A Holy Painting, a Promise to my Grandmother, and the Battle for Kiev

In my family research there are delightful discoveries. I stumble upon them like jewels scattered along my path, and can’t bear to continue my journey until they are collected and examined. I imagine I’m like my Grandfather Valentin in this respect.

This discovery concerns a holy painting, the wellspring of many miracles. It now hangs at a Russian Orthodox Convent in Spring Valley, New York, but in 1943 the painting graced a church in Kiev. By chance (or Divine Intervention) it left Kiev with the exodus that included my mother and her parents. It has its own tale of narrow escapes before its arrival on these shores. Now it hangs a few hundred yards from where my grandparents rest.

My discovery started innocently. I have been corresponding with a Ukrainian historian, Maxim, from the city of Chernihiv in Ukraine. Chernihiv is where my grandfather grew up and where his grandfather was an important Russian Orthodox priest. In one email Maxim asked if I had a photo of my grandfather’s grave. I have one but I couldn’t find it in our cluttered photo drawer. In lieu of the photo, I decided to send Maxim a map that showed the cemetery. I found Spring Valley, NY on Google Maps, located the cemetery and created a map that showed the location. It also included New York City as a reference. 

The cemetery is part of a Russian Orthodox convent. It was easy to find because I’ve been there many times to take care of my grandparents’ graves. When my grandmother was alive I had promised to take her to the cemetery where we would visit my grandfather’s grave and share a meal with the nuns. Unfortunately, my first visit to the cemetery was my grandmother’s funeral. Because of my promise, I would usually stop at the there whenever I was in the area.

I wanted to include the convent address in my email to Maxim, so I did an internet search and found that the convent had a web site. I emailed the map and the internet address to Maxim. Before I closed the convent web page I glanced at it and was drawn to the image of a painting. The painting is of Saint Seraphim who lived at the  Diveyevo Convent in Sarov, Russia and its story is on the web site. I’ll give the barest details here.  A link to the web site is below.

The painting originally hung in the Diveyevo Convent in Sarov, but by chance (or Divine Intervention) it was moved to a church in Kiev and was there during the Nazi occupation when churches were able to function again. In 1943 when the  Soviet Army was approaching, the residents of Kiev were ordered to evacuate (my mother describes her family’s chaotic departure in her memoirs). A Ukrainian interpreter who was helping a German soldier round up stragglers went into the church where the painting hung. He “saw the image of the saint. As he himself related afterward, he was overcome with an extraordinary sense of agitation and an insuperable desire to take the portrait with him.” He sent it to relatives in Lodz, now in Poland. From there it went to a cathedral in Berlin. During an Allied raid the cathedral was hit by an incendiary bomb. By chance (or Divine Intervention) the painting was barely touched by the flames all around it.

The painting made its way to New York along with the flood of refugees. The Russian Orthodox Church in New York had already decided to build the Novo-Diveevo Convent in Honor of Saint Seraphim, but there hadn’t been sufficient support for the project. With the arrival of Saint Seraphim’s portrait from Kiev, support for the convent materialized and it was built. And now my grandparents rest in the convent cemetery, a few hundred yards from the holy painting that spurred its construction, the painting that left Kiev when they did, September 1943.

 

The quote is from the convent web site. For the full story of the painting go to https://novo-diveevo.org/portrait-of-st-seraphim-of-sarov.

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Spring Valley, New York

Click on map for larger image.

The convent was once in a bucolic setting but the area is now developed.

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St. Seraphim of Sarov.

Clicking on the painting opens a page for the convent web site with a larger image and the history of the painting.

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Grave of Valentin Shuhayevsky (Ukrainian spelling of his name)

Maxim found a photo of the grave and sent it to me