Saint John Kochurov (Ivan Alexandrovich Kochurov) also known as Saint John of Chicago, was the first of many priests killed by the Bolsheviks in their communist revolution in 1917. He was a Russian priest who was sent to America, and for many years served as parish priest in Chicago. He was a beloved pastor in a place where Orthodoxy was not well-established, and he led efforts to build a new cathedral for the Orthodox faithful there. He returned to Russia shortly before the communist revolution began. When the Red Army captured Tsarskoye Selo, the town he was serving in, the communists murdered him. The Russian Orthodox church glorified him as a saint in 1994, shortly after the Bolsheviks' Soviet Union collapsed.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint John Kochurov, also known as Saint John of Chicago. He was the first of many priests martyred during the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.
Saint John was born on July 13, 1871, in the village of Bigildino-Surky in Ryazan family. He was the son of a priest, and aspired himself to the priesthood. He studied at the Danky Theological School and then at Ryazan Theological Seminary. He excelled academically, and gained admittance to the prestigious Saint Petersburg Theological Academy. After his graduation and marriage to Ms. Alexandra Chernyshova, Saint John was sent to the Russian Orthodox Diocese of the Aleutians and Alaska. He was ordained as a priest in 1895 by Nicholas, the Bishop of that diocese, and was then sent to St Vladimir’s Cathedral in Chicago. Here is an account from the website of the OCA regarding the beginning of Saint John’s ministry in Chicago
Assigned in 1895 by order of the Holy Synod to be a parish priest at Saint Vladimir’s Cathedral in Chicago, Fr. John was put in touch with a parish life that was strikingly different from the Orthodox parishes in Russia, which were organized and rooted in a living tradition many centuries old. Being a lonely island of Orthodox Christian life, remotely situated many hundreds of miles from the other scattered Orthodox parishes in North America, Saint Vladimir’s Church in Chicago,5 together with the Church of the Three Hierarchs in the town of Streator with which it was affiliated, in the less than three years of its existence still had not managed(3:04)to become formed as a parish in the full sense of this word,and it indeed required heroic labors from the young Fr. John to be established in a proper way.
Beginning his work at the parish of Chicago and Streator, which was rather small and multinational in its constituency, Fr. John nourished these people, who were representatives of a rather poor class of immigrants, in the Orthodox confession. He was never able to be supported in his work by a sound parish community having at its disposal sufficiently large material means. In one of his articles, written in December 1898, Fr. John gave the following vivid description of the Chicago-Streator parish community: “The Orthodox parish of Saint Vladimir’s Church in Chicago consists of a small number of the original Russians, Galician and Hungarian Slavs, Arabs, Bulgarians, and Aravians. The majority of the parishioners are working people who earn their bread by toiling not far from where they live, on the outskirts of the city. Affiliated with this parish in Chicago is the Church of the Three Hierarchs in the city of Streator. This place, and the town of Kengley, are situated ninety-four miles from Chicago, and they are famous for their coal mines. The Orthodox parish there consists of the Slovaks who work there who have been converted from the Unia.”6
The unique characteristics of the Chicago-Streator parish community demanded of Fr. John a deft combination of pastoral-liturgical skills, with missionary ones. These abilities would permit him not only to stabilize the membership of his parish community spiritually and administratively, but to enlarge his flock continually by means of conversions, or by the return to Orthodoxy of the ethnically diverse Christians living in Illinois. Already during the first three years of Fr. John’s parish service 86 Uniats and 5 Catholics were added to the Orthodox Church,7 bringing the number of permanent parishioners up to 215 men in Chicago, and 88 in Streator. There were two functioning church schools affiliated with the parishes, with more than 20 pupils enrolled in them. The course consisted of Saturday classes during the school year, and daily classes during the school vacations. 8
In his work, Fr. John continued the best traditions of the Russian Orthodox Diocese in North America. He organized, in Chicago and Streator, the Saint Nicholas and Three Hierarchs Brotherhoods, which established a goal of setting up a program of social and material mutual aid among the parishioners of the Chicago-Streator parish, as members of the Orthodox Mutual Aid Society.9
One important challenge to the Orthodox community in Chicago was the lack of suitable church building. The church was in a cramped, rented location in the southwestern part of the city. Saint John was instrumental in the efforts to build a new cathedral in the city. This included making a trip to Russia to fundraise for the project – the financing for this construction was a big challenge,since the orthodox community was largely comprised of poor immigrants. The cathedral he built today , designed by the renowend architect Louis Sullivan is known today as the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago. It is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places and is designated a Chicago Landmark. Let us read a description of this building from the Chicago Architecture Centre
Louis Sullivan designed just two houses of worship in his entire career.
The only one still intact is Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago. It looks as if it might have been plucked from a small town in southern Russia. Set on a quiet street in the Ukrainian Village, it’s a rare gem that conceals an intimate, ornate interior redolent with incense.
The founders of Chicago’s first Orthodox congregation were largely immigrants from southern Russia. When they decided to build a church, they didn’t look for inspiration from the grandiose buildings of urban northern Russia. Instead, they sought the comfort of a familiar style, derived from the small rural churches of their native lands.
Key elements of this Russian Provincial style include:
Armed with funding from Russian Czar Nicholas II, the congregation engaged Louis H. Sullivan to design the cathedral. He drew on Byzantine and Russian Provincial styles, but included his own distinctive touches. Abstract decorative designs are carved and painted in the woodwork, betraying the influence of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements.
Interpreting traditional styles through a contemporary lens allowed Sullivan to create what he hoped would be considered one of the most unique and poetic buildings in the country. He was likely influenced by the theories of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Viollet-le-Duc believed that the best revival of a historic building or style isn’t necessarily a precise replication of something that once was, but an adaptation designed to maximize appeal to modern viewers. (10:09)
Saint John was well-loved as a priest in Chicago, working under challenging circumstances. In his first nine years of service he was the only Orthodox parish priest in Chicago. His efforts were recognized in the first council of the Diocese of North America and the Aleutians in 1905, when a ceremony was held to celebrate Saint John’s 10th anniversary of service in Chicago, presided by Saint Raphael of Brooklyn. He was given a gold pectoral cross as an anniversary gift. The following is a transcript of a speech at this ceremony, from the American Orthodox Messenger:
a. “Directly after your study at seminary, having left the motherland, you came to this strange land to expend all your youthful energy, to devote all your strength and inspiration for that holy concern to which you were attracted in your vocation. A hard legacy was left for you: the church in Chicago was located then in an untidy church setting, in a wet, half-ruined building, the parish with its loosely defined parish membership scattered over the huge city with a heterodox population torn asunder by the wild beasts — all that could fill the soul of a young laborer with great confusion, but you bravely accepted the task of selecting a precious spark from the pile of rubbish, to fan the sacred fire into a small group of faithful! You were forgetful of yourself: calamities, illnesses, the poor location of your house, with its ramshackle walls, floors, and cracks that gave open access to the outer elements, with destructive effects on your health, and the health of your family members.... Your babies were sick, your wife was not quite healthy, and bitter bouts of rheumatism seemed to wish to destroy your confidence, to exhaust your energy.... We greet you, remembering another of your good deeds, the performance of which is plaited as an unfading laurel in the crown of honor of your decade of sacred service: we have in mind here your sacrificial service in the office of Chairman of our beloved Mutual Aid Society, in the office of Censor to our enlightening missionary publishing house, and in spreading wide our evangelical efforts — organizing the parishes in Madison [Ill.] and Hartshorne [Okla.]. To complete your tribute, let us mention another circumstance, which magnifies the valor of your labor and the grandeur of its results. The remoteness of your parish in Chicago has torn you from your bonds with your colleagues in America, depriving you during these years of the chance to see your brother-pastors ... You were bereft of that which for the majority of us adorns the missionary service through which we pass. How touching, and how great a degree of isolation was yours, is witnessed by the fact that you had to baptize your children yourself, because of the absence of the other priests around you ... Let this Holy Cross we present serve you as a sign of our brotherly love, and the image of our Lord’s Crucifixion on it permit you to accept the hardships, misfortunes, and sufferings that are so often met with in the life of a missionary priest, and let it encourage you to more and more labors for the glory of the Giver of Exploits and the Chief Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ.”21
Despite his successful ministry in America, Saint John desired to return to his homeland. He had only returned to Russia once during his entire ministry in America. In 1907 his application for a release from the Diocese of North America and the Aleutians was granted, and he returned home, and was assigned to the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Narva, a city which today is in Estonia, on the Russian border. He was assigned to teach theological studies in two schools in Narva, where his children were enrolled.
In 1916 Saint John was assigend to Saint Katherine’s Cathedral in Tsarskoye Selo. Only a year later, revolution would break out. On October 30 1917, the town was hit by attilery fire from the Bolsheviks, and the Cossack soldiers guarding the city were forced to retreat. Saint John would be martyred soon after by the Bolsheviks.This account of the martyrdom of Saint John Kochurov is from the website of the Orthodox Church of America:
For several days after the October 1917 seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in Petrograd, reverberations from the momentous events happening in the capital were felt in Tsarskoye Selo. Attempting to drive Gen. Paul Krasnov’s Cossack troops, which were still loyal to the Provisional Government, out of Tsarskoye Selo, the armored groups of the Red Guard — the soldiers and sailors supporting the Bolshevik upheaval — were coming there from Petrograd. On the morning of October 30, 1917, stopping at the outskirts of Tsarskoye Selo, the Bolshevik forces began to expose the town to artillery fire. The inhabitants of Tsarskoye Selo, like those in all of Russia, still did not suspect that the country was involved in a civil war. A tumult erupted, with many people running to the Orthodox churches, including Saint Katherine’s, in hopes of finding prayerful serenity at the services, and of hearing from the ambon a pastoral exhortation pertaining to the events taking place. All the clergy of Saint Katherine’s Cathedral eagerly responded to their flock spiritual entreaties, and a special Moleben, or prayer service, seeking an end to the civil conflict, was offered beneath the arches of the church, which was jammed with worshippers. Afterwards, the dean of the Cathedral, the archpriest N. Smirnov, together with two other priests, Fr. John and Fr. Steven Fokko, reached a decision to organize a sacred procession in the town, with the reading of fervent prayers for a cessation of the fratricidal civil strife. The pages of the newspaper All-Russian Church Social Messenger presented, for several days, the testimony of a certain Petrograd newspaper correspondent describing the events which had taken place, as follows: “The Sacred Procession had to be relocated under the conditions of an artillery bombardment, and notwithstanding any predictions it was rather crowded. The lamentations and cries of women and children drowned out the words of the peace prayer. Two priests delivered sermons during the procession, calling the people to preserve tranquility in view of the impending trials. I was fortunate enough to understand clearly that the priests’ sermons did not contain any political tinges.”
The Holy Procession lingered. Twilight changed into darkness. Candles were lit in the hands of the praying people. Everybody was singing.
Precisely at that time the Cossacks were withdrawing from the town. The priests were warned about it. Isn’t it time to stop the prayers?! We shall carry our duties to completion, they declared. These have departed from us, and those who are coming are our brothers! What kind of harm will they do us?!34
Wishing to prevent an outbreak of fighting in the streets of Tsarskoye Selo, the Cossack leadership began to withdraw troops from the town on the evening of October 30, and on the morning of the 31st the Bolshevik forces entered Tsarskoye Selo, encountering no opposition. One of the anonymous witnesses to the aftermath of these tragic events wrote a letter to the prominent Saint Petersburg Archpriest F. Ornatsky, who himself was destined to receive martyrdom at the hands of the godless authorities. The writer told in simple but profound words of the passion-bearing that became the destiny of Fr. John. “Yesterday (on October 31),” he wrote, “when the Bolsheviks, together with the Red Guard, entered Tsarskoye Selo, they began to make the rounds of the apartments of the military officers, making arrests. Fr. John (Alexandrovich Kochurov) was conveyed to the outskirts of the town, to Saint Theodore’s Cathedral, and there they assassinated him because of the fact that those who organized the sacred procession had allegedly been praying for a victory by the Cossacks, which surely was not, and could not have been, what actually happened. The other clergymen were released yesterday evening. Thus, there has appeared another Martyr for the Faith in Christ. The deceased, though he had not been in Tsarskoye Selo for long, had gained the utmost love of all, and many people used to gather to listen to his preaching.”35
The Petrograd journalist mentioned earlier reconstructed a terrifying picture of Fr. John’s martyrdom and its aftermath, ascertaining these details: The priests were captured and sent to the headquarters of the Council of the Working and Soldiers Deputies. A priest, Fr. John Kochurov, was trying to protest and to clarify the situation. He was hit several times on his face. With cheers and yelling the enraged mob conveyed him to the Tsarskoye Selo airdrome. Several rifles were raised against the defenseless pastor. A shot thundered out, then another, after which the priest fell down on the ground, and blood spilled upon his cassock. Death did not come to him immediately ... He was pulled by his hair, and somebody suggested, “Finish him off like a dog.” The next morning the body was brought into the former palace hospital. According to the newspaper The Peoples’ Affair, the head of the State Duma, together with one of its members, saw the body of the priest, but the pectoral cross was already gone from his breast...36
Saint John would be the first of tens of thousands of priests arrested and murdered by the Bolsheviks during their rule. Countless Orthodox laypeople also suffered and faced martyrdom, churches were destroyed and desecrated, but nonetheless the Russian Orthodox church endured, outlasting Bolshevik’s Soviet Union. In 1994, Saint John was glorified as a saint. We will read from the procalamation by Alexey, the Patriarch of Moscow:
Proclamation for the Glorification of St. John in 1994
November 29 - December 2, 1994
St. Daniel’s Monastery, Moscow, Russia
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
Cognizant of Her unbroken connection with the synaxis of the new martyrs of Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church continues to glorify individually those who, during the persecutions to which the Orthodox Church in Russia was subjected, through their righteous lives and martyrs’ death, manifested the highest ideal given to the Church of Christ by the Holy Apostle Paul: “For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord” (Rom 14:8).
The first clergyman of the Russian Orthodox Church whom Our Lord Jesus Christ made worthy of bearing a martyr’s crown in the twentieth century from the hands of the godless Bolshevik authorities, the first murdered Russian Orthodox priest, about whom the Holy Confessor Patriarch Tikhon said: “Adorned with a martyr’s crown, the reposed pastor now stands before the throne of God among the chosen faithful of Christ’s flock,” was destined to be the zealous parish priest, and inspired witness “even unto death” (Rev 12:11) of Christ’s Truth - Archpriest John Kochurov, who met a martyr’s death at the hands of apostates and fighters of God on October 31, 1917, in Tsarskoye Selo.
The Holy Council, having examined the zealous service and martyr’s death of Archpriest John Kochurov, is convinced of the holiness of his deeds and hereby decrees:
Through the intercessions and prayers of Hieromartyr John, may the Lord strengthen the faith of all the faithful of the Russian Orthodox Church and bestow His blessing upon them. Amen.
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We will end this episode with troparion and kontakion for Saint John Kocharov
Troparion — Tone 1
You were revealed to all as a true shepherd / O Hieromartyr John of Chicago, / for you nurtured your people in the Orthodox Faith, / guiding them by word and deed on the path of salvation, / and defended the Faith even unto the shedding of your blood. / Therefore, we, your spiritual children, cry out in thanksgiving: / Glory to Him who gave you strength! / Glory to Him who granted you the Martyr’s crown! / Glory to Him who through you grants mercy to all!
Kontakion — Tone 3
Now the holy Hieromartyr is glorified, / for he took up his cross and followed Christ. / In so doing, he gave us a model of true discipleship. / Therefore, let us cry aloud to him: / Rejoice, O Father John, the glory of priests!