BETWEEN DESPAIR & DIGNITY:
ALASKA TURMOIL DEEPENS, SPREADS
• +Nikolai 'Dumbfounded' By Criticism,
Dismisses Fr. Oleksa After ADN article
• Chancellor of St. Vladimir's Joins Outcry
• Fr. Vasily Fisher's Letter to Synod
The uprising of clergy and laity against the oppressive policies and actions of Bishop Nikolai continues to spread throughout Alaska, in numbers of participants, depth of feeling and power of expression. It has even begun attracting attention beyond the OCA, with the appearance of a front page story yesterday in the state's largest paper, the Anchorage Daily News.
(Read that story here)
In the Daily News article Bishop Nikolai states he was "dumbfounded by the criticism" and said he has "no intention of stepping down voluntarily." The Bishop is quoted as saying " ...he doesn't know why priests are speaking out against him" but later confessed "he has tried to restore order in a diocese where things had been loosely run." "There are people out there who obviously have an issue with everything that I do," he complained.
Fr. Oleksa "Terminated"
The Bishop was clearly referring to Fr. Michael Oleksa, whose essay 'Alaska Today' helped draw attention to the clergy protest. (Read that essay here) Fr. Oleksa, who in addition to his parish duties in Anchorage is also one of the two visiting instructors brought in by Bishop Nikolai to keep St. Herman's open in the aftermath of the Paul Sidebottom dismissal. In an email late last night to fellow Alaska clergy and to supporters in the lower 48, Fr. Michael wrote:
"Tonight, after I completed my final lecture for my spring semester Native History class I returned home to find an ominous note: 'Fr. Isidore called and wants you to call him on his cell phone. He'll be up till 11 PM.'
Before I had a chance to call, my son John telephoned from Kodiak and we chatted about the press coverage I unavoidably received today, on the front page of the Anchorage Daily News. The data came from the website, and the reporter called just to verify that I had, in fact, written and submitted 'Alaska Today'. But they had my photo in the lower left corner of the half-page article, and the bishop's in the upper right, he claiming 'shock and dismay' at the clergy call for his 'ouster' as the headline read.
I checked my e.mail and there was a message from Bishop NIKOLAI, which I opened with some trepidation. It read 'My Dear Michael,' and stated that I am 'immediately terminated' from my teaching position at St. Herman's Seminary....
I am also banished from the campus of the seminary unless I have the bishop's blessing to enter it. And the note, as if I were being executed, ended with 'May God have mercy on your soul.'....."
Chancellor Hatfield Speaks Out
As news spread of Fr. Oleksa's termination Fr. Chad Hatfield, the former Dean of St. Herman's and current Chancellor of St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York spoke out for the first time publicly about his five years in Alaska under +Nikolai. Fr. Hatfield wrote:
"Dear Archpriest and Father Michael,
I am sorry to hear that you were terminated at SHS (St. Herman's Seminary). As always it will be the Seminarians who will be short-changed. You now join the ranks of the wrongfully terminated at SHS . Maybe you would like to join Paul Sidebottom's EEOC lawsuit?
All of this is just one more sign of life under a totalitarian dictatorship. I recognized the signs well having lived in South Africa for five years during the apartheid era AND five years in Alaska. The head of a Native Corporation one told me that with +N it was 'his way or the highway'.
Can anyone verify that ROSSIA (Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska) has been dismantled because the board members could not work with +N?
The list of recent SHS Board of Trustees members who have been terminated or resigned in the last year is amazing: Ben Ardinger, Betty Slanta, Elena Silk and Cliff Argue. I would guess that Fr. Philip Alexie and Marge Pysarchuk are waiting termination notices too. That says plenty.
Forgiveness is part of a process and that process starts with confession of sins and true repentance. So far, all that we are seeing from Anchorage is denial and plots of revenge.
The Mother Diocese of American Orthodoxy is once again teaching her children. This is a time of great grace and an answer to prayer.
Your brother and con-celebrant,
Hatfield's message suggests that not only the clergy and parishes of the diocese are in turmoil from Bishop Nikolai; but that the Seminary and Seminary Board, as well as associated bodies such as the ROSSIA charity, with whom the Church cooperates.
Fr. Vasily Fisher's Letter
But it is the continuing outpouring of letters from native clergy that reveals the depths of the problems in Alaska today. "Much is being sacrificed for our Faith in our homeland, the home of our spiritual fathers," wrote Fr. Vasily Fisher of Napaskiak, Alaska. "What little I have I commit to this letter," he pleads in his February 26th letter to the Synod of Bishops, "humbly asking that you hear with all haste."
Fr. Fisher's letter begins:
"I am a Yupik, native of the village of Kwethluk, on the Kuskokwim river. I was ordained to the Holy Priesthood on the 15th of February, 2007. I just recently celebrated my first year anniversary as a priest quietly with my family. So please forgive me for having the audacity to speak up to my spiritual Shepherds as, I too, see no other way to express this.
I grew up seeing the piety of my elders and relatives. I remember the days when Sunday school was full, and the Church and God was the main heartbeat of the villages. I recall the Kuskokwim Conferences that drew people from all over the State to this gathering. People would come from all over, wanting to be where the Church was, remembering the Orthodox Church teaching that: 'Wherever the Bishop is, there the church is.' And it was so, at those wonderful times when I was growing up. People from all over, coming, not caring about the cost or the struggle to get there, just the thought that they would see the Bishop drove them to make that Pilgrimage. And it was a Pilgrimage, of Faith. Because,.. God had made them worthy to see the Bishop as an Icon of Christ.
These conferences now are just generic versions of what they used to be. Meaningless, spiritless, and graceless.
The highlight being the Bishop's arrival, and this arrival is not in the same Heavenly Joy it was before. The Bishop's arrival is not well attended, and the ones who are there, are the ones who have to be there, or are told to be there. And the people who are in those conferences, would rather not attend the service the day that the Bishop serves, because of past experiences of anger and emotional and spiritual abuse to either the elders of the native community, the children of that community, or themselves. Most of this occurring everywhere, as my brother priests have cited. This is unheard of in our culture, and in our Diocese..."
"The Glory of Christ is,.. to speak the truth, and Pilate did not see that Truth was standing right in front of him, as did the Pharisees did not see who was in front of them, when they tried and convicted Christ to His death. But Christ was the glorious example, and we are taking that step in humility and unworthiness, not just for our own salvation, but for the salvation of all who come in contact with Bishop Nikolai and his entourage. It is evident with the suspension of Protodeacon George Nelson, who to me has served blamelessly and piously, that the Bishop will quiet all who serve him, especially those closest to him, to control those around him so that they say and do what he tells them to do, even if it is not the truth. I support the action of Protodeacon George, for speaking the truth, and witnessing to it, so that everyone who is of the truth hears Christ's voice. Let it not be that this is unnoticed and action not done.
"How good and wonderful it is when brothers dwell in unity."
This is how it is supposed to be. But, the Diocese of Alaska is not healthy by any means. And the cause of this is our ruling Bishop himself, +Nicolai. And we, as clergy, are supposed to be working for the salvation and eternal life of all members of Christ's Holy Church. This is the reason for the actions being taken by these wonderful priests of whom I am unworthy to imitate, and the clergy as a whole are split apart because of the poison Bishop Nikolai has injected in a few priests so that there is fear in which priests you confide in, because of the fear,.. in which that particular priest will tell the Bishop on them.
We are taught that God has given us freedom to practice our faith, not to have the freedom taken away from us. But enough is enough, and if the price for the Truth is the office that we hold, we choose the Love and Mercy of Christ, in whom is our salvation and eternal life, Christ before whom we will stand before in judgment if we do not speak out (we will not be standing before Bishop Nikolai) , the very Christ in whom the wonderful people of the Diocese of Alaska have faith in, the very people that the Bishop himself has driven out.
Bishop Nikolai has driven out many of these people, but they return when pious priests show the Love and Mercy of God, NOT the love of long, robotic, spiritless, graceless, services; bishop rug placement; and many colorful glittering vestments.
As you may have read this counsel from an Elder monastic father, one of the Elders of Greece, Elder Amphilochius writes: 'The egotistic person doesn't attract anyone. And if someone is attracted, that person will soon distance himself. The spiritual bond becomes indissoluble only when it meets a child-like spirit of innocence and holiness.'
+Nicolai does not have these qualities but his ego is before him with everyone he meets. And these priests who have suffered and served the people tirelessly, they have become my example of Christ, and through them the people of the Diocese of Alaska will find salvation for they have someone who will stand up, and sacrifice for them. I weep about the suffering situation of this Diocese in which, Saints Herman, St. Innocent, St. Yakov, St. Juvenaly and his Companion, and St. Peter the Aleut who died not denying his faith, have worked so hard to manifest Christ to the people of Alaska. And the faith, which inspires Martyrs to go to their death, has been blotted out because of the self-centeredness of Bishop Nikolai, who calls all to serve and bow down to him."
The Sidebottom Affair
Fr. Fisher continues:
"Yes, I was a witness to the actions of the Chancellor of this Diocese on that dark day in which Paul Sidebottom so enduringly wants to make manifest. I saw Archimandrite Isidore getting more and more drunk in Holy Resurrection Church, the same church where St. Herman's Holy relics reside. I saw him stooped over the analoy stand for all the parishioners and seminary students to see, I saw him come back the following liturgy because he was not allowed on the plane the night before because he was too drunk, and saw him drink more from the sacramental wine in the ALTAR! That morning. Only to have my humble fellow classmate take the wine away from him, and send him home.
All this, and he did not receive even a suspension? While other priest have done less, have (they) been suspended, or even deposed? This is the example of the priesthood that I so take on? This is the example of Christ-like behavior? And to top it off I know that Paul S. was looking after him all through that night and morning, so that I do believe the allegations he has against Archimandrite Isidore. I do not want this in my conscience, I know I have seen and been quiet, because it is blind obedience that Bishop Nikolai calls for in his serving priests, but there is no teaching about Blind Faith in Christ,.. because He has said, 'He who has ears to hear, let him hear, and he who has eyes to see let him see.' And these are the eyes to see the truth that which so darkly stands before us. I have forgiven Bishop Nikolai and Archimandrite Isidore, but the Truth must be revealed, and not a cover-up with lies. And it is Christ whom I will stand before in judgment, and not Bishop Nikolai.
And so, the great mystery of Baptism is upon me, Calling that Christ who is put on us be revealed as the Truth, for the sake of Salvation! For the salvation and aid of all who have faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.
On The Situation at St. Herman's Past and Present
I have forgiven Bishop Nikolai for the harsh treatment I received from him in seminary, but I speak of this in the hope that the future seminarians will not endure the same treatment from him. Many a time have I wanted to quit seminary because of the spiritual, emotional, and verbal abuse from Bishop Nikolai, but if it had not been for my Spiritual Father I would not be the priest I am today, able to speak the truth for them. He advocated for me and endured worse and harsh treatment for me before Bishop Nikolai. I have also seen with my own eyes, my fellow seminarian brought to tears because of Bishop NikolaiÕs spiritual, emotional, and verbal abuse. He was brought into subjection through the Iron Fist of +Nikolai. I do not wish to see this again, and I do not wish to subject future seminarians to him, for fear that they would lose faith in God Himself.
On the Future
I can see that the future of the faithful here not having faith in the Bishop, or the clergy anymore because they do not speak up for them, and ultimately having no more faith in God, becoming atheists. Which is where we are headed now! Which was the outcome of the Church in communist Russia.
I am a young priest, and have no tenure as a priest, but as a brother clergy member has said to me, 'You are still a priest.' And having put on the priesthood of Christ, not the priesthood of +Nikolai I was encouraged more to practice my faith, and my faith is practiced as St. James the Apostle the patron Saint of my parish so writes, 'Faith, without works is dead.' And the work that needs to be done for the Glory of God to be shown here in Alaska, is the Truth coming out and being told, because that will be for the Salvation of Bishop Nikolai, Chancellor Archimandrite Isidore, and all those who are in support of him through either blindness of truth or the deforming of it through deceit, which is the work of the devil. And for the Light of Christ to become manifest to the people, so that they can come and see, and find salvation in Him who is our Savior."
Syosset Remains Silent - For Now
Fisher's letter now joins the many asking the question that concluded the letter of the Kuskokwim Deanery.
(Read that letter here) In the deanery letter the clergy wrote: "As it is now, we are concerned for the future of the church, the diocese and her faithful in Alaska. What will become of us if this does not end soon?"
According to the Anchorage Daily News: "Calls to the Orthodox Church in America headquarters in Syosset, N.Y., weren't returned Thursday. But there's no doubt the issues are on the radar of national church officials."
More clergy letters from Alaska,
and a moment of grace in Juneau.