The Most Visited Christian Pilgrimage Site in America - The Relics of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco

A conversation with Archpriest Peter Perekrestov


On October 12, the Church celebrates the uncovering of the relics of St. John (Maximovich), Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, miracle worker. One of the participants in this sacrament, which took place 27 years ago, on October 12, 1993, was Archpriest Peter Perekrestov, the dean of the Cathedral in honor of the icon of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow” in San Francisco, the author of many publications about St. John.

We talked with Fr. Peter about the history of the parish and church in San Francisco, about the life of Orthodox America, and about the miracles at St. John's relics.

The relics of St. John (Maximovich)

Source: (Russian)

The Church of Vladyka John

- Father Peter, please tell us about the church where you serve and how it is related to St. John of Shanghai.

- Our parish in San Francisco was created in 1927 on the foundation of the very first Orthodox parish in North America - Holy Trinity, which has existed since 1858. A group of parishioners of this first parish in 1927 wished to remain faithful children of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and founded a parish in honor of the icon of the Mother of God "Joy of All Who Sorrow". 

- And what alternative did these parishioners have?

- They could remain in the so-called North American Metropolis (the future Orthodox Church of America), which claimed independence: Metropolitan Platon (Rozhdestvensky), who headed it, decided to withdraw from the hierarchy of the Russian Church Abroad. At the same time, in Europe, Metropolitan Evlogii did the same, breaking off relations with the ROCOR.

Initially, the new community rented various premises for the temple, but then, in the 1940s, they bought an Anglican cathedral in honor of Archdeacon Stephen. The cathedral is interesting in that it is built of Californian mahogany, and it was sent to England to be processed there.

- Why are churches sold in the West?

- They are sold because they are building a new church, or because the church is in disrepair or becomes too small for the needs of the community. In general, in the West, newly formed Orthodox communities often at first buy church premises from Catholics and Protestants. Sometimes secular people also buy these temples for sale; preserving the external facade, they can make apartments, concert halls, museum premises and even restaurants or discos inside. Moreover, such buildings are sold quite cheaply, at least, for example, in Montreal, where I come from.

- And how did the Far Eastern flock of Vladyka John end up in San Francisco?

- In the 1950s, there was a large influx of Russian emigrants to the United States from the Far East - from Harbin and Shanghai. At that time China became communist, and many left it. Archbishop John (Maximovich) seemed to be the Moses who led his people “out of slavery” to freedom. His flock first spent two years in the Philippine Islands, and Vladyka constantly traveled to Washington, prayed, met with representatives of the authorities, and fussed about status for his flock. After two years of waiting, the American authorities gave these immigrants from China refugee status - they were also passportless: the emigrants in China had neither Soviet nor Chinese passports. After receiving refugee status, most of these people ended up in San Francisco.

Soon the parishioners decided to build a new church in the Russian style, our current one. This is how a “new” cathedral, as we call it, arose - in honor of the icon of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow”.

- There were difficulties with the construction of the church ...

- Its construction began somewhere in the late 1959 - early 1960s. It is known, however, that the devil cannot bear it when a new Throne of God is erected, where another Divine Liturgy will be constantly celebrated, and the Russian people in our parish succumbed to temptations and divided, the construction of the cathedral was suspended. There was a court case. The church had been unfinished for more than a year, and then the Synod of Bishops decided to send Vladyka John, at that time the Archbishop of Western Europe, to San Francisco, so that he reconciled his flock and completed the construction of the magnificent cathedral, because the church was built by his Far Eastern flock, and it was entrusted to St. John.

Vladyka John arrived in San Francisco at the end of 1962. He, as the chairman of the parish council of the new cathedral, also sat in the dock - thank God, the court acquitted the parish council, giving the go-ahead for the continuation of the construction.

The church was externally completed in 1965, and on the week of Orthodoxy - March 14, 1966 - Vladyka John celebrated the first Liturgy in the new cathedral. And since then the Liturgy has been served with us every day. We are the only parish church in North America, including all Orthodox jurisdictions, where a daily service circle is performed: Vespers, Matins and Liturgy.

The relics of St. John (Maximovich). Photo: Archpriest Peter Perekrestov

- Now the relics of St. John are also buried in this church. Please remind us how the relics of the holy bishop were obtained.

- When Vladyka John died, he was buried in a tomb under the church. It is a miracle that the city council gave permission for burial within the city. Saint John lay in the tomb for 28 years. Many people, knowing his life and the power of his prayer, came to his tomb; a movement of broad church masses began, asking for the canonization of Vladyka John. At a meeting of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad in 1993, it was decided to glorify him. In connection with the preparation of canonization on the night of October 11-12, 1993 - exactly 25 years ago - an examination of the remains of the saint was appointed, the coffin was opened, and the remains were found incorrupt. Subsequently, the relics were washed and re-veiled, already for canonization in 1994, and they were transferred from the tomb to the church itself on the eve of the service of the glorification of Vladyka John.

- Many come to the relics of St. John. Who are these people?

- In general, the Cathedral in San Francisco with the relics of Vladyka John is the most visited place in America for Orthodox pilgrims. When people have despair, childlessness, sorrow, when they cannot start a family, when they are haunted by severe suffering or cancer, when there is little hope - then people from all over the world come to the relics of the greatest saint of the 20th century - to St. John in San Francisco.

At the Church in San Francisco. Photo: Archpriest Peter Perekrestov

- Has your parish changed in any way over the years?

- We now have a small parish, although at one time it was the biggest in the Russian Diaspora: San Francisco once had the most compact Russian colony, although there were more Russians in New York. Compact means that people lived close to each other. In fact, 90% of the parishioners lived within a 15-20 minute walk or drive from the church. And here, for example, classes in the Russian gymnasium at the cathedral were held five times a week!

- At Sunday school?

- No, we usually don't have Sunday schools, we have Saturday schools. In Paris, for example, there were Thursday schools, and in North America there were Saturday schools. However, in San Francisco then children, in addition to Saturday, still went after the usual American school to classes with us - from 4 to 6 pm twice a week: the elders on Mondays and Wednesdays, the younger on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Since everyone lived relatively close, the school director, Archimandrite Afanasy (Stukov), even bought a school bus and personally took the children from home, fed them with his own money, and took them home after school. At the same time, he himself was driving this yellow school bus!

Now, elderly people from China, their descendants, and people who have left the CIS countries in the last 20-30 years, as well as many Orthodox Americans, Serbs and Romanians, come to our services. But many of the former parishioners have left: San Francisco is today one of the most expensive cities in America. And we also have significantly fewer regular parishioners, but there are many guests and pilgrims, including from afar. There is a particularly large flow of pilgrims during the summer months.

Gifts of the saint

The relics of Vladyka John. Photo: Archpriest Peter Perekrestov

- Please tell us about the miracles associated with the relics of Vladyka John.

- Miracles at the relics of St. John happen very often. A miracle at the relics of the bishop is the norm for us, and not something out of the ordinary. So, a few years ago a woman came to the temple. Not to Vladyka John, but simply to talk with the priest, and she found me there. We got to talking with her. It turned out that she was expecting a baby, but the doctors said: the baby will be born with Down syndrome. The woman's husband demanded that she have an abortion. The woman was not very churchly, I spoke to her, impressed by the film released by the St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk about working with such children. In the film, one nun very touchingly said that when God talks to us, everything that He says is first filtered by our brain, and that which is beneficial and convenient for us, then goes further into our heart. And in the case of people with Down syndrome, the Lord speaks directly to their hearts, bypassing this human filter that distorts what God says. I had a talk with this woman, offered to serve a moleben to Saint John, we prayed and said goodbye. I was hoping that she would call me and tell me about her decision. But there was complete silence.

About a year and a half passed, and this woman came to the cathedral (but I did not recognize her), with her a little fair girl. The woman looked at me with a smile and asked if I remembered her. I said, "No, I don't remember." She said, “I came to you, my husband wanted me to have an abortion: the doctors said that the child had Down syndrome. Here is my daughter, she is completely healthy. " Such joy! Well, isn't it a miracle, and what a wonder!

It is a special joy when babies are born to childless ones. I remember once a couple came up to me in church and asked for a prayer service. I usually ask all new people where they are from, and the couple replied that they were from Kazan. I say: "Are you vacationing in America or are you here on business?" - "No, we came to Vladyka John." - "For a long time?" - "For two days". - "Did you fly from distant Kazan to San Francisco for only two days?" - “Yes, we were childless, we prayed to St. John and made a vow that if a child is born, we will thank Vladyka.” And so, they continued, a year has passed since the baby was born - and the mother was already over 40 years old. And they fulfilled their vow: they flew in to personally thank Vladyka John.

Usually visitors think that a miracle is if the Lord God, through the prayers of Vladyka John, answers our requests exactly as we wish. We want a child - we got a child, we want to get well - we got well, and so on. But in fact, the Lord answers all the prayers of people, but not necessarily the way we want it. One of the greatest gifts that people receive from the relics of Vladyka John is spiritual charge and hope. Maybe they will not recover, they will die of cancer, but they will leave this world in a different, transformed, spiritual state, in a state that will allow them to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I remember that at the relics of St. John, a woman told me that she had lost her only child, and added: "You know, father, I lost my son, but I found God." After the loss of her son, she began to go to church, confess and receive communion, the hitherto unknown world of the Church and the Kingdom of Heaven was revealed to her. Of course, the loss of her only son is a great pain and sorrow, but she received the greatest gift - the opportunity to gain faith and hope.

"I have never seen a person talking to God like THAT!"

Archpriest Peter Perekrestov. Photo: Peter Zemlyanykh

- Father Peter, tell us a little about yourself and your family.

- My father was born in Yugoslavia, where he studied in the cadet corps. And my mother is from the USSR. Her family lived in the occupied territory, and at the age of 13, the Germans took her to Austria with her mother and aunt to work in German factories. On my dad's side, my grandfather is a white officer, and on my mother's side, a Red Army soldier who has gone missing.

After the end of World War II, my mother and grandmother left for Canada. And when Tito had a falling out with Stalin, he, thinking at the same time to solve the housing problem and get rid of the Russians, drove them out of Yugoslavia. Whichever of the Russians were pro-Soviet went back to the USSR, and those who are white immigrants, Tito let go to Europe. So my father first ended up in Italy, and then moved to Canada, where he met my mother. They got married, and my brother and I were born in Montreal, he was in 1954, and I was in 1956. My brother, Abbot Nicholas, is currently serving in Calgary, Canada, but is likely to move to Montreal soon to help elderly parents.

- What prompted you to serve the Church?

- We grew up like typical children of Russian emigrants: we studied at a Saturday Russian school, served in church on Sundays. Then I visited the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville for the first time, I really loved this place, and I was eager to connect my future destiny with this monastery and the seminary. I did not make a conscious decision to become a priest, but after living in a monastery for four years and studying at a seminary, I matured in the understanding that I was obliged to serve the Church. I also studied for a master's degree in Russian language and literature.

After seminary, I got married and served as a deacon in the city of Toronto while also working as a draftsman. Many of our priests have a civilian profession. In 1979, the priest of the San Francisco cathedral passed away, and this place was offered to me. So I became a priest in 1980, and my wife and I moved to California.

- Was there anything that particularly influenced your decision to move to San Francisco?

- Our bishops do not transfer clergymen from place to place just like that. They, as a rule, offer a parish, they say that there is such and such a vacancy, such and such a need, they ask how your wife will look at it and how it will affect your children if they go to school. That is, our bishops have a family approach to the appointment to the parish. In the Russian Diaspora, they look more at the Church as the family of Christ than as an army. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is small, the bishops are available, you can always call, come and talk, the bishop usually knows his flock, and the flock knows their bishop.

In San Francisco, I served under the direction of Archbishop Anthony (Medvedev), so he had no car, no cell attendant, no cook, no personal secretary. I could calmly come to him even at two in the morning, if his light was on, and he himself, a young priest, poured tea and always listened.

So first my wife and I arrived in San Francisco to look, because it was a big move for us. We saw the city's churches, we already had friends in San Francisco, and we talked with them. And on the last evening of our trip, we stopped by the ruling Archbishop Anthony. We went up to his apartment, he sat us down and went, in a light cassock, to get Easter cake and eggs: it was Easter time. My wife: "Vladyka, can I help you?" He: "No, no, sit, now, now." He fussed a little so, he set the table, put plates for us, and then there was a prayer. Vladyka asked us about something, we asked him questions about the parish and about the conditions there.

The evening ended, we got a blessing, and when, leaving his chambers, we went down the stairs, I turned to my wife and asked: "Lena, what do you think about the move?" “With such a bishop, you can serve anywhere. I have never seen a person talk to God like THAT, ”she replied. That is, Vladyka Anthony (Medvedev) not so much sang a prayer and did not read it, but in fact talked with the Living God. This matushka was very impressed!

Three months passed, Vladyka Laurus ordained me at the Holy Trinity Monastery, and in August 1980 we moved to San Francisco. Since then, the Lord, St. John, the cathedral brothers and parishioners have endured me here - for the 39th year already!

Our children studied at home. Now our daughter is a matushka, the wife of a priest in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, and our son works at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville. He is a seminary librarian and executive director of the Russian History Foundation at the Holy Trinity Monastery. The monastery has an archive and a museum. Our son loves his job very much.

The second half of this interview can be found here:


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