Archbishop John, in the world Janis Andreyevich Pommer, was born on January 6, 1876 in Latvia, in Venden (Tsesis) uyezd, Praulenskaya volost, Lazdonsky parish, into a Latvian Orthodox peasant family. He had no Russian blood. The peasants of that region had begun to show an interest in Orthodoxy in the middle of the nineteenth century, thanks to the preaching of the faith in their native language; and Janis' great-grandfather had been one of the first to accept Orthodoxy in the region, for which he was subjected to persecution by the local German landowners. When he died he was buried outside the bounds of the local Lutheran cemetery (there were no Orthodox cemeteries at that time) as the leader of the "rebels". The native peasants raised a mound over the place of his burial and put an eight-pointed star on top of it, but both the mound and the cross were removed by the Lutheran authorities.
During his childhood the future archbishop helped his parents in the fields, and his first "obedience" was to look after the sheep. He was taught to read and write by his father, and was so outstanding in his studies that he skipped primary school and went straight into the state upper school. From his first year of study he so distinguished himself that the teachers fervently recommended that his parents send him either to the gymnasium or to a seminary school. On the advice of a local priest, the latter course was adopted. Having passed the entrance examination, the future bishop joined the seminary school in 1887. In 1891 he went to the Riga theological seminary. Owing to his success in his studies and his exemplary behaviour he was granted a scholarship, so that his parents did not have to pay anything for his education. He unfailingly spent his summer holidays at home, helping his parents in their work.
In 1897 he finished his seminary education brilliantly, but owing to the disturbances taking place in the educational system at that time he was not able to continue his higher education immediately. So for the next three years he worked as a teacher among the Latvian people, and in 1898 and 1899 was given awards for his labours. In 1899 he was a reader in the city of Libav in Lithuania.
In 1899 (according to another source, 1900), having passed the entrance examinations brilliantly, he became a student at the Kiev Theological Academy, where he was popular both for his academic achievements and for his prowess at sport. However, he never tried to use his physical abilities for his own ends, but only in order to support the weak.
Those who knew well were not surprised when, in 1903, he was tonsured as a monk in the Archangel Michael monastery in Kiev on the advice of St. John of Kronstadt. Even before his tonsure his friends had called him "monk" because of his great sobriety and abstinence. He was ordained to the diaconate in the same year.
In 1904 he was ordained to the priesthood and graduated from the Kiev Acadmey with such brilliance that he was given a choice between a career as a scholar and practical work as a teacher. He chose the latter, working as a teacher of Holy Scripture in the Chernigov theological seminary. Here he had such success in motivating and interesting his students in the subject that several of them later devoted their whole lives to the study of Holy Scripture (for example, Uspensky and Bessarabov).
In 1906 he was transferred to the post of inspector of the Vologda theological seminary. Here he continued to teach Holy Scripture, and among his pupils was the noted scriptural expert and Hebraist Prakhov. But he was also given administrative work in the seminary, and his success in rapidly introducing order into the large and ill-disciplined Vologda seminary was such that in the next academic year, in spite of his young age, he was entrusted with the post of rector of the Lithuanian theological seminary and superior of the Vilnius Holy Trinity monastery with the rank of archimandrite.
Already in his previous posts in Chernigov and Vologda, the future bishop had been given responsible assignments in diocesan government. And the same took place in Vilnius. He was made president of the educational council administering the people's schools throughout the extensive north-western region, and he was elected president of almost all the church-educational and charitable institutions of the region. He also administered local societies fighting alcoholism and helping the neediest acquire work.
First Episcopal Service
On March 11, 1912 (according to another source, in 1911) he was consecrated Bishop of Slutsk, a vicariate of the Minks diocese in the Trinity cathedral of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra by Metropolitan Vladimir of Moscow, the future hieromartyr. Later that year he moved to Minsk, and on the way there he participated in the canonization of St. Joasaph of Belgorod. When Archbishop Michael of Minsk died, the clergy and laity unanimously petitioned that Bishop John be made diocesan bishop in his stead. However, the petition was refused on the grounds that the diocese was considered one of the oldest in Russia, while Bishop John was at that time the youngest bishop in Russia.
Instead, Bishop John was sent to Odessa as a vicar of Archbishop Demetrius of Odessa, who had been rector of the Kiev Academy when John was studying there. On the death of Archbishop Demetrius in 1913, Bishop John was sent to establish good order in the newly opened diocese of Priazovsk. His place of residence was Taganrog. According to one source, he was made Bishop of Taganrog on April 4, 1913, and was then, on October 5, 1916, was renamed Bishop of Priazovsk and Taganrog, a vicariate of the Ekaterinoslav diocese. The best evidence of the good relationship between the archpastor and his flock here was the fact that Priazovsk was the only see in Russia whose upkeep - the salaries of the bishop and clergy - the local Christians took upon themselves. Bishop John took part not only in all the spiritual institutions of the diocese, but also in all its educational and charitable institutions. Here, too, his labours were crowned with success. In the four years of his rule there (from April 4/17, 1913 to September 7/20, 1917) he visited every corner of his diocese, paying attention not only to his flock's spiritual needs but also to their social and economic needs, which became especially pressing because of the war. There were cases when the bishop was chosen as mediator in conflicts between employers and workers, and his decisions were always accepted without a murmur by both sides. In gratitude the workers elected him to honorary posts in their organizations and looked on him as the best defender of their interests, resorting to his mediation before both the local and the central authorities.
A wave of refugees from the war came right up to "the quiet Don". Thousands of refugees from Galicia and what is now Czechoslovakia settled on the Don, and these people found in Bishop John one who cared for their needs. Under his immediate supervision schools and shelters for the refugees were established. Hundreds of grateful Galicians and Czechoslovaks gratefully converted to Orthodoxy, including many intelligentsy.
When the revolution broke out in February, 1917, the revolutionaries wasted no time in attempting to dispose of Bishop John. They stirred up complaints against him, and Bishop John demanded a trial. When Metropolitan Plato came to investigate the complaints, he found in favour of Bishop John. However, open and secret revolutionary agents followed the bishop everywhere, led by Commissar Pelikh. But they could find nothing to accuse him of.
Then volunteers from among the workers and soldiers organized watches to guard the bishop day and night. On his way to and from services he was accompanied by vast crowds of people ready to defend their pastor by force. This created a delicate situation for the authorities, from which they devised the following escape: Bishop John's transfer to the Tver diocese. However, this device also failed; for after a farewell service in the cathedral the people surrounded him in such a way as to prevent his departure or removal. All the authorities could do was to beseech the bishop, for the sake of preserving their own authority, to depart for a time to Moscow. They guaranteed him a safe and honourable return to his flock. Then Bishop John persuaded his guard to let him go to Moscow to sort the matter out in the centre.
He departed, but the conflict between the local authorities and the people did not end there. Representatives from the clergy, laity, soldiers and Cossacks went with Bishop John to Moscow so as to protest against the behaviour of the local revolutionary authorities, and in Priazovsk it was decided to make a protest in the form of daily gatherings in the churches to pray for the successful return of the bishop to Taganrog. Meanwhile, the delegation in Moscow obtained a favourable response from both the spiritual and the secular authorities.
However, this favourable response coincided with the October revolution, and Bishop John's return to Taganrog became impractical. On September 7/20, 1917 he was made Bishop of Staritsa, a vicariate of the Tver diocese. Then, on April 22, 1918 he was appointed Bishop of Perm and Saransk with authority also in the Vitebsk diocese, that is, in an area conquered by the Reds. His former flock was in an area occupied by the Whites, who expelled the Priazovsk revolutionary committee.
Persecution in Penza
Bishop John officially entered upon his duties in Penza on April 9/22, 1918, and the believing masses received him with exceptional love, surrounding him with signs of the most touching attention. While the local authorities, stirred up by the rebel apostate "Archbishop" Vladimir (Putyata-Grinstein), were extremely hostile to the newly arrived archpastor, the people showed their love for him by organizing guards to defend him from his enemies. Immediately after his arrival, the local cheka searched and interrogated him. But no reasons for repressing him were found.
Irritated by his popularity with the people, the authorities decided to mark Pascha, 1918 by killing him. One evening the former officer Rudakov and the worker Dubovkin appeared at his residence in the Transfiguration monastery armed to the teeth, and began to demand that they be allowed to see him. The guard composed of believers sounded the alarm, and at the sound of the alarm the chekist Dubovnik took to his heels. But Rudakov broke down the door of the archbishop's cell and fired several times. Fortunately, he missed, and was disarmed by the archbishop himself. Then the people ran up, making it clear that they wanted to lynch the chekist. He was saved only by the vigorous intervention of the archbishop. At this point - wonder to behold! - Rudakov fell on the neck of the archbishop, crying "Christ is risen!" He then claimed that his attempt on the life of the archbishop had been instigated by the authorities. The authorities denied this, but Rudakov had proof of the truth of his words in the form of a mandate signed by them. Rudakov was arrested and put on trial, but the trial did not take place because Rudakov, overcome by his experiences, fell ill and died in prison.
This incident served to unite the flock of Penza diocese still more tightly round their archpastor, and the authorities, taking note, abstained from open demonstrations against the archbishop for the time being, which gave him the opportunity to organize the believers in parishes and other church organizations. The liberal intelligentsia, which had previously been indifferent to the Church, began to return to the Church. Among them was the lawyer V.A. Bezsonov, who became the archbishop's subdeacon and as his legal adviser was of great service to him. The workers, led by Z.Z. Pozdnyakov and A.S. Baikov, who had been among the best known fighters against alcoholism in Petrograd, attached themselves to the archbishop. As for the clergy, they gave an excellent example everywhere, and church life began to revive and get stronger throughout the diocese. Church feasts and meetings began to be carried out with exceptional exaltation of spirit.
In May, 1918, a regiment of Czechoslovaks who were on their way from the Don to Siberia passed through Penza. During a battle with the Bolsheviks, the latter's artillery suddenly for no reason began to fire on the Transfiguration monastery where the archbishop was living. Several shells fell on buildings adjoining the bishop's cell. The Bolsheviks tried to explain this incident by reference to a misunderstanding, but the people interpreted it as an attempt on the life of the archbishop, and registered a strong protest with the authorities.
On September 7, 1918, the Cheka carried out an extensive search in the cell and offices of the archbishop. They found nothing incriminating, but after the search they took him for a confrontation with one of the prisoners who had been condemned to death. This meant that the archbishop could not arrive on time for the All-Night Vigil for the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God; and when the people arriving for the service learned that the archbishop had been taken away "to the house of no return", and, moreover, on the day when executions were carried out, they decided that he had been shot together with the others condemned to death. An expedition was quickly organized, which confirmed the theory about his execution. Thus when Archbishop John arrived very late for the service, he found, not an All-Night Vigil in progress, but a pannikhida for "the newly departed Archbishop John".
On September 14, 1918, the archbishop was serving in the Peter and Paul church in Penza in the presence of a huge crowd of people. During the service "Archbishop" Vladimir Putyata arrived and tried to enter the church together with his supporters. The people forcibly prevented him doing this, and there were disturbances around the church. As a result of this, the archbishop was put in prison for a whole month. His innocence was obvious to everyone, even to the Cheka, but evidently it had been decided to conduct an experiment to see how the people would react to the removal of the archbishop. They reacted by besieging the Cheka headquarters with delegations of believers demanding the archbishop's release. The local German consul noted that among those under arrest was a native of the Baltic region, which was then under German occupation, and demanded an explanation from the Cheka. All these circumstances compelled the cheka to stop their case against Archbishop John and free him.
On October 14 at midnight the chekists began to summon the prisoners one by one into the hall where the tribunal was sitting in order to listen to and sign the tribunal's sentence. It was a Saturday, the day on which executions were usually carried out, and those who were called out on the list went away and did not return. This meant that after the explanation of the sentence they had been handed over to the executioners for the carrying out of the sentence. On the long list of the doomed, Archbishop John's name was the last. Evidently they were forcing him to go through everything that the prisoners about to be executed went through. At about one o'clock in the morning Archbishop John was told that he was free.
On leaving the Cheka headquarters, Archbishop John learned that all the diocesan organs of administration had been dissolved by the authorities. This meant that he had to take the whole administration of the huge diocese upon himself. Only on February 19, 1919 did he succeed in securing the restoration of the diocesan council and the other organs of diocesan administration.
On July 28, 1919, Archbishop John was summoned to the military commissariat and subjected to a medical examination, after which he was pronounced fit for military service. He was appointed to a regiment in the rear. However, a collective appeal by the parishes of the diocese delayed his enlistment for two months. At the end of this period the parishes had to repeat their appeal, a procedure which had to be repeated regularly.
It was characteristic that while the archbishop was registered on all military documents as "John, Archbishop of Penza and Saransk", when he was given a mandate to visit the parishes of his diocese, he was called "citizen John Andreyevich Pommer".
Towards the end of 1919, the Whites began to approach the borders of the Penza district from the south. At this point the authorities began to get very nervous, which was reflected in the first place in blows directed against the Church. Prominent church workers were arrested and kept in the Cheka prison. At the invitation of the parishes, the archbishop set out on a long journey round the diocese. Everywhere a heightened religious mood was observed. The people flowed in huge masses to the archbishop's services with striking fervour. Meanwhile, the authorities were quiet.
But when the archbishop returned to Penza on November 11, he found the way into his cell barred by the chekists, who subjected him to a body search and then searched his cell which had been searched so many times already. Although the search, as before, produced no results, the archbishop was arrested and taken to the Cheka headquarters. There it turned out that a certain mythical counter-revolutionary organization had been uncovered, tens of members of which had already been shot (including Vladyka's subdeacon and legal adviser, V.A. Bezsonov). Evidently, the same fate now awaited the archbishop.
The archbishop categorically protested against both the accusation and the sentence, and demanded that his case be reviewed in Moscow - which it was, by the famous Latsis, the president of the secret operations department of the Cheka. Latsis immediately broadened the scope of the accusation to include everything that might be hurled at the archbishop in the course of his whole life. The gathering of this material took three months, the whole of which period the archbishop spent in the Cheka prison. On February 11, 1920, Archbishop John gave explanations concerning the whole of this material to the terrible Latsis himself. The accusation that he belonged to a counter-revolutionary organization was not supported, for the Cheka could provide no proofs. The material gathered from the places where the archbishop had previously served were so trivial that even the conscience of the chekist was forced to renounce their use as evidence against him. Even the press, which was not noted for its squeamishness in the use of material that could be used against the clergy recognized its inferiority and did not begin to use it. (Later, these accusations were seized on and published by the Social-Democrats in Latvia.)
On March 11, 1920, the cheka pronounced the archbishop innocent on all counts and gave him a certificate allowing him to carry out his archpastoral service without hindrance.
Thus the future martyr's service in Penza immediately after the October revolution turned out to be one of the most trying periods of his life. Some years later, on the tenth anniversary of his episcopate in Riga, his former parishioners in Penza recorded the following reminiscences of his life and and work in Penza: "Your stay in Penza coincided with the moment when the furious attacks of the forces inimical to the Church were turned into open warfare against her servants and representatives which threatened violence in all its forms and from all sides. In opposition to this you displayed the greatest strength of spirit and power of will. These powerful foundations of your strong character enabled you to survive and overcome all those extraordinarily burdensome conditions of life which fell to your lot in recent years. Following every step of your thorny path in life, we can only marvel at your spiritual firmness and the unusual restraint with which you encountered the trials and sufferings sent you by destiny. We clearly and vividly remember all the physical and moral torments which you endured in Penza in the years of savagery and, at the same time, the spiritual solidarity and unity of the people of Penza which served as a support for you in your terrible struggle legality and righteousness and which placed you at an unattainable spiritual height before the face of the whole population. Those who attended services in the Penza Pokrov church between 1918 and 1920 know what spiritual authority and loved from all was enjoyed by our adored Archbishop John. They also will not forget you, your Eminence, who took part in the cross procession at the Penza cemetery of the holy myrrh-bearing women, which symbolized that way of the cross which the physically exhausted, spiritually suffering and morally tormented people had to tread. At that holy and heavy hour all eyes and hopes were trained directed on the man who in the name of the Lord called the people to obedient patience and expectation of the resurrection of a Russia cleansed from the sins of the past, for which she had to pay so dearly and cruelly.
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