Archpriest John and Mary Tkachuk
Archpriest John I Tkachuk
Mathuska Mary A (born Schmemann) Tkachuk
John Tkachuk’s early life
On 14 June, 1944, John Igorovich Tkachuk was born in Łódź, Poland, to the Orthodox Christian Priest Igor Tkachuk and his wife Maria (born Steblinska). He was their second child. Their first child was Nina.
Father Igor Tkachuk had been born in 1918, in Zdolbunovo (currently in Rivnens’ka Oblast’ (Rivne Oblast), Ukraine). Until 1939, this province was a part of the Second Republic of Poland’s "Wojewódstwo Wołyńskie" (Wołyń Voivodeship). Igor entered and completed studies at the Warsaw Theological Faculty. After his graduation, Igor was married to Maria Steblinska in February, 1940. Within the same month, he was ordained to the Holy Diaconate and then to the Holy Priesthood at the Cathedral Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Warsaw.
Exile ; displacement
As they fled before the advancing USSR forces on 20 June, 1944 (very soon after the birth of John), Father Igor and his family were blessed in that they found themselves in the USA Zone in Germany as “Displaced Persons” after the close of World War II. There had been a very substantial movement of Slavic peoples towards the west during the war. Father Igor served many Orthodox Christians in the “DP” camps throughout Germany, until he was able to emigrate with his 2 children to the USA.
Transfer ; emigration to the USA
In January, 1952, Father Igor Tkachuk and his children emigrated to the USA. However, Matushka Maria had been infected with tuberculosis, and she had to remain in a hospital in Switzerland until she was well enough to be reunited with the family almost 2 years later. All these events would have their influence on the 2 young children.
Upon arrival in New York City, the Priest Igor Tkachuk was received into the “Metropolia” by Metropolitan Leonty (Turkevich), and he was assigned to serve at Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco, California. There, he also worked in the “Home of Mercy”.
In San Francisco
In 1956, he was transferred with his family and he was assigned to Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There, he also served as secretary to Archbishop John (Garklavs) of Chicago and Minneapolis. In 1959, Father Igor was transferred, and he was assigned to serve as the pastor of Saint Theodosius Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio. Then, in 1962, Father Igor was transferred to New York City, and he was assigned to serve first in the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection, and later in the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Brooklyn (where he served for 30 years).
All these events, and the example of the pastoral service of his parents, were formative to the young John Tkachuk. The experiences of moving in the manner that his family did, and the absence of his mother for 2 years because of her illness would also unavoidably affect him in some ways as he grew up. John Tkachuk passed through his primary and secondary education during these years, and he began to serve in the Altar at a young age.
John’s university education was undertaken in New York at Iona College and Fordham University, from which he received a Bachelor of Arts degree. Afterwards, he entered and completed studies at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Christian Seminary in Crestwood/Yonkers, New York, from which he received the Bachelor of Divinity degree. In those days, the Master of Divinity degree was not yet conferred. Nevertheless, the bachelor degree was somewhat more academic than the MDiv came to be, and it could likewise be achieved only after having received a previous undergraduate degree. By that time, the Tkachuk family had come to live in the “Bronxville House”, a residence for seminary students, in Bronxville. While he was a student, he naturally came to know the Schmemann family, and Mary A Schmemann. In 1965, the seminarian John Tkachuk participated in the Summer Octet of Saint Vladimir's Seminary. The seminary sent a group of 8 young men on a trans-continental trek (mostly in the USA) in order to establish and refresh relationships between the seminary and various parishes of the Orthodox Churches on the continent. The trip, in a van, took 2 or more months, and it began after the commencement ceremonies at the end of the spring semester, in May.
Mary Schmemann’s early life and education
Mary Alexandrovna Schmemann, who was born in Paris, France, grew up in New York City within the context of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. At first, this was in Manhattan in the vicinity of Columbia University and the Union Theological Seminary (the cramped quarters of that period, rented from Union Seminary : an unforgettable collection of apartments on West 121st Street). From about 1962, the family moved along with the seminary to the Crestwood region of Yonkers, New York, where Mary soon began and completed her university education. It was through her life near and in the seminary that she met and became friends with John I Tkachuk, her future husband.
On 8 June, 1969, John I Tkachuk was married to Mary A Schmemann.
Marriage photos with families
During 1969, John Tkachuk was ordained to the Holy Diaconate, and then on 17 August to the Holy Priesthood by Metropolitan Leonty (Turkevich). This rapid succession of marriage and ordinations was not uncommon at that time, and it sometimes still occurs.
Both Father John and Matushka Mary worked in harmony and mutual support during all the succeeding years of their pastoral service in various parishes. Their daughter, Vera, was born in 1970.
Transfer to Canada
He was then transferred and assigned to Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Montréal, Québec, in 1973, in order to serve in the cathedral parish as the pastor. He became active in developing the use of the English language in the cathedral parish.
In 1975, the Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn visited Montréal, and he spent the whole of Passion week and the Feast of Holy Pascha with the cathedral parish of Saints Peter and Paul. He had been considering whether he might live in Canada ; but he ultimately chose Cavendish, Vermont, instead.
In 1976, there was a temporary chapel established at the Summer Olympic Games in Montréal. These games were likely the first in Olympic history which “served” the Orthodox Christian participants and attendees.
From 25-28 October, 1977, the 5th All-American Church Council was convened in Montréal. At this council, after the retirement of Metropolitan Ireney (Bekish), Metropolitan Theodosius (Lazor) was elected as the next Metropolitan of The Orthodox Church in America. It was Father John and Marie Miklashevsky who had the greatest responsibility for enabling that assembly of the Church to function very smoothly. Father John early became the Secretary of the Archdiocese of Canada.
Establishment of the Sign of the Theotokos parish
In 1978, the Archpriest John Tkachuk, his family, and some other parish families left the cathedral parish in order to found the new parish of the Sign of the Theotokos in Montréal. About this event, Olga Lawes Melikoff wrote :
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. [It was] A loss to our church, but filling a need for Orthodox services in English in the city.
On 7-8 September, 1978, the Priest John Tkachuk became the founding pastor of the Sign of the Theotokos Orthodox Church in Montréal, Québec. It was Marie Miklashevsky who is reported to have said, “If we were able to organise an All-American Council, then we ought to be able to organise a mission parish in this city”.
In 1979, the Orthodox Theological Institute (OTI) established a lending-library of books about Orthodoxy at the new parish. Also in April, 1979, the OTI organised a retreat in Châteauguay (a suburb of Montréal on the south side of the Saint Lawrence River) which was led by the Archpriest Thomas Hopko.
By this time, the regular agenda had already been established which characterised the succeeding years. It was a structure in which the participants prospered (not excluding the contributions of the presenters who had been asked to come).
Retreatants would arrive on a Thursday evening and find their rooms, and then hear the first lecture. On Friday, the day would begin with Matins and antiphonal psalm-reading. Then after lunch there would be an hour of quiet, followed by the second lecture, Vespers, supper, and the third lecture. On Saturday, there would be the Divine Liturgy and brunch, the fourth lecture, lunch, and then departure.
This schedule worked best when it could be on the weekend of western Easter (which was most times).
The setting for these retreats in this still-active convent was very conducive to a good retreat : comfortable rooms, comfortable and clean dining-room, a good hall, the river, the grounds. Father John always worked hard before, during and after these events. Even though some speakers were better than others, the whole experience was perceived to be valuable and refreshing and strengthening to the participants. It was nourishment for the soul. It was a brief experience of a different and deeper way of life which people tried not to miss. There was and remains sincere gratitude to Father John and Matushka Mary for their dedicated labours.
In 1981, Archbishop Sylvester (Haruns) retired from active episcopal service. When Metropolitan Theodosius (Lazor) was given the responsibility of serving as the Locum Tenens and Administrator of the diocese, Father John was assigned to serve as the Secretary-Treasurer. During the following years, he regularly reminded Metropolitan Theodosius and the Holy Synod of Bishops how long it had been since the diocese had a resident ruling bishop. These reminders persisted until 1990.
From the beginning of the establishment of the Sign of the Theotokos Church in 1978, Father John insisted that the parish be a welcoming family into which anyone and everyone would be welcome. No particular national ancestry would predominate. The English and French languages would be at the heart of the life of the community as they expressed their love and faithfulness to the Lord, and worshipped Him with filial affection.
The parish became the spiritual home for many people of different origins — people who would probably never have come to Orthodoxy, or stayed in the Church, had it not been for ‘The Sign’ and Father John. As it is they pray, they sing, they preach, they bring their children of all ages with them to The Sign — and some go on to become deacons, monks and nuns, and priests other men and women go on to serve the Church with their own talents both here in Montreal, in Canada, and across the oceans.
Orthodox Theological Institute
In March, 1978, the first “Orthodox Theological Institute” (OTI) retreat was organised, and it was led by the Priests John Tkachuk and Ihor Kutash. The roots of the establishment of this institute were already developing at Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral before the establishment of “The Sign”. There followed a long series of speakers who addressed these sessions during the following decades. All this developed under the insightful leadership of Father John and Matushka Mary.
The Châteauguay Lenten retreats
Soon after this first retreat, the regular annual Lenten retreats at Châteauguay began. These retreats took place in a Roman Catholic retreat centre which had long been the Grey Nuns monastery at the edge of Lake Saint-Louis (Lac Saint-Louis).
Subsequent speakers at these OTI retreats and other sessions included :
Father Alexander Schmemann (twice) ; Archimandrite Kallistos (Ware) (twice) ; Father Thomas Hopko (twice) ; Archpriest George Timko ; Priest Paul Tarasi ; Archpriest Michael Koblosh ; Dr. Robert Hutcheon, Father Thomas Ryan, Alexandra Valerianos ; Priest Basil Zion ; Archpriest John Breck ; Archpriest John Tkachuk and Dr. Thomas Kolivakis ; Archpriest Vladimir Berzonsky ; Priest Alexis Vinogradov ; Bishop Seraphim (Storheim) ; Dr. Daniel Sahas ; Father Theodore Stylianopoulos ; Father Michael Plekon.
First chancellor of the diocese
In 1987, the Hieromonk Seraphim (Storheim) was ordained to the Holy Episcopate in Edmonton, Alberta in order to serve as the Vicar-Bishop of the Archdiocese of Canada, and then as the administrator under the supervision of Metropolitan Theodosius (Lazor). Father John, by now elevated to the dignity of archpriest, did not cease his regular reminders about the status of the diocese. In due course, in 1990, when Bishop Seraphim (Storheim) was elected and enthroned as the diocesan bishop of the Archdiocese of Canada, Father John no longer had to repeat his reminder about the lack of a diocesan bishop. However, in gratitude to God for the talents of the Archpriest John Tkachuk, the new bishop added to Father John the responsibility of serving as the first chancellor of the Archdiocese of Canada.
US Air Force chaplaincy
From 1983, Father John served in the US Air Force for 20 years (1983-2003) as a USAF Reserve Chaplain first at Plattsburgh AFB in New York, and then Hanscom AFB in Massachusetts. In order to fulfil his obligations, there were certain periods of every year during which Father John was required to be absent for several weeks. By God’s mercy, there were clergy available who could attend to the spiritual flock of rational sheep in his absences. When Father John retired, it was in the rank of Chaplain Major.
Orthodox Christian Women
In 1992, Matushka Mary Tkachuk was able to establish the group “Orthodox Christian Women of Montréal”, which began to sponsor an annual one-day conference, primarily for women. Matushka Juliana Schmemann was the first of many other significant presenters. The conferences became very popular and well-attended. The conferences tended to be held at Saint George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Montréal.
In March, 1994, Matushka Mary and the Orthodox Christian Women organised their 4th annual conference in March, which was led by the Abbess Christophora of the Holy Transfiguration Women’s Monastery at Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. The day consisted in a reflection about “Making a Difference”. Giving examples from the lives of those who have made a difference, she showed how our lives may be transformed into a liturgy. She also led a panel discussion with other nuns about monasticism, and an open discussion about “Becoming holy, here and how”.
In April, 1994, Father John organised the 18th annual Orthodox Theological Institute retreat, which was led by the well-known writer and film-director, Frank Schaeffer. Mr. Schaeffer’s reflexions were upon the subject, “Expectations of the Faith in Orthodoxy”. His 3 presentations focussed on personal expectations, expectations in society, and expectations in the Church.
At some time not long after their arrival in Montréal, Father John and Matushka Mary acquired a summer house at Lac Labelle, Québec, not far from that of Matushka Mary's parents, not far from the home of the Meyendorffs, and near to the home of Prince Serge and Lubov Troubetzkoy. Along with other clergy, Father John served on some occasions there at the Saint Sergius Summer Chapel during the summer months.
25th anniversary of marriage
In 1994, the parish of The Sign celebrated the 25th anniversary of the marriage of Father John and Matushka Mary Tkachuk. In that year, it was also the 25th anniversary of Father John’s ordination to the Holy Priesthood. Both were marked on 25 November, 1994, by a Thanksgiving Moleben and a dinner at Saint Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Montréal. At the dinner, there were many musical presentations given by the young people of the parish, and many people spoke about both Father John and Matushka Mary at this time. The whole evening was organised by the warden, George Bedrin and his wife Debbie, and the “Master of Ceremonies” of the evening was the Archpriest Alexis Vinogradov. In his presentation, Bishop Seraphim commented :
Father John has exceptional organisational abilities : he put the diocese in order and succeeded in maintaining that order. He has given the Archdiocese a certain prestige in the public media. He has created a small but significant place for us in the CCC. He has fostered good relations with other Orthodox Christians through his love, care, and sensitivity. And as Chancellor of the Archdiocese since 1987, he has helped to keep the Bishop out of trouble a lot by his wise counsel.
Father Alexis Vinogradov, in his concluding remarks,
rightly reminded the banquet audience that throughout all of Fr John’s years of priestly service, he has been above all else an enabler of others : ‘It is his pastoral gift never to push people but instead to inspire them by his own life to be excited about serving the Church to which he himself is so whole-heartedly dedicated.
The 1994 “Canadian Orthodox Messenger” article concludes with the sincere greeting :
To Father John and Masha, from all of us in Canada and the United States who feel so much affection for you and thanksgiving for your life and ministry together : MANY YEARS!
In 1996, in retirement, Matushka Juliana Schmemann moved to Montréal, Québec, in order to live in a “logement” (apartment) in the building next door to her daughter and son-in-law, the Archpriest John and Mary Tkachuk. In this city, she actively participated in the life of the parish of the Sign of the Theotokos (which had been founded by her son-in-law and daughter). From there, she travelled extensively, as she gave many talks and lectures, led retreats, and participated in meetings. Always, her maternal concern was the welfare of The Orthodox Church in America.
In an article of the “New York Times”, it was reported that
On 24 August, 2003, Vera Tkachuk and Nigel John Bullock were married at the Sign of the Theotokos Orthodox Church in Montreal. Father John Tkachuk officiated. Vera was the director of fund-raising, alumnae relations, publications and communications at the Chapin School in New York. Nigel, the bridegroom, was developing his own hedge fund in New York, Pusinka Partners. Until the previous August he had been a senior portfolio manager for Standard Americas, an asset-management subsidiary of Standard Bank of South Africa. He graduated from Oxford University in England.
Nigel and Vera are presently raising 2 children, Alexandra and Peter. Vera's first son, Justin, unexpectedly reposed in the Lord in 2016.
25th Anniversary of “The Sign”
On 29-30 November, 2003, the parish of “The Sign” marked its 25th anniversary. Metropolitan Theodosius (Lazor) and Bishop Seraphim (Storheim) were present and participating in the Great Vespers of Saturday and the Primatial Divine Liturgy of Sunday. On this occasion, many gramotas (certificates of blessing) were presented, first to the parish as a whole, and then to some particular persons. Since by that day, the debt of the parish had been retired, Father John ceremonially burned the mortgage outdoors at the banquet after the Divine Liturgy. The Tkachuks were grateful to have been given on this day a digital camera.
On 1 September, 2013, the Archpriest John I Tkachuk officially retired as rector of “The Sign”. He and his family remained for a short time in Montréal. Father John I Tkachuk and his wife Mary had served in the Archdiocese of Canada for 40 years, of which 25 years were served in the parish of the Sign of the Theotokos.
In 2014, the Archpriest John and Matushka Mary Tkachuk moved to live in Bronxville, New York (not far from Saint Vladimir’s Seminary). They took with them Matushka Juliana Schmemann, who moved into an extended care facility not far away, in Riverdale, The Bronx, New York. In a manner of speaking, in retirement, the Archpriest John and Matushka Mary Tkachuk “went home”, as did Matushka Juliana (because of the proximity to Saint Vladimir’s Seminary).
Matushka Mary, Archpriest John Tkachuk, Matushka Anne Hopko at Lac Labelle
An article about Father John’s father, the Archpriest Igor Tkachuk, is included here, since it is an example of the sort of family which formed Father John :
‘Memories of Father Igor Tkachuk’ by the Archpriest Thomas Edwards On Holy Pascha 1966, having been an Orthodox Christian for exactly one week I was visiting New York City. Someone had directed me to the Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral of the ‘Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church’. A priest was hearing confessions; it was Fr. Igor. With a certain amount of ‘fear’ I approached him to explain that I was a ‘brand new Orthodox and former Uniate seminarian from Washington ...’ How would he receive me, a perfect stranger right off the street? My fears were immediately dissipated when he welcomed me with great patience and true priestly concern. At the end of the liturgy, Fr. Igor asked me, ‘What are you doing for the rest of the day?’ I replied that my friend and I had no specific plans and he said, ‘You are coming home with me. You must spend your first Orthodox Pascha with my family...’ And so it was that my friend, Michael and I were whisked up the FDR Drive in Fr. Igor’s car to his house in Westchester County, known in those days as, ‘The Bronxville House’. Here we spent a most delightful afternoon - my first ‘Russian Orthodox Easter.’ We were graciously entertained by Fr. and Matushka Tkachuk and met their children, Nina and John (now Father John of Montreal) and his friend, Oleg Olas. Fr. and Matushka’s hospitality made such an impression on me thirty years ago that it seems like yesterday. Fr. Igor asked if I was thinking about going to St. Vladimir's Seminary and I told him that I wasn't sure. I said this because I had just completed seven years ‘cut off from the world’ in a Uniate seminary and could not imagine ever going back into a seminary again. Fr. Igor encouraged me to consider St. Vladimir’s. His sincerity gave way to reality when that evening he drove me to Crestwood and introduced me to Fr. John Meyendorff. I entered St. Vladimir's Seminary that September, through no small part of this providential encounter with Fr. Igor and his family. On February 12, 1968 I was ordained a priest and shortly thereafter (through no effort on my part) was appointed assistant to Fr. Igor, who was now rector of the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Brooklyn. Still attending St. Vladimir’s and believing myself to be a typical ‘blundering student’ - an expression immortalized by seminary Professor Serge Verhovskoy, I began my first days as an Orthodox priest under Fr. Igor with the same ‘fears’ I had anticipated the first time I had met him two years before. And just like my first encounter, all of my ‘fears’ vanished in the reality of the kindness and patience he extended to me. He guided me through his example of how a priest serves ‘in the parish’. What I know today of how ‘to serve in a parish’, I received serving alongside Fr. Igor. Those moments and the kindness of Fr. and Matushka towards my new bride, Matushka Evelyn, and me are forever etched in our memories. I cannot drive down the FDR Drive or see a sign for the Williamsburg Bridge without thinking of him with fondness and affection. Many things happened to both of us since our days together in Brooklyn, but whenever our paths would cross at an All-American Council or some other event he would always seek me out. He would not simply give me a perfunctory ‘kiss on the cheeks’ or simple handshake; rather, Fr. Igor would engulf me with an old fashioned bear hug that was as strong and as all-encompassing as the love he had for all of God's children.
Father Igor Tkachuk retired from active priesthood in 1983. However, he continued working in the New York-New Jersey Diocese, and ministering to his spiritual children throughout the USA and around the world. Following a prolonged illness, Archpriest Igor Tkachuk, Rector Emeritus of Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Brooklyn, New York, peacefully fell asleep in the Lord at home in Elmhurst, New York, during the morning of 8 November, 1995.
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