by an X-parishioner of St. Andrew's parish
April 20, 2009
It has been nine years since our community in St. Petersburg , Florida, has lost their most precious part of their spiritual and social life – their Church.
My husband and I were new to the community when we moved there in 1992, but my mother-in-law lived St. Petersburg for many years. She was actively involved in the parish life and was devoted to that Church.
When she was killed by a drunk driver, my husband was retired and we moved to St. Petersburg, because there was a Russian Orthodox Church of St. Andrew.
It was given that name because a couple who owned a home in St. Petersburg, N. & L. Beck-Mamedow, had lost their son Andrew during the war. They were sponsors to a priest, Father Michael Smirnoff and his wife. After they arrived to the U.S., Beck-Mamedows employed Fr. Michael as a gardener. He started a Chapel from their garage, but later he moved to Cleveland and started to build a Church there. When he retired, he came to St. Petersburg and served as the Rector of the St. Andrew parish. One time, after finishing a Liturgy, he had a heart attack and died before an ambulance arrived. This story was told to me by his sister-in-law, who still lives here.
Because of the parish, this community was steadily growing. Eventually they could afford to support a priest (mostly retired). In time, they bought a property and built a real church. Subsequently, they bought a small two bedroom house for the priest and a parking lot.
The parish property was large enough to build a Church Hall and this was done. At the hall, sisterhood members served coffee and pastry that the sisters baked and collected whatever the people would donate. The sisters also visited the sick and shared their meals with them.
When my husband and I moved to St. Petersburg in 1992, I was asked to head the sisterhood. I agreed to do that for one year, but it lasted nine. It was hard work, but we had a great group of wonderful ladies that made it easier. We made good money by arranging parties for Holidays, serving Sunday lunches, and running bake sales that included Kuliches (baked by Galina Kastorsky) every (Pascha). We also supplied Kuliches gratis to the sick in nursing homes and hospitals. The parish membership grew, so we could afford to enlarge the hall and the church.
Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia has their By-Laws, and one of them is that all parish properties belong to the Synod.
In 1993 we were informed that the Synod was replacing our parish Rector, Fr. Vladimir, with a younger priest from the Russian Federation . The Church Parish Council (“CPC”) petitioned the Synod not to replace our priest. They replied that the assignment was firm and no changes would be made.
Some parishioners were not happy, but a lot of us thought that it will be nice to have young people with kids in our parish.
The sisterhood welcomed Fr. Igor Shitikov and his wife, Irina, and tried to make their life as comfortable as possible.
Father Igor was a very talented speaker, but not a very experienced priest. He had a very good memory: He knew all the names of our priests and their roots, his sermons were interesting. His wife Irina was an attractive young woman and was pregnant with their third child (previously they had a daughter Sonya, 15, and a son Rodion, 13.
Usually the priest's wife would be involved in parish activities. We exempted her from all chores because she was pregnant. She did sing in the parish choir and Fr. Igor made sure that she would be paid for that.
The sisterhood arranged a big shower for her and the baby in the parish hall and she was provided with all the needs for the child, including furniture. We did that with joy – a baby was coming to our parish!
Our CPC meetings became filled with tension when it came to money. Besides his salary, the Rector was getting 50% of income derived from various rites – funerals, christenings, weddings, etc. Our Church generally does not charge for the rites, but accepts voluntary donations. Sometimes the people could not pay at all, but most of the time such donations were very generous. Father Igor felt that the entire rites income should go to him.
He requested that we buy him a larger house and the CPC agreed. This was reasonable, since he had a family. He was also allowed to choose the location and the house, subject to the CPC's approval.
So, the parish bought a house in a very nice location with three bedrooms, a terrace, and a swimming pool. The parish paid all the house expenses, plus Fr. Igor's monthly salary of $1,126, medical insurance, taxes and 50% of the religious rites' income.
Our community continued to grow as younger parishioners from the Russian Federation began to arrive. While our parents and we emigrated from Russia because we were avoiding persecution, these new arrivals came from the Russian Federation of their own free will in search of better living conditions. Furthermore, our experiences included travel through a number of countries in search of one that would receive us. Eventually, we were accepted by this wonderful country that allowed us to be their fellow Americans. Still, we felt that we were all Russians, albeit separated by 60 years of different experience. All in all, it was great to meet them and help in various ways. Some of them became active in the parish, some came more to socialize, and that was fine – a lot of young people do.
The parish life became quite lively, the sisterhood did Christmas parties for children and that was fun, blini (pancake parties) for the grown ups, and picnics for all.
It was a lot of work and my job became a full time one, my husband got also involved. We all worked, donating our time and money, and the reward was that we were building the community, while making money for the parish.
The church was renovated and we installed beautiful stained glass windows, $6.000 each. One was paid for by the sisterhood, the other five were purchased by some parishioners, each of whom “adopted a window.”
We bought all new appliances and renovated the kitchen. We also bought an additional small house next to the church for a Sunday school. The first big disappointment was that Fr. Igor refused to teach the children. Instead, he assigned one of the mothers to do that. She was not trained for that, she only wanted to help.
Actually, he refused to do anything for free. He baptized new emigres in his pool and for that he charged a lot, as I was told by some of them...
During this time our priest got rid of our experienced choir master Sergey as follows. The choir master once invited Fr. Igor and his wife to dinner. After dessert, Fr. Igor told Sergey that the parish can't afford to pay him the salary of $900 per month that he was getting. Instead, he would get $600 a month. Sergey replied that he can't support his household on such a salary, especially since he had to sing at the Church even on small Holidays in the middle of the week. Fr. Igor told him that in that case he would have to resign. This happened before a (Nativity Feast), and Sergey honorably performed all the (Nativity) services and resigned. To my question, “Where are we going to find a new choir master”? Fr. Igor replied, “Don't worry.”
Later we learned that he had someone prepared for that position before he fired Sergey. The new choir master showed up immediately upon Sergey's departure. He was also quite professional.
The same procedure was applied to our Psalm reader. That job and salary went to the priest's wife, Irina.
Many of our parishioners were very old and had no families, so they left their homes and belongings to our parish or several parishes. Fr. Igor immediately got interested in this system and started questioning me and others about all the parish members, “getting to know them.” To me this was admirable that he was so interested. Only later I realized that his interest was driven by other reasons: The inheritance angle was very appealing.
When Fr. Igor first arrived, I introduced him to an old lady of 92. She could not attend the services and Fr. Igor started visiting her with confession and communion. She always rewarded him well for that, her name was Barbara Anissimow.
After one of the visits to Anissimow, Fr. Igor called a CPC meeting and said that Barbara was asking if the parish could assign someone to help her with driving her to her doctors and do the shopping. She would make a new will and leave her house and her bank account to the St. Andrew parish. So, Fr. Igor was asking someone from the CPC to do this. The parish Warden, George Mesernizky, and his wife Irene agreed to do that for one year. They treated her as part of the family and became great friends; they did that for three years.
Being naive and trusting, at that meeting we decided to give Fr. Igor the Power of Attorney. It was unthinkable to us that a priest could not be honest – this is how we were brought up… This was because our priests used to be priests by conviction, not in the search of a soft job, and we were all poor.
Two years later Barbara became too fragile and Mesernizky convinced her to move to assisted living facilities, close to them. Besides, one of Barbara's friends was living there.
Barbara agreed, we moved her there and Mesernizky himself sold Barbara's house for $45,000, saving on the real estate agent's fee.
At a subsequent CPC meeting, it was decided to place the house money in a separate account and pay the bills using her checking account that had $40,000 in it. The Mesernizky couple visited her every day. Whenever they could not do that, which didn't happened very often, I would go in their stead.
In 2000, George and Irene went to Washington, D.C. to visit their daughter. During that time Barbara Anissimow died. I was not visiting her at that time because Fr. Igor decided that he will do that himself. When Fr. Igor called Mesernizky to inform him of Barbara's death, George said that he would take the next day's flight to St. Petersburg . To that Fr. Igor replied that it is not necessary. George said that he wanted to be there for the funeral and that he is the executor. But Fr. Igor replied that he is not an executor any more! When he was asked who made that decision, Fr. Igor said that he did.
In her original will, Barbara had bequeathed 5% to a monastery in Jerusalem, 5% to a neighbor, and 5% to Mesernizky. There was one more Church but I can't recall the name.
George came anyway and learned that $20,000 was missing from the checking account. When he asked Fr. Igor what happened to the money, Fr. Igor replied that Barbara gave it to him and his wife for the dentist. I remember at one time Barbara asked me to take her to the dentist because her denture fell and broke. The dentist told her that a new denture would cost $500. She said that it was too much and she would fix it with glue. She did that and was very proud about it.
George and I went to the Assisted Living Facilities where Barbara died and asked the administrator if Barbara had been recently taken out of the facility. The administrator said that the priest took her out five days before she died (when you take out a patient, you have to sign her out) and he did sign her out. At this point we realized that the will was changed, removing all distribution of funds and leaving everything to the St. Andrew parish, a total of $16,000.
Let me go back a bit. At our annual parish meeting Feb. 13, 2000, Fr. Igor proposed that two new CPC members be elected. Previously, there were two other additions, also at his insistence. Towards the end of the meeting the Fr. Igor announced that he is asking the parishioners to sell him the house in which he is living. This greatly surprised the CPC, since Fr. Igor never mentioned this to them.
There were a lot of emotions, some got angry; some agreed and some didn't care. So, it was decided that the CPC would meet next Saturday and work out the terms of such a sale.
What was interesting is that we found out that Fr. Igor, one day before that meeting, came to our treasurer and asked him to withdraw Barbara Anissimow's money from the bank (from the sale of her house) and “lend” it to him. He promised that he would return this loan in the near future with interest. It seemed that he was planning to invest it in various kind of trading on the stock market. The treasurer explained to Fr. Igor that he had no right or power to do that.
When the CPC met, Fr. Igor came with the two new members. One of them had a briefcase and, as we learned, she was a freelance realtor.
Fr. Igor sternly pronounced that he had no money, that he was not going to a bank for a mortgage, that he would pay $250-300 monthly until the cost of the house ($96,000) is paid. The $16,000 that the parish paid for repairs he would not pay. And that he expected that the parish would continue maintaining the house ($540 per month).
The Warden, Mesernizky, said to the CPC: “If you agree to this deal, I will leave.” Fr. Igor turned purple and pointing to the door shouted “GET OUT!" Mr. Mesernicky at that time was 81. One of the members went after him and brought him back. After we voted and Fr. Igor had the majority, the CPC secretary pointed out that the new members were not eligible to vote, so that the voting is not valid. Fr. Igor got even angrier and said that he has the right to appoint them. With that, the meeting was adjourned.
Next day, Sunday, after the Liturgy, instead of a sermon from the pulpit, Fr. Igor in a very angry tone announced that he cannot work with the current CPC, that they made some new member so upset that she cried, and that the CPC disturbs his prayers. He also announced that he is changing his mind about buying the house.
After that Fr. Igor wanted to get rid of Mesernizky in a worst way. I called him and asked him not to do that, because George was dedicated and was the first to come to the Church and the last to leave. Who else would do that? He replied that he is considering Ms. B. In response to my question “Why?” he replied that she is very wealthy and has lots of important friends. As for performing the Warden's chores, he would find someone to assist her. In other words, Ms. B. would be a Warden in name only, because that lady never came to do any volunteer work.
Ms. B. came to our parish just before Fr. Igor. At the time she was a widow. She was an expert in Russian Icons and got a job at the Museum of Fine Arts . Soon after her arrival, she met a gentleman. They fell in love and soon got married in our church; her new husband was an expert in making money and made a lot of it on the stock exchange. And that's how Fr. Igor got interested in stock trading.
Two days before our CPC meeting with Fr. Igor (about the house purchase), we met some friends at a party. As I was informing them about the upcoming meeting they told me that, “Yes, tomorrow Fr. Igor invited us to a very secret meeting with some wealthy people.” I think there were five of them.
Mrs. B.'s new husband was an Episcopalian. He got very interested in our Church and became a Russian Orthodox. Fr. Igor christened him in his pool, I was told. Later we realized that it was not the Orthodoxy that attracted Mr. B., but the tax exemption of our parish and the fact that the parish was small and not very noticeable.
So when they got to that secret meeting (we were informed by a couple who attended that meeting), Mr. B. ran the meeting with the assistance of Fr. Igor who actually distributed the proposed “business” plan.
The plan called for several people who would pledge to invest $50,000 each year, for a total of $300.000 during the next five years. The amount would be exempt from taxes and was to be used as a charity fund to purchase some sort of Church buildings (details later), with a magic growth of 17%.
The plan also called for the parishioners to make up the balance, and for immediately educating the parishioners to leave their belongings to the parish.
In itself, the idea was not bad, but why a secret from the CPC, asked one of the guests. Fr. Igor replied that he would inform them later (he did not). Probably he was planning to have them resign (which eventually they did). At any rate, the potential partners did not agree to the deal.
After all this, we had no choice but to resign from the CPC . He gladly accepted our resignations and replaced us with the new ones of his choosing. Next Sunday after the sermon he announced that some members of the CPC took a leave of absence (!), that they were tired, and he had them replaced.
The CPC members that left included G. Mesernizky, the Warden; O. Kastorsky the Treasurer; G. Guskow, Secretary; A. Sidorenko, the head of the sisterhood; N. Millin and K. Sidorenko, members-at-large.
When our parishioners heard what happened, they called and supported us. Some of them wrote letters to the Synod asking to remove Fr. Igor, but there was no reply...
We sent a petition to the Synod with 65 signatures of our parishioners. But the reply from Bishop Gabriel was written on a cocktail napkin that Fr. Igor brought from his visit to N.Y. The Bishop's reply was that “The people that can't work with Fr. Igor can leave on their own free will.”
The second reply was more official, on the Synod letterhead and with the Synod's seal. This one asked us to be humble, that we repent, and that we return to our positions on the CPC and obey Fr. Igor's orders.
At that time Mr. N. Millin was planning to marry a lady from the Russian Federation and, because of our turbulent situation, he decided to do the wedding in New York in an Orthodox Church of America church. For this Bishop Gabriel excommunicated Mr. Millin. He also excommunicated George Mesernizky for taking Fr. Igor to court for the financial manipulations mentioned above.
We requested that someone from the Synod would come and meet with our group. Bishop Gabriel agreed to come and meet with us. We didn't want to meet at the St. Andrew's parish with Fr. Igor present – we were fed up with his tantrums. Bishop Gabriel agreed to meet on neutral grounds. Accordingly, we leased a hall for that occasion. Bishop Gabriel duly came to St. Petersburg, but… our 92 parishioners had a meeting without him because he never showed up! Later we learned that he participated in a party at Fr. Igor's house instead.
During these past nine years many old and new parishioners left the parish, including those who were much younger than us for the same reason as we did. They were also hard working people because they believed in what they were doing, they also complained to the Synod by mail, phone, and in person without getting any response.
When we left there was $126,000 in the main parish account, $21,000 in the sisterhood account, and $40,000 and what was left from the of Anissimov's checking accounts. In addition, there were several wills pending for the parish. No one except Fr. Igor and his cronies knows where that money is.
Most of us are now attending services at a Serbian Church, some went to the Greeks, and some – especially old and frail – pray at home, rather than in company of Fr. Igor. The Synod has totally abandoned us all.
Some parishioners passed away during this time and were buried by unknown to them priests. All these people were the ones who built, renovated and decorated that church, using their small pensions and a lot of love.
Fr. Igor stole from them (pardon me, he “bought” it) from the Synod for $150,000 the church building, the hall, two small houses, two parking lots and the house where he lives. This latter was remodeled at the parish's expense, and he himself bragged that the entire property was appraised at $1,000,000. Fr. Igor didn't spend one penny nor did any work on that church! Did he love our Church? Not at all, it was just a soft job for him and an opportunity to grab something that didn't belong to him.
Why is he rewarded so generously by the Synod? Actually, the Synod collected its cut of 9% from our income.
It pains me to think that our sons, daughters and their children will hear all about this and most likely they will not develop any love for our Church. God and religion will always be there, but what about the Russian Orthodox Church? Should we keep all this a secret? No, that would be the height of hypocrisy.
The Serbians treat us great; they built a great church and a fantastic community. We are grateful that they gave us something that our Church leaders took away from us, disregarding all our work, love and devotion, as well as all that our grandparents and parents created outside of Russia and passed on to us. What are priests like Fr. Igor and Bishops like Gabriel creating for the next Russian generation?
During the last two years, Fr. Igor found some donors that bought him a property for $545,000 (strangely, it was listed for $245,000 in the County records) to build a Church's building [his expression]. They also bought the St. Andrew's complex for $150,000. After that he quarreled with the Synod (supposedly because of their unification with the Moscow Patriarchy) and left to unite with Bishop Agafangel of Odessa, Ukraine . After a short spell with B. Agafangel, he returned to the Synod.
The Synod never went to look for an whole flock of sheep that was lost. So, who is the shepherd in this picture? We were never acknowledged as their sheep, they just made believe that we never existed.
All this information is not gossip, it is the way I witnessed it, the business plan was distributed at that meeting so they witnessed that as well.
related post: 11/24/08 letter from Fr. Igor to Bp. Gabriel
also see: Two Letters: Fr. Igor/Bp. Agafangel