RTE: I understand that the Surety of Sinners Cathedral, built by Archbishop
John in Shanghai, still stands as well.
IOANNIS: Yes. During the Cultural Revolution this building was used for different things. For several years it was a living space, and later it was renovated.
I can tell you my own experience with this church. My grandmother lived in
an old house near Archbishop John's cathedral, and when I was a small child
I played there, on the steps of this church. What exactly an Orthodox church
was remained a mystery to me, and this church was always closed. Many
times, my playmates and I stood on each other's shoulders trying to look
through the windows. I remember that once I saw some Slavonic sentences
around the door and I tried to copy them. I was very young and had no idea
that Slavonic was a language. The words were like pictures for me. Years later,
at the end of the 1980's and in the early 1990's, the government began to
repair the church, although not in the Christian style and for other uses.
People in Shanghai, especially the old woman, like to tell the news themselves. They don't have jobs, and they like to talk. This is called "street
news." When I heard from the street news that this church was to be
reopened, I was so happy. I wasn't Orthodox at that time, I was Catholic,
but I felt an inner warmth, like a flame, pushing me to go there. I didn't live
with my grandmother and my own home was very far from the cathedral,
but every Sunday for months I went to see what was happening. After six
months the repair work finished, and I waited anxiously for the reopening
of the church. It finally reopened, but not for services. It opened as a financial exchange center, like a bank. Two years later, the business moved, and
I heard that Russians living in Shanghai had complained to the government, "This is a sacred place and must be respected. How can you use it for
financial dealings?" I don't know if this is true or not, but the situation did
change. The government announced, "We have another plan for this building," but until now it is empty.
RTE: Perhaps St. John Maximovitch is protecting it.
IOANNIS: Yes, I believe so. Before Pascha this year, I entered the church to
check on it. I secretly gave the doorkeeper a little money and he let me in to
look. This building also is divided into two floors, but it would be very easy
to remove the false ceiling. In the sanctuary, everything is intact, although,
of course, the iconostasis and the holy altar are gone.
RTE: Are there frescoes on the walls?
IOANNIS: No, but someone said that during the Cultural Revolution they didn't destroy the frescoes, they just whitewashed over them. Later, the walls
were plastered. Perhaps they can be restored, I'm not sure. Until now the
church is empty, and we pray to God that it will be restored. Also, our very
beloved and beautiful Church of St. Nicholas is now a French restaurant.
RTE: Oh, no.
IOANNIS: Yes, the Church of St. Nicholas is also divided into two floors, but
the Frenchman who owns it (some say he is German) is not very friendly to
us. He is a businessman; he is civil, but he isn't happy to talk with us. He
covered up the frescos and had someone paint unclothed pagan goddesses
on the walls. One Christian told me that when he and a few others went
inside to see, they crossed themselves and said, "Lord, have mercy, what
happened? Here was the icon of St. Nicholas, there was the Mother of God,
but what is this now, women without clothes?" The owner also put a table
for food inside the altar. Strangely, this table is more expensive than the
others. When I talked to him about it he said, "I paid the government for
this building. If you want to take it back, you will have to pay me double."
RTE: We will have to pray that someone can buy it. Is there anyone in
Shanghai who remembers Archbishop John Maximovitch?
IOANNIS: Yes, but we don't have many stories, because the people who
remember him were very young then. I've heard them say that St. John was
a very humble man, and even little children could say, "Come here!" and he
would come, or "Go there!" and he would go. They also remember that
although Bishop Simeon, who came later, was very tall, St. John was very
short. They all say that he was very kind and loving.