A missionary heart.

Fr. John giving out communion at the consecration of the Sign of the Theotokos in Montreal (2009)

Christianity is by definition a mission; a living tradition that not only proclaims the Gospel (Good news) of God’s saving love and victory over death, but also manifests the life of the Kingdom of God in every age and in every nation.

Yet we tend to lose perspective of this core element of our faith, especially when beset with all kinds of temptations and challenges. Of course we recognize the amazing work of those missionary saints like St. Nino of Georgia, St. Nicholas of Japan, and our own St. Innocent of Alaska, but we generally consign those amazing missionary works to the supernatural and those supernatural people who performed them.

But, if we open our hearts to the life of the Gospel as revealed by the Holy Spirit, we see that those supernatural endeavours were manifested by very ordinary people. For as much as our faith is “mission” it is equally personal. As Fr. John Parker notes “The Apostles told those. Who told those. Who told those. Who told those. All the way through the ages. Until someone told me,” Indeed the mission work of the Church has always had a personal context that has cut through history, cultures, classes, and genders. Even here in Canada. I was reminded about all this with the repose in the Lord of the Archpriest John Tkachuk this past week.

Fr. John was born in 1944 in Lodz, Poland to Archpriest Igor and Maria (Steblinksa) Tkachuk, their family fled before the advancing Soviet forces and succeeded in reaching the American Zone in Germany, from which they were able to emigrate to the United States in 1952. After college, the soon to be Fr. John went to St. Vladimir’s Seminary, where he met and married Mary Schmemann, daughter of Father Alexander and Matushka Juliana Schmemann in 1969. Shortly after his marriage,  John was ordained to the Diaconate and then Priesthood, eventually being assigned to Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Montreal, Quebec in 1973, where Father John encouraged the use of English in the Divine Services. Indeed, Fr. John’s commitment to English became a source of tension within the Cathedral, and with the blessing of Archbishop Sylvester (Haruns) he helped found  the Mission of the Sign of the Theotokos in 1978.

We should note, that despite the witness of Orthodox Christianity in Canada for almost a hundred years, and the growing use of English in Orthodox Churches in the United States; only one other Orthodox Church in Canada was fully serving in English at that time (St. Herman of Alaska in Edmonton- which revived a blessing to start only one year earlier). Like St. Herman’s in Edmonton, the establishment of the Sign of the Theotokos in Montreal, was a bold experiment that had a polarizing effect on the relationship with other Orthodox Churches in Canada still very connected to their historical and cultural homelands. Yet without dismissing those historic and cultural roots, Fr. John and  the community of  the Sign of the Theotokos (and Saint Herman’s in Edmonton) revealed something about Orthodox Christianity that was at that time shrouded in foreign languages and customs; that mission of the Church was to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19).

It was in this time, that my family converted to Orthodoxy from Anglicanism, and that my father (Igumen John Scratch +2006) was ordained to serve as the second priest at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Ottawa.

Fr. John was the only English speaking priest around for my father, and the Mission of the Sign was the only English community in which to draw upon. Although my father was committed to learning Slavonic, and serving the community of St. Nicholas, the terms of his service began to change. He was initially told that he could incorporate English for the small group of English families in attendance, but then told he was using too much English. In addition to this, he was then told that he would only be paid when he could serve in Slavonic fully! This placed an unbearable burden on my father, considering that he had left everything to join the Orthodox Church (including a very well paying career) and had a family of six children to provide for. 

He once told me that it was a very “dark time” for him. Always wondering if he had done the right thing in becoming Orthodox, or if he had “chased a fantasy” at the expense of his family? He went on to talk about how, during this time, the only thing that kept him sane and Orthodox (one and the same he noted) was Fr. John and the mission of the Sign in Montreal. It was there that he saw what Orthodoxy was, and what his heart had called him to; the “house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). It was there with Fr. John, that the witness of God’s saving love was manifested- in the love and support of a brother priest- and a community that sought Christ first. It was with Fr. John Tkachuk that the mission imperative of the Church that has been passed down through the ages to eventually him, was now passed down to my father… and eventually to me.

The rest is history as they say. With the encouragement of Fr. John and the community of the Sign, a petition to establish the third English speaking mission Canada (Holy Transfiguration in Ottawa) was blessed by Archbishop Sylvester in 1980, and in the next decades, many English Orthodox communities were founded, and the once token use of English, and French started to become more of the norm across the Archdiocese, and other Orthodox jurisdictions across Canada.

Of course, in addition to Fr. John,  there were other people who set this course for the witness of Orthodoxy in Canada. But none of them had the same kind of influence on my father though such a critical part of his life. Truthfully, I don’t know what my father would have done in those “dark days” had Fr. John, not been there. Nor would I know what our Church would look like without his desire for an Orthodox Church that was first and foremost the Church and everything after that.

But what I do know, and what I am profoundly thankful for, is that despite what flaws and shortcomings Fr. John might have had, he nonetheless understood that to be an Orthodox Christian, was to be a missionary. Preaching the Gospel of God’s saving love and victory over death, and manifesting the life of the Kingdom of God …even here in Canada.

Indeed I am here today because “The Apostles told those. Who told those. Who told those. Who told those. All the way through the ages. Until someone told me”. Fr. John Tkachuk indeed was one of “those”, for which I will continually offer my thanksgiving to God for!

May his memory be eternal!

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