Remembering Father Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983)

10 December 2012 • In Memoriam • Virginia Nieuwsma

Thursday, December 13, 2012, the Feast of St. Herman of Alaska, marks the 29th anniversary of the repose of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, dean of Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary (SVOTS) from 1962 until his death in 1983. On Monday evening the community at SVOTS will observe the milestone with a panikhida, as they remember his remarkable life and contributions, both to the Seminary and to the development of Orthodoxy in America.

"This evening," noted The Very Rev. John Behr, the current dean of SVOTS, "we will serve a panikhida for Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, who more than almost anyone else in the past century helped shaped Orthodoxy in America. This week, in a very particular way, as the weather turns colder and life around us begins to die, with these two figures—St. Herman and Fr. Alexander—we celebrate our own 'Winter Pascha,' knowing that through their work and prayers, Orthodoxy will continue to flourish in these lands."

Born in 1921 in Estonia to a family of Russian emigres, Fr. Schmemann spent his youth in France, completing theological studies at the Orthodox Theological Institute of St. Sergius in Paris, the center of Russian Orthodox scholarship during the period of upheaval caused by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Ordained to the priesthood in 1946, the young clergyman first taught Church History at St. Sergius Institute until 1951, when he was invited to join the faculty of St. Vladimir's Seminary. On July 5, 1959, Fr. Schmemann completed his doctoral studies, earning his degree from the Orthodox Theological Institute of St. Sergius with the dissertation "Tserkovny Ustav: Opyt Vvedeniia v Liturgicheskoe Bogoslovie" (The Church's Ordo: Introduction to Liturgical Theology). Subsequently, other institutions awarded him honorary degrees: Butler University, General Theological Seminary, Lafayette College, Iona College, and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

In addition to teaching at St. Vladimir's, Fr. Alexander served as adjunct professor at Columbia University, New York University, Union Seminary, and General Theological Seminary in New York, and traveled as a popular guest lecturer throughout the U.S. and Europe. He also represented the Orthodox Church in the ecumenical movement, holding positions in the Youth Department, and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches. Always cognizant of his roots, he ministered to Russians behind the "Iron Curtain" by broadcasting sermons in Russian through Radio Liberty, which gained him an audience across the Soviet Union.

Father Alexander published over a dozen books, most of which are still in print. For the Life of the World, one of his most widely read titles, has been translated into numerous languages and remains one of the most lucid explanations in print, of how the liturgical experience of the Orthodox Church informs the whole of human existence. Father Schmemann loved the liturgy and the worship of the Church, completing a major study on the Eucharist only weeks before his death.

The Very Rev. Dr. Chad Hatfield, SVOTS chancellor/CEO, recalled Fr. Alexander's pithy sayings. "He is often quoted by others," noted Fr. Chad. "One of my personal favorites attributed to Fr. Alexander is his comment that 'at St. Vladimir's, we change in order to remain the same.' This is especially important to remember, as the current administration makes changes demanded of us today, in order to keep SVOTS a premier Orthodox seminary." 

May Fr. Alexander's memory be eternal!

Read the history of St. Vladimir's Seminary
Order the Fr. Alexander classic, For the Life of the World