HONCHARENKO, PATRIOT, EXILE!

By IRVIN E. THOMPSON

 

It was a real California morning, that morning, when nineteen Epworthians started on their pilgrimage to see Honcharenko. The day seemed made for the trip and the spirits of the crowd mounted higher as they rode around and over the hills five or six miles in a big bus drawn by four horses. What a view lay before them! The bay of San Francisco with is silver expanse stretching as far as the eye could see, the acres and acres of orchards and farms, the thousands hills covered with grazing cattle, until one of the boys exclaimed as his attention was called to it, "Why, that is in the Bible." One could use pages in describing the wonderful scenery but I started out to tell you about Honcharenko.

Who is Honcharenko? The most interesting person in northern California! You do not believe it? Wait then until I tell you about him.

He is a Ukrainian Cossack, a native of Kiev in Southern Russia, a regularly ordained priest of the Greek Orthodox Church who was banished from his native land and has lived an exile for over fifty years.

What was his crime? Only that he denounced human slavery in the Church and state! For this he has gone through persecution and trials such as would do credit to the early Christians. His motto is the motto of the martyr: "Tribulations are my distinction and poverty my glory."

On the morning of our visit he came hobbling out to the gate to meet us, greeting us with hearty words of welcome, "Come in my children, come in." His long, flowing white beard, his fur cap and somewhat bent shoulders gave him a venerable appearance that recalled the Patriarchs of the Bible. He is now nearly eighty-two years old and his sight is not so good as it once was, but here in this retreat named "Ukraina" he has lived for forty-one years, laboring with his hands for food and clothing for himself and wife.

Close to the little three-room cottage with its motto "Liberty" (in Russian), over the door, is a tall pine tree nearly three feet in diameter, which Honcharenko brought in a little flowerpot when he came 41 years ago. He still has the flowerpot to show to visitors. Right by the house is a huge grapevine that came from Mount Lebanon, and in the house souvenirs and clippings that are priceless. Here is the table used when the liturgy of the Greek Church was celebrated for the first time in America by Honcharenko, in Trinity Chapel, New York City, by permission of Bishop Potter. This occurred on March 2, 1865. Here, too, is the printer’s ‘stick’ presented to him by Horace Greeley. One could take a long article to describe the interesting relics in this quaint old house, where he and his wife live alone.

When he found that I was the pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Hayward he exclaimed, "I am so glad to meet you. Come and I will tell you what the Methodists have done to me.’’ And leading the way he proceeded to tell of how Dr. Long and others connected with the American Bible Society had employed him to translate the Scriptures into Slavonic, so that the poor could God’s Word at a reasonable price. Then in 1967 he came to San Francisco, where ‘‘Hallelujah" Cox, pastor of the old Howard-street church allowed him to use the Sunday School room of the church, in which to hold services for his people. Here the Methodists collected money enough to help him publish the first tract ever and as he said "to establish Russian printing in the United States." Now there are over one hundred Russian papers devoted to the cause of liberty and to the Methodists belongs the honor of starting the noble work.

The first tract published was "Come to Jesus." Only one copy is extant and Honcharenko says he would not take a thousand dollars for that. He later published the "Alaska Herald" in the two languages for a period of eight years. At the request of the authorities in Alaska he printed a Russo-American primer for the children there. Six hundred copies were issued at a cost of $200, of which the author received $21.75 for his labor. The lessons were original to say the least. Number three is a temperance lesson. There is a picture of five bottles in a row and underneath these words:

"Here you see five bottles of whiskey. It is strange that wild men will not drink whiskey, because they say it is fire poison. A great many men drink it and ruin themselves. Whiskey corrupts people and makes them very bad. Good people never take the poison." Isn’t that pretty good temperance teaching?

Father Agapius Honcharenko was educated at the University of St. Petersburg, where he graduated with honors and was sent with the Russian embassy to Athens. He read to us in Greek and then translated for us the address which he made before King George of Greece, who died only a little more than a year ago. It was while in Athens that he was accused of treason and an attempt made to carry him off into exile in Siberia. Through the intervention of the British ambassador he was released and given his freedom at Constantinople. Later he had a miraculous escape into Jerusalem, where he had been visiting the Holy Sepulcher. For two weeks he was hidden from his pursuers under a bed in the residence of the bishop of Jerusalem. Many times his life was attempted and so he came to America to labor here for his people.

Honcharenko’s connection with Alaska and its purchase is very interesting. He was the man more than any other who made it possible for the ignorant Russians to become respectable citizens. One day in Market Street, San Francisco, he was struck down by thugs who wanted some fine gold specimens from Alaska, which were in his possession only a few minutes before. He still has the handkerchief, stained with blood, which was used to stay the wounds. Honcharenko did much to call the attention of the government to the value of Alaska and has a letter signed by Secretary Seward in regard to the matter. Holding out the blood-stained handkerchief he said, "Upon that blood $300.000.000 in gold has been brought to the United States." His service has been so great that the government ought to pension him in recognition of his labors.

I wish I had space to tell you all about this wonderful man who speaks and reads thirteen and fourteen languages, of his connection with the great men of Europe and America, for as Honcharenko says, "I am better known in Europe than I am in Hayward, where I now live. Tolstoi! Yes, I knew him intimately for many months. He was not a good man.

That day, after we had eaten our lunch all gathered around and listened as he told the story of his eventful life and exhibited many precious documents. Then we visited the cave in the hillside where the aged priest says his prayers and where he has baptized more than a hundred Russian children and two American children. After this there was a trip to the fine mineral water spring and last of all a visit to the spot where the final resting place of our famous host is prepared, waiting the call into another life.

Time to go home. It came all too quickly and very reluctantly, indeed, we started on the return trip, voting this the finest day’s outing ever planned by the department of recreation and culture of the Epworth League.

A few days later Father Honcharenko in the regalia of his office, told the people of Hayward from the pulpit of the Methodist Church how much he and his cause owed to the Methodist people. When that grand old hymn "Faith of Our Fathers" was sung, he exclaimed, "Fifty-five years ago I heard the same hymn sung in the Methodist Mission in Bulgaria, only in the Bulgarian language. I am so glad I am here." And we were all glad too, for the very countenance of this saintly servant of God seemed to be a benediction and many an eye was moist as the story was related in a straightforward, but simple manner. His life has been full of service for humanity and there is surely a crown laid up for him in that better land, where there is no slavery or cruelty and where truth prevails. One must be better for having come in contact with such a life.

The Epworth Herald, October 14, 1914