Sunday 8 (NS) September 2013
On this day of the Feast of the Vladimir icon of the Theotokos, a Divine Liturgy was served in the chapel of the Mother of God on Tubabao Island. The new chapel is located on the site of the previous chapel of the Mother of God, built by the Russian refugees who lived on the island from 1949-51; the same chapel in which St. John Maximovitch concelebrated during his stay there. This was the first Liturgy to be served on the island in 62 years.
A small group of Orthodox pilgrims made their way from the city of Leyte to the town of Guian. Included in the group were the 10 newly baptized Christians from the ROCOR parish of St. Nikolai Velimirovich in Palo together with Fr. Sava Salinas, a priest of the Antiochian Archdiocese in Leyte, Fr. Philip Balingit, administrator of the ROCOR parishes in the Philippines, my co-laborer Fr. Dn. Silouan Thompson, a young journalist and TV presenter, the head of the local tourist association, and lastly and certainly least of all, I was blessed to be the celebrant of the liturgy.
We arrived in Guian on Saturday evening. Early Sunday morning at 5:45 am, we made our way to the docks and took a small boat across the water to the island of Tubabao
From the landing on Tubabao, it is a short walk of about 1.6 kilometers. We walked down the same road that was used by the Russian refugees during their stay, passing the bamboo huts of the islanders on our way.
At the conclusion of the service, icon cards were distributed to the faithful and the visitors (happily, a number of the local islanders attended the service). The obligatory pictures were taken and then it was time to leave. That is when something very unexpected happened.
As I was about to leave, Fr. Philip introduced me to an elderly woman, a resident of the island. “Father,” he said, “this is Emiliana. She remembers the Russians from when they were here.” I was very surprised to be meeting such a person and listened to her with joy. She explained to me that she was a child of 7 years when the Russians came to her island. She then smiled and greeted me with “Dobry utro!” Smiling again she said “Dobry den.” “These phrases I remember from the Russians” she said.
She told me that the Russians would ask her and the other children to gather flowers for the chapel. In exchange for the flowers, they were given bread; something she still remembers very fondly. Later, as we passed by her home on our way to the docks, she greeted me with one of the flowers and said “these are the flowers that they asked us to bring. They’re called ‘lag lag.” Their English name is the “remembrance flower” according to Emiliana.
But there were more surprises. The elderly man who lives next to the chapel is a catechumen of the Orthodox Church. His name is Meling. A few weeks ago, Meling was clearing the land next to the chapel, on the site where the Russians established a convent, and where it is hoped that one day a new Russian Orthodox monastery will be established. As he dug around the area, he found a silver baptismal cross. Clearly this cross had once belonged to one of the Russian refugees. Now it will be worn by Meling when he is baptized.
Fr. Philip informed me that there are others who remember the refugees. One of them is a 90 year old man at the other end of the island. Unfortunately, he was not able to attend the liturgy. When Fr. Philip (who is of course Filipino) met him and introduced himself as a Russian Orthodox monk, the man replied “no, you’re not Russian. The Russians are very big.” Fr. Philip showed the man an icon of St. John Maximovitch. The old man said “yes, I met him. But he was small like us Filipinos. The other Russians were very big.” Clearly he had met our St. John.
With that we started down the road to the docks and our return to Leyte and from there our flight back to Manila. Several of the children ran along side us all the way back to the boat. The islanders who had attended the liturgy took my blessing and waved goodbye, smiling with warmth and affection. All along the road we were greeted with “bye Father” “come again Father.”
As we walked down the old road, I reflected on the fact that the Russian Orthodox had now returned to Tubabao. It seemed fitting that the first Russian Orthodox to serve the Divine Liturgy on Tubabao since St. John himself were not in fact Russians, but rather Americans and Filipinos who had converted to the Orthodox Faith. St. John himself believed that the Russian Orthodox who had been forced to flee their homeland because of the Communist persecution, had in fact been scattered around the globe by the Hand of God’s Providence in order to plant the seeds of Orthodoxy in distant lands. Now we American and Filipino Orthodox, members of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, represent some of the fruit of that Divine scattering, and by the Providence of God, we have come to reestablish an Orthodox presence where one of God’s Saints once lived and prayed. We all hope that the chapel will one day become a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox faithful who love and venerate St. John. Holy Hierarch John, pray to God for us. – Archpriest Seraphim Bell