Among the many monks living and seeking salvation at Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, in the 1950s and 60s, there stand out two hierodeacons who truly lived a pious and monastic life. They were loved and admired by all who knew them.
Originally, there were 2 groups of monks who arrived in Jordanville during the years of war and Soviet occupation in Europe. One group was from Slovakia; the other from Germany. ( see below )
The group from Slovakia included the future Metropolitan Laurus , Archbishop Antony of San Francisco, Archimandrite Flore, Archimandrite Sergius and others. The group from Germany included the future Archimandrite Vladimir , Archimandrite Anthony ( Grabbe), and two who would become Hierodeacons: the older Father Gelasy, and the younger Varlaam ( Нахай ).
After Father Gelasy lost his wife and children during the war, he soon became a monk. The younger Father Varlaam became a novice , under the spiritual wing and eye of Fr Gelasy.
In the Summer of 1957, I was fortunate enough to have met them both. Fr Varlaam picked me up from the train station in Herkimer as I arrived from Chicago. The next day, I saw him again, this time on a tractor, plowing the field, preparing it for planting. Today, this very field is now the cemetery where thousands of Orthodox faithful are buried, along with a chapel dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God, built in memory of the Royal Family and all who perished under Communism.
Fr Gelasy was living at that time in the apiary. He had built a small shack there, made out of cardboard and old ten gallon drums of vegetable oil from the kitchen. ( He would later make lampadi for the cemetery from the same aluminum material.
Fr Gelasy would attend the Divine Liturgy at 6 AM daily. He began suffering from leukemia and found it difficult to move around. He would sit and pray in the “ponomarka", a room next to the Holy Altar. At times he would lift one of his legs, bang it against the floor and say, “ ah okajannia, opjiat razlenilas ” (“Oh you wretched, you are being lazy again!”) Nevertheless, I am eternally grateful to him. He taught me to be extremely aware and cognizant of knowing where I was while in the altar. There was no unnecessary movement in the altar at any time! Crossing from one side to the other was out of the question, perhaps only to hand the serving priest the “kadilo.” His piety was very similar to St John of San Francisco!!
I remember a humorous moment accompanying Fr Gelasy to a visit with his doctor, Dr Hirshfield, in Mohawk. Upon entering his office, the doctor looked up, pointed at Fr Gelasy and called out ,“ is he still alive ?” In another humorous moment ,I remember Fr Gelasy would bring something left over from the kitchen for his cats in the evening . Sometimes all that was available was mashed potatoes and half-sour pickles. He would place these into a dish and turn to the cats, saying “ Esh tvar” (“Eat, you creation!”) They ate!!
Illness notwithstanding, Fr Gelasy labored daily from morning to night. Besides producing honey, he took it upon himself to prepare dill pickles for the winter for the Brotherhood, ten or twelve large wooden barrels at a time. He had built a raft out of fallen trees, filled the barrels with cucumbers ( out of Fr Nektary’s vast gardens ) and added the necessary spices and salt. These filled barrels were then tied up to the raft and placed into the lake ( in the woods) for seasoning. The Brotherhood and seminarians would then have pickles available all winter long.
Our future Metropolitan Laurus revered Fr Gelasy greatly as well. He was concerned that the small shack was not appropriate for someone elderly and ill such as Fr Gelasy . He began collecting the necessary funds from the many pilgrims to Jordanville , in order to build a more substantial skete-home for the ‘startz”. No doubt most of you reading this are familiar with the so-called skete , where Vl Lavr lived and passed away. It was actually built for Fr Gelasy, who was not fortunate enough to have lived very long in his new home.
The younger monk, Fr Gelasy’s spiritual child, Hierodeacon Varlaam, was the pride of Jordanville!
A new dormitory building was being built in the monastery. As the brotherhood was not wealthy, much of the construction was done by the monks. It was Fr Varlaam who would venture out to the roof of the four story building, in order to install windows or roofing. It was he who would operate the Army-surplus bulldozer given to the monastery, cleaning the snow after a snowstorm. He had a marvelous baritone voice as a deacon.
Needless to say, he was extremely popular, especially loved and revered by the visiting young people from Albany and other areas. The summer boys especially enjoyed his company! Our founder, Fr Panteleimon, would take him along for services at local missionary churches whenever he traveled.
When the same young folks would come to Jordanville in the summer to work on the farm , Fr Varlaam would pay particular attention to them . He took them boating and fishing whenever possible.
The winter of 1957 -1958 was brutal in Upstate New York . More than 40 inches of snow fell in February that year. There were days when the large milk trucks were not able to make their rounds to pick up the freshly produced milk. There were occasions when farmers were forced to pour the milk out into the field. One of those mornings, when snow had been falling for several days, Otetz Varlaam had just served Divine Liturgy, and then, without being asked, there he was, starting up the bulldozer. He began clearing paths to the milk shed , the church , etc. One of the fathers, Fr Filaret, an elderly monk, who took care of the chicken coop, requested that Fr Varlaam clear a path in order to feed the chickens.
My obedience those days was in the barn. Upon arriving home from school, I, along with our beloved Leva, was to carry the pails of milk to the milk shed , once Fr Iov or Fr Flore, taking turns, had hand milked the 60 or 70 monastery cows.
That day, though it had grown dark outside ,I continued to hear the bulldozer clearing the snow. Next to the barn stood the chicken coop. I had noticed that the engine of the bulldozer was running, but it remained standing in one place. Perhaps Fr Varlaam had to get off of it for whatever reason. This was after 6 PM. Fr Iov noticed the noise coming from the bulldozer as well. He decided to go over to investigate. A few moments later , he runs back into the barn and cries out , “Отец Варлаам убит” ! (“Fr Varlaam has been killed!”) “Run to the office, get Fr Laurus !! I immediately ran to the monastery office on the second floor, where Fr Laurus was working. He immediately ran back to the barn. At that time, a neighbor of the monastery (whom we called “Kapitan” ) , husband of Maria Nikolaevna Gerke, had arrived to purchase a small amount of fresh monastery milk.
Others too had rushed to help in any way possible. They placed the injured Fr Varlaam into Kapitan’s automobile and raced down to our local hospital in Herkimer. I remember Fr Lavr saying afterwards, “ I felt his warm neck , thinking perhaps he was still alive”.
In the meantime, our abbot, Bishop Averky, and most of the brotherhood, gathered around the only telephone in the monastery, on the second floor of the “white building”, awaiting word !! (Tel.# 366 - J ) Within the hour, the phone rang , and we learned that Fr Varlaam had died !
In fact, Otetz Varlaam had been killed instantly. A very large beam, similar to a circus tent post, was supporting a large storage shed, mentioned previously, next to the chicken coup. It was dark outside by evening, and Fr Varlaam must have clipped/ zadel that very post, which then fell directly onto his chest, crushing him instantly. It then must have fallen, causing the clutch to disengage, which stopped the bulldozer from moving any further.
Otetz Varlaam was brought back to the monastery that very evening and placed in the church. No words can describe the sense of loss and pain the brotherhood experienced from that moment on. Vladika Averky spoke to us all, saying that this was a great lesson to us all: that we must always be aware , that we do not know when our time will come , when Our Lord will call each of us ! It was February, 1958, Fr Varlaam was 33 years of age.
Fr Varlaam had served divine liturgy that day, and I remember him being most joyous. He was actually singing while clearing the snow. You could hear his voice, above the noise of the bulldozer !! A great number of people gathered for his burial, especially the young people from Albany, and surrounding towns. His staretz, Fr. Gelasy was visibly greatly pained, especially when givign the final kiss to his beloved spiritual child. Father Gelasy would pass away soon thereafter.