Yurij Maximov

Saint Serapion of Kozheozero - former muslim, based famous monastery

(Feast - June 27 / July 10)

Tatar Tursas was born and grew up in Kazan khanate, descended from a noble Tatar family and was brought up in the Islam. When in 1552 Kazan was taken he was captured and among other noble captives brought to Moscow and got under patronage of boyard Zacharia Ivanovich Plescheev. Plescheev's wife was a relative of Tursas - Tatar princess Iliaksha (christened Juliania). In Moscow many eminent Tatars began to convert to the Orthodoxy: prince Utemysh-Gyrei was baptized with the name Alexander, the last khan of Kazan horde Ediger-Mohammed confessed the faith in Christ, our God, and after the holy baptism was named Simeon. Inspired with these examples and persuaded by Juliania, who had been Orthodox for quite a while by that time, Tursas took baptism with the name Sergius.

The years of Sergius' churching fell on the time when the Russian Church was headed by St. Makarius of Moscow (+1563; feast - December 30). During Divine Services led by the Metropolitan saint blessed God's fool Basilius (+1557; feast August 2) prayed in the Dormition Cathedral. No doubt, the future ascetic of Kozheozero also prayed during the Liturgies of St. Makarius, watched him and listened to his sermons. Here Sergius came to love our Lord Jesus Christ so sincerely, so deeply, so purely, that he decided to part from the world to observe the highest rules of the new faith.

At that time the Holy Trinity St. Sergius monastery became the main Russian monastery. The Tsar himself and many boyards with their kinsfolk came there for pilgrimage. No doubt, the new Tatar convert with his godfather boyard Plescheev also prayed here. It is quite possible that he was christened in honor of St. Sergius of Radonezh, who had been canonized over a hundred years before and was deeply revered. After getting acquainted with the monks in the Holy Trinity St. Sergius monastery, learning by the example of his patron saint the highness of these ascetic labors, Sergius guided by love of Christ makes up his mind to become monk.

But the cloister of St. Sergius was already very famous at that time, and he wanted to live as a hermit, so Sergius went far to the north in search of a spiritual guide. For several years he would go from one northern monastery to another, headed for the White Sea, till finally in the Oshevensky monastery he got to know about hermit Nifont who lived near the distant lake Kozheozero. This wonderful lake was hidden far from mundane settlements, behind impassable windfalls and swamps. Sergius immediately directed his steps there and found what he had been searching for - a good teacher of spiritual life.

Seeing sincerity of Sergius' faith and how he stood the proper tests, St. Nifont tonsured him a monk under the name Serapion. About 18 years they lived together the life of ascetic labors, keeping a strict fast and eating only roots and berries.

"It was not long that they stayed alone, other people came who like them strived for salvation, and asked to accept them, and love did not let to refuse". Time passed and their high spiritual life of the hermits started to attract many zealots of monastic labors. When enough monks gathered there, in 1575 St. Nifont went to Moscow to ask for land for the cloister, but in Moscow he died before starting the procedure.

At that time a famine happened in the Kozheozero community, the cloister did not have their own means of subsistence, pilgrims did not know about it yet, and communication with people was very difficult due to the long way and a multitude of forests and swamps passable only by walking. Ven. Serapion, who was left to be the chief, went around the villages to beg alms for the brethren. Sometimes he was given grain, but there was nothing in the cloister to grind it with. The venerable told the contributors about it and received at once two millstones and a sack of grain. The venerable brought all this to the cloister - all by himself dragging it through the swamps and fallen trees and thus saved the monks from starvation. It was a feat that went down in the history of the cloister and even hardly imaginable nowadays. The millstones were used to build the first mill at Kozhozero, which was the beginning of the household of the future monastery. Ven. Serapion continues to collect donations. The peasants loved him and readily made contributions from their scanty possessions. For example, in 1577 the community received a cow with two calves for the feast of Epiphany.

In summer 1584 st. Serapion fulfilling the intention of his teacher undertook a walking trip to Moscow and after 30 years of hermitry he found himself in the city where he had rejected Islam and received holy Baptism, where he was churched. The trip was successful for the cloister: on September 30, 1584, Metropolitan Dionysius blessed establishing of the monastery, and devout Tsar Feodor Ioannovich gave a chart that assigned the Lopsky peninsula and the land around the lake four kilometers in each direction to the monastery. All the acquired land consisted of impassable woods and marshes. After st. Serapion's returning, under his guidance the brethren started to hew down trees and clear a plot for the church. In 1589 the first wooden (summer) church of the Epiphany was erected. Two years later the monks finished the construction of the second (winter) church in the name of St. Nicolas. Besides they cleared up a place for the tillage and started to sow grain.

Monastery means increased also due to the contributions of the intrants whose number grew after construction of the church, however they were not so substantial. In the town of Turchasov a monastery inn was opened. The monastery organized a small saltworks for its own needs. The community produced everything necessary for them and lived on the results of their labor, but the means were insufficient, moreover, the newly opened monastery had to pay taxes. There remained a letter of Ven. Serapion to Tsar Feodor Ioannovich of 1595, in which he requests to release the Kozheozersky monastery from duties and obligation to provide the exiled for "the monks themselves have nothing to eat and they cannot guard those people, and Tsar's favours are not given out neither in money nor in bread. They themselves plough land having no peasants and make salt in Piyal for the monastery needs". The cloister did not get any maintenance from the Tsar and had to pay duties. Furthermore, the letter reads that the monks provided the militiamen with carts and "lent a great loan". It probably meant their assistance during the military campaign against the Swedes in Finland in winter 1592. The monastery was exempted from paying the duties, but the exiled still kept being sent here. Under Ven. Serapion Prince Ioann Sitsky and others were exiled here. Venerable father who himself had been in captivity, deprived of possessions and forced to resettlement did his best to mitigate the hardships of the exiled. His work was not futile: there is information that Prince Ioann submitted to his destiny, became a monk and until his death stayed in the monastery gaining love and respect of the brethren.

In 1599 st. Serapion together with his disciple Ven. Abrahamy came to Moscow for the second time during the reign of Boris Godunov. The new Tsar granted land on the White Sea and four villages on the Onega river to the cloister. Patriarch Job gave an antiminsion for the services in the new church and ordained Ven. Abrahamy. He also blessed Ven. Serapion to be the Builder in his cloister. Even before that the venerable father being the actual manager of the Kozheozersky hermitage would pass the management in humbleness to the others who were called hegumens.

As already mentioned the land around the lake granted to the monastery was marshy and wooded and gave almost no yield. So st. Serapion spent 200 rubles to buy land in the villages Kernesha, Kleschevo, Kandopelse, Piyala, on the Onega bank, bought small plots in saltworks on the summer side of the White Sea. This way the household was built that could provide the brethren. On the monastery fields rye and turnip were cultivated, they also developed fishery. During that period fishing and selling fish were the main sources of monastery's income.

However among the brethren there were also those who reviled and offended the venerable starets, forgetting his paternal care and love, and he placidly bore all the sorrows suffering from such vicious false monks mockeries and disgrace. They even tried to cause discord in the cloister. They even drove him out of the monastery trying to gain supremacy in it. The reverent starets driven out by them, as an annalist describes, would go to Moscow, but he returned anyway.

Probably because of these disorders the worthy disciples of st. Serapion who were later canonized by the Church one by one left Kozheozero not willing to see such excess. It is clearly seen from matching the dates. About 1605 Ven. Leonid left the cloister to the Solovky monastery, at the same time Ven. Nikodemus departs for the hermitry on the Khoziuga river. The next year Ven. Kornilius, Herman, Longin and Bogolep went to the north. In 1608 Ven. Serapion chose seclusion, and with his blessing Ven. Abrahamy went to Novgorod and was officially appointed monastery's hegumen by the Metropolitan.

After that life in the monastery got better. St. Serapion was in seclusion tree years and peacefully passed away on June 27, 1611, leaving 40 monks in the cloister where he worked for 46 years, a well-organized economy and a fully built monastery. There is information about posthumous miraculous appearances of st. Serapion of Kozheozero. The exact date of his canonization is unknown. His life story is given in the Synaxarion of Archbishop Filaret. According to some information there was also a special service dedicated to the Venerable, but till now it has not been found.

Venerable Serapion raised a bunch of saints for the Russian Orthodox Church - Ven. Abrahamy (Anthony in schema) of Kozheozero already during life of the founding father and with his blessing became hegumen of the Epiphany cloister, Ven. Longin of Kozheozero - hegumen of the ancient and famous Stone monastery of the Savior, Ven. Leonid of Ustnedumsk founded his own monastery near Ustug and was one of the enlightehers of savage Permiaks, Ven. Kornilius of Kozheozero blessed with his ascetic works Mangasea - the first Russian arctic town - and founded here the Kozheozero Verkhotursky monastery of the Savior; Ven. Herman and Bogolep of Kozheozero also worked with him. Local saint Ven. Nikodimus, Khuziuga miracle worker, who is now deeply revered, stayed also in the monastery under supervision of Ven.Serapion and with his blessing chose hermitry and built a cell five kilometers away from Kozheozero.

At present the relics of the Venerable Serapion repose under a tombstone in the Kozheozero Epiphany monastery, restored after 80 years of desolation. The monastery is being restored by father superior hieromonk Micah alone. In memory of st. Serapion some orthodox Tatars help the cloister, there are pilgrims from Tatarstan. Today on the place of the chapel erected long ago over the holy relics of the founding father only rose-bays grow marking the line of the former foundation and a huge cross towers over the still waters of the lake.

Translated by S.A.Aleksandrychev

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