Ms. Mina Jacobs' Letter To The Metropolitan Council
February 16, 2008
Dear Members of the Metropolitan Council,
As you might imagine, these last months have been painfully difficult for the small, administrative staff serving the Diocese of Alaska. We care deeply for His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI. We respect him as our Bishop and love him as our friend. It is heartbreaking what he has had to endure. Surprisingly, he is not daunted. He is blessed with a profound faith and a strong sense of responsibility for those entrusted to his care.
I am writing this letter for two reasons:
1. To provide some context to the administration of this Diocese, past and present, of which I think you, and others may be unaware. We have been silent too long while all manner of accusation and criticism has been leveled at our Hierarch, Chancellor and the life in this Diocese.
2. To pose some troubling questions and present equally troubling facts pertaining to the events which have unfolded in the media over the course of these painful months.
St. Herman Seminary, established in 1973, was in dismal shape financially, structurally and spiritually when his Grace arrived in 2001.* Although students paid for their education through hefty loans, the institution was in deep financial trouble. Many defaulted on these loans and suffer the consequences to this day. Yet, one of Bishop NIKOLAI's first acts was a bold decision. He initiated a policy that students intent on remaining and serving in Alaska would graduate from the Seminary debt-free. He reasoned that he could not in good conscience send new priests to serve in rural Alaska where jobs to augment their stipend were close to non-existent and the cost of living was (and is) extremely high. To this day, seminarians do not pay for their education.
The Diocese of Alaska covers 2.5 million square miles and includes over 100 parishes. There are 43 priests to serve this area (there were 26 in 2001). Eighty percent of them are graduates of St. Herman Seminary and seventy-one percent are Alaska Natives. Qualified seminarians have graduated every year from the program.
The Seminary does struggle financially. It depends on support organizations and the generosity of donors. Administrative changes have been necessary to ensure the students receive the best possible education while adhering to an annual operating budget under $300,000.
Alaska Lands has been a topic of discussion on a national level since His Grace's election. I believe it has also been used as a 'Red Herring' to divert attention from the financial problems associated with our national Church. Bishop NIKOLAI initiated a project early in his tenure to definitively establish the legal and historic land holdings of the Diocese of Alaska. Land documents were researched dating from before the sale of Alaska (1867).
This project took three years and utilized the professional staff of a land commissioner and legal personnel. Historic land records can be extremely complicated. The complexity is multiplied when these records are in handwritten, 18th and 19th century Russian and the subsequent transfers include a sovereign nation, a sale to another country (US), a territorial government, a state government and a Native Land Claims Settlement Act. Added to all this is the activity of previous bishops many more than have served in any other jurisdiction within the OCA.
It is my conviction that Bishop NIKOLAI observes canonical responsibility to safeguard the lands of Alaska under his authority. Tithes are paid to the OCA from all land leases, and incomes (as are parish and institutional tithes). The prudent disposition of lands during his tenure is public knowledge.** I question whether the lack of decorum on the part of the central administration, which I will address later in this letter, is directly linked to His Grace's firm stance on the Alaska Lands issue.
In my entire working life, I have never met anyone who works harder than Bishop NIKOLAI. It is not work for self-aggrandizement. His every effort is aimed at making the Church in Alaska what he thinks She can be, and what his predecessors prayed and labored for during our history. He never takes the easy path, but always the 'right' path as far as he is able to discern. He expects much from all of us, but he expects everything from himself.
As his administrative staff, we witness on a daily basis the love His Grace has for our Holy Orthodox Church. We see how he struggles and plans to build an infrastructure here to keep all the parts (parishes, institutions, businesses) functioning to the greater good of the Diocese.
"Therefore by their fruits you will know them." Matthew 7:20
During his tenure, Bishop NIKOLAI established three mission parishes, two in Anchorage and reopened one in Wasilla. He established the Russian Orthodox Museum (Anchorage) and St. Nicholas Skete (Eklutna). He has overseen the restoration of historic churches, and the construction of new ones. He has initiated and overseen the installation of new icon screens in at least four churches. He annually leads the St. Herman Pilgrimage and conceived the plan to take the Sitka Mother of God icon on pilgrimage to over 100 parishes and institutions nationwide. This is a capsulated version of a lengthy list of his efforts. With energy and enthusiasm he continually launches new projects, while nurturing those already established. He possesses the ability to always see the 'Big Picture.' He proceeds with the principle that if it is pleasing to God, these efforts will be blessed.
His great love and devotion is to his clergy. I am aware how he suffers when one of his clergy is experiencing personal problems. At times I am curious when he moves a priest to another parish. But, as time passes, it becomes apparent that he perceived the needs of the community or the priest and his family better than anyone else might have imagined.
One of the things I find particularly admirable is Bishop NIKOLAI's serious effort to fulfill the dream of St. Herman to establish a monastery in this land. He accomplished this in May 2007. But it is the nurturing of the monastics in their vows and in their service that I find so remarkable. From working with the Hierodeacon on his Slavonic, to instructing them in their faith, guiding them through administrative work, assisting them with financial planning for the monastery and caring for them as family members, His Grace's commitment is fundamental. They regularly eat their meals with him and always share the joy of the Orthodox Feast Days at the dinner table in his home.
When a beloved priest was terminally ill and in the hospital, His Grace kept a constant vigil with him and his family for weeks, visiting day and night, often several times a day. I believe this act of kindness sustains the departed priest's matushka to this day. There are myriad examples of such kindnesses. Mostly, I learn about them by chance as these are things he does with modesty and humility.
Yes, strong leaders will have their detractors and they can come from all segments of culture. I don't imagine any of our bishops experience the diversity of cultures as those that exist in Alaska. There are four main groups of Alaska Natives and they all live within this immense Diocese. These faithful Orthodox Christians often communicate with one another and conduct Church services in their own languages. Their living conditions bear little resemblance to life in the city. Frequently, they live on subsistence fishing and hunting. Running water can be considered a luxury. Bishop NIKOLAI regularly journeys to these villages, flying by small plane and traveling by snow machine in sub-zero temperatures. When he arrives, he may sleep in the local school or with a family. Hotels are not an option. When I have traveled with him, I have witnessed only mutual love, respect and gratitude in these communities.
Bishop NIKOLAI's workload is phenomenal, established by his own doing. Whether he is administering the Diocese, traveling, teaching at the Seminary, or forming monastics, he never rests except at the end of the day. But, he is truly blessed to have this energy and to use it to the Glory of God.
We are all aware of the unfortunate situation, which precipitated the launching of the Diocese of Alaska into the public media. Many of us were aware that Fr. Isidore had a problem with alcohol. Not being experts in this field we did not know to what extent this illness plagued him. It was not until the event in Kodiak in May 2007 that it became clear to Fr. Isidore himself and to all of us that it was serious and he needed treatment. On such an occasion, everything moves into 'crisis mode.' Decisions are made with the best interest of the one suffering. Through all the pain and anguish, you don't actually recognize until later that God is with us. Despite embarrassment and grief what eventually emerges is the healing of a very worthy person, beloved by God, his Bishop and friends. This episode was desperately agonizing because we love Fr. Isidore so much. By the Grace of God, the care by professionals at the treatment center, the unwavering loyalty of Bishop NIKOLAI and through the prayers of friends and family, Fr. Isidore has gained the strength and tools to maintain sobriety. These days, I often look to him to encourage me through the ongoing stress.
One might have hoped that having 'crossed this Rubicon' to enter treatment, it would mark the resolution to a severe illness and the beginning of a new life for Fr. Isidore. But we were unaware of trouble brewing. It wasn't until July that an astonishingly delayed report was forwarded to Alaska by His Beatitude. In this report, Paul Sidebottom advanced accusations against Fr. Isidore and His Grace.
Fr. Isidore and Paul Sidebottom had been colleagues at the Seminary. They are contemporaries in age. Paul allegedly came to Fr. Isidore's rescue when he was in considerable distress that evening in May. The question that continues to trouble me is: What friend coming to another's rescue, recognizing the depths of his impairment both physically and mentally, would later find it necessary to press charges? What missionary educated in Biblical scholarship would not override his human inclination to publicly disclose alleged deeds if the words of our Lord in Matthew 18:15-18 were recalled?
"Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
Did Paul Sidebottom approach Fr. Isidore when he was sick in mind, body and spirit, or even later when he was in treatment? Could a terrible amount of pain been avoided if he had?
I regret that these questions lead me to pose several others:
1. Did this incident provide the occasion to promote a broader agenda? In the August 18, 2007 edition of the Anchorage Daily News, on the front page it was reported that Mr. Sidebottom accused His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI of 'domestic violence, neglect and malpractice'. These words were extracted from the report he sent to His Beatitude and on which it seems His Eminence Archbishop JOB offered advice and support. The article further quotes His Beatitude: "Herman wrote that the investigation should be conducted by a national church investigator rather than internally within the diocese because of 'diocesan disorder', possible litigation and 'extraordinarily serious' allegations against Nikolai. In this country, one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Could His Beatitude have chosen better words if he were inclined to support an accused brother bishop than what was printed in August?
As you probably know an investigation by the Church took place during late summer 2007. A report was apparently completed on December 12. This report, exonerating Bishop NIKOLAI and Archimandrite Isidore of all charges, did not reach His Grace until February 5, 2008 - three days before new revelations of charges made by Mr. Sidebottom through the EEOC were publicized. Of these charges, Archpriest Alexander Garklavs was quoted as saying, "We are concerned."***
2. Did you know that His Grace heard nothing about the allegations against him and Archimandrite Isidore until His Beatitude telephoned him on July 16, 2007? It then took 4 days for the Chancery office to fax the report to him. On August 2nd, His Grace received an anonymously posted packet (postmarked from Syosset and dated July 27) entitled "The Conspiracy Against NIKOLAI."
3. Did you know that Paul Sidebottom was the protege of outgoing Seminary Dean Archpriest Chad Hatfield?
Were you aware that the candidate for the future Seminary dean had been narrowed to Fr. John Anderson by the Seminary's Board of Trustees?
In the report submitted by Paul Sidebottom to His Beatitude there is a lengthy document prepared by Fr. John Anderson full of psychological analysis assessing the personality of His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI. There are also copies of e-mails exchanged between Fr. John Anderson and Archbishop JOB. Wouldn't this evidence lead you to conclude that perhaps the occasion of Fr. Isidore's inebriated breakdown provided the opportunity to neutralize Bishop NIKOLAI?
Could the allegations that Mr. Sidebottom advanced facilitate his and Fr. Anderson's takeover of the Seminary if Bishop NIKOLAI were removed due to this scandal?
Could Bishop NIKOLAI's removal advance the agenda of His Beatitude to be rid of a non-compliant bishop and give him access to Alaska Lands?
Why were Archbishop JOB, Fr. John Anderson, Paul Sidebottom and His Beatitude so willing to capitalize on the illness of the priest, Fr. Isidore, when all that was needed were prayers for his recovery and Christian forgiveness for whatever he may have said or done before he sought help?
His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI has worked hard in Alaska to engender respect for Orthodoxy among all segments of this society. He has nurtured friendships in the business and political world. He loves Christ's Holy Church and is a defender and protector of his clergy and his flock. He recognizes his accountability before none other than God Himself. You can imagine how all this intrigue distracts from the efforts and goals he has set for himself and for all of us.
I suppose I should say one last word about Terenty Dushkin.
I know there has been a huge outcry concerning the tonsuring as Reader of Terenty Dushkin by His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI. All I know is that His Grace was compassionate toward this young man who expressed extreme remorse for the acts that led to his prison sentence. I know that His Grace visited him in prison. I know that he spent a great deal of time counseling him. I know that this young man gives hours of his time and talent voluntarily to the Church. When he was released from prison his only focus was serving the Church. It is my understanding that His Grace saw in Terenty the
'poster child' of repentance. He recognizes that there are many essentially good people who have left the Church over grief for the sins they have committed and suffer despair that reconciliation is not possible. He saw in Terenty someone deeply remorseful, whose path toward a better future was possible only through the Church. He hoped, I believe, to demonstrate to others that the gates of repentance are open to those who truly seek reconciliation. So, if he erred by the letter of the law, it was out of love for a 'lost sheep' and hope for those still wandering in the wilderness.
I hope my Brothers and Sisters in Christ, that this rather lengthy letter will finally shed light on what we have endured these last months, and that it causes you to reflect on what may have been inadvertent injury to those who labor here in Alaska. I do question the actions of those who may be motivated more by intrigue than the Holy Gospel. His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI is beloved by many and only a few malcontents represent the clamor to the opposite.
Please, let us not follow the agenda of those who show no good works, but only pen divisive words.
Out of all the clergy serving here in Alaska, there may be a few who would welcome a change of regime. His Grace runs a 'tight ship'. I think the assessment of His Grace's presence in Alaska could be summed up in the words of St. Herman Seminary's senior graduate, Fr. Philip Alexie, when he eloquently thanked His Grace at the last Board of Trustee meeting "on behalf of the Yupik people for all that St. Herman Seminary has provided my people, including spiritual development and an opportunity to serve the Church." His words were those of sincere gratitude and a reflection of Christian love and devotion to his Hierarch. Hearing this must have been a fulfillment of what His Grace strives to provide on a daily basis.
For the record, I am not an employee of the Diocese of Alaska. I am a volunteer. I am not motivated to speak my opinion to preserve a position or income. What I am able to do is based on my love of Christ's Holy Church, respect and love for Bishop NIKOLAI, the clergy, matushki, and the faithful here in Alaska. It is a blessing to me that Vladyka NIKOLAI discerned my abilities and put me in a position where they might benefit the Church.
With love in Christ,
Mina (Minadora) Jacobs
Assistant to the Bishop
Director, Russian Orthodox Museum
cc: RODA, Diocesan Council
St. Herman Seminary, Board of Trustees
*Burkett, Eric. 1998. Seminary Not Closing, Officials Say. Anchorage Daily News, Sept. 12, Sect. B3. [and] Kizzia, Tom. 1998. Seminary Ready to Celebrate
Orthodox School Averts Closure. Anchorage Daily News, Oct. 29, Sect. B1.
**Bishop NIKOLAI. 2006. Looking Back-Moving Forward. North Star, Summer, p. 5
***Halpin, James. 2007. Alaska Church Leader Accused of Sexual Misconduct:Russian Orthodox: Former Missionary Makes Claim Against Chancellor of Alaska Diocese. Anchorage Daily News, Aug. 18, Sect. A1. Lee, Jeannette. 2008. Man Files Sex Suit Against Church. Anchorage Daily News, Feb. 8, Sect. A7.