Matushka Juliana Schmemann, an “Original Brick”: A Remembrance

Juliana Schmemann

On this  40th day of the repose of Matushka Juliana Schmemann (†),  it is our joy to remember her love of Christ and His Church, by sharing a poignant essay written by Shamassey Mary Honoré, wife of current seminarian Deacon Andrew Honoré and granddaughter of both Archpriest Peter E. Gillquist (†) and Archpriest Jon Braun, both of whom knew Matushka Juliana and her husband, Protopresbyter Alexander (†), long-time Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, very well. Shamassey Mary’s essay reminds us how Matushka Juliana’s personal faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ continued to inspire and vivify those around her, even as she neared the gates of death and the threshold of heaven.

Matushka Juliana Schmemann, an “Original Brick”: A Remembrance
By Shamassey Mary Honoré

Just another day at St. Vladimir’s

It was the “new normal.” My husband was a brand-new, first-year seminarian at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Autumn 2015. One Saturday night in October, we walked past the Seminary’s bookstore on our way home from Great Vespers. Both of us simultaneously stopped when we noticed—both in depth and texture—a brick sticking out of the wall. A small plaque under it revealed that it was an “original brick from the Orthodox Seminary” that had previously existed in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

We discussed it for a bit, thinking it odd that we had not noticed the little brick before, even though between the two of us we had been to the bookstore over a dozen times in the past six weeks. And we wondered: What must have that original Orthodox Seminary been like? And, what had become of it, since this little brick was here in our wall at St. Vladimir’s?

I would have forgotten all about it, except that a few days later, I met a couple of living “original bricks.” I happened to write about that experience in an email to my mom and grandma…

On October 6, I took [my two young sons] to go visit Matushka Juliana (Schmemann) at her assisted-living facility about a mile from St. Vladimir’s. I was a little nervous, to say the least, as it isn’t every day one introduces oneself and boyish kin to a 91-year-old stranger who, together with her husband, is the stuff of legend in the American Orthodox world. When I got to her room, I happily discovered there her daughter Masha, who informed me that today was, in fact, Matushka’s 92nd birthday!!

Matushka Juliana was sweet and fiery. She loved seeing the boys. After a few minutes of small talk, who should walk in to wish birthday greetings but Matushka Marie Meyendorff! It was kind of surreal, sitting there with the now aged and white-haired matriarchs of not just the Orthodox Church in America (OCA, the jurisdiction), but of THE Orthodox Church in America (not the jurisdiction). What an image, right here in front of me! I was in awe to see it, myself a young mom with my babies, from the very theological institution that each of their husbands had governed, nurtured, loved, and lived decades before. And this commonality they shared was, of course, established on a much firmer foundation: that of being refugees and strangers in a new land, where they came to nurture and share their great love of Christ and His Church. The matriarchs mostly talked together while they held hands and sat chatting in Russian.

It was crazy to think about afterwards, and I came home feeling a bit stunned. Not that there was anything presumptuous about these “tiny giants” of the Orthodox Church, but more to just think about each of them in my shoes 65ish years ago, and wondering where we (the current students/families) will be in 65ish years…I know there will be those among us, even our current classmates, who will be called to “take up the torch” so to speak. Just another day at St. Vladimir’s!

I was honored to have met this very special “original brick” of our Seminary and our Church. It put into perspective for me the urgency and importance of implementing what we learn here at the Seminary. One could say that to be a seminarian, and to become a worker in God’s field, is to aspire to join the firm foundation of “original bricks” that have been laid before, by God’s grace.

Hello and Goodbye

Fast-forward to a chilly wintry day in early December 2016. I went with my grandma, Khouria Marilyn Gillquist—widow of Fr. Peter Gillquist— for a visit with Matushka Juliana. Gram was in town from Bloomington, Indiana, for a brief visit with my little family. She was old friends with Fr. Alexander Schmemann, of blessed memory, and Matushka Juliana.

We weren’t expecting much…we had been told that Matushka was slowing down and mostly slept. We were expecting a short visit. “Ten minutes!” we kept reminding each other. But Matushka was very happy to see us, and after that first ten minutes she remembered and understood exactly who we were. Then proceeded a wonderful hour: she wanted to know everything about everyone, and we were amazed as the minutes flew by and she talked and talked with perfect clarity.

She shared with us that she was in much pain. She was confined to a wheelchair and had really been suffering physically. She said how hard it was to grow old, and that she had asked God many times that she might be granted to die.

“I went up Jacob’s ladder!” she told us. “‘Knock knock knock! Can I come in?’…and St Peter told me ‘No, no, no! [shaking her finger] It is not your turn!’ So, here I am still!”

I began to feel dismayed and truly sorry when she solemnly declared, “I am not human anymore.” Age and deterioration had robbed her of most abilities, and pain and suffering riddled her body. But then, as if to combat our pity, she straightened up as best as she could and with quiet gusto exclaimed, “I love Jesus. Always in my mind…Jesus…Jesus…Jesus!”

She said it with closed eyes, giving Gram and me a moment to share a glance and wipe away our tears. I reached out to touch Matushka’s weary, weathered hand, and she instinctively held my fingers in her grasp for the rest of the conversation.

I could see her truly “waking” now. Our shared humanity and remembrances of old times were the greatest medicine. Talk of Jesus and heaven and Fr. Alexander were a balm to her tired soul. She and my grandmother shared joyful sorrow over the loss of their priest husbands, of how they continually missed them and yet had not truly lost them. I sat there as the neophyte. I couldn’t help but think of the “original brick” outside the bookstore a year earlier, and how here was this living “original brick” before me once again, aged and frail, but ready for the journey to eternity.

Suddenly she turned to me, and began to ask all about “my Deacon.” I had explained earlier on that my husband was a second-year seminarian at St. Vladimir’s, and newly ordained to the diaconate in the Antiochian Orthodox Church.

“How is your Deacon? How does he like St. Vladimir’s?” she wanted to know.

I told her he liked it very well, and that he was working hard and learning so much! Seminary can be difficult, I expressed, but we truly love it and are so grateful to have three years of such excellent training and care there. She declared how much her husband had loved St. Vladimir’s, how it was his life and his legacy. I felt humbled and touched.

Already an hour was spent, and it was time to go. I knew this was goodbye…we would not see Matushka Juliana again, but what a gift this precious hour had been!

I went to give her a hug, and kiss, and to say thank you. Suddenly, she grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me very close to her face—mere inches apart we were. She looked with clear blue eyes right into my very soul and with firm urgency said, “We brought Orthodoxy to America. It is up to you to bring America to Orthodoxy! This is your mission! Tell your Deacon! Tell them at St. Vladimir’s! This is the task of your generation! The most important thing: you must bring America to Orthodoxy.”

“I will. I promise I will tell them what you say,” I finally managed to say, through tears.

She proceeded to give me a blessing, the sign of the cross over me, a sweet kiss, and a strong squeeze of my hands. It was truly amongst the humblest and most holy moments of my life.

Giving thanks

When I learned of Matushka’s death just a few short weeks later, I felt real, overwhelming joy. She had such an incredible life, and now she was suffering no longer, and was with her sweetest “Jesus…Jesus…Jesus!” I can only imagine the reunion with Fr. Alexander. She died on January 29, the eve of their wedding anniversary, which happens to also be the feast day of the Three Holy Hierarchs, the patrons of our chapel here at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

At our festal liturgy the next morning, I felt joy to know that Matushka was partaking in the heavenly liturgy, while we worshipped at the liturgy for the Three Hierarchs’ feast day. During the Epistle reading, I began to weep. The second verse is well-known and has been a comfort many times to me, and surely to all Christians:

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
The reading goes on to speak of Christ as the perfect and most holy sacrifice for us, and ends with these words:
Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.
For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.
Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.
But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. (Hebrews 13:13–16)

I stood weeping there, because I was so struck by the truth and beauty of the words Matushka Juliana had spoken to me at the end of our meeting, in light of the Epistle that I was hearing now. And today, on the feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs, patrons of our beloved St. Vladimir’s Seminary Chapel, she was certainly “giving thanks to His name.”

We proceeded to listen to the Holy Gospel, from Matthew 5:14–19:

You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.
For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Armed, as it were, with these sacred words, I could not help but think extensively on Matushka’s commission to “bring America to Orthodoxy!”

This is our mission!

Matushka’s funeral was truly glorious. I was standing to the far right side of the church, looking straight out towards her coffin, which was surrounded by many clergy, the Schmemann family, and beautiful flowers. Floating above was a massive and beautifully written icon of the Resurrection. The service was moving and beautiful. Afterwards, I went to give Matushka that last kiss, and felt as though I could gaze upon her forever; so at peace and so beautiful was she. I asked her to forgive me, and I promised her that I would take up my mission of sharing.

I hadn’t thought until then about my email a year ago, when I wrote: “I know there will be those among us, even our current classmates, who will be called to ‘take up the torch’ so to speak.” And suddenly, I realized: I am one of them, one of “us.”

I met an “original brick,” and her memory will live on forever, in a far greater way than the “original brick” in the wall next to the bookstore. No matter our age or position, gifts or struggles, blessings or sufferings, talents or trials, we know this is true: “That Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” True for Orthodoxy in America! True for bringing America to Orthodoxy! This is our mission!

Thank you, Matushka Juliana! I love you! Memory eternal.

© Mary Honoré 2017

Listen to Matushka Juliana speaking about her book, The Joy to Serve.