22. Fathers Ismael and Michael

Russia's Catacomb Saints


Fathers Ismael and Michael

Commemorated June 17 (†1937)

...and you shall be hated by all men
for My name's sake. But he that
shall endure unto the end, he shall be saved
Mark 13:13

SMAEL AND HIS younger brother Michael Rozhdestvensky were the sons of a Novgorod priest and spent their young years in that city. Later Ismael graduated from the Petersburg Theological Academy, mar ried, and became priest of the Transfiguration Church near Petrograd, leading a very serious and conscientious priest’s life. After the 1927 “Declaration” of Metropolitan Sergius, he became an adamant “Josephite,” strongly opposing the “legalization” of the Church and going with firm step in the path of the Holy Apostles and Confessors, which of course led to his persecution. The good pastor lays down his life for the sheep. We once heard him say: “I am going to Golgotha; who will follow me!?” And he went far, to the far north, to the region of everlasting ice, from where it was hardly possible for anyone who was sent there at that time to return. But in the souls of those who revere and love him he is alive and, of course, in difficult moments one seeks help from him...

With his honest and pure glance, Father Ismael attracted a large number of the faithful. We lived not far from the place where his church was, and rumors of this highly revered, outstanding pastor were widespread around us. We first visited his church in 1926 and after this made a definite resolve to visit his church every Sunday and feast day. Listening attentively to his sermons and seeing his penetrating, careful, conscientious way of celebrating services, we found it more and more pleasant to be there.

Many people came to the Liturgy and the All-night Vigil. At times not everyone could get into the church, and they would stand in the garden and wait without fail until Batiushka would come out and bless them. Likewise, there were quite a few demon-possessed women from near and far. They loved Father Ismael very much, even though his presence sometimes evoked whole dramas in them. They screamed, threatened, spit, and often fell on the floor foaming at the mouth, But Father Ismael had only to read the prayers, pressing the Holy Cross to their lips, in order to stop all this, and in a minute they became normal, getting up hy themselves and looking around. I had to witness this more than once. The sufferine women sometimes trembled even at the sight of his devoted, obedient spiritual children.

We will never forget the remarkable phenomenon which we observed dur ing a moleben which Father Ismael was serving before the icon of the Mother of God “Assuage My Sorrow.” While Father Ismael was reading the Gospel, before our eyes there appeared a small rose-colored cloud surrounding his head like a halo. This was not long before his arrest and martyr’s death in 1937.

No less striking, not only to us but also to many others in church, was a case of the clairvoyance of this remarkable priest. A man who lived 15 miles away never came to our church, even though he had heard of this exceptional priest who drew people to himself. One Sunday he decided to verify the rumors, and he came. At the end of the Liturgy, standing in the crowd of faithful, he heard Father Ismael say: “Well, thank you, slave of God Peter, that you are praying for me,” and he looked in his direction. He was indeed Peter, and this struck him so forcibly that from that day he became a constant visitor to the church and a man close to Father Ismael.

Yet our poor Father Ismael also knew grief, even from his close ones. After he had begun to celebrate secret services in the Catacomb Church, once at 11 p.m. he knocked at our door, asking lodging for the night. At that time he no longer had his own quarters near the church, since everything had been taken away. He went from house to house and stayed wherever people were not afraid to receive him. This time, after walking the dark, unlighted road from his spiritual daughter to our place, he told us by the way that she had unexpectedly sent him away. After spending the night with us he set out on his way; but he did not in the least change his attitude toward his spiritual daughter, knowing that she was forced to do this because the secret police was looking for him to arrest him, and she had a family of her own to protect.

Once a woman who was not well known to Father Ismael came to confession. When she returned home, perhaps desiring to please her daughter who was married to an atheist, she declared that the priest had hit her while blessing her. Father Ismael had the custom of as it were implanting the Sign of the Cross in the forehead and shoulders. A trial followed, and he was condemned to forced labor. When he returned home after three years, he was again arrested and banished for ten years, which proved fatal; he was never heard of again. He was only 45 years old and left behind a wife and a three-year-old son. When they saw him off for the last time, people wanted to run after the train, but the rifle-butts of the Red Army soldiers drove them back. We will always remember his dear, shining gray eyes, as pure as a child’s and a little naive; his smile and his blessing from the window...

Professor I. M. Andreev, who attended Father Ismael’s catacomb services in the Petrograd region, informed us that Father Ismael was exe by shooting in 1937 during the “Ezhov” purge.

Even more tragic was the fate of Father Ismael’s brother Michael, six years younger, who was ordained priest in 1927 under his brother’s influence and at first served together with him in his church. When Father Ismael was arrested, he gave over the care of his flock entirely to Father Michael.

Father Michael’s deep understanding of Christianity and his faith in the future life, for which temporal earthly life is only a preparation, sometimes simply stunned people. And so the ever-increasing flock was drawn to Father Michael just as they had been to his arrested brother. He celebrated the Divine services, which at first were still in the church, reverently, penetratingly, and attentively. His ser mons, which he considered indispensable, were penetrated with the desire to teach people to love God entirely, with a true, self-sacrificing love, preparing a soul for unavoidable trials, and perhaps for death for Him.

The unforgettable meals after Liturgy were a great joy, despite the poor food and, in addition, the strictly observed fasts! At table there sat poor and miserable people. To everyone Father Michael had the same attitude; everyone he encouraged. After one such pauper had been buried without charge, the widow was treated with special kindness and was asked to eat at the common table for the whole forty days afterwards. This was an apostolic family; everyone was kin and close, each suffering for the others. Having almost no income, since their flock was very poor, both brothers lived with a single thought: to help, rather than to receive.

In those frightful times, when people were jailed and banished without trial or investigation, solely for faith in God, Father Michael went imrriediately wherever he was summoned, risking his life, supported only by his faith in God’s Om nipresence. He wei even to complete atheists in the hours before their death, if by inspiration from above he hoped to awaken their frozen souls. And a dying atheist would glance at the face which bent over hi in love, would soften, and...repent.

In 1934 Father Michael also was arr’ested with his wife and sent in banish inent to various places; his two children were taken by their grandparents. After three years he was released, and then he could serve only secretly, having no right even to a place to stay. His wife could not endure such a life of suffering, and on being released from prison she did not return to him but found another man for herself. Still, Father Michael waited to see her when she would come to visit the children. He had no home where he could see his wife or children, and of course he could not meet them at the catacomb services; and so he would meet his wife at various places in the country, and would see the children often at our place. Once she wished to take the children for a visit to her home in Alma Ata. Father Michael asked us to come with him to see them off at the train station. The tickets had already been bought and we sat there waiting for the train, when suddenly the little girl declared that she did not want to go but would remain with her father. The boy, however, went, and when he returned he was already quite different.

After the Sergian “Declaration” Father Michael, of course became a “Josephite” like his brother, and he allowed us no contact whatever with the Sergianist church. Once he became extremely angry with me for merely turning to look into a Sergianist church as I passed by on the street.

After the Second World War broke out, life became ever more frightful. Here our father increased his prayer and began to prepare everyone to accept a yet more difficult cross. All of us were already prepared for death. Somewhere in a little village, in a hut located far from the main road, the services would begin at 5 in the morning. When and where the services were to be held was communicated by word of mouth, and people would gather, but tried to come separately, at different times, so as not to attract anyone’s attention. Afterwards, also, people would leave separately, one at a time.

There were few people at a time for services. Each person was well known to Father Michael, all “our own” people. No new person was accepted into the Catacomb Church until he, his life and outlook had been investigated. If you told an outsider, you might unwillingly become a betrayer.

In place of an altar table there was a simple table; on it were a Gospel, a Cross, and the Holy Chalice. On the walls were icons. Those who were going to sing would gather by the entrance. There were many icon-lamps, and they il luminated the room. Beeswax candles were obtained, apparently from whoever made them. Everything was quiet, orderly, reverent. In the reading and singing not a single letter was allowed to be added or taken away; the services were absolutely complete.

By the beginning of Proskomedia everyone would have gathered for the Liturgy. One can never forget it! Such prayer one cannot experience again in one’s whole life! Father Michael with his arms outstretched, and tears streaming down his cheeks... Everyone would weep together, both for themselves and for him, who had, besides everything else, such great trials in his own family. He served slowly, penetratingly.., When the dogs would bark outside our hearts froze; but it was for this that we were called, trying to strengthen ourselves.

One’s spiritual state at such catacomb services is difficult to express in human language. It is not at all like any service in our free Russian Church Abroad, even though it is the same Orthodoxy. First of all, there is total fearlessness, peace of soul, a heavenly, unearthly joy, the desire not to leave, not to cease praying. One wished only to be with the faithful; let them take us away, let them deprive us of life!

The Paschal service was entirely of heaven. Father Michael was in white linen vestments. His face was unforgettable; it entirely glowed from within, with a heavenly, angelic smile.

Father Michael remained always calm. In moments that could be dangerous, when he, not having a roof of his own and for the sake of his flock not wishing to be arrested, would spend the night with us, suddenly all our fear vanish ed and we were ready to go with him wherever he might be sent. He was both friend, and brother, and father, and mother. If he had to celebrate a service at our place, he would come in lay clothes with a suitcase in his hand which contained his vestments, and, under cover of the noise made by the kerosene stoves in the com mon kitchen, he would peacefully and quietly celebrate the service. And God preserved him!

The words which Father Michael spoke to us that last time we saw him were remarkable. The Second World War was raging. The approaching enemy was already bombarding Petrograd, when at night Father Michael secretly visited us on his way to give Holy Commuinion to his spiritual daughter in the city. All our pleas not to go becaue of the danger, or to come with us into occupied territory, were in vain, and nothing could stop him. He sat by our table, called us ciose to him, and said, “Listen ca Now we are all about to part. Many of us will not remain alive, will be killed. But remember: no matter where you may be, at the hour of your death, I will come to you, will c you and give you Holy Communion and will myself lead you to the Heavenly Kingdom to the Altar of God, bearing witness for you; for my brother, Father Ismael, entrusted you to me to take care of you as spiritual children, and I must give answer for you.” These were his last words to us. He got up, blessed us, and went away into the night that was charged with guns, fire, and death.

And you shall be hated by all men for My name’s sake. . . But he
that shall endure unto the end, he 8hall be saved.     (Mark 13:13)

Source: Alexis and Zinaida Makushineky.