Saint John was born on 4 June 1896 in the village Adamovka in the province of Kharkov in Southern Russia. He was a descendent of the aristocratic family Maximovitch, a member of which was pronounced a saint in 1916, the hierarch John Maximovitch, Metropolitan of Tobolsk, whose incorrupt relics are in Tobolsk to this day. This holy hierarch reposed at the beginning of the 18th century but he carried the torch of his grace to his distant nephew, Michael (the baptismal name of Saint John, who later received the name of his uncle when he was tonsured a monk). His father Boris was a marshal of the nobility in a region of Kharkov and his uncle was rector at the University of Kiev. His relationship with his parents was always excellent. Throughout his youth, Michael was sickly and ate very little. He was a quiet kid, very polite and deeply religious. When he played he would dress his play soldiers as monks, collect icons and religious books and enjoyed reading about the lives of the Saints. At night he would stand praying for long periods. Because he was the eldest of five siblings, it was he who knew the lives of the Saints very well and became their first teacher of the Faith. He was very austere with himself in the application of ecclesiastic and national traditions. So much did he impress his teacher, who was a French woman and Catholic, that she was influenced by young Michael’s Christian life and was baptized Orthodox.
He had a country house near a monastery where little Michael would visit often. At the age of 11 his parents Boris and Glaphyra sent him to the Military School of Poltava where he continued to live, with his faith deeply rooted. For when kids are absent from their home for long time, their youthful souls are easily influenced. He, however, remained steadfast in his faith. There he also met the Bishop of Poltava, Theophan, a much loved hierarch, who influenced Michael. At a military parade while passing by the cathedral, little Michael (who was 13 then) crossed himself, and his classmates laughed at him and mocked him, and he was punished by his officers for the action. However Prince Constantine, who was a benefactor of the school, told them not to punish cadet Michael for with his action he showed deep and healthy religious feelings. In 1914, he completed the military school and wished to continue his studies at the Theological School of Kiev. However, his parents insisted that he go to law school and Michael obeyed them. His classmates observed that he read about the lives of the saints even more than his lessons and yet he was a good student. Time passed and he completed his studies. However, at that time the anti-Christian movement had started to spread in Russia, but Michael had deep faith inside him and he was bold. The ecclesiastic council of Kharkov was discussing whether to take down the silver bell of the church to melt it.
They all agreed to do it. Others were afraid to go against the decision and were getting ready to do this but the saint, together with a few others, disagreed and arrests started. His parents told him to leave and hide but Michael told them: “There does not exist a place where one can hide from the will of God and that without the will of God nothing happens, not even one strand of hair can fall from our heads”. So he was jailed and after a month they set him free. He was then re-arrested and after having determined that he could not care less whether he was free or jailed, they discharged him. Michael lived in a different world and yearned for God. In 1921, his whole family left (as civil war broke out in Russia) and went to Yugoslavia where he studied in Belgrade at the theological school. To pay for his upkeep, he sold newspapers. In 1924, he was tonsured a reader of the Russian Church in Belgrade by Bishop Anthony and in 1926 he was ordained a deacon and was tonsured a monk with the name John, at the Monastery of Milkov. Later until 1934 he was appointed to the seminary in the city of Milkov, in Serbia. There he also celebrated the liturgy in Greek for the Greeks of the region who loved him very much. There, at the seminary he cared very much for his students. He would go to their rooms at night and would cover them, cross them and leave. He would never sleep in a bed and during the few hours he relaxed at night, he slept sitting up or kneeling on the ground in front of his icons.
While his students would leave for holidays to their homes, they would speak with awe about their teacher Vladika John, who was always praying and had never slept in a bed, fasted strictly and performed the liturgy and communed daily. In 1934, they decided to elect him Bishop. The Saint refused and told them that he had a problem with his speech. They replied that even Moses had a problem and they elected him and consecrated him Bishop of Shanghai. On November 21, 1934 he arrived in Shanghai and found a partly built church and some problems among the inhabitants there which he tried to resolve so that peace would return to the area. He organized an orphanage which he dedicated to Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk who loved kids. He gathered the sick, poor and hungry kids from the streets and the alleys of Shanghai. He started with 8 kids and by the end the number of children reached 3,500. When the communists came there too he took the kids to the Philippines and later to America. He would eat once a day at 11 o’clock at night. During the the first and last week of Great Lent he would eat absolutely nothing and for the rest of the fast (as well as during the Christmas fast) he would only eat prosphora.
At night he prayed a lot and when he felt exhausted, he would go into the kneeling position, place his head on the floor and sleep for a while before he went to the Divine Liturgy, even when he was sick. He was not only a great ascetic but God granted him the grace of foresight and his prayers brought healing. He would visit the sick daily, confess and commune them. With the seriously sick patients he would stand beside them for hours praying and kneeling and many times miracles would happen. When the communists arrived in China, the Russians left for America, and in 1951 the holy one left too, taking his flock with him. The Bishops of the Synod decided to send him to the Bishopric of Paris and Brussels. The Saint performed liturgies in French and Dutch as he had earlier in Greek, Chinese and English. He would not allow women who wore lipstick to kiss the icons and the Holy Cross. One of his spiritual daughters, Zenaida Zouliem, who cared for him in France, tells us of some instances about the foresight of the Saint.
She said, “I met the Saint for the first time at his house in Versailles, a cell that was smaller than a small room, with small boxes with letters, a table, a sofa and a bag of dry prosphora. He wore sandals or slippers and many times he was barefoot because he would give them to the poor. He did not wear socks no matter what the weather conditions were. She told him that she was going to a certain region to work and she came to get a blessing. However, the saint told her to go to another region to work and so it happened, as if he knew it ahead of time. She met him in 1958 and her father had died in 1957. Before he died he told her: “This evening a short monk in black visited me.” Questioning who it could possibly be, for he did not know Saint John then. “When I met him,” Zenaida said, “one day while I was at his house thinking to myself, ‘what a pity. If I had known him then, when my father was sick, I would have prayed and he would have gotten well again.’” The Saint then turned to her and told her, “You know I visited your father when he was sick at the hospital.” And he opened his small notebook and found on a page the name of my father, Basil Zouliem. “How was it possible for him to know my thoughts if he did not have the gift of foresight? Then I knew it was not the will of God for my Father to live any longer.”
“Many times I wanted to ask him about many things but he was busy and at night when it would have been more convenient to ask him, I would forget the questions. And while having his soup, he would whisper and I would hear everything I wanted to learn from the questions I had wanted to ask him. The Saint would answer them as if he had known them. When I learned that he would soon be leaving for San Francisco I became very sad and while he was talking to us in Church, I was crying. He turned to me and told me, ‘People that have the same goals and struggle for the achievement of the same thing, have unity of soul and do not feel the distance of separation, and the distance cannot become an obstacle to the spiritual union of people of a united soul.’ I immediately calmed down. When he was praying at the Holy Altar the ‘Uncreated Light’ would engulf him and he would not step on the ground. He always sprinkled the Church with holy water, as well as the mail box where he dropped his letters himself, having crossed them first. Then he would walk barefooted in the snow or in the rain, to drop them off. When he departed to America and the letter box was changed with another new one, I was saddened and later when the Saint returned to France for a short while, I saw him take holy water and sprinkle the new mail box without me telling him anything.” One day passing by the Church, she heard loud weeping. She continued towards the iconostasis, looked inside and saw the Saint in a kneeling position behind the Holy Altar crying loudly about the problems of others. Her soul could not endure his crying and she silently left the Church.
Before leaving for America he told her, “When you, Zenaida, or someone else is sick, inform me to come. And truly when they read the Paraclesis they were healed. On November 21, 1962 they sent him to San Francisco as a bishop of the Russian Church Abroad. Around his neck he tied a leather pouch with the icon of the Theotokos inside, which he had brought from Russia. When he visited the sick he would read the salutations to the Theotokos and a miracle would happen. He loved children very much and he regarded them with tenderness and nobody could forget his warm stare. When he looked at you, you knew that at that moment you were the most loved person in the world. He used to walk barefoot even on the roughest cement in the park in Versailles. He ate once a day at 11 p.m. and only if someone had prepared something, otherwise he would omit even this. He performed the Divine Liturgy daily and the Holy Disc was always full because he would commemorate a long list of names. For he would empty pieces of paper with names from every pocket, and every day more names would be added from the letters he received asking him to pray for them. At the Great Entrance of the Holy Gifts he would reread the names and other new ones which they had given him in the mean time and therefore take a long time. After the Divine Liturgy he would remain in the Church for hours. He would clean the Holy Chalice, the Holy Disc, the Holy Altar and the Holy Prothesis with great care. Meanwhile he would eat some prosphora and drink plenty of hot water. He would read the letters he received he in the afternoon after the Divine Liturgy having a trustworthy person open them just in case there was an urgent need in some letter. Many times he would say the content of the letters before he read them, since he had the gift of foresight. Many times when he was in Shanghai, he would walk about at night and would offer bread and money to the homeless and beggars, even to drunks.
On Saturday, July 2, 1966, the Saint departed from this life. He had gone to Seattle with the miraculous icon of the Theotokos of Kursk of the Sign. As soon as he completed the Divine Liturgy and having prayed for 3 hours in the sanctuary, he went to his room to relax, sat on his arm chair and at 10 minutes to 4 p.m. he peacefully reposed into eternity without any pain. A noise was heard and when they entered the room they found him fallen down from his arm chair. It was said that he knew the day of his repose and was aware that his death was approaching so he had prepared himself like the great Saints of our Church. For this reason, on the day of his repose, he sent a letter with his blessings to the nuns of Lesna in France, who had helped him so much. Almost 24 hours later his body arrived at the Cathedral Church of San Francisco, which he had completed himself. He was received by the clergy and an all night vigil was performed which lasted for 4 hours – where they read the Psalter the whole night and all stayed up with him for the last time. The people came to venerate and greet their Bishop for the last time.
All the hierarchs who knew him spoke of his ascetic life. A life full of spiritual struggle, having never laid down in a bed for 40 years, since he became a monk, sleeping only one to two hours at night either standing or kneeling and bending down to the ground. And many times while asleep for a short time, he would answer the phone normally as someone who happened to be with him in his room testified. While speaking the phone fell a little bit above his knees and he answered as if he could hear the caller while still sleeping. They all felt they were left orphans, for the Saint showed compassion and great love to all of them. They buried him on July 7 in the afternoon. His body showed no sign of decomposition after so many days and everyone touched him with crosses, flowers and infants to receive his blessing, and some hierarchs their epitrachilia (stoles).
The Church was dedicated to the Theotokos, “The Joy of All Who Sorrow”. Here he served God and the people and here he reposed. After the last embrace, his holy body was carried in a litany around the church three times. His coffin was carried by the orphans the Saint had saved and had brought to Shanghai. One hierarch likened the litany of the saint with the litany of the Holy Sepulcher of Christ during Good Friday. He was buried in a small basement chapel under the sanctuary. They all called to mind Saint Seraphim of Sarov who had promised them that after his repose he would hear their prayers and their sorrows as if he was still living. Thus they would often go to his tomb. In the fall of 1993, the Synod of Bishops of America with the presiding Archbishop Anthony of San Francisco, having performed a pannikida (memorial service) at the tomb of the Saint, decided to re-open it. As soon as they opened the cover of the tomb, the coffin being a bit rusted since it was metallic; they then opened the coffin with fear of God and prayer. The face of the Saint was covered with some cloth and their sight fell on the incorrupt hands of the Saint. They uncovered his face and discovered that his face was also incorrupt. A heavenly spiritual peace, a pious silence spread everywhere. They all experienced the moment of divine Grace in front of the Saint of God. It was decided on July 2 of the following year, 1994, to officially proclaim him a Saint. God has not abandoned us and has sent us a great Saint to intercede for us close to the throne of God in these years of widespread apostasy.
The Cathedral Church with its golden domes, dedicated to the Theotokos, “The Joy of those who Sorrow,” is located on Geary Avenue between the 26th and 27th Streets and dominates the north-western side of San Francisco. The church is visible from many points of the city, whether one approaches from the sea or from the Golden Gate Bridge. The tomb is two floors under the altar. One descends to an underground chapel with a low ceiling depicting the Almighty, with icons on the walls and a glossy marble floor. The faithful have come here every day since his repose, and pray at his tomb. Thousands of the faithful visit the Saint, some send him letters and ask his help and his intercessions. They ask for the melted wax from the candles that burn at his tomb and a few drops of oil from the lamps that burn there.
Every year on the July 2, a Divine Liturgy is performed and crowds of people come to his chapel. In the center is the sepulchre which is covered with the saint’s mandya (cape) and around it are candelabras with lit candles. At the head of the sepulchre is the saint’s mitre and his shepherd’s staff is at the foot of the sepulchre. There is a lectern with the Psalter that is read by the faithful when they go to the Saint to tell him their problems. On another lectern close by is the icon of the Entrance of the Theotokos which was dedicated by a family from China to the Saint. The woman along with her mother had made a vow to donate this icon, their heirloom, to the Saint at his tomb, out of gratitude for his help. This icon had special meaning for the Saint, without them knowing about it, because in our life nothing happens by chance. The Saint liked the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos very much: his tonsure having been done at a Monastery in Yugoslavia dedicated to the feast of the Entrance. Also on the day of the Entrance he went to Shanghai as bishop to a Church of the Theotokos called “The Sinners Salvation.” And again on the Entrance he came to San Francisco as a bishop. When this woman got married she went to San Francisco and bore a son, John. Later when he was enlisted in the army and was to be sent to the war in Vietnam, and having great reverence for Saint John, went to his tomb and left him a picture he had of the Saint, on his bishop’s mitre that is on the Sepulchre. A few days later he took it back as a blessing, put it in the pocket of his uniform on the side of his heart and went to war. And from he wrote to his mother, her officer son, the Saint protected him and no bullets hit him. Once his unit was captured and he got away, a bomb fell close to them, the others were wounded seriously but he remained unharmed.
The oil lamp over the Sepulchre of the Saint burns continuously. They all go there with the faith of a child to speak to the Saint, to grieve over their sorrows and the he listens to them and helps them. The Saint wants us to continue praying and not to forget to commemorate the reposed, as testified from an occurrence when he appeared to someone in a dream, telling him, “Pray for the reposed.” He also appeared to a deacon and told him that, “I am very happy that you pray for the sick, always pray and visit the sick.” To a certain lady who saw him in her dream, he told her, “Tell the people that even though I have died I am still alive.” A nurse narrates that one night a gravely ill person was asking the Saint to come to him as he felt he was dying. However, there was a terrible storm and the wind that was blowing cut the power. The phones were not working either and the nurse told him they could not notify him and that somebody would go to the Bishop in the morning. Within half an hour, banging was heard at the entrance of the hospital and when the guard, who was half asleep, asked who it was, the Saint told him: “Open the gate, I am Bishop John, they invited me and are expecting me.” The guard opened and the Saint passed through the corridor fast and asked the nurse, “Who is the sick one who is expecting me, take me to him.” How did the Saint read the mind of the patient and went through the storm to the hospital to be beside him? He was clairvoyant and he defied everything for the sick. Since he would often travel by plane, and his body also arrived from Seattle to San Francisco by plane, he is considered patron of those traveling by plane and because someone escaped injury from a car accident, he is also considered a patron of travelers.
A speech therapist teacher, Anna, had helped the Saint in Shanghai. She was teaching him to pronounce the vowels correctly, because he had a problem with his lower jaw and could not correctly pronounce words. Due to the strict fasting, his constitution was exhausted and his lower jaw hung a lot. He always gave her $20 after each visit. When he would start the fast, his defect would start again and she would visit him more often. In 1945, she was seriously wounded during the war and she would ask him to come to the hospital to commune her. However, the weather was bad and stormy. It was between 10 and 11 p.m. and the doctors told her that this cannot be done because due to the war the hospital closed after sunset. They would inform the bishop in the morning. “I was screaming ‘come Vladika’ and suddenly the door of the hall opened and the Saint came in all wet from the rain. I touched him because I thought that it was his ghost. He smiled, communed me and I fell asleep. Later when I awoke, I told them that the Saint had come and communed me. They didn’t believe me and told me that the hospital was closed after sunset and the door was shut.” Another patient told them that the Saint had really come but they would not believe her either. And while the nurse who would not believe her was arranging her pillow, she found 20 dollars under it. When the Saint came he left her money for she had nothing during that time. The years passed and when the Saint had left for San Francisco, she went there too wishing the Saint to chant and officiate at her funeral. And in fact, in 1968, she died on the evening of the Transfiguration from gas poisoning at her home. Another lady, Olga, dreamt that evening that the Saint was inside the Church and was censing a coffin with Anna in it and chanting the funeral service very beautifully. In this way the Saint fulfilled her wish. In the morning Olga learned that Anna had passed away that night.
He had entrusted Zenaida with the administration of the free meals to the poor, and arranged for her to take money from the account of the Archbishop, a sum of 20 dollars every month for this purpose. One day he gave her as a gift 10 french francs. “I spent everything for that purpose,” Zenaida said, “and in fact during that month I had many expenses and owed 70 dollars. I did not know what to do. I prayed to the Saint (because he was away in America) and I asked him to help me. I told him, ‘I do what you asked me to, but now I have many problems, help me.’” And in the morning the mailman gave her a letter from the account of the Archbishop. She thought that it was the usual 20 dollars, but when she opened it she found 70 dollars, exactly what she owed. She thus went and paid off her debts and wrote a letter of thanks, and the following month it was the usual 20 dollars. The amount was sent by the Saint. Before he left he placed her in charge of the care of an orphan, Vladimir. But partly due to the administration of the free meals and partly due to her aged mother and uncle, she had a nervous breakdown and she started asking the Saint to help her manage. “I’m going to give up,” she would say. “I cannot take it anymore.” That night she saw the Saint in her dream come to her house, but he only blessed her. In the morning the mailman brought her a parcel, a journal with the image of the Saint on it as she had seen it in her dream, and on the cover there was a note: “To Zenaida”. She immediately became happy and was strengthened to continue her struggles. Another time he saved her from certain death. One day while she was planning to go out, she looked outside her window and saw something like a small tube among some cars, and being overtaken by curiosity she got dressed to go down there to see it, to kick it. Then at that moment there was a knock at the door, she opened and it was the Saint. He came in, sat in the armchair for five minutes and left without saying anything to her. Then she went over to the window again and she saw policemen on the road carefully removing this strange thing. She quickly went down and learned that it was a bomb. She would have been killed if she had kicked it, had Saint John not delayed her.
A sick lady with a heart problem was wearing a badge with Saint John on it and one day she fainted in church. The chanter then crossed her with the badge and prayed to Saint John to make her well and she immediately recovered.
Zenaida describes how one day her mother cooked a meal, “vereniki”, which is made with some sort of baked dough with cheese, and is commonly eaten in Russia and was intended for Bishop John. Her uncle saw it on the table and wanted some, but Zenaida took the vereniki to the Saint. The Saint ate very little of the food she brought to him but he did not touch the vereniki at all. Zenaida pressed him to eat some of it but he didn’t, as he knew that her uncle had wanted it.
Once she thought of going to him to ask for a blessing to go to a monastery. That night she saw him in her dream and he would not bless her. While looking at the wall he told her, “For his sake stay” and then the wall opened and out came a baby. She started crying and woke up and in a few days the wife of her brother bore a child but within a month she got sick with tuberculosis and died and her brother gave her his son to raise him. That is why the Saint had answered her this way. Zenaida feels the Saint so close to her even now that he is dead. Once she was planning to go to America with her nephew but he had spent his money, since he thought that his aunt had enough money. But she did not have enough for the tickets. A certain archimandrite she knew had sent her a little money in memory of the beloved Bishop John. So they decided to go but her nephew had spent his money, so she started praying to the Saint to help him. She said, “If you believe that this trip will be good for Philip, help us.” That same day she received a note from the post office with 7,700 francs in her name, exactly the sum she needed for the tickets. She went to the post office and she was told that she could cash out the money immediately the same day. And she cashed it without even having her ID. “I thanked the Saint who always helps me,” she said. She wanted to buy crystal vigil candle holders from the USA (because she could not find them in France). Unfortunately, she always forgot to buy them when she toured the USA. As soon as she went to the tomb of the Saint, she immediately remembered and she later went to buy them, for the Saint had reminded her. May we all have the blessing of Saint John.
Source: Holy Philotheos of Paros, Issue 23, May – August 2008.
Publication of “Orthodox Kypseli” Thessaloniki.
Translation by the Holy Monastery of Pantokrator