The pandemic caused by the malignant virus limited the travels not only of people, but also of the holy icons. Nevertheless, these wonderworking images, given relaxations in travel restrictions and even the slightest opportunity, departed their homebase churches and went off to comfort the faithful, to this end even crossing oceans. The guardians of these holy icons discuss where they went and how, and the particular circumstances they faced:
The "Protectress of the Russian Diaspora" – the wonderworking Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God and her guardian, Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan, vicar of the Eastern American Diocese:
– 2020 was a difficult year. After the feast of Holy Pascha, the Kursk Root Icon, with the blessing of the Synod of Bishops, was to travel to San Francisco and remain in the Western American Diocese until the feast of Holy Pentecost, and later in the German Diocese until Transfiguration. A trip to Russia was planned in October, to Kursk and Belgorod, and that winter the holy icon was to visit Europe. All of these travels had to be cancelled. Throughout this time, the holy image remained in the churches of the Synodal Headquarters in New York City – the Cathedral of the Sign and the lower St. Sergius Church.
In April, Metropolitan Hilarion blessed an aerial procession. We found a faithful parishioner who could help us with this. We schedule the procession to take place on Lazarus Saturday. We discussed the details with Archpriest Serafim Gan and the pile. But on Lazarus Saturday, there were strong winds and they predicted rainy weather. We would have to leave for Long Island at 6 o’clock in the morning. The weather did not change, and we decided to make peace with these setbacks and postpone our flight.
Passion Week and the Pascha of the Lord passed. We did not forget our intention to bless New York City and its environs. We decided to fly on the Midfeast of Pentecost. Early in the morning on the day of the feast, we prayed before the Kursk Root Icon in St. Seraphim Memorial Church in Sea Cliff, NY. Having prayed, we went after Liturgy with parish rector Fr. Serafim and Protodeacon Eugene Kallaur to the airplane, where the pilot was waiting for us.
We had a plan to fly around the Five Boroughs and the adjacent counties of New York and New Jersey, and call down the blessing of the Mother of God on our land and her inhabitants. During the flight, we read the akathist to the Kursk Root Icon and blessed all four directions with the icon. The Mother of God blessed our land through this aerial procession.
We did not plan any major travels with the icon in 2021. For the feasts of Christ’s Nativity, Theophany, the days of Great Lent, and Holy Pascha, the icon remained at the Synod of Bishops. A series of restrictions on church attendance was lifted and parishioners came to venerate the icon. After Pascha, the holy image visited Holy Dormition Convent "Novo-Diveevo" in Nanuet, NY, and at the end of May, at the invitation of the rector of St. Nicholas Cathedral in Seattle, Archpriest Alexei Kotar, I traveled there with the icon for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman. This was my first time flying on an airplane in a year and a half. I remember the silence in the airport, the people were wearing masks on the plane, and we were constantly being given disinfectant wipes. But the most important thing was that the icon had once more begun to travel!
This visit was a special consolation for the parishioners, because a year prior, there had been large protest demonstrations near their memorial church. Now our people, our parishioners, asked for the intercessions and the protection of the Mother of God.
In August, the icon flew overseas for the first time in near two years, when we and the clergy visited Puerto Rico for the first time. There, the Russian Church Abroad had a mission in honor of Venerable John Climacus, served by Archpriest Gregorio Justiniano. We blessed the cross and land where they will be building an Orthodox church. The local clergy and parishioners greeted the Kursk Icon with much spiritual joy.
Holy Epiphany Church in Boston had the opportunity to receive the Kursk Icon on the Transfiguration of the Lord, August 19. On the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, I accompanied the wonderworking image on a visit for the patronal feast of Holy Assumption Church in Stafford, VA. The following day, August 29, we served in St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Washington, where the Kursk Root Icon met with the Hawaiian Iveron Icon. That day, cathedral rector Archpriest Victor Potapov and his Matushka Maria celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
In September, the Kursk Icon was present for the celebrations in Howell, NJ, dedicated to the 800th anniversary of the birth of the Holy Right-Believing Great Prince Alexander Nevsky, and then returned to the Synodal Cathedral.
In 2022, with the blessing of the Synod of Bishops, the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God will visit the Diocese of Great Britain & Western Europe (during Great Lent), the Diocese of German (after the feast of Holy Pascha), and the Canadian Diocese (in August).
The myrrh-streaming Icon of the Mother of God "Softener of Evil Hearts" and her guardian, Sergei Fomin – the man who has traveled with the icon to countries and continents for the past 20 years:
– When the restrictions began, there was a feeling of uncertainty: where and when could we travel, how would the travel itself and the visits to the parishes be organized? And, honestly, at first such strict limitations by the government were not taken very seriously, and we did not think that they would last for so long. All of the measures being taken were considered excessive.
There was a time when the icon stayed home, at the church in Bachurino. We held divine services as usual, twice a week, and the church did not even close on Pascha in 2020, when many churches in Moscow were closed.
Little by little, we got our bearings and began to travel. At first, we visited some churches in the region around Moscow, where, in light of the restrictions, only clergy and a select few parishioners gathered. Once, we were returning from one of the churches with the icon when we received a call and were told that there was a cross procession entering onto MKAD (the Moscow Ring Road – trans.), and were asked to join. We were not able to join that time, but we traveled around MKAD with the icon ourselves another time. We later informed our rector, Fr. Dimitry Kuvyrtalov, and he suggested circling Moscow on MKAD every Tuesday after a moleben in the church. Usually about 20 cars would gather at the church in Bachurino, and parishioners would take other icons. Each car had its own holy icons before which the passengers would pray. This was March 2020, Great Lent. Very many still were not permitted to travel, and MKAD was not congested. We drove 67 miles in a single day.
We celebrated Pascha in St. Michael the Archangel Church in Letovo at night, and then Liturgy was in Bachurino the next morning.
When the lockdowns and most of the restrictions were lifted in the countryside, we began to travel: we went to Kurgan and Magnitogorsk, flew to Sevastopol, Simferopol, and Sochi.
We did not travel abroad for two and a half years. Our first time leaving the country since the pandemic began was in August 2021 to Mount Athos.
We got a visa and did a PCR test. On the border, the Greeks were testing at random. I was chosen in the random test group, and then in Ouranoupoli, upon boarding the ferry, we had to pass another test, this time for everyone. Thus in two days we took three tests.
On the way to Athos, I was stunned to see how few people there were on the ferry, when it is usually hard to even find a place to sit. There were virtually no seagulls; the entire way to Zograf Bulgarian Monastery, the seagulls only appeared once, flying over the ferry, and then we did not see them again. Usually, the seagulls fly by and are thrown bread, they catch it on the fly, but now they did not even seem interested in the bread.
Another thing out of the ordinary was the huge number of jellyfish. You would look at the sea and there were hundreds, thousands of them, the whole sea appeared to be stuffed with brown jellyfish. I had never seen them there at all before.
All of the precautionary measures ended in Ouranoupoli, virtually everyone was walking around without masks in the monasteries, but the Great Lavra, Vatopedi, and other Greek monasteries were closed to pilgrims.
It was fairly unrestricted in the monasteries themselves, and you could occupy a stasidion and pray comfortably. There were orders of magnitude fewer pilgrims. The monks of St. Panteleimon Monastery and in Zograf, where we visited, received the icon with great joy.
In the summer of 2021, we traveled twice to Kaluga Oblast, to the churches where Schema-Archimandrite Eli (Nozdrin) serves.
In the autumn of 2021, we went on pilgrimage to the West Coast of the United States. In California, we visited San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and other, smaller parishes. Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral in San Francisco had been closed for almost a year, and when the icon came, many people turned out – everyone had missed church, and all who were able came to pray.
In Phoenix, AZ, we visited Antiochian and Romanian churches, as well as All Russian Saints Church in Las Vegas, NV.
One Greek received the icon at home, where many Greek and Russian Orthodox gathered, who usually attend St. Anthony Greek Monastery (we cannot currently go there).
After the U.S, we first visited Romania with the icon. It was present for Liturgy in the diocesan cathedral in Constanța. When the icon was in San Francisco, one man from Romania found out about the icon by miraculous means, found more information online, then found our address and organized the icon’s visit to Romania.
There were very strict measures in place in Romania at the time, and people were in masks even outdoors. Thus, the icon was in attendance at the divine services only once in the diocesan cathedral of Constanța and in two monasteries, although molebens were organized in private homes, and we prayed once in an iconographic workshop. People found out about the icon and traveled from 125-250 miles away.
There we also met many families of the descendants of the post-revolutionary émigrés from the Russian Empire. Some of their forebears were clergy. They have preserved many old items, including books in Church Slavonic.
In December, the icon visited the East Coast of the United States, beginning its travels in the churches of Florida (1, 2), and then visiting the churches of New York (1, 2), Brooklyn, New Jersey (1, 2), and Connecticut.
Unfortunately, we still have not been able to visit many churches of various jurisdictions that have invited us and that await us, but we hope that we will have time on our next trip. During Great Lent, we would like to renew our 10-year-old tradition of visiting the U.S. with the icon, where for the past five years we have regularly spent Passion Week and Pascha in Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville.
The myrrh-streaming "Hawaiian" Iveron Montreal Icon of the Mother of God and her guardian, Deacon Nectarios Yangson, who lives on Oahu:
– It is a great blessing and honor to once again travel with the icon to the churches and monasteries. The holy icon was on the island [of Oahu] for about a year and a half; we had not left in that time. But the Mother of God was not idle; in that time, we built a church! Just north of Honolulu, in a town called Kailua. It was an old Baptist church that we remodeled and converted; we bought it with no money, no resources. We did not know what bank would help us! We found an Orthodox bank that helped us. They had never done a loan like this, but they felt that they needed to help the Mother of God.
So we built a church, but now of course we needed to fill it! There was a wonderful gentleman who told us that he had bought a wonderful iconostasis from the old Russian cathedral in Miami which is now the OCA cathedral, and had sold their iconostasis to this man about 30-40 years ago. He had it in his small chapel in Reno, NV for many years, and asked us if we wanted it. We said of course, and he shipped it to us. We asked him how wide it was, and he could not tell us, as it was disassembled. Even pressed for an estimate, he said it was maybe 30, 40, 50 feet. But we needed to build the ambo and solea and needed to know the width to make it fit.
Ultimately, I told my father, who is a contractor and was doing a lot of the construction work for the church and has sacrificed a lot of his own resources for the Church. He told me, "You know, the Mother of God has helped us throughout this whole process. We will just build it." So they built the ambo and solea. And then the iconostasis arrived by container. The ambo and solea are 36 feet, six inches exactly, and the iconostasis is 36 feet, five inches. We just assembled it and put it into place and was near perfect. Our pastor emeritus, Archpriest Anatoly Levin, said, "Do you realize that this was built for us 100 years ago? They built this iconostasis for our church. This is the divine providence of God's love." This is how God multitasks, allowing these things to be with certain people throughout history and finally ending up with us. And who knows if its final place is with us, or if we will eventually outgrow it?
So this is what we did for a year, and people from all over the world donated to help the parish there, thank God. The parish is now doing very well and growing.
A few weeks ago, I got the call from the Mother of God that it was time to move and to move on, to leave the island and go out into the world. Since that time, we brought the icon to California. The first church we went to was the cathedral in San Francisco. There were thousands of people there, and when we brought the icon in, she was streaming so much myrrh that it was dripping onto the floor. We placed her on the analogion and the covers were soaking wet. It felt like Pascha; they could smell the fragrance in the air throughout the church and people were yelling "Christ is Risen" to one another. It was a powerful experien.
From there, we brought the icon throughout California, and from there to Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New York and New Jersey and down to Florida and Georgia. I was in Florida for several days, and then across three states in as many days. It was interesting, I did not know exactly where we were going to go. I knew that I was going to California and then to Washington, DC, but I did not know after that. I thought, "I am going to Florida or to Ohio?". I was in the small mission parish of Archpriest Nectarios Trevino, who came into ROCOR from the Carpatho-Russian Church. At the epiclesis during Divine Liturgy in his church, I was asking the Mother of God where our path would lead next. I knew we had to move onward. Right away, all within the hour, I got a series of texts: "Can you come here to Tampa? Can you come here to Naples? Can you come here to Hollywood, to Ft. Lauderdale, to Miami, etc.?". It presented itself like this perfect path, and the schedule was done in 20 minutes. From there, on to Atlanta, and then up to Jordanville, NY.
It was funny, because even Bishop Nicholas and I were talking in Washington, and he said, "You have no idea where you are going, do you?". And I said, "I have no clue, the Mother of God has not told me yet." He replied, "Yes, she does that. Every now and then, she will surprise you, and you just have to wait."
Everywhere we went, there were many people seeking the help and guidance and love of the Mother of God. Everyone needs her, we need her in the world, and she came at the most opportune moment, I think. Since that time, I have found out that Hawaii is on lockdown for government workers, which I still am. I do not know what the future will hold when I reach the island; I may be stuck there again for another year! But at least for now, the holy icon is here with the people where she belongs.
O Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
Interviews by Subdeacon Gregory Levitsky & Tatiana Veselkina