a time when it was packed and had no place for him. Due to the
      fact that Paul was so frightened, the ladies there thought that he was
      abnormal and refused to accept him lest he scare the other children.

      When Archbishop John found out about him, he insisted on immediately
      dropping everything and going to meet the boy personally. They did not even
      know that he was a Russian boy and spoke Russian, for he only mumbled and
      hissed like a caged animal. When Archbishop John arrived, he sat down
      before the boy, who was still trembling, and said to him the following: “I
      know that you have lost your father, but now you have found another one –
      me,” and he hugged him. This was said with such power that the boy burst
      out in tears and his speech returned to him.

      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 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. Shakmatova saved the child. That night the Bishop
      returned to the orphanage with two more babies under his arms. This
      fearlessness, however, had not been acquired without a deep inner struggle.

      Even then he was already known as a miracle-worker, because he prayed for
      whomever would ask him, and often his prayer would be answered immediately.
      The Bishop never slept at night, but only dozed off sometimes, sitting in a
      chair. Once Mrs. Shakhmatova, in the middle of the night, chanced for some
      reason to climb up into the belfry. The door to it led from the top floor
      of the vicarage. It was cold and windy. As she opened the door, she saw
      that Blessed John was in deep, concentrated prayer, freezing, shivering in
      the open air, wind sweeping through his robe, and that he was blessing the
      houses of his parishioners from above. She thought, “While the world is
      asleep, he keeps watch like Habakkuk of old, guarding his flock with his
      fervent intercession before God, so that no harm can steal his sheep away.”
      Deeply shaken, she withdrew. Thus she had a clue as to what he was doing
      during the long winter nights when all the people take their normal rest in
      their comfortable beds. “Why was it needed?” asked Mrs. Shakhmatova. “Who
      asked him to do it? Why such self-sacrifice, when his presence was needed
      everywhere?” And she answered her own question: “He had an unquenchable
      love for God. He loved God as a Person, as his Father, as his closest
      Friend. He longed to talk with Him, and God heard him. It was not some
      conscious self-sacrifice. He just loved God and did not want to be
      separated from Him.”

      “Once during the war,” she continued, “the poverty of the orphanage reached
      such immense proportions that there was literally nothing with which to
      feed the children, and there must have been at least ninety of them at that
      time. Our staff was indignant because Archbishop John kept bringing in new
      children, some of whom had parents, and we were having to feed someone
      else’s children. Such were his ways. One evening when he came to us – worn
      out, tired, cold and silent – I could not resist telling him off. I said
      that we women could not tolerate this any longer, that we could not bear to
      see hungry little mouths and not be able to put anything into them. I could
      not control myself and raised my voice in indignation. I not only
      complained, I was full of wrath at him for putting us through this. He
      looked sadly at me and said, ‘What do you really need?’ I said, right off
      the bat, ‘Everything, but at least some oatmeal. I have nothing to feed the
      children with in the morning.”

      Saint John of San Francisco Archbishop John looked at her sadly and went
      upstairs. Then she heard him making prostrations, so vigorously and loudly
      that even the neighbors complained. Pangs of conscience bothered her, and
      that night she couldn’t sleep. She dozed off in the morning, only to be
      awakened by the doorbell. When she opened the door, there stood a gentleman
      of English extraction who said that he represented some cereal company, and
      that he had a surplus of oatmeal; and he wanted to know whether they could
      use it since he heard that there were children here. They began to bring in
      bags and bags of oatmeal. While this was going on, with the commotion of
      banging doors, Blessed John began to descend the staircase. Hardly could
      Mrs. Shakhmatova utter a word to him when she saw his glance. He did not
      say anything, but with his eyes, with one single glance, he reproached her
      for her unbelief. She said she could have fallen on her knees and kissed
      his feet, but he was already gone to continue his prayer to God, now of

      Reprinted from “The Orthodox Word"
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