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.
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.
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, 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.