Centenary of the Archdiocese of Orthodox Churches of Russian Tradition in Western Europe

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Saint-hilaire-le-grand hermitage

The Founders

Saint Hilaire-Le-Grand Russian Orthodox Hermitage is located next to the Russian military cemetery in Champagne. It was founded by Archimandrite Alexis (Kireevsky) (1870-1945), who, after 26 years on Mount Athos, had been appointed chaplain to a Russian convent and orphanage near Paris in 1925. Having been on the annual pilgrimage to the cemetery, he felt the necessity of continual prayer for those officers and soldiers of the Russian Imperial Army who had given their lives for France and, for the most part, lay there forgotten by their compatriots.

In 1930, he bought out of his own funds a small plot of land adjoining the cemetery; but it took him another two years before he could settle there with his two novices: Ioassaf (Dmitri Nikitine) and Varlaam (Victor Karakaï), who later became Father Job (1896-1986) and Father Seraphim (1894 -1945). They had both served in the artillery during World War I and after being demobilised had ended up in Paris, where they became Fr. Alexis’ spiritual sons. The first buildings (the church, the houses and the shed), erected in 1932, were built using plain planks or second-hand materials. Father Alexis wished for the church to be dedicated to All the Saints of the Russian Land. It was consecrated by the Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe, Metropolitan Euloge (Guéorguievsky) in 1939.

The three monks lived according to the Athonite Rule. Life was hard: the land was not very fertile and the community was poor. The Second World War years were particularly hard: a fire burned part of the housing, then they had to be evacuated and discovered upon their return that the Hermitage had been ransacked. However, life slowly got better from then onwards, thanks to the help and kindness of the locals and the support of Russian immigrants who started forming a small parish.

Although the Hermitage was always open to pilgrims and novices, no other monk settled there. Thus, when Archimandrite Alexis and Hierodeacon Seraphim died in 1945, Hieromonk Job remained alone.

Fr. Job bought new plots of land in 1948 and in 1958. A first brick house was built, followed by two other buildings for pilgrims, and especially for the Vitiaz who had Fr. Job as their spiritual advisor. The biblical scenes on the walls of the dining hall were painted by one of those pilgrims, Ivan Kuleff, during his stay at the Hermitage.

As time passed, Fr. Job, who had by then become Archimandrite, started having difficulties taking care of the hermitage by himself. In 1968 he took in the retired engineer Boris Sokoloff and his wife. The pair spent around 20 years at the hermitage to help maintain it, all the while living in a portacabin.

In 1976, as he was concerned with the future of the Hermitage, Fr. Job created the foundation of “Ermitage” and transferred its ownership to the foundation, effectively making it administrator until new monks could settle there. The trustees of the foundation were both from our Archdiocese and from the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia. Indeed, Fr. Job was the confessor of the monastery of Bussy and of the Vitiaz, and had numerous spiritual children in all the branches of the Russian diaspora. Some still serve the Church today.

The new log chapel

Father Job had always wanted to replace the decrepit plank church with a log chapel typical of his native northern Russia. As he had a few architects among his friends (Hélène Barraud, Wladimir Lentzy, André Toutounov), the first plans were inspired by a small chapel found in the ecomuseum of Kiji, Russia. A new log bell tower was built in 1984, next to the old church. The dream of a new chapel finally came true thanks to a Finnish artist, Liisa Kuningas, who was at the time studying the art of Russian iconography with Archpriest and iconographer Georges Drobot, who was himself one of Fr. Jobs’ spiritual sons. Fr. Georges took her to the hermitage where Fr. Job shared his dream with her. She was moved by the charism of the Elder and despite her lack of experience in the building trade and the lack of funding, she understood that this task had fallen to her.

Back in Finland, she managed to spread her enthusiasm to other men of good will: Kalevi Munstonen, Oni Villstedt, Arto, and many others. Thus, the project imagined by Fr. Job in France started to take shape at the hands of Fins! Fr. Job, who closely followed the project, sadly did not live to see its completion as he returned to the Lord in June 1986. Less than four months later, on the 8th of October, the building materials arrived at the Hermitage.

Liisa and her friends came several times from Finland to help build the church. Fr. Georges Drobot oversaw the building process with Hélène Barraud, a retired architect. They were also helped by many volunteers, among whom many locals as well as spiritual children of Archimandrite Job – from Paris for the most part. The Church was finally consecrated by Mgr. Georges (Wagner), Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe in 1988. The building works, as well as the transport of the necessary materials would not have been possible without the work of volunteers and the generosity of benefactors, orthodox and not orthodox, architects, ordinary people, student cabinetmakers, hauliers, Champagne farmers. The new iconostasis was painted by Fr. Drobot’s working group (Fusako Taniguchi, Liisa Kuningas and Anne Hoffalt), under his supervision. The Christ in Majesty, the Holy Face of Jesus and Our Lady of Kazan are prime examples of Fr Drobot’s style of icon painting. Other icons donated by his students can also be fseen in the church.

Lisa Kuningas came back in 2002 to build a baptistery.

The Hermitage since 1986

When Archimandrite Job passed away, no monk had come to take over after him. However, he had left a spiritual testament, in which he had tasked the Foundation to make sure the Divine Liturgy would be celebrated at least once a month until the return of monastic life at the Hermitage.

From June 1986 to 2002, Archpriest Georges Drobot would therefore travel to the Hermitage once a month and on all the major feast days of the Julian calendar to celebrate Vigils and the Divine Liturgy. Nathalie Annenkoff, a parishioner from Chalons-sur-Marne, who had previously helped Fr. Job, served as cantor on Sundays. Jean Drobot, now Protodeacon of the cathedral Saint Alexandre Nevsky in Paris, used to replace her on major feast days.

In the 90s, the Jevaguine and the Tkatchenko, two refugee families, found refuge at the hermitage until they could regularise their situation and find a job and place to live.

From 2000 to 2003, as Fr. Drobot’s health declined, services could not take place as frequently as before. Only those held for the Feast of the Nativity, Holy Week and Easter, and for the Feast of the Patron Saints of the Hermitage could take place thanks to the dedication of Fr. Emmanuel Bachev, Hieromonks Nicolas (Molinier), Prokhore (Spasky), and Nestor (Sirotenko), now Archbishop of Madrid and Lisbon. The parishioners however continued to come once a month to pray the Typica with their usual Cantor.

André Drobot, one of Fr. Jobs’ spiritual sons, was ordained to the priesthood in November 2003 to serve at the Hermitage. From then onward, Vigils and the Divine Liturgie were held twice a month and on all major feast days. Myriam Drobot, his matouchka, gradually took over Mrs. Annenkoff’s position in the choir.

On the 20th anniversary of the consecration of the log church in 2008, the Hermitage saw the first concelebration between Hierarchs from our Archdiocese and from the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia: Mgr Gabriel (de Vylder), the archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe and Mgr. Michel (Donskoff), the bishop of Geneva and of Western Europe. On this occasion, the Miraculous Icon of Kursk was visiting the Hermitage for the second time.

From 1986 to 2013 local parishioners, among whom Sviatoslav Weremienko and Vassily Tkatchenko, as well as Fr. Georges’ family and a handful of friends, were mostly responsible for the upkeep of the place. It is also worth saying that the successive Mayors of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, and most recently Hubert Gangand and Agnès Person, have been supportive to the Hermitage.

Since the 8th of October 2013, the place has returned to its original Athonite life of prayer with the arrival of a spiritual son of Fr. Job’s, Monk Philaret, who after spending 23 years at the Orthodox Monastery of St. Job of Potchaev, in Munich, brought back daily services at the Hermitage.

Before his arrival, other monks had lived there, but none had remained for more than a few months. Two novices, Vadim and Viatcheslav Petouchkoff, stayed for almost a year in 1988 but left for Mount Athos, where they spent the rest of their lives. Before leaving however, Vadim Petouchkoff left two engraved icons (The Holy Face and Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg) and the engraved inscription that stands in the middle of the church. After them, Monk Koukcha arrived in 1998 before moving on to the Holy Mount. Hegumen Kronid and future Bishop Savva (Toutounov) stayed in 2005-2006 before returning to Russia.

Since the arrival of Monk Philaret, known as Ambroise after his receiving the Great Schema, the Hermitage has grown more beautiful. A chapel dedicated to the Mother of God of Iviron was built by Youri Rusak. It was consecrated in 2018 by Metropolitan Jean, archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe. Remaining opened to anyone, it became a goal of pilgrimage for orthodox and non orthodox alike in the region. The bell tower was also fully rebuilt in 2019.

The Parish

Up until the 90s, most parishioners were of Russian, or at least Russian-speaking, descent. However, the demographics of the parish changed substantially over time. The congregation grew in size and diversity and now includes French, Georgians, Serbians, Romanians and Moldavians. Even though French is now occasionally used, Slavonic has remained the main liturgical language. Archpriest André Drobot still serves at the Hermitage twice a month and on the feast days of the Julian calendar. Some thirty people gather each Sunday for the Divine Liturgy. Christmas, Easter, and the Hermitage’s Patron Saints Day (second Sunday after Pentecost) attract considerably larger crowds.