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St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco

On July 2nd (June 19th, old style) the Church commemorates St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco.

In the wondrous assembly of Gods saints, St. John occupies a unique place. To a certain extent he is our contemporary in the realm of earthly existence (1896-1966), presenting a shining example of how to acquire the Holy Spirit even in times of apostasy. He is a Russian saint, close to us in spirit, a descendant of another Russian saint - St. John of Tobolsk. He is also a universal saint, for through his hierarchal service in the Far East, in Europe and in America he covered the entire world with his bishops mantle and is venerated by many peoples.

Countless are also the gifts of holiness that were manifested in St. John: he was truly an angel in the form of man. With his patience and humility, his spiritual labors of fasting, vigilance and constant prayer, he was like unto the great desert fathers. He was a great wonderworker both in his lifetime and after his death.

St.  John  of  Shanghai  and  San  Francisco.
St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco.

He was like unto Saint Nicholas in his charity, his great love and care for children and orphans, and his fearless intercession for the plight of suffering people before the powers of this world. He was a builder of churches and orphanages, an educator of young people, suffered grief and persecution from brothers in faith, and was a mighty tower of Orthodoxy. The relics of St. John were found incorruptible and he was glorified on July 2, 1994.

Saint John of San Francisco in Shanghai

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

M.A. Shakhmatova witnessed the saints 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.

Saint John in Shanghai
Saint John in Shanghai

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 elses 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.

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