The Life of the Holy Hierarch Bishop Nicholai (Velimirovich)
Of Ochrid and Zicha, Serbia
Of Ochrid and Zicha, Serbia
Nicholai Velimirorich was born into a large peasant family in the village of Lelich, Serbia, on December 23, 1880. Young Nicholai began his education in Lelich and later went to the capital city, Belgrade, to attend St. Sava Theological Seminary. He graduated in 1902 at 22.
He entered the graduate Theological Faculty (or school) in Bern, Switzerland, in 1905 and 1909 received a doctorate in sacred theology – the first of many doctoral degrees he would earn. Later that year, he returned to Serbia and was tonsured a monk at the Monastery of Rkovica, receiving the name Nicholai. He was soon ordained to the priesthood and eventually elevated to the rank of archimandrite. Two years after his ordination, he joined the faculty at his alma mater, the St. Sava Theological Seminary in Belgrade and taught there until 1915. During his four summer vacations from St. Sava’s, Archimandrite Nicholai went to study in Russia.
When World War I broke out, Archimandrite Nicholai was sent to England on a diplomatic mission. While he was there, he lectured at Oxford University and received a doctorate in philosophy at the university’s King’s College. At the same time, he received honorary doctorates from Cambridge University and Glasgow University. He returned to Serbian in 1919 and was elected and consecrated a bishop that same year, at age 39. He was appointed to the Diocese of Zicha and later to the Diocese of Ochrid.
He spent 1921 and 1922 as a missionary bishop in America, creating and administrating the Serbian Orthodox Diocese in the United States and Canada. After his two years in America, he returned to Ochrid, where he resumed the archpastorate of his two Serbian dioceses. That is where he remained until 1934, when he went back to Zicha until the collapse of Yugoslavia in World War II.
During World War II, the Nazis occupied Yugoslavia. Civil war broke out, and Serb fought Serb. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians were tortured or massacred by the Croatians under the direction of the Nazis. Hosts of other Serbs were sent to Nazi death camps. Serbian Patriarch Gavrilo and Bishop Nicholai were sent to the infamous Dachau concentration camp, where – although they suffered horribly – they both survived the war.
Years later, Bishop Nicholai said that he had once spoken with an elder on Mount Athos. Young Nicholai asked the monk: “Father, what is your main spiritual exercise?”
The elder replied, “The perfect visualization of God’s presence.”
Ever since then, Bishop Nicholai said, “I tried this visualization of God’s presence. And as little as I succeeded, it helped me enormously to prevent me from sinning in freedom, and from despairing in prison. If we kept the vision of the invisible God, we would be happier, wiser, and stronger in every walk of life.”
As the war was nearing its end, Bishop Nicholai and Patriarch Gavrilo were liberated from Dachau. Patriarch. Gavrilo returned to Yugoslavia, but Bishop Nicholai did not, having found that he was unwelcome in Serbia. During the years that followed the war, Church leaders were not given the freedom to preach the Gospel and teach the Faith in Yugoslavia. So it was from abroad that Bishop Nicholai felt he could best serve the faithful of his Church, and he chose to remain in foreign exile.
He first went to England, but within a year, in April 1946, he decided to go again to America. This time he was a refugee, without any official position in the Church. He arrived at the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in New York City. He also taught at the Serbian Orthodox Seminary in Libertyville, Illinois, until 1949. Bishop Nicholai moved to the Russian Orthodox St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York and later to St. Tikhon’s Monastery and Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. There he would teach, preach, continue to write, and pursue his own studies. In addition to degrees from Bern and Oxford, Bishop Nicholai received doctorates from Halle in Germany, the Sorbonne in Paris, and Columbia University in New York.
He began as a professor at St. Tikhon’s Seminary, but eventually he was appointed rector. At that time, most of the courses at St. Tikhon’s were taught in Russian, but Bishop Nicholai chose to teach only in English. Other faculty members disagreed with his decision, and some became resentful of him, but the bishop knew that it was important for the students to hear their lectures in their own language. On most occasions, he even preached his sermons in English in the monastery church at St. Tikhon’s so that everyone – the monks, the seminarians and the faithful laity who attended the Liturgy – would be able to understand him. The people often complained about the use of English, but he would answer: “You have learned and heard enough. It is time for the seminarians to learn something.”
One of the students wrote of Bishop Nicholai: He sighed a great deal when he prayed and before class he would spontaneously pray for us and the seminary. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of each seminary student. At time he would sit on a warm fall evening and pay his flute, and the tears would stream down his face as he remembered his beloved Serbia. He also survived the Dachau prison camp. When the students would complain about the food, he would say, “You don’t know what bad food is. We would search through the garbage cans at Dachau.” But beyond that, he would not mention his sufferings.
Bishop Nicholai’s health had been weakened by his captivity at Dachau. Despite his ill health, however, he remained in constant contact with the faithful of the Serbian and other Orthodox churches. He taught his seminary classes with enthusiasm, power, and deep insight. He often traveled to the Serbian Church House in New York, and there he received his spiritual children and other visitors. His correspondents, his spiritual children, his students, his fellow monks, and all who knew him came to regard him with love and respect.
Bishop Nicholai fell asleep in the Lord on Sunday, March 18, 1956, at St. Tikhon’s. Ten days later, his body was moved for burial to the Serbian Monastery of Sava in Libertyville, Illinois, where it remained until April 24, 1991. At that time his body was taken back to Yugoslavia, where he lay in state in many towns and cities. According to his own final wishes, the bishop’s body was finally transferred to his native village of Lelich in Serbia on May 12, 1991. His remains joined those of his parents and his nephew, Bishop Jovan Velimirovich. In 1987, the local diocese as a saint of the Church glorified Bishop Nicholai.
(Source for the Life of Bishop Nicholai (Velimirovich): Portraits of American Saints, Compiled and Edited by George A. Gray and Jan V. Bear, Diocese Council and Department of Missions Diocese of the West Orthodox Church in America, 650 Micheltorena Street, Los Angles, California, 1994, pp. 74-77).
I would like to humbly thank The Rev. Father Bratislav Krsic for sending me the Troparion and Kontakion for the Holy Hierarch Nikolai Velimirovich.