St. John Maximovitch and the Russian Refugee Camp on Tubabao Island

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

Pilgrims going to Tubabao Island.

Pilgrims going to Tubabao Island.

Boat to Tubabao 2

Providentially, the name of the precinct is "St. John."

Providentially, the name of the precinct is “St. John.”

Cross at the landing

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.

Walking to the chapel

Walking to the chapel

Finally we turned off the road and walked into the bush until we came to the new chapel.  To the ChapelTo the chapel 2

First glimpse of the chapel.

First glimpse of the chapel.

The ChapelChapel 2Fr. Philip and the others began to hang icons in the chapel.  I went into the sanctuary and began to establish an altar and table of preparation.Chapel interior

A bench was used for the table of preparation.

A bench was used for the table of preparation.

Dn. Silouan & Fr. Seraphim before liturgyThe Orthodox enter the ChapelFr. Sava and Fr. Seraphim prepare for LiturgyPrayers before LiturgyIt was time for the Lord to act.  Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  Dn. Silouan led the people in singing the responses in Waray, the local dialect.Blessed is the KingdomDn. Silouan leads the responsesReceiving communion

The Dismissal

The Dismissal

The Faithful

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.

Emiliana with Fr. Seraphim

Emiliana with Fr. Seraphim

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.Emiliana and the flower

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. Seraphim is holding the silver cross which Meling found next to the chapel.

Fr. Seraphim is holding the silver cross which Meling found next to the chapel.

Meling and Emiliana with Fr. Seraphim

Meling and Emiliana with Fr. Seraphim

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

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25 Responses to St. John Maximovitch and the Russian Refugee Camp on Tubabao Island

  1. fr. silouan says:

    Fr. Seraphim, This is a another amazing and encouraging story. Thank you for keeping us informed of your work. Glory to God. f.s.

  2. This is a marvelous post.

  3. Dan Agulianj says:

    Father, Bless,
    What joy it brings me to hear from you of Orthodoxy in the Philippines. I had no idea that there were any Orthodox Christians there. Before I became Orthodox, I had the blessing of travelling there on four different occasions shooting ‘missionary’ films and working with many local people. They are so loving and fun! Glory to God that you are helping to bring them into The Orthodox Church. I am so blessed seeing the people and churches in your photos. And I pray for you that you can stand the tropical heat wearing those vestments!
    You are in my prayers daily, and I’m hoping to soon send along a few widow’s mites to help you along the way.

  4. Thank you Brothers for your encouragement and prayers.

  5. It was a bit of further encouragement this morning to see that journalist and Orthodox convert Rod Dreher has, as you may know, put up a post in The American Conservative with some kind words about your work and links to these pages.

  6. Archimadrite Daniel Byantoro says:

    Dear Fr Seraphim, may Asia become the Land of Orthodoxy one day. It has been my vision to reach Asia with the Gospel of truth.. Let us work together hand in hand to win Asia for Christ and His Orhodox Church. May God grace you with His Power. In Christ: Fr Daniel Byantoro

    • Alp says:

      And there is a big possibility for the fast growth of Orthodoxy in the Philippines Fathers. The only thing we need is an authentic Orthodox priest from outside who will help and guide us as we grow in the faith. We hope and pray that His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion will send a priest for us.
      We really need a priest now specially in this land that full of intrigues to stop us from the faith. Please pray for us.

  7. Rj Ionas says:

    Feels good to know that there is Orthodoxy in other parts of the Philippines.

    I’m Jonah of Malabon, newly baptised just this September 21 this year. Also my birthday.
    Annunciation Church in Paranaque. Greek Orthodox.

  8. Thank you for this amazing article. I had no idea what was currently happening on Tobabao – home of my childhood at the age of 7 when I was one of the Russian refugees living there.
    I have always yearned to go back there, especially after an invitation from Mayor Annaliza Kwan.
    My family was always close to Saint John in Shanghai & Philippines, my wife’s father being Reader for Saint John and grandmother being in charge of the orphanage in Shanghai under the patronage of Saint John.
    Our scouts used to always be blessed by Saint John whenever we went on a hike or journey on Tababao. Maybe one day I will return to Tobabao. We remember the kindness of the Filipino people.

  9. Miguel Balboa Mendoza says:

    I didn’t know that there was a Chapel of the Mother of God in Tubabao during the Russian refugees’ time there. What I know is that there were two Orthodox churches, that started as tents, the Church of St. Michael the Archangel and the Church of St. Seraphim. I was told that there was also a Baptist church there. And, by the way, the barrio of San Juan (St. John) is on the Tubabao end of the WWII American bridge that spanned the narrow strait between Tubabao and Guiuan which was destroyed during Typhoon Amy on December 9, 1951. It directly faces Tangay (a part of Lupok) in Guiuan, hence its former name, Umatubang (“across” in Waray-Waray). Its other former name is Bangkerohan on account of the “bangkeros” (boatmen) and their dugout boats on both sides of the strait that regularly ferried passengers to and from Tubabao and Guiuan, after Typhoon Amy. Mention the names Umatubang and Bangkerohan in either Tubabao or Lupok, and people there will still know the place being referred to.

    • Hi Miguel, always good to read what you have to say about the Russians on Tubabao!
      Regarding churches on Tubabao: I remember a small church that I attended which was located inside the Russian Camp, it was in a tent, surrounded by on all sides by tents that were occupied by Russian immigrants. I remember attending a service there with the rest of the St. Tichon’s Orphanage orphans, I remember singing with the choir director who immigrated to Australia.
      As you know, later, there was a big Russian Orthodox church, outside the Russian tent city on Tubabao, it was a distance to walk as I remember walking there on Easter night. This was a large church, with plenty of room around it for big celebrations, holidays, etc… There was a separate Bell Tower that I remember which I
      enjoyed very much and looked forward to Easter when I would ring those bells, which was permitted to do all day on Easter Sunday! Inside the church, on the right side, there was a space for an impressive choir in which together with my Sister Tamara Bordokoff,
      I remember singing every Sunday. You probably know, Miguel, that the two Icons from this church’s Alter are in the Holy Virgin Cathedral on Geary Street in San Francisco, located on the first balcony where the Second Choir Sings for the early Liturgies on Sundays.
      I remember two other churches in the Russian Camp on Tubabao. One of them we passed on our way from the Sunday services. I was very curious and looked inside the church through the window. It was a Catholic Church, with pews and an organ in the back on the right side.This was not a tent, but a wooden building. I never saw any people inside. Perhaps on one occasion, I saw a vocalist and organist only..

      The other church that I was aware of, was a Russian Baptist Church. While being given a hair cut, in a tent, I was invited by the barber to join their services.

      So, I remember three churches inside the Russian Camp City, all situated among the tents on Tubabao. The Russian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and the Baptist Church. The fourth big church, a building, not a tent, outside the Russian Camp City
      was outside the camp.

      Miguel, it was good to see you on when I gave a concert, ” Thank you Philippines ” on behalf of all the Russian Immigrants, 6,000 to 8,000, on the Town Square of Guiuan!

      Best Wishes,
      Nikolai Massenkoff
      Orphan, Alter Boy, Choir Director of St. John’s Orphanage in Shanghai, Tubabao and San Francisco.
      ” World celebrated singer, director of Massenkoff Russian Folk Festival of Russian song, music and dance……” Olympic Stadium, Seoul, Korea

      • Yes, I recall marching with the scouts to the large church outside the camp. There was also a church in a building just outside the Hospital District. It seemed to be always empty. As for the St Tikon Zadonsk orphanage in Shanghai, I’m pleased to say that my wife’s grandmother (Valentina Vrjosseck) was in charge of that. I have very happy memories of Tobabao and thank the Philippines for giving us shelter.

  10. Yes, there was church building. It was near a sports oval ( now covered by jungle) where our scouts held a jamboree together with the Filipino Scouts.
    On a different holiday in 1949 all the Russian Scouts marched along a lengthy road to the church where a service was held by Saint John. There are photos of our scouts approaching the church building and inside the church. I will try to locate them.
    I remember the two occasions vividly.

  11. Leo O Zakharoff says:

    My family and I were on Tubabao in 1949. I was 7 years old and have vague memories. I am married to a Filipina and we live in Pampanga on Luzon, about 30 minutes from Clark Air Base. We live six month in the Philippines and six months in Santa Rosa, California.

    My wife and I were in Guiuan several years ago for a concert by Nikolai Massenkoff, as a “Thank you Philippines”, performed in the town square in Guiuan. There is a small museum right off the main square of the Russian Tubabao refugees.

    Misha Anissimov, who also is married to a Filipina and lives on Cebu. Misha made a video of the concert and our journey to Tubabao. Misha teaches at the University in Cebu.

    It was a wonderful concert on October 2011.

    I was a Razvechick in San Francisco from 1956 to 1961. I have lifelong friends of being a Russian Scout.

    If anyone who would like to visit us and spend a few days in our home in Pampanga, please get in touch with me. My email is: I would love to meet you…


    • Dear Leo,
      It was with interest that I read your account about Tobabao & there after.
      I too was on Tobabao in 1949 and am the same age as you. Also I was pleased that you were in the scouts. Was Scm. Alex Kniaseff your leader in those days ?
      I was invited back to Tobabao for a fiesta in 2009 by Mayor Annaliza Kwan but due to health was unable to make the trip so Annaliza and her entourage came here to Sydney. The Tobabao Russian crowd hosted a luncheon for her.
      I recall vividly my scout days on Tobabao marching to the church which is now a rebuilt chapel – that is if it is still stading after the typhoon. hank you for your invitation to come to visit you. Maybe some day I will be able to make the trip.
      My regards,
      Snr. Scm. Nikita The Chief Russian Scouts – NORS

  12. Elizabeth Watson says:

    Liz Watson (born Lubove Vasilievna Gladyshev)
    I am a Russian born Australian, living in NSW. I left Shanghai in 1949 at the age of 15 for Australia. I am looking for any of my Russian relatives by the name of Gladyshev. I am not sure whether they went to Tubabao or not. I would be delighted if anyone remembers a family of Gladyshevs, and if so, do you know where they went to.

  13. kristine says:

    I am glad that you have a church in tubabao island. Just want to know if this chapel was affected by recent typhoon. Hope it is not. Just read the orthodox church today, and found out that I have a common belief as yours. However, hard to find any orthodox church in our place,south of manila. Is there any way of being a part of your congregation. Or might have a knowledge of your teaching to increase my faith.

    • orthodoxnepal says:

      Dear Kristine, we will be pleasantly surprised if the chapel at Tubabao survived the storm. It was a simple building of woven nipa palm. But the frame is made of hardwood and the concrete foundation has lasted many decades. If necessary we can build the chapel again – but the people who are homeless and hungry because of the storm are still in need. I’m sure you are already remembering the the people of Tubabao island, Samar and Leyte in your prayers.

      The best way to learn about Orthodoxy is to come and see and worship with us. There are a number of Orthodox parishes in and around Manila. Here is a directory: Missionaries of Saint Ignatius Of Antioch. I am sure any of these clergymen would be very happy to hear from you!

  14. Anna Mae Junio says:

    Tobabao Island was completely destroyed by the recent typhoon. Islanders are still in dire condition and in need of livelihood assistance. All their houses, fishing nets and boats are completely destroyed. Help is urgently needed.

  15. Misha Anissimov says:

    Very interesting work you are doing in the part of the world, Otets Seraphim. The idea of creating an Orthodox enclave in Tubabao and in the Philippines is interesting and exciting. If ever you need a place to stay during your future visits to the Cebu, Philippines, please contact me.. There is actually a sizeable number of Russians living and working in Cebu, mostly in the tourist industry accommodating Russian tourists. We also have a Russian Consul here, Armi Garcia. By the way, my Filipina wife is an expert in making piroshki !

  16. Kira Kellerman says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post and sharing the pics. So heartwarming.

  17. Oleg Reoutt says:

    I lived on Tubabao as well, from March 49 to November 50. Was very active in the scouts and was one of eight young men who graduated high school there. For a teenager, Tubabao was heaven on earth.
    Thank you Phillipines!

  18. Alex Arcega says:

    This is a very informative and remarkable post.
    I was born and raised in the Philippines and moved to the U.S. many years ago, but never come across the “White Russian” refugees story in Tubabao Island, Samar, until now (2015). I was in St. Petersburg, RU in 2013. I so adored the Orthodox Churches and, yes, hopefully a permanent Orthodox Church structure can be built in Tubabao Island soon. Thanks for the ministry of the Orthodox Church.

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