From Island to Island with the Word of God on His Lips – How the Only Orthodox Priest on the Islands Lives and Works
[The following is a translation by Priest Anatole Lyovin of an article that appeared in the Russian magazine Rubezh [Borderland], published in Harbin, Manchukuo, on 20 February, 1937.]
Not so long ago there arrived to San Francisco for an eye operation Archimandrite Innokentiy Dronoff, one of the most interesting personages even in our interesting times.
He is the only Orthodox priest in the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and on the islands of the Atlantic Ocean – Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto-Rico – and in the republics of Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico.
Father Dronoff told me that he graduated from Poltava Theological Seminary. Six times, during vacations, he traveled to Nippon [sic!] to study Japanese, and four times to Greece to study Greek. By nature he is a great traveler; he has traveled much, met many people, and even made it to Abyssinia [Ethiopia]. He knows Nipponese [sic], Greek, English, and Spanish.
Just before the Omsk government fell he was sent by Archbishop Innokentiy to the Peking Theological Mission, but spent only one month there. After that he lived in Nippon for a certain period of time, and then, in 1922, with the blessing of Metropolitan Platon he was appointed as an Orthodox priest to the islands.
Archimandrite Dronoff talks little and unwillingly about himself; his main aim is to tell everyone how difficult it is for Orthodox people to live in a foreign land without a church and a priest. That is why his biographical information is very sketchy and incomplete.
Most of the time he lives on the farthest island in the chain, the island of Hilo [Here the reporter’s geographical knowledge showed itself to be rather inadequate!] where he has a small parish consisting of Russians (mostly Ukrainians), Serbs, Greeks, but mostly Orthodox Nipponese [i.e., Japanese].
Occasionally, Father Archimandrite, along with his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter travels to the Unites States on personal and church business. A year ago he had a cataracts surgery. Currently he needs a second operation on his eyes. For six years now he has been blind; he walks the roads and streets tapping his cane. He can barely see any objects. He has a plain Russian face. His Russian comes with a Ukrainian accent, but he speaks with great strength and very convincingly.
He could have long ago settled down and lived in a single place. Large colonies of Orthodox faithful are found on Cuba and in Mexico. He was even invited to Uruguay. Once there was even an invitation extended to him by a Roman Catholic bishop to convert to Catholicism; he was promised living quarters and $90 per month [fabulous salary for those days!]. He, of course refused, saying, ‘I was born Orthodox, and Orthodox I shall die!’
He sometimes even preaches at Molokan gatherings as well as gatherings of other sectarians. Once he was escorted out from such a gathering, but people started to yell that he was telling the truth; so, he was brought back while people collected money for the Orthodox parish — that yielded as much as $35! And the member of the sect who gave him a ride home in his car and turned out to be an ex-seminarian, even kissed his hand and from that time attends the Orthodox church.
Eternal long journeys by ship, by train here and there are his lot. Today he is Nicaragua, tomorrow in Mexico. In the United States, in some parts of the country priests and ministers get a 50% discount on railway tickets, in other places only 30%, but often there are kind people who help him to buy a ticket and even give him some extra money for the trip.
‘Why don’t you settle down somewhere in one place on a permanent basis?’
‘If I do, who will guide the Orthodox faithful on all these islands?’ he replied forcefully and with great bitterness. ‘Just think, how much suffering there is there! Five islands and the southern American republics, and there is not a single Orthodox priest! Because of this many believers there are converting to Catholicism or Protestantism, And one can’t blame them for this. I personally, believe it or not, wrote very many times begging for Orthodox priests to be sent to the islands. After all, I am old, you see, and even worse, I am blind. It is so difficult for me.’
‘And I would really like to live a peaceful, quiet life, without moving about so much, but it is impossible for me to do so. There are so many Orthodox – Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Assyrians … Orthodox people are born, die, get married, and all without a priest.
‘Russians on their own initiative many times petitioned the church hierarchs, begging the latter to help them with this problem.
At my request, Bishop Euthymius of the Assyrians sent an 84 year old man from the United States, but this priest died soon afterwards. On the same island of Cuba I talked a Greek doctor into becoming a priest. He then went to the United States and was ordained as a priest in Jackson [Mississippi?]. But, Russians do not get spiritual joy from him — he can’t speak Russian. Only the Assyrians understand Greek a little bit. When I concelebrated with him, the choir sang first in Greek and afterwards in Russian.’
‘Yes, there were all sorts of things; it is hard to remember everything. I travel with an American passport. In each town I search for an Orthodox church. If there is no Russian one, then I serve in the Greek one; if there is no Greek one, I then got to the Episcopalians. Nobody helped me more than the Episcopalians. They let me use their church on Orthodox feasts and for Saturday night vigils. On Sundays they have services themselves. After that I visit a newspaper where they take my photo and write an article about me. Orthodox people read that article and then come to church. Almost everywhere I am asked to perform memorial services, baptisms of children, marriages, as well as hear confessions and give Holy Communion …’
‘I witnessed many very touching scenes.’
‘Once, I was conducting services in Cuba – there are lots of Russians there who came there from Constantinople and Galicia when Cuba was still accepting immigrants. There are many officers, nurses, engineers and doctors among them … Of course, even Bolsheviks come to pray. And how intensely do the Bolsheviks know how to pray when woes befall them! There were about 800 people in the church! But when the collection was taken, the collection plate held only 80 cents!’
‘In Cuba there is a largest colony of Russians [among the places which Archimandrite Dronoff served], but at the same time there is more misery and poverty among them than anywhere else. And no wonder, for in Cuba there are never ending wars and revolutions; there is no place where Russians can find a decent job and earn some money.’
‘After the services a Russian lady approached me, weeping tears of joy and begging me to baptize her son who is already seven years old. Her husband was already thinking of converting him to the Protestant religion. For the baptism there came together an even greater crowd of people. One American lady invited me to tea with an Episcopal bishop. She asked me many questions, and then gave me $30 in an envelope. That was an unusual case of human kindness. It is very difficult for a priest to serve there, but one is at least warmly consoled by the thought that he is bringing spiritual benefits to people.’
‘Another time, here, in Atlanta, in the state of Georgia — there are only few Russians there; just several students who are studying there – I was concelebrating with the Greek priest in the Greek church on the day of the Elevation of the Cross. A lady approached me all in tears – women most of all suffer from the lack of Orthodox churches – and begged me, “Father, please baptize my son! He is already eight years old.”
She turned out to be a daughter of a Cossack colonel from Siberia. As for her husband, he was an American doctor who holds some high position in the Baptist church.’
‘I said to her, “How can that be? After all, you could have had him baptized in the Greek church! It is the same religion as ours! And what will your husband say, for, according to law, a son follows the faith of his father …”
‘But the good doctor said: “I respect the wish of my wife and have nothing against baptism according to the Orthodox rite.”
‘Also, in the United States, in West Point Beach, it happened that when general A.A. Petrovski passed away, there was no Orthodox priest; so he was buried without any Orthodox services. Sure enough, he was buried with all the military honors: the body was transported on a gun-carriage and there were a band and a military guard present. Yes, there are many such cases all around, where people pass on without confession and their funerals are not according to Orthodox canons. Wherever I go, everywhere I am asked to conduct memorial services. After praying, I usually cry along with the mourners.’
‘Once, this was in Cuba, after arriving I went to the Episcopal bishop to ask him to lend me a church for services. He gave me not one, but two churches: one, his own to have all services except on Sundays, and another one, a mission church to serve Sunday liturgies in. But then I also had to ask permission from the Roman Catholic authorities to have an announcement printed in Spanish language newspapers about my services. I went to them four times, and believe it or not, they chased me away. On the fifth try I went directly to the bishop.’
‘”No,” he said. “I cannot allow this because here Roman Catholicism is the chief religion.”’
‘”Do you mean to say that it would be a sin if those who idly wander about in the streets, drunk, and do not attend your churches should happen to come to my church? Would you consider it a sin if the Word of God should touch their souls in my church?”’
‘You know, he was very touched by these words, kissed me on the head and gave me 10 pesos in addition!’
‘There are many Orthodox in Cuba. The second largest group of Orthodox is in Mexico: there may be around fifteen thousand of them there, Russians, Assyrians, Greeks and Bulgarians.’
‘Before me there were three Russian priests, but they just could not set up a functioning parish there. The head of the Episcopal church once told me that he has nothing against having an Orthodox parish there and that he himself used to pay $25 to the Russian priests, just so they would stay in Hawaii. I think that this time I will return to Hawaii and stay there forever – I am now old and blind, and it is very difficult to travel, whereas in the islands everything is familiar to me, life is cleaner there, disposition of the inhabitants is better, and the people are more pious than here in America, where one has to take pains to seek out parishioners, and where a priest in a riasa is looked upon as some kind of a monster.’
‘Here there’s no one who would agree to go to the islands as a priest. Everyone knows that life there is not settled but one has to wander around like a vagabond and live hand to mouth.’
‘When I think that here I am about to go to Hawaii to stay there for good, maybe open a hospice [orphanage?] … but on the other islands, in the other [American] republics, there won’t be a priest, even a priest who would make a short visit there at least once in two or three years, my heart aches.’
‘Maybe someone could be found in the Far East who would take upon himself the cross of serving the islands?’
‘I shall speak frankly – a priest with a family will find it too difficult there; a single man will find the task much easier. What is needed is dedicated, idealistic people who would not be put off by the first years of privation and hunger. Of course, nobody there will ever let such people starve to death.’
‘A permanent priest who would reside in Cuba or Mexico with the condition that he would visit other places at least once in two or three years would find more support and would be valued much more by the people than a priest who would come only for a short term stay. If such a priest could be found, there would not be so much distress there, and people would not convert to other religions.’
‘Please write to them [people in the Far East] and tell them about this problem. Could it be that no one there will understand how difficult it is for Orthodox people to live without their own faith?’
Taisia Bazhenova, San Francisco
Translator’s Note and Appeal
Strange to say, after several attempts to find the final resting place of Archimandrite Innokentiy, we still do not know where it is nor do we know where his church was in Hilo. Of course, the Rubezh reporter seems to have been woefully ignorant of Hawaiian geography and may have introduced some errors – she even referred to Hilo as one of the islands instead of a town on the Big Island of Hawaii.
What seems clear from the article is that Archimandrite Innokentiy was a world traveler, that he was living with his daughter and son-in-law somewhere on the Big Island, and that he had quite an international congregation in his parish. What is really strange is that neither the OCA Archives nor the ROCOR have any records of him, just as if he had never existed. This leads me to suspect that since he came to Hawaii from the Far East he may have retained his jurisdictional connections with either the Orthodox Church in Japan or the Russian Orthodox Mission in China.
In any case, it does appear very likely that he is buried somewhere on the Big Island of Hawaii. Lord only knows whether there was a Russian Orthodox priest present at his funeral; that is why it is important to find his grave and have a proper memorial service for this humble, yet very accomplished priest who took it upon himself to travel throughout the Russian Diaspora and console the hapless exiles who were cut off from their Church. So, any help that you can provide to solve this historical mystery will be greatly appreciated by all of us Orthodox Christians in Hawaii.