In Memoriam graphic

All Our Life Unto Christ Our God: Archpriest Alvian And Helen Smirensky

by Deacon Andrei Psarev

Alvian Niko­lae­vich Smiren­sky was born in Harbin, Manchuria on May 11, 1929 and was named in hon­or of the holy Hiero­mar­tyr Albian, Bish­op of Anaea (†304, Feast­day 4/17 May). Alvian’s pater­nal great-grand­fa­ther, John, and his grand­fa­ther were both priests, the lat­ter hold­ing the posi­tion of dean (ключарь) in the Kras­no­yarsk Cathe­dral. Alvian’s father, Nicholas, took part in Kolchak’s White Army and died some five months before his son was born.

Archpriest Alvian Smirensky
Arch­priest Alvian Smirensky

Alvian’s moth­er, Sophia, was born in Harbin in 1907. Both she and her son were bap­tized by Fr Sergei Bra­duchan, the Amur mil­i­tary dis­trict chap­lain and reli­gious edu­ca­tion instruc­tor both at the M. A. Aksakovska­ia High School and the Tech­ni­cal Col­lege. Alvian’s mater­nal grand­par­ents were descend­ed from rus­si­fied Swedes and moved from Rev­el to Harbin in 1898. His moth­er’s step­fa­ther, a Scots­man, was a buy­er for the butch­er trade, oper­at­ing out of Manchuria. After his death, the fam­i­ly inher­it­ed his house com­pris­ing a num­ber of apart­ments in Harbin’s Saman­nyi (Mil­i­tary) Town. There they attend­ed the Church of the Icon of the Moth­er of God “Joy of All Who Sor­row” locat­ed at the Mer­cy House and cared for by Arch­bish­op Nestor of Kam­chat­ka.1 They also wor­shipped at the town’s Church of the Holy Trans­fig­u­ra­tion, which was served by Fr Alexan­der Kocher­gin. Alvian began his edu­ca­tion at Saint Nicholas board­ing school in Harbin, which had been set up by Russ­ian Catholics. Fr Alvian had warm mem­o­ries of his time in that edu­ca­tion­al estab­lish­ment, which at the time was locat­ed at the inter­sec­tion between Church Street (Tserkov­na­ia Ulit­sa) and Old Harbin Free­way (Starokharbin­skoe shosse). He used to make par­tic­u­lar men­tion of the fact that the major­i­ty of the stu­dents were Ortho­dox and the school admin­is­tra­tion exert­ed no pres­sure what­so­ev­er to con­vert them.

In 1937, Alvian’s grand­moth­er moved to San Fran­cis­co. Alvian him­self and his moth­er fol­lowed in 1939. In 1948, Alvian grad­u­at­ed from St Ignatius High School, a Jesuit insti­tu­tion.2 His moth­er was a superb seam­stress and her skill enabled her to pro­vide for her fam­i­ly. Alvian start­ed to help out as a serv­er at the Moscow Patri­ar­chate’s St Nicholas Cathe­dral and his time there coin­cid­ed with the vis­i­ta­tion of Met­ro­pol­i­tan Gre­go­ry (Chukov). In 1951, Alvian grad­u­at­ed from the Mer­chant Marine Acad­e­my. This was the time of the Kore­an War and Alvian was enlist­ed into the US Navy and deployed on the US Destroy­er John A Bole. Fr Alvian would recall trav­el­ing to Hong Kong, where he made the acquain­tance of Fr Elias Wen. Lat­er, he met Fr Elias again at Arch­bish­op John’s Holy Vir­gin “Joy of All Who Sor­row” Cathe­dral in San Fran­cis­co. After his dis­charge, Alvian began wor­ship­ping at the Holy Trin­i­ty Cathe­dral on Green Street. Accord­ing to him, the Russ­ian com­mu­ni­ty in the city was relaxed about juris­dic­tion­al mat­ters; peo­ple attend­ed whichev­er church suit­ed them best. “I go to the Church on Ful­ton Street” meant wor­ship­ping at the ROCOR cathe­dral while “Green Street” stood for the Cathe­dral of the Russ­ian Metropolia.

In 1954, Alvian entered St Vladimir’s The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in New York. The young Lieu­tenant Com­man­der became Fr Georges Florovsky’s per­son­al sec­re­tary and wit­nessed the events sur­round­ing the latter’s removal from the posi­tion as dean. In 1957, Alvian grad­u­at­ed from the sem­i­nary with a Mas­ter of Divin­i­ty degree and a year lat­er mar­ried Ele­na (Helen) Mikhailov­na Kefe­li in the Tol­stoy Foun­da­tion Cen­ter Church of St Sergius at Val­ley Cottage.

Helen was born on Novem­ber 3, 1933 in Prague. Her fam­i­ly was of Karaite descent. After the end of the WW2, Helen and her fam­i­ly passed through a num­ber of Dis­placed Per­sons camps cul­mi­nat­ing in her arrival in the USA in Novem­ber, 1949 through the assis­tance of the Tol­stoy Foun­da­tion. Helen was edu­cat­ed at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, where she stud­ied Russ­ian Region­al Stud­ies and lat­er at SUNY Albany’s School of Library Sci­ence, receiv­ing a Mas­ter of Library Sci­ence. Matush­ka Helen loved to knit afghan blan­kets that she would gen­er­ous­ly send to a wide vari­ety of recip­i­ents, be it fam­i­ly mem­bers, a new­born baby in Jor­danville or dis­ad­van­taged chil­dren from trou­bled families.

The same year, on Sep­tem­ber 13, 1958, Alvian was ordained a priest by Met­ro­pol­i­tan Leon­tii (Turke­vich) and assigned to the Cathe­dral of the Holy Vir­gin Pro­tec­tion on 2nd Street in Man­hat­tan’s East Vil­lage. As well as assum­ing pas­toral respon­si­bil­i­ty for the Eng­lish-speak­ing cathe­dral parish­ioners, the new priest also served as a mil­i­tary chap­lain at the US Naval Reserve.

Fr Alvian used to joke that Leskov’s nov­el The Cathe­dral Cler­gy could eas­i­ly have been inspired by life in the New York cathe­dral. He recalled with par­tic­u­lar warmth one such cler­gy­man, Arch­priest  Nicholas Perekhval­sky from Riga, who was based there.  Fr Alvian and his matush­ka also deeply revered Met­ro­pol­i­tan Leon­tii, whom they regard­ed as a saint. They lov­ing­ly remem­bered his humil­i­ty — he darned his own socks — and the way he offered prac­ti­cal help to the young fam­i­ly. Matush­ka used to bring her young son with her as she chauf­feured the Met­ro­pol­i­tan to the Syn­odal chan­cellery at Syos­sett. She would take the child for a stroll while she wait­ed for the Met­ro­pol­i­tan to com­plete his work and to take him back. Fr Alvian and his matush­ka raised three chil­dren — Nicholas, Anna and Maria.

Icon of the Mother of God, Joy of All Who Sorrow
Icon of the Moth­er of God, Joy of All Who Sorrow

In 1961 the fam­i­ly moved to Meri­den, Con­necti­cut, where Fr Alvian led the flock of the Parish of St Peter and Paul. Sub­se­quent­ly, he served at the Church of the Res­ur­rec­tion in Wayne, New Jer­sey; St Basil’s Church in Maple­wood, NY; and the Anti­ochi­an Parish of St George in Albany, NY.3 In order to sup­port his fam­i­ly, Fr Alvian took an admin­is­tra­tive job in the state gov­ern­ment, retir­ing in 1991 as Direc­tor of Infor­ma­tion Ser­vices for the New York State and Local Retire­ment Sys­tems. His last cler­i­cal post was at St Nicholas Ortho­dox Church in Cohoes, New York. After his retire­ment, Fr Alvian became attached to the Church of Holy Wis­dom in New York’s New Skete Monastery. It was there that Fr Alvian’s moth­er was buried and where he and his matush­ka have also now been laid to rest.

In 1995, St Vladimir’s The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary con­ferred on Fr Alvian a Mas­ter of The­ol­o­gy degree for his the­sis “Mat­ri­mo­ni­al Leg­is­la­tion in Impe­r­i­al Rus­sia.”  He was a spe­cial­ist in the sub­ject of mat­ri­mo­ni­al canon law and his arti­cle, “The Evo­lu­tion of Mat­ri­mo­ny”4 was influ­en­tial in fur­ther­ing the­o­log­i­cal dis­cus­sion on the sacra­ment of mar­riage. Fr Alvian was gen­er­ous in shar­ing his Chris­t­ian her­itage; his many trans­la­tions from Russ­ian offered his Eng­lish-lan­guage read­ers a glimpse into the world of phi­los­o­phy and the­ol­o­gy, which would not oth­er­wise have been acces­si­ble to them.

In 2004 and 2005, Fr Alvian deliv­ered a series of lec­tures on the sub­ject of mat­ri­mo­ni­al canon law at Holy Trin­i­ty Ortho­dox Sem­i­nary (HTOS) in Jor­danville. He rejoiced at the restora­tion of com­mu­nion with­in the Russ­ian Church, which took place on his name­day in 20075 and longed for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to serve at the Holy Trin­i­ty Monastery, which belonged to the Russ­ian Church Abroad — the Church of his baptism.

Fr Alvian grad­u­al­ly pre­pared for his depar­ture into the world to come. Seek­ing to lessen the bur­den on his fam­i­ly after his death, he made all the arrange­ments and ordered a wood­en cof­fin. He passed on his books and course mate­r­i­al on canon law to an instruc­tor at HTOS. These were grate­ful­ly received and are being used by the teacher to this day. Fr Alvian also bequeathed a por­tion of his library to the seminary.

In 2008, the Smiren­skys moved to the Bev­er­wyck Inde­pen­dent Senior Liv­ing Com­mu­ni­ty in Singer­lands, NY. Dur­ing a vis­it on Novem­ber 14, 2017, it was touch­ing to observe this cou­ple oper­at­ing as a sin­gle per­son. Matush­ka read to Fr Alvian, who was by then prac­ti­cal­ly blind, while he in turn walked to col­lect the mail, an activ­i­ty which was beyond her strength.

On the evening of Wednes­day, Decem­ber 6, Matush­ka Helen suf­fered renal fail­ure and was admit­ted at Albany Med­ical Cen­ter. She under­went surgery on Sat­ur­day but it was clear that her con­di­tion was irre­versibly ter­mi­nal. At approx­i­mate­ly 3 am on Sun­day, Decem­ber 10,6 Fr Alvian anoint­ed his wife of 59 years with oil and read a prayer. On his way home, he suf­fered an exten­sive brain hem­or­rhage and was rushed uncon­scious to the same med­ical facil­i­ty that cared for his wife. They depart­ed this life, hold­ing hands in adjoin­ing beds, first Matush­ka Helen and then Fr Alvian.

May the Lord grant them the Heavenly Kingdom

and may their Memory be Eternal!

Cor­rec­tion: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this arti­cle incor­rect­ly gave the year of Fr Alvian’s high school grad­u­a­tion as 1949.