Parish Life. By Olga Lawes Melikoff (2007)


A modest church on a modest street in Montreal will be the centre of attention this autumn of 2007, and rightfully so.  St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral is celebrating the hundredth year of its existence and 82nd year in this location on Champlain Street at the corner of René Lévesque.  Others will tell the church’s history with facts and figures, but as one of its elder parishioners, I have multiple reminiscences that cover three quarters of this time span, reminiscences that coincide with my own growth from childhood to maturity, and thereby affect my interpretation of events and personalities. I am pleased to be able to contribute to the parish story, and though my reminiscences depend on memory, with the addition of some archives that were in my family’s possession and discussions with some friends who have travelled at least part of the same route with me, I will not pretend to give a complete or even a sequential account, but rather how the parish experience over the decades, especially the less known thirties and forties, appeared to me, a parishioner whose rights of passage all took place in this Cathedral and for whom it has always been a spiritual anchor. I will not attempt to interpret or describe any of the strictly ecclesiastical aspects of our church’s story, but only share my experience of parish life over the years.

I was baptized at St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral in the late twenties and, subsequently, was married there, my children and my grandchildren were baptized there, and my loved ones buried, all in accordance with the church’s ageless rituals.

As a child in the thirties, for me the church was full of mystery —  visual, auditory and even olfactory. It was also a place which demanded infinite patience to endure the long services. In those days it took my mother, my two sisters and me well over an hour just to get to the church by streetcar from our home in western Montreal. Sometimes we had to stop along the way because I would suffer from motion sickness! Once arrived, we entered another world, far removed from our everyday life. The culmination of the church calendar was, of course, Lent and  Easter, which remain among my most vivid memories. My friends in the English community in which I lived had no comparable experience, which left me feeling both enriched and different from them. With the passage of time I grew to appreciate more and more the particular gifts of Orthodoxy in providing the experience of sacred space and time, sacred music and art — a place apart. Our church has been a faithful steward of Orthodox traditions, thanks to the devotion of many parishioners and clergy over the hundred-year period. All too humanly, the parish has had its ups and downs, many of which I witnessed, but it seems to me that throughout the years the parish has always rallied to ensure that minor dissents do not come in the way of the higher purpose of the church.  Some wonderful people have participated in the growth of the Cathedral, some of whom I will recall here though, of necessity, only those I knew personally. Nearly all came originally from Russian or Ukrainian ancestry and from all walks of life, arriving in what may be described as three different waves, and largely in response to political events in Russia and Europe.

In the thirties, the parish members I first came to know were mostly immigrants and their children who migrated to Canada in search of a better life before 1920. Their struggle to adjust and make a living in the new country was very real. A friend, whose father came here before the Revolution of 1917, reported that he and others like himself could only put a few pennies on the collection plate on a Sunday. Their efforts to feed and clothe their children, unassisted by any government  handouts, was a constant burden; employment was not easy to come by for those who knew neither English or French. Families were often separated for years, while the husbands, arriving first, tried to save enough money to bring out their wives, and sometimes small children, from the old country. It was these people who first formed our church and to whom we owe so much for their vision and  determination, and for carrying the burden of financing the church year after year. I knew their children as contemporaries, and I heard much about their difficult early lives and the sacrifices  made by their parents.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and Civil War following brought a rush of emigration from Russia, mostly by way of Europe but also China, and a number of refugees made their way to Canada. The original parish increased in numbers to the point where this present church was bought from the Anglican community in 1924 to better accommodate the members — a real act of faith in the future and a determination to hold on to a rich tradition. My own parents arrived in Montreal in 1925, from Russia via England. My mother, Ekaterina Semyonovna Lawes, was from Archangel in northern Russia. In her youth, Father John of Krondstadt visited Archangel from his home base in St. Petersburg. Addressing a crowd of people, he pointed to my mother, then a girl of nine, and said:  “You will do a lot for the church.” The words were prophetic, or maybe my mother felt it was her duty to live up to them, but from the time of her arrival in the summer of 1925 until her death in 1978, she made our church her greatest responsibility after her family.

With her considerable organizational skills and the assistance of a nucleus of energetic women and the support of Father Inna, the priest at the time, she started the St. Catherine Sisterhood in 1934 when she was 39 years old,  and devoted over 30 years of her life to being its President. My father, an Englishman by birth but who spoke Russian fluently as a result of spending five years in Russia, fully supported her endeavours. I distinctly remember my mother preparing her speeches for the Sisterhood (whose membership at one point reached 100) by reading her notes out loud in our living room, starting with the familiar “Dorogiye Syostri”, “Dear Sisters”. I suspect she planted the fear of God in them with her strong delivery. When she returned home after meetings, I remember her lying on the sofa with a damp cloth on her forehead and taking a few drops of “valerianka!” Committee meetings were less taxing and occurred regularly with the participation of Matushka Piotrowsky, T. S. Jacob, A. S. Mitianin, L. L. Getopan as a nucleus, joined by others such as J. Orlow, E. Pimenoff, and Mrs. Demidovich at various times. They planned fund-raising activities to help pay the church mortgage and other expenses by way of concerts, bazaars, “yolkas” and blini, coffees, etc much as today. The Sisters wore colourful sarafans when serving their traditional dinners or at concerts, as the choir members often do today. Often at the concerts, my mother played on a very rickety piano, and Madame Archer sang folk songs in a throaty voice that had everyone yearning for the old country. Besides raising money, the Sisters supported each other in sickness and other difficult moments in their lives.

In 1937, a Pushkin centenary celebration was held in the church hall with mainly local parish talent, an event that was celebrated again at the hundred and fiftieth anniversary at Victoria Hall, Westmount in 1987. In the earlier event, a speech on Pushkin was given by Prof. Babkin,  excerpts from Pushkin’s works were dramatized, operatic arias were presented. In a Montreal newspaper of the time the following appears:  “The singing, whether of the cathedral choir, under N. I. Koursky, or of the soloists, was of outstanding simplicity and beauty. The Duchess of Leuchtenberg was much admired in Liza’s aria from ‘Pique Dame’ and the street song from ‘The Mermaid’ and the duets in which she and Nina Arbousoff sang were warmly appreciated by the audience. Mr. Rodomar and George Youmatoff were excellent in numbers from ‘Pique Dame’ and ‘Eugene Onegin.’ ”

Prior to the second World War, the depression years and unemployment added to the hardships of many parishioners; a mutual aid society in the form of the Brotherhood offered assistance. I never knew much about this society except that they admitted women, which I thought was very generous, and that they served a parish dinner every year the week after Easter.  They also contributed to the church’s coffers and, more recently, donated the beautiful chandeliers that grace our Cathedral.

I present here several excerpts I have translated of letters written in the 1930’s by my mother to my father, who spent two or three months in Europe every winter in connection with his shipping business. While demonstrating in a chatty way her personal involvement with the church, they also reveal a glimpse of events and concerns of the parish as a whole:


1932 —  …  Today I have an important meeting at the church;  we are organizing a day devoted to the Russian child, and since I’ve decided to help [needy] children, there are 20,000 inside Russia, then I’ll probably be put in charge of everything.  They all agreed to elect me president, I wonder how it will all work out.  You’ll help me, won’t you?  I want to organize a children’s concert so that our parishioners become involved.  I’ll have a lot of work to do, but it will be worth trying.


1933 — January 30th.  … On Friday I was at a lecture [at the church] by [Professor]  Babkin on “Life and Death.”  It was very interesting;  of course, everything was looked at from a physiological point  of view,  I’ll tell you about it later.  Afterwards there was tea and dancing.  I left early and was home by twelve.


1935 — January 13th.  …  Yesterday was our New Year’s ball and a large crowd assembled. A tremendous number, I’ve never seen such a large crowd in our hall before, quite extraordinary. I was in charge of money etc. and since [the Church Warden] Ivan Klementievich [Pimenoff] wasn’t there, I had to stay till the end and collect all the money. It ended at four o’clock in the morning. I didn’t dance with anyone, I was so busy with the buffet table. [O.W.] Rodomar drove me home and then I couldn’t get the door open. It was very cold and I had this bag full of money in my hands — around $200. Can you imagine? At five in the morning I can’t get into the house and I’m holding this bag of money in my hands. I kept ringing but there was no answer. Then I started to knock at the kitchen window, and Toby heard me and began barking furiously. 


1935 — January 20th.  …  I didn’t go to church today, although I should have because not everything is settled in regard to our ball. Everyone is very happy with the outcome;  I think we’ll net $200. You know, Ivan Klimentievich [Pimenoff] saw Hallword who gave him a contribution of $775. Our finances at the church are definitely improving.  This week Leven is arranging a concert at Ogilvy’s; they’ve offered their hall free of charge; the choir and a quartet will be performing, and Kisa [Babkin] will be dancing. 


1936 — January 28th.  …  You know I had such a stormy meeting on Sunday.  I had to give such a heated speech [to the Sisterhood] that I even surprised myself.  Afterwards my heart was pounding and I felt extremely tired.  Two sisters got into an argument and I was forced to intervene.  The sisters were pleased with my speech, but I wasn’t.


1937 — January 18th.   …  And on Sunday, yesterday, I went to church in the morning, we had dinner there, and then the famous meeting that I was dreading even when you were still here.  It started at one o’clock and ended at nearly six. It was awful, at times even scary; the police were there, but were asked to leave. They [the members] shouted and argued as loud as they could. Later on, in the middle of the meeting, [Mr. X and Mr. Y] and company left, their remaining was out of the question. … When those who had created the scandal had left, things became easier, and the meeting continued. Out of 65 members, twelve left, so the meeting was still valid; a new starosta …was elected and a new committee. I was very tired and my head was bursting, and when we left, we all went out for supper at the Nesvadba’s.  We danced, and I came home at midnight.

Learning how to run democratic meetings with parliamentary procedure, did not come all at once. But I recall, when I became a member, that Mr. A. B. Jarcovsky’s loud shouts of “ti-sheh” (qui -et) were very effective!

The second World War, starting in 1939, brought many changes to our parish life. These naturally stemmed from the many changes going on in the country-at-large – the appearance of military uniforms, food rationing, fund-raising for war-torn countries, including the U.S.S.R., an ally in the war, though generally perceived as an ideological enemy. In the thirties and forties our choir, first under N. I. Koursky, then under O. W. Rodomar, gave concerts to raise funds both for our church and for various wartime causes, and in doing so expanded connections with the larger community of our city. Newspaper clippings were quick with praise at the quality of our choir.   My two sisters, Irina and Nina, were choir members and took part in concerts in various venues in Montreal – Tudor Hall at Ogilvy’s, various Protestant churches, and in Ottawa where they sang for “Aid to Russia.” The choir women wore attractive, medium-blue velvet tunics, as shown in photos of the period. Mary (Harris) and Jenny (Karas) Boichuk, still known in our parish, were among those early choristers, though they were barely in their teens; our recent Sisterhood president, Olga Lambutsky, was also a chorister for many years.

In an unidentified review in a Montreal newspaper of a concert our choir gave at the Church of St. James the Apostle around 1937 the reviewer writes: “The discipline of this choir is astonishing. One never thinks of individual voices but only of the ensemble. Mr. Koursky has so disciplined his singers that they respond to him as one voice. Moreover the singing is absolutely Russian in character and the choir makes its hearers realize how great a part language and culture plays in musical art.”

A further word regarding Oleg Vladimirovich Rodomar, Koursky’s successor.  He was not only a director of our choir for a number of years, but for me he was the heart and soul of our church community. With his fierce enthusiasms and intimate knowledge of church history and church affairs, with a tenor voice and a kind heart. He was passionately involved in all aspects of church life from local to North American. He was also well known to the Montreal Community as a successful business leader, in time becoming president of Philips Industries in Toronto after his wartime position as head of Canada’s ration administration. In 1945 he was named an Officer of the British Empire for his war work. His move to Toronto after the war was a severe loss to our parish.

During the war years (1939 to 1945) the tone of our society-at-large became inevitably more serious, being concentrated on the war effort. Though we were spared any fighting on our soil, many of our fathers, sons, and brothers were volunteering in Europe. There were threatening German submarines in the St. Lawrence River that had to be challenged.  An unprepared Canada had much to catch up to become an effective military partner of the Allies.

In this uneasy atmosphere, our parish continued its regular activities: parish school on Saturdays;  money-raising social events;  the library growing under A.B.Jarcovsky’s initiative; annual banquets;  lectures given by prominent parishioners such as Prof. B.A.Babkin, a physiologist who had worked with Pavlov in St. Petersburg and was now at McGill University.

My father, who had spent his life in the shipping business from the time he was in Northern Russia (1914-1919), was asked to become the Representative in Washington of the Canadian Shipping Board to help with the disposition of Allied ships in the war. As a result, my family moved to Washington, D. C. in early 1942 and stayed until the war was over. I stayed on till 1948 to finish my schooling.  My mother was persuaded to keep up her leadership of the Sisterhood “in absentia” while away from Montreal.

The end of the war brought a surge of movement of dislocated people in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, which resulted in many coming to Canada, and ultimately to our city and parish.  Some newcomers came from other Orthodox jurisdictions in Europe and chose to continue in them.  At the end of the 40’s and throughout the 50’s, large numbers of immigrants arrived and immeasurably enriched our parish life. I was personally one of the beneficiaries in that my future husband, Andrei, was among the newcomers. We went to a church club together, and two years later, in 1951, were married by Father Oleg Boldireff, then also new to our shores.

Father Oleg was instrumental in welcoming new parishioners and his enthusiasm was contagious. He knew how to get people involved. Generally a reluctant public speaker, he persuaded me to give a lecture to the “New Canadians,” as they came to be known, on the history of Canada, in Russian no less. Also he had me teaching English to a small group of newcomers in my home. Many of the “New Canadians” arrived on year-long domestic work contracts and  received no governmental handouts; as well, they had to accept a life-style that was foreign to them. Most were highly educated and brought a new impulse to our parish life. Before they came, our parish was decreasing in size through intermarriage and a reduced flow of new blood.

In the late forties, our young people were operating in English for the most part, and for that reason became interested in affiliating themselves with a North American group called the Federated Russian Orthodox Clubs of America, known as F.R.O.C., or simply the “R” Club.  We operated for about four or five years with up to twenty-five members, including Charles and Vera Olshevsky and four members of the Boichuk family. We even had an Upper New York State Convention here In Montreal. Our goal was to keep our Orthodox faith alive through social fellowship and shared experiences in the English language. Ultimately we had to fold up when it became clear that the newcomers did not feel a need to join us.  Our legacy to the church was the baptismal font which we bought with the residue of our funds. The new youth were more inclined to join the Scouts led by Father Boldireff. Some, old and new, were attracted to the dance classes that the noted ballet dancer, Ludmila Chiraev, introduced to Montreal. Her company ultimately became Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and her legacy lives on.

Among the newcomers we welcomed in the fifties and who are still largely with us today were the Koshits Marina (Kartashov) and her sister, Elena (Lebedeff), the Vinogradovs,  the Kaminskys, the Mogiljanskys, the Woinowsky-Kriegers, the Slivitzkys, the Levtchuks, the Feoharis, the Cholmskys, the Rumins, the Miklachevskys, the Gribovskys, the Klimoffs (one brother a musician, the other an artist who contributed some icons and most of the paintings in the church hall), and George Kouchougoura (our present starosta) to name only a nucleus of new contributors to our parish life. But always there remained our old faithful parishioners such as Mr. A. I. Homych who was a reader for many years and who trained a new generation to be readers, often by giving lessons over the telephone.

To help the difficult situation of many refuges here and abroad, some of our church members, along with a member from St. Nicholas Church, formed a organization to help displaced persons living in camps in Europe by advancing passage money to Canada, and generally offering aid to immigrants where needed.  In 1948, under the initiative of the Duchess Catherine of Leuchtenberg, a branch of the Tolstoy Foundation of New York was started here under the name of the Canadian Tolstoy Foundation Inc. I remember when Alexandra Tolstoy, the daughter of Leo Tolstoy, came here to help set up the organization. She was a tall, impressive lady of strong character. The meeting was held in our house as my parents were involved in the formation of the new group, my father becoming its first Chairman, the Duchess, first President. A few members of the Montreal English community were invited to be members of the Board.  First off, letters were written to Quebec, and a grant of $25,000 was received to get started. On the first Board were the Duke and Duchess of Leuchtenberg; Mr. A .B. Jarcovsky;  Prince S. G. Troubetzkoy;  A. P. Apraxine;  B. A.  Hesketh;  O. W. Rodomar; my parents and several members from the English-speaking community. By including English members on the Board, one can see that the Russians here leaned more toward the English community then than now. This was before the changes brought on by the “Quiet Revolution” of the 70’s, when French became the official language of Quebec, when, among other requirements, immigrants’ choices for schools were redirected in favour of French.

In 1953 the Committee felt that current needs of our New Canadians would be better served with a local organization and decided it was time to replace the Tolstoy Foundation with an organization to be called the Canadian Russian Orthodox Foundation Inc., or C.R.O.F.I. for short. They proceeded with more or less the same Board of Directors. Their goal was to help newcomers by granting interest-free loans for the purpose of furthering their education or meeting exceptional family needs. Over time, the borrowed moneys were repaid almost 100%, a most impressive achievement for the Russian community!

A developing need among the new parishioners was for a supervised summer vacation spot for their children while the parents worked in the hot city. C.R.O.F.I. met the need by inaugurating a children’s camp, first in Val David, then a year or two later, on a property in Rawdon, bought for the purpose by my parents. It became the camp’ s permanent home for the next sixteen years. Parents were charged or not, according to their ability to pay; in return, the children, up to 45 in number, spent  from two to six weeks in a Russian ambience, returning home with a store of memories to treasure of  huge campfires, swimming in the small lake, walks to Darwin Falls, singsongs and prayers in Russian. The older campers would hike to St. Seraphim Chapel, newly built in Rawdon. Elena Adamovna Youskevich, A. A. Kaminsky’s mother, was the camp director throughout the whole period; she was an educator who had attended the exclusive Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg in her youth. Father Oleg Boldireff took an interest in the camp, and I believe all or most of his five sons were campers at one time or another. My own family of three sons spent every summer at the camp while my parents and I lived in a cottage on the camp grounds.

In all, accoring to the records I have, the Canadian Russian Orthodox Foundation, together with the Canadian Tolstoy Foundation, gave loans amounting to over $127,000 for education, immigration, and medical care to 422 persons, and relief and subsidies of over $20,000. It received in addition to the Government grant of $25,000, $14,800 in donations, and nearly $2,000 in membership fees. A true example of community effort.

In the fifties, Father Oleg inaugurated a chapel on his property in Rawdon. Later it was moved to the site of a property bought in 1961 by my parents for the creation of a Russian Orthodox Cemetery in Rawdon, under the aegis of our Cathedral. For many years, a busload or carloads of Montrealers have come to Rawdon to celebrate the Chapel’s feast day in August.  Last year, 2006, being the special occasion of the Chapel’s 50th anniversary, a large crowd of clergy and laity from near and far came to celebrate together, with a liturgy and banquet. In the early years, parish dinners took place outdoors. I remember the wasps vying for the food on our plates.

In Montreal, our parish expanded rapidly in the fifties and sixties, with new needs, new developments. Seating in the church had been tried and rejected. The original iconastas was replaced with the existing, more traditionally artistic one. It was an interesting time lectures were given by exceptional speakers such as Father Alexander Schmemen from New York; small theatre groups performed; the choir continued to blossom under A. A. Kaminsky as new young voices joined the older members.

A most fortunate arrival to our parish was that of Archbishop Sylvester in 1963, and during his “reign” we experienced an era of peace and  stability. He had an aura that commanded respect. At first, rather shy and retiring, one felt his inner strength. He led by example rather than any sort of coercion. Because of my mother’s role in the parish, Vladyka soon became a friend of our family, both in Rawdon and in the city, and was often our guest, at which times he shared his stories punctuated by his quiet sense of humour. I never remember him saying “You should do thus and so,” neither in his sermons nor in conversations, which is rather amazing, considering his position. Rather, he quietly and with great dignity officiated and preached the gospel message, and further occupied himself with the administration of the church and his charities. He led by example. Vladyka had a particular love of children, as well as young people, as exemplified by treating his altar boys to a pizza lunch once a year. He paid much attention to Christmas celebrations, trimming the tree in the church hall by himself and, over the course of the year, buying presents for all the parishioners. Eventually volunteers helped him in this task.

Vladyka was especially interested in the spiritual problems of Russians in the U.S.S.R.  and corresponded with spiritual leaders there and sent them religious books. This activity led to the expansion of the John of Krondstadt Charity Fund as parishioners were encouraged to participate.   We would meet around Vladyka’s table after church to discuss what he was doing and what could further be done. When it became possible to send parcels to the U.S.S.R., goods started to replace books, and members dug in to help prepare parcels. Two parishioners, namely Ludmila Kruchinina and Natalia Iliesco, almost single-handedly, collected, packed, and prepared for sending tons of clothing and toys for Russia. These were sent off with the cooperation of Aeroflot and the help of Vladimir Slivitzky, a Vice-President of Air Canada and a distinguished member of our parish. More recently, money has replaced the sending of goods at the request of the recipients. After Vladyka had to leave his post and retire to Rawdon for health reasons, where he subsequently died in 2000. Marina Kartashov ably continued his Charity Fund, and now it has passed into the hands of Galina Mikoutskaia-Tomberg, a member of our newest wave of newcomers from Russia. Money is send twice a year directly to special priests for distribution to the needy, and especially to orphans.

In the seventies a group of English parishioners led by Father John Tkachuk held services in English in our church. Unfortunately, misunderstandings developed about their relationship to the membership-at-large, and Vladyka Sylvester gave them permission to start their own mission.  This came soon after a North American church sobor was held in Montreal in 1977, when a new Metropolitan was elected and when the English parishioners played an important role in the celebrations. In time, their move resulted in a viable English parish under the name of the Sign of the Theotokos, which in 2006 celebrated its 25th Anniversary under Father John Tkachuk.  A loss to our church, but filling a need for Orthodox services in English in the city.

In 1975, I remember the excitement in our parish at the arrival of a celebrated guest Alexander Solzhenitsyn who had been expelled from the Soviet Union and came directly to visit his friend through correspondence, Vladyka Sylvester, in Montreal. He spent the midnight Easter service in our altar, while we strained to catch a glimpse of him. During the Easter breakfast in the church hall, my mother was seated next to him. She admitted that she found making small talk with him not at all easy a formidable guest he was. Solzhenitsyn considered making Canada his home, but realizing the greater possibility of finding source material in the United States, such as in the Library of Congress in Washington, he settled with his family in Cavendish, Vermont.

The Sisterhood continued its activities under new presidents when my mother retired in the seventies. It was first led by Mrs. Timasheff, Zinaida Melnyk and, more recently, Olga Lambutsky, a longtime member of our parish. On her recent resignation, it passed on to Camille Gribovsky. Efforts are being made to expand the membership among the newest arrivals and to accommodate the Sisterhood to the ever-growing changes in the parish.

Vladyka’s illness in the 90’s coincided with an historical development of great consequence to the world, and, eventually, to our community that is, the fall of the Soviet Union. It has resulted in a third large wave of immigration to Canada. Again we see our numbers being replenished, and the Russian language and culture being reinforced in our midst. The future of the parish is now passing into their hands. For the first time we have our priest, Father Anatoly Melnyk, and our choir director, Elena Ilvakhina coming directly from Russia and Ukraine, and not from the diaspora. We wish them well in our midst.

A hundred years of commitment by many hundreds of parishioners; a hundred years of being true to a rich tradition; a hundred years of community united in culture and, more importantly, in spiritual quest! When passing through the doors of our modest and beloved St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral at this time of celebration, we would do well to remember with gratitude those who built our parish, the clergy that  guided its direction, and those who maintained it over the years. At the same time, we must open up our hearts and imaginations to ensure that our church continues its role as our spiritual home and that parish life continues to bind us together for many years to come!

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