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What Can You Do?
 

12.04.06

 
 

A RESPONSE FROM ZOYA PIERSON

I feel compelled to respond to Ms. Jacobs' letter. (Read that letter here). Jacobs correctly points out that silence does not "open the gateway for dispute".  I would note, however, that silence is also the hallmark of both dictatorship and personal abuse.


First, I must identify myself as Lydia Black's youngest daughter.


Ms. Jacobs questions the purpose of examining the situation in Alaska. "More Trouble in Alaska" (Read that article here) provides insight into the character of the bishop who controls the most land-rich diocese of OCA. The site calls for a financial accounting of the cash raised by a spate of land sales and mortgages conducted by this same bishop, who does not apparently feel that he is accountable to anyone. Ms. Jacobs states: "I don't know that what His Grace has mortgaged in Alaska is anyone's business." Her belief appears to be that this single OCA bishop is entitled to more power than any politician, businessman or any other OCA clergyman holds.

I disagree.


If Syosset establishes procedures for accountability for itself, there should be no question that as a member of OCA, each diocese should, in turn, provide some sort of accounting to the administrative center of the Church, especially for OCA lands held by that diocese. Second, granting that the bishop of a diocese holds authority over diocesan property, he should be able, willing and required to provide an accounting to members of that Diocese in whose interests he purports to act.

As for who has 'jurisdiction' over these lands, I have often wondered how these properties were deeded to the Diocese or OCA at all. The 1867 Treaty specifically states: "It is, however, understood and agreed, that the churches which have been built in the ceded territory by the Russian government, shall remain the property of such members of the Greek Oriental Church resident in the territory, as may choose to worship therein," http://memory.loc.gov/cgibin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=015/llsl015.db&recNum=574). This would indicate that the Alaskan properties were meant to be controlled, in at least some manner, by the local parishes. Did parishes ever sign deeds transferring ownership to either OCA or the Diocese?

Ms. Jacobs states that, "Churches are being built and restored". However, this comes about because the churches in question do not meet Bishop Nikolai's personal standard of aesthetics (see below), and these "restorations" are, in at least several instances, conducted at an impoverished parish's expense, not that of the Diocese. Again, the question is: where is the money from the land sales and mortgages going?

According to Ms. Jacobs, Bishop Nikolai is utilizing volunteer help extensively. She attributes Bishop Nikolai with their management, but one must note that he is merely inviting other organizations to undertake these projects. However, this utilization of free labor points out yet again that the cash generated through land sales and mortgages is not needed for these tasks. So, what is it needed for?


As for Ms. Jacobs' casting aspersions on the "previous administration", it is widely believed in Alaska that Bishop Innocent, aware of his custodial responsibility to impoverished parishes, was replaced because of his hesitancy to blindly follow orders from Syosset to sell or otherwise use Alaska lands to provide cash to the central administration. Bishop Innocent, in fact, paid off the mortgage on the Seminary. Bishop Innocent consistently demonstrated his desire to preserve the wealth inherent in the Alaska lands for his flock, rather than obedience to a hierarchy which, as this Web site has documented, sought worldly wealth for itself.

(For those who don't know, while the OCA obituary states that Bishop Innocent died on 'Monday' (his death was discovered on Monday morning), since he was taken in his sleep and was last seen alive on Easter Night, many in Alaska assume that he was taken late Sunday night. The Easter on which he died was also his name day (St. George) and the 25th anniversary of his ordination. By dint of Russo-Alaskan folk belief, these facts surrounding Bishop Innocent's death mark him as blessed.)

I can confirm my mother's statement corresponds with what she told me approximately 36 hours after her eviction from the Seminary. Ms. Jacobs' contends that my mother's story reflects only "one interpretation of the event" – but she does not dispute the fact that a bishop kicked an elderly woman out of her home of three years late at night, giving her 10 hours to vacate the premises. It was only after he learned how well respected my mother is that he had any inclination to be 'forgiving' (and from my perspective, given his own actions, he is the one who should be seeking the 'forgiving').

However, Bishop Nikolai's behavior belies his 'forgiving' nature as demonstrated by an incident whose description my mother failed to include in her statement. Following her eviction, she and Bishop Nikolai exchanged a telephone call. The discussion, according to my mother, seemed to go well, but then, suddenly, the bishop became angry with her all over again and declared her 'persona non grata'. Mom still ' know what prompted his anger. Perhaps he was reacting to something she said, but he didn't say what it was, if that indeed was the case. How does one attempt reconciliation with someone who, when offended, doesn't say so and refuses to address the specific offense, but simply banishes you?


It made me laugh to see Ms. Jacobs' statement, "Let us be . . . vigilant in how we treat one another through word and deed", when she has already stated that my mother's treatment by Nikolai is irrelevant. Furthermore, +Nikolai's reign here has lasted for the past five years precisely because we modern Christians take the admonition to 'turn the other cheek' to mean 'do nothing and remain silent'. I sometimes wonder what would happen if Christ's overturning of the moneychangers' table in the Temple were to occur now? I'm almost certain that 'good' Christians would castigate him for his extreme behavior.


One gets the impression from Ms. Jacobs' letter that Bishop Nikolai is running the Diocese like a corporation and turning a loss into a profit. Again, what purpose does this serve? The Alaska Diocese was never run by cash or 'wise investment' but by the love and faith of its membership, mostly Alaska Natives who, although frequently cash-poor themselves, were willing to forfeit meals in order to provide funds for icons and repairs. They donated their labor with love to the Church which sustained them. While it may be an accomplishment of +Nikolai's that he has built new churches in Anchorage, it is shameful that Native elders who attended Church faithfully all their lives have become so alienated that many either skip services when Nikolai is officiating or have stopped going to Church altogether. Native tradition goes far beyond the aspects of biological ethnicity, spoken language and food referenced by Ms. Jacobs. It informs behavior, attitudes and lifestyle choice. Sadly, +Nikolai is alienating Native elders who are the living repository of Native tradition which, in Alaska, includes a relationship of mutual support between laity and clergy (I refer readers to Professor Dauenhauer's letter regarding Bishop Nikolai's attitude toward this relationship). It is quite true that Bishop Nikolai dosen't 'differeniate'- he treats his Native parishioners, the frontline defenders of Orthodoxy in Alaska, no better than he does any other parishioner or any other person for that matter. While expansion in Anchorage may be considered an accomplishment, it does not excuse his alienation of the very people who have served and protected Orthodoxy despite severe hardship for generations.

I also find myself required to correct Ms. Jacobs on another rather important point. Ms. Jacobs states, "Incidentally, it was research initiated by His Grace into the Martyr Juvenaly's death which revealed that it was a Native companion who perished with him." This is patently untrue. In 1987, Father Michael Oleksa, who is on Alaska's Diocesan Council, presented his paper "The Death of Hieromonk Juvenaly", a published edition of which can be found in Russia in North America/Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Russian America/Sitka, Alaska/August 19-22, 1987, ed. Richard Pierce, The Limestone Press, 1990. At the time, according to his OCA Web site biography, +Nikolai was a year or so away from receiving the "canonical release ". . . [and being] received into the ranks of clergy of the Orthodox Church in America."

Ms. Jacobs claims to have addressed Mr. Stokoe's summary of what has been happening here with regard to the "seizing of archives, dispersal of collections, de facto closing of museums", but she does not directly address these allegations. She ignores the fact that after my mother's sudden dismissal, the Seminary's archive was seized despite its containing property belonging to others who left items in the Seminary's care so that Seminary students would have immediate access to them.

Ms. Jacobs has not, in this letter or ever, answered my mother's question as to what became of St. Herman's copy of Life of St. Nilus (which my mother had restored along with several other items.) There are other Alaskan items which also have been sought and whose current whereabouts is unknown.


Ms. Jacobs did not, in this letter or ever, acknowledge that upon my mother's dismissal, the Seminary museum was 'de facto' closed, even before the archives and items on display at the Seminary museum were physically relocated to Anchorage. The new 'Diocesan archive' reportedly can only be accessed with Bishop Nikolai's express permission. This is in stark contrast to the Seminary archive which was open, during my mother's tenure, to all, including those who came (from all over the country) investigating parish records seeking after their family's lineage.

In addition, as demonstrated by the incident in which the visiting librarian who examined the Seminary's books directed that anything 'old' and 'foreign' be put out with the trash, there most certainly has been dispersal of collections. Thank heavens that not only my mother's landlady, but the director of another of Kodiak's museums, heard about the 'trash' outside the Seminary and rescued some rare items. (I could not help but laugh when I read the text of Bishop Niklolai's speech given at this month's Diocesan Assembly in which he reverently discussed history, given how much is being lost under his direction!)


Numerous village churches have been ordered to remove or destroy 'old' or 'ugly' icons which either date from the Russian era or were hand-crafted by villagers themselves and, in one case, possibly Saint Yakov. Many of these 'old' or 'ugly' items have value, be it to that particular community alone, or for the Orthodox community at large because of an object's religio-historical origin. +Nikolai does not ask village elders why they have 'old' or 'ugly' icons; he merely decrees their removal post-haste, and so, he never learns of the sacrifice a community made to obtain the object or that the object was hand-painted by a respected figure or was retained as part of a treasured past.


In 2002, for example, he had destroyed an iconostasis which was commissioned by Bishop Innocent, painted by an iconographer trained at the Danilov Monastery. The iconostasis took several years to complete since he used the traditional egg tempera style of painting. Bishop Nikolai did not even have the grace (pun intentional) to inform him of the destruction of his work which had only recently been completed. My husband and nephew found out when they went to photograph the iconostasis and were told that it was now gone. When we told the iconographer's wife, she didn't believe us until she went and looked for herself. She was devastated and in tears (as any wife would be) and went to speak with the Bishop. Her conversation lasted but 30 minutes. The bishop again displayed his lack of tolerance for any questions – even when it is merely a request for an explanation. He told the wife, who ran a store on church property, that if she continued to 'make a fuss', he would take away her livelihood. These acts of destruction, with the resulting hurts, have occurred only because Bishop Nikolai insists on imposing his aesthetic preferences on the entire church.


As for the idea of relocation of the archives and museum to a higher-profile, more populous location, Kodiak, which is the site of the annual St. Herman's pilgrimage, was the center of Russian America. It is the islands and southerneastern coast of Alaska which were and still are the centers of Orthodoxy. Kodiak is also a destination stop for cruise ships and is a shopping and family visit destination for Alaskans (as well as a tourist stop) via the Alaska Marine Highway ferry. The faithful from everywhere come to Kodiak specifically because it is not merely a tourist destination, or yet another big city, with yet another museum. It is closest point to Spruce Island, the home of St. Herman. It was from Kodiak that the Martyr Juvenaly went on his mission. St. Herman's Seminary in Kodiak is central to the education of our priests and as an Orthodox learning institutie - especially for the converts who have been steadily increasing since the 1980s, many of whom know nothing about either Orthodox history or Alaska's history. Anchorage does indeed hold the major portion of the population of Alaska, but the vast majority of that population is composed of people who leave the Lower 48 for Alaska and settle in a familiar urban environment – i.e., they are non-Orthodox and rather unlikely to consider converting to Orthodoxy (regardless of the new Chapel-Museum-Coffee Shop's presence).This raises the question: Who is this Chapel-Museum-Coffee Shop for? The faithful? Potential converts? Tourists who can contribute to Diocesan coffers? Tourists visited the Seminary archives and museum on Kodiak as well - but I bet the coffee shop makes more money for the Diocese than any other venture....


As for Ms. Jacobs' statement, "Without facts it becomes destructive gossip", the problem is not gossip, but that Mr. Stokoe's Web site has published the facts about the Alaska lands. The questions being raised about Bishop Nikolai's handling of them are extremely important.


The fact that +Nikolai does not consider himself accountable to anyone, his flock or Syosset, is evident in his treatment of others and by his compulsion to silence anyone who dares question what he does. Sadly, his behavior is so egregious in verifiable, witnessed episodes that any 'gossip' is sure to be believed because it is so hard to imagine what he would not do. This awareness on the part of Alaskan parishioners that he is essentially accountable to no one contributes to the "cumulative effect which is painful, demoralizing and deadening" referenced by Professor Dauenhauer. Unlike his predecessors, Bishop Nikolai appears to believe that the parishes and parishioners exist to serve him, rather than the other way around. Such is the true state of affairs in Alaska.

 
 

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