Orthodox Easter in China

On May 1, Orthodox Christians around the world celebrated Easter, or Paschal. In Catholicism and Protestantism the date is set according to the Gregorian Calendar, but in the Orthodox faith, it is set according to the Julian Calendar.

Harbin Orthodox Church

In China, this Easter marked the first time in 16 years that an ordained Orthodox priest was able to preside over Easter services, in the city of Harbin, Heilongjiang Province. Here’s how it was reported by the AFP (from The Daily Mail):

His red and gold vestments bathed in candlelight, the first mainland Chinese Orthodox priest ordained for six decades led an Easter service on Sunday — one of the most surprising fruits of warming ties between Moscow and Beijing.

Alexander Yu Shi said prayers in the Church Slavonic language and in Mandarin beside the Church of Holy Protection in the northeastern city of Harbin, surrounded by local worshippers.

“It is a happy day. We are welcoming the resurrection,” he said. “And for the Eastern Orthodox Church in Harbin, it’s also a resurrection.”

The small and elderly Orthodox community -– mostly descended from Chinese and Russians who intermarried in the city’s cosmopolitan heyday a century ago -– lacked a priest for 15 years.

Shi, a soft-spoken former bank manager, is the first ever Chinese to have studied at an Orthodox seminary with backing from China’s avowedly atheist Communist Party.

“With the help of the governments of both countries, I was able to learn theology systematically,” he told AFP in his office, sitting below photographs of himself alongside bearded Russian church luminaries.

Shi, who has Buddhist grandparents, converted while studying business in Moscow in the 1990s. He returned a few years ago to enrol in the St Petersburg theological seminary.

Ordained last year, he led the most important festival in the church’s calendar for the first time.

Shi presided at the altar of a Catholic church opposite his parish since his Holy Protection Church is undergoing state-backed refurbishment.

He led a procession to the scaffolding-clad structure, swinging a thurible of incense and declaring loudly in Chinese: “Christ is risen!”

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Image: AFP

I was excited to read this article, because I immediately recognized the priest. When Amy and I were on a bell-hunting trip to Harbin in the fall of 2012, we visited the small Orthodox Church there. The Chinese man in charge of the church told us that he was the only Chinese person (from Mainland China) studying to become an Orthodox priest. He was also the one who finally allowed us to go up into the tower to see the ancient Russian bell.  You can read all about that in these two blog posts: A Russian Bell in Harbin and Memorial Cookies,

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How wonderful to read that this tiny congregation now has a priest!

He is Risen Indeed! 耶稣基督复活!

Related Posts:

A Russian Bell in Harbin

Memorial Cookies

Memorial Cookies

As we were milling around the old Orthodox Church in Harbin on Sunday, an older Chinese woman came out of the church with a small bag of cookies in her hand. She came over to where we were standing and offered some to us.

“It’s been12 years since our last priest passed away,” she said. “Here, please eat a cookie to honor his memory.”

A little puzzled, but also a bit hungry, we each took one. Our Russian friends told us that it is a tradition to eat something in commemoration of the death of special people. In this case the special person was Father Zhu, the last Orthodox priest in China.

In some ways, it seems that his death 12 years ago marked the end of era that began when, according to the website Chinese Orthodoxy, the first Orthodox Church was opened in Peking in 1685. It goes on to say that by 1949, there were 106 Orthodox Churches in China, with approximately 10,000 Orthodox followers. Many of those were actually Russians who had fled to China (settling in what was then called Manchuria, but today called Northeast China) in order to escape Bolshevism. Finding themselves once again under Communist rule, most fled China, leaving behind a small number of Chinese believers.

All of the churches were closed during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980’s when China’s religious policies changed, this church in Harbin, officially called The Church of the Protection of Our Holy Mother of God, was the only Orthodox Church that was re-opened. From what I have been told, and from what I have read, it seems that itis now the only functioning Orthodox Church in the entire country. There is one on the grounds of the Russian embassy in Beijing, but it is technically on Russian soil, not Chinese.  (To read more on the history of Orthodoxy in China, please visit this site: www.chinese.orthodoxy.ru)

I found a section from a book published in 1931 called “Orthodox Churches in Manchuria” that gives quite a bit of information about the church, calling it the Ukranian Parish:

 The Ukrainian parish, together with its church dedicated to the Holy Protection of the Mother of God, was established in 1922, with the authorization and blessing of Archbishop Methodiusof Harbin and Manchuria. […]

 

At first, the church was actually a house church located at the Ukrainian Residence. When this building was taken away from the Ukrainians, the church moved to a basement at B. Avenue, and thus the need came about for building a proper church. The Property Administration answered the requests of the parish and allocated a spot for free belonging to the Old Cemetery, where on June 1, 1930, a marvelous stone church began to be erected according to the project of the civil engineer Y. P. Zhdanov.

 

The church building was finished during the same construction season, and it took only six and a half months for that. It was finally consecrated by Metropolitan Methodius on December 14, 1930. […]

 

At the cemetery many pioneers of the Russian culture lay to rest.

Since it is in the heart of the city today, there is no trace of that cemetery. I do wonder, however, what might have been found when digging for the subway line that is being built underneath the road in front of the church.

I haven’t found any specific information about the bell, though. This past week I have been corresponding with someone I knew in the 1980’s who worked in Harbin and occasionally attended services there. He told me that he once even heard the bell being rung.

Oh… and back to those memorial cookies. It reminded me of the tradition that my family started a few years ago of gathering at a Dairy Queen on the anniversary of my father’s death, where we all raise a Dilly Bar in his honor. That man loved his ice cream!

I also found a website that has old photos of the church from the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Taken from the same spot as my photo above.

This one shows the church set in the cemetery, with the large monument. The steeple down the road was the Lutheran Church. Today it is the Nangang Protestant Church.

There are lots more photos of the church here. (Don’t you just love the internet?)

A Russian Bell in Harbin

We spotted the bell in the tower from the street on Saturday as we walked around the church. It was locked up tight and looked like it had been locked up tight for decades. We trained our telephoto lenses on the bell, snapping at a distance, figuring that was as close as we were likely to get.

We were wrong.

By noon on Sunday, we, along with our new Russian friends were climbing up into the tower to see the bell.

An American friend had introduced us to some Russians who worship at the church and know the man in charge. They agreed to meet us there on Sunday morning. When the services were done at 11:30, they set about trying to get permission to go up in the tower. Since they were the ones with a relationship to the leaders of the church, we were content to hang out off to the side and let them do the talking.

It wasn’t an easy task—convincing the man to let these strangers (Americans and Protestants, to boot) climb up to see the bell.

After awhile our Russian friends called me in to make a final appeal, directly and in Chinese.

I told him that I viewed the bell as a symbol of God’s love for the Chinese Church and that I wanted to tell that story. Upon hearing that, he asked me to write down my contact information, then got out his keys and opened the door to the  tower.

Up we went!

Even though the inscriptions on the bell were in Old Russian, our friends were able to tell us that it had been made in Moscow, and weighs 784kg. According to this website, it was made in 1899. There are some differing stories as to what happened to the bell during the Cultural Revolution, which I’m still trying to sort out.

Of course we were thrilled to have gotten up to see the bell, but our Russian friends felt it even more since it was THEIR cultural heritage we were glimpsing. They were also happy to meet a couple of nutty Americans who were interested in learning about and telling the story of that heritage.

After seeing the bell, we all went out to lunch to celebrate.  As we enjoyed a wonderful meal together — with Chinese as the common language among us — I couldn’t help thinking that, given the unique circumstances of our seeing it, the message that this bell rings forth is the message from the great hymn “In Christ There is No East or West.”

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

In Him shall true hearts everywhere
Their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord,
Close binding humankind.

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet North and South;
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth.

I will save the story of the church itself for the next post.