The Theological and Spiritual Foundations of the Return to the Icon.

The foundation of the Three Hierarchs Parish

       On January 3rd 1931, the Diocesan administration for Western Europe (Metropolitan Eulogius) received a decree from the Moscow Patriarchate, which stated that from that time forth, the Saint-Photius Brotherhood and all their activity directly depended on Moscow; the decree banning Metropolitan Eulogius and designating in his place Metropolitan Eleutherius as Exarch in Western Europe, was received on January 6th... The French parish and Father Lev Gillet stayed with Metropolitan Eulogius and the Saint-Photius Brotherhood temporarily gave up Western affairs. At that time, the Brotherhood had to work on the re-establishment of a canonical Patriarchal Church in Paris. During Great Lent in 1931, Metropolitan Eleutherius came to Paris several times and celebrated in a private apartment. Some time later, premises at 5, Rue Pétel were found and consecrated at Easter of the same year.

Pétel,  1930 years

       Very soon, the small group that had reacted in June 1930 was joined by many faithful, including other members of the Brotherhood, a bishop and some priests. The Bishop was Mgr. Benjamin Fedtchenkov who resigned his position as examiner at the Saint Sergius Institute, the priests, the hieromonks Athanasius Nechaev and Stephane Svetozarov, the fathers Stephane Stefanovsky, Basile Zakanjevitch, Dimitri Sobolev, the deacons Euthym, Seraphim Rodionov and Nicolas Chepelevski… Among the lay people were among others Mrs. Kallache, mentioned above, Vladimir Lossky, Michel Belsky, Vsevolod Palachkovsky, Vladimir Iljine, Kyril Shevich and the future Metropolitan Anthony, André Bloom…(49)

Mgr Benjamin (Fedtchenkov)       As the Metropolitan said : "We had no illusions whatsoever. We knew that the Patriarchate was captive and did not have the freedom to speak or do what it wanted, but under those limited and harsh conditions, beyond what we could know, it was true to it faith (50)». « ..." "That separation from the Patriarchal Church gave us the impression of a betrayal, of martyrs having been rejected. Mgr. Benjamin, Bishop of Sebastopol, formerly the assistant of Metropolitan Eulogius, who also had been the General Chaplain of the White Armies, when asked once by a journalist : « How can you, a White Russian, belong to a red Church? » replied: « First, the Church is not red! Then, even if my mother became a prostitute, I would not renounce her - and the Russian Church did not become a prostitute, she became a martyr » !

F. Athanasius (Nechaev)« As far as I am concerned, the metropolitan continued, the first impression was decisive. It was in 1931. This period reminds me of an old Romanian shepherd's words (51): « The times when we had wooden priests and golden chalices are gone. Now it is time for chalices to be made of wood for priests are made of gold! ». I had come to see this. I arrived too late, when the service had already ended. The Church was located in a dark basement lit only by the light of the oil lamps. I saw ahead of me a monk, whom I did not know, slowly going up the steps in a state of absolute serenity and concentration. I said to him: « : "I do not know who you are, but I want you to be my Spiritual Father! » It was Father Athanasius Nechaev. He was my Spiritual Father until his premature death in 1943. »

       « He was a Valaam monk; he came from a devout family. He had studied at the Seminary and left it with a disgust for theology; then he worked as a railroad worker. Brought back to faith by Baptists, he decided to become acquainted with the confession in which he had been baptised and to do so, he went to the Valaam Monastery. There he met an old man who had been a worker in the monastery for fifty years and had lost a leg at this work. He led a solitary life somewhere on the land of the Monastery and never made his profession. The young man asked him: « Why haven't you become a monk yet, you have been living here for so long? » The old man replied: « I have not learned to cry for the sufferings of the whole world yet! ». In his memoirs, Father Athanasius said: « At that moment, I understood! » What had actually prevented the old man from becoming a monk, was then for Father Athanasius the decisive reason for becoming one. When the Saint-Sergius Institute was founded in 1924 (52), the monastery sent him to study theology in Paris. At the time of the split, he joined the small group that remained faithful to the Patriarchal Church. He became the first rector of the parish (53)». « He was a remarkable man, characterised by absolute simplicity, continued the Metropolitan; he lived with nothing. One day I received a letter from a Russian lady whom he had known when he was still a young man. It was the beginning of the Bolshevik period; everyone was poor and starving. One day, Father Athanasius came to her with an even poorer person, saying: « Here I am bringing you a poor person to feed! ». The lady, who lived with her daughter, had barely enough for the two of them to survive. She was upset and said: « But we only have a little bread! » - Fine, he said, « then we can share it! (54)». Lydia Uspensky also recounts that Father Athanasius, who was then the rector of the Rue Pétel church, would give all that he possessed. He would do even more than that: he had often borrowed money and when he died, his creditors hoped to recuperate it. But not a single penny was a found at his place. He borrowed with the sole aim of giving, like Saint John the Merciful.

The old churchThe same spirit of Evangelical simplicity drove all the founders of the parish. Such personalities were essential to adapt to the situation: they were « incredibly poor ». Several monks lived on the small premises adjacent to the church, other than the part intended for the clergy, and at that time, the church was called « the Community of the Three Holy Hierarchs (55) » ... The emigrants were generally poor, yet that small group was even much more so. The church was then located in a basement, in what used to be a bicycle plant. « The iconostasis was made of white wood, recounts Metropolitan Anthony, the icons were made of paper. The community lived exclusively on what others would live to eat and a few pennies the parishioners, who were almost all short of money, would leave for them in the collection. A cardboard box where parishioners would leave food leftovers was put at the entrance to the church. One day, I found Bishop Benjamin lying on the floor in the church corridor, wrapped in his mantle. « "But, what are you doing here, Monsignor? », I asked him. The Bishop replied: « What do you think I am doing!… I have a homeless guy on my bed base, one on my mattress, and a third one on the carpet… There was no room for me, so I settled down here! »(56)

       The preparation of the church for its consecration was laborious. Everyone would bring what they could find or had at home. Someone even brought a photo of Chaliapin in the role of Boris Godunov. There were endless discussions to find out what could and what could not be brought into the church, whether the fact that someone had prayed before an image was enough to consider the image an icon. Father Athanasius, who lived near the church, would disappear and then come back when the argument was finished. It was absolutely necessary to find a real icon without which it would have been impossible to celebrate. A large icon of the Iverskaya Mother of God was found in an antique shop, that very icon whose presence is still a blessing to the parish today, but it cost a fortune. A parishioner, Nadezhda Sobolev (57), sold her emeralds, the icon was brought into the church and they were able to celebrate in due form for Holy Week and Easter (58). According to the theology of the Saint-Photius Brotherhood, the church had a double dedication, one to the Three Holy Hierarchs to express faithfulness to universal Orthodoxy and one to Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk to underline the fact that this faithfulness was realised in the realm of the Russian Church. There were two consecrated altars because of the two dedications and because this allowed the celebration of two liturgies on Sunday. The idea, though incorrect - because there can be only one Liturgy in one church (59), which was understood only later - was taken up again in the new building constructed in 1958 on the location of the old one.

       At that time, Rodionov, a musician of great talent who observed a very traditional style of music, directed the choir.

       When Leonid Alexandrovich Uspensky entered the church, perhaps at the end of 1931, and heard that singing, he received the decisive impression that converted him to Orthodoxy, and it was Father Athanasius who received him into the Church. « Once, it happened by chance, recounts Uspensky, - I really did not care, I was an absolute non-believer, - one night, I went into the church, just like that. There was a very good choir at Rue Pétel (it was long before the war), and the choir was singing old melodies; in a corner right in front of me, there was a XIX century icon, but it was a traditional one. So, I hear the singing, I look at the icon, and I was completely stupefied. I see absolutely the same structure, the same expressions, the same movement, the same lines (60); it really hit me, it was terrifying (61)».

49) Michel Zimine joined them only in 1947, when he moved from Marseilles to Paris.

50) Unpublished interview, December 1999.

51) Father Cléopas.

52) The church and the present ground were acquired in 1925.

53) Interview of May 2000.

54) Interview of December 1999.

55) Podvorie, literally meaning "monastic hostelry", equivalent to the greek metochion, "monastery dependency".

56) Interview of December 1999

57) Among the parishioners of Rue Pétel, this lady later became one of starets Silouane's correspondents, like Mgr. Seraphim Rodionov, nun Theodosia and Archimandrite Serge Schevich; she later became a nun in Russia. Saint Silouan's letters to her were published by J.C.Larchet, Saint Silouane de l'Athos, Cerf, Paris, 2001, p.387-401.

58) This icon, which was found « by chance » in an antiquary's shop by a certain A.N. Pavlov, appears to be the copy painted in 1758 from the famous Moscow icon, which is itself a copy of the Iverskaya icon of Mount Athos, which adorned the Chapel of the Virgin of the Iberians near the Kremlin. It seems that the icon had been stolen by a French soldier during Napoleon's occupation. By a true miracle of the Mother of God, this icon chose to stay in the patriarchal Church, which was yet so poor: it was Mgr. Benjamin who managed to negotiate the purchase of the icon at an acceptable price and collect the needed sum. It is told that to the opposite, the parishioners of Metropolitan Eulogius, who were yet much richer, did not manage to find the money despite numerous collections.

59) This question did not receive an unanimous reply.

60) The emphasis is ours.

61) The interview with Chantal Savinkov, part of which was published in le Messager orthodoxe, on the icon, n° 92, 1983, p. 50-55; our text is page 51.

BackBack Next Page