Saint Meletios, Bishop of Ryazan

Bishop Meletios, one of the last preachers of the Holy Gospel to the people of Siberia with all the self-denial of a true missionary, reposed on January 14, 1900. He spent nearly thirty-five years of ascetic labors in eastern Siberia, spreading the light of Christ among the native Buryats, Tungus, and Yakuts. In 1896, he was consecrated as Bishop of Ryazan, where he continued his missionary work until the last days of his truly ascetical life.

Bishop Meletios (Michael Koz’mich Yakimov in the world) was from the Viatka Diocese, and he was born on October 29, 1835, the son of a village priest. His father died when Michael was just a year old, leaving his wife to take care of the children in great poverty. Despite the family’s destitution and Michael’s poor health, he successfully completed his primary and secondary schooling, and as one of the best students in the seminary, he was able to continue his education at the Academy. Even then, his soul was attracted to solitude.

After graduating from seminary, Michael spoke to the rector, Archimandrite Ambrose, the Igoumen of the Dormition Monastery, asking to be accepted into the monastery, and to be tonsured. His request was not fully granted, however. He was received into the monastery, but was not tonsured. Here, he fulfilled the obediences of preaching and working in the library. Later, he was appointed as a teacher of Church History and Church singing in the primary school in Viatka.

Still later, he was asked to supervise the students who lived in the monastery. He remained in the humble position of a young novice for a year. In August of 1858 he entered the Kazan Academy, and on February 1, 1859 he was tonsured with the name Meletios in honor of Saint Meletios of Antioch (February 12). On March 16, he was ordained to the diaconate by Bishop Nikodemos.

By a Synodal ukaz, he was sent to the Posol’sk Monastery of the Savior at Lake Baikal in the Diocese of Irkutsk (southeastern Siberia). He arrived at the monastery on June 23, 1862 and began his beneficial work among the Buryats at once. This resulted in the Baptism of many natives, the building of churches, and establishing villages for the newly-baptized (most of them were nomadic or semi-nomadic). In December of that same year, Deacon Meletios was ordained to the holy priesthood.

About this time Father Meletios became the close friend of Vicar Bishop Benjamin of Selengin (later Archbishop of Irkutsk), and this friendship endured for the rest of their lives. Father Meletios’s work took him from place to place on the very borders of Mongolia. He did not remain there long, however. On August 30, 1873 Archbishop Benjamin placed him in charge of the Irkutsk mission, and on February 2, 1874 he was elevated to the rank of Archimandrite of the Nilov Hermitage in the Sayansk Mountains. From that time, his missionary work expanded a great deal, and even more so when he went to Kazan to learn the methods for translating Christian books into the native languages.

During his stay outside the mission, he visited his family in Viatka Province, visiting his mother and his brother, who was a priest in the village of Verkhovskoy, Nolinsky district, and made a pilgrimage in Moscow and Kiev. He lived in Kazan until May 1875.

There, his relationship with Professor Nicholas I. Il’minsky (1822-1891) and his assistants had great significance for the Saint’s future missionary work. In the work of translating Christian teachings into spoken Buryat, Father Meletios was helped by the Buryat Jacob Chistokhin, his cell attendant (later a missionary of the Tunkinsky Territory). The first book in the Buryat language was published at Kazan: “Teaching the newly-baptized about the Holy Christian Faith” (Поучение к новокрещёным о святой христианской вере).

This was a very important step, which led to the success of the work of evangelizing the natives during the five years that Archimandrite Meletios was in charge of the mission, and 11,000 natives were baptized. His labors increased after his consecration as Vicar Bishop of the Irkutsk Diocese (1888-1896), and he was appointed to oversee the missionary territory east of Lake Baikal.

The regional city of Chita (Чита) became the center from which the missionary bishop went all around Lake Baikal, especially in 1881 (which was the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Trans-Baikal mission by the missionaries Theodosios and Makarios). He went around preaching the Word of God throughout Trans-Baikal, enlightening his flock and shaping the churchly and secular lives of the newly- baptized in order to integrate them into the permanent Russian population. Vladika Meletios founded the Church Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodios, and of Saint Innocent of Irkutsk in Chita, in order to reinforce the spread of Christianity in his flock. He did everything possible to strengthen his spiritual children by starting church schools. The result of these measures while he was the head of the Eastern Baikal Mission was the conversion of some 4000 natives to Christianity from shamanism, and Lamaites.1

On July 5, 1889 he was appointed Bishop of Yakutsk and arrived there on September 16. The Diocese of Yakutsk previously had a worthy missionary bishop named Dionysios, who later became Bishop of Ufa. He may certainly be called the Apostle to the Yakuts.

During the first year in his new Diocese, Saint Meletios employed the methods he had learned from experience in his new territory. Each year he would inspect different sections of his vast Diocese. Although there were no roads, he covered tens of thousands of miles in one trip. He built churches, and found generous donors for this purpose. On his journeys he consecrated many of these churches himself, and organized church schools for them. By the end of 1889, there were 77 churches in his Diocese, and 118 chapels. In 1895, there were nine stone churches, 214 wooden churches, chapels, and houses of prayer. Later, the number of churches and schools increased. Always looking for ways to support the schools, Bishop Meletios requested and obtained an annual allowance of 6000 rubles, paid to him by the Department of Revenue. In 1892, he organized the Church Brotherhood of Christ the Savior.

There was another aspect to his missionary work at Yakutsk, he was the first person to reduce and help to eradicate leprosy among his flock. In 1890 there was an article in the Yakutsk Diocesan Journal # 17, entitled “Leprosy in the Vilyusk Region.” The following year, Miss Marsden, who was an English nurse, came to the region, and worked very hard to help those who were sick. Bishop Meletios was so energetic in his efforts to help her that he received a letter of thanks from the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. Needless to say, his flock was most grateful to him for this. Therefore, when he left to go to the Diocese of Riazan, his farewell was exceptionally warm. Seldom has a bishop received such a farewell.

On October 14, 1896 he was named Bishop of Ryazan and Zaraysk. On November 27, he left Yakutsk and arrived in Ryazan on February 17, 1897. It was no wonder that his flock at Riazan awaited their new Archpastor with great enthusiasm and expectation, since they knew of his past life of asceticism and missionary activity, and they were not disappointed in their expectations. This kindly hierarch, who demanded much of himself, yet was condescending to the weakness of others, was an excellent preacher and a true missionary. He left behind a vast legacy of good deeds which caused him to be remembered by the people of Ryazan. Also in 1897, he was made an honorary member of the Kazan Theological Academy.

His missionary activities in Siberia had a profound influence on his labors in his new Diocese. In the Diocese of Ryazan there were many Old Ritualists, and even Moslems. Bishop Meletios revived the mission to the Mohammedans, and he also wrote a great deal. He published many of his sermons, missionary notes, and reports about the Eastern Baikal and Irkutsk missions. He also contributed many historical articles to various Orthodox journals, all for the sake of his missionary work, and not for personal gain. All of his articles came from his apostolic spirit and his character, which were revealed in all the places where he labored for the glory of God. During his thirty-five years of missionary work, he was known as the “Apostle to the Yakuts, and Enlightener of the Gentiles in Siberia and Asia.”

Saint Meletios reposed on January 14, 1900, and was buried in the Cathedral of the Ryazan Kremlin. Saint Meletios was included in the Synaxis of the Siberian Saints in 1983. The Lord Himself decided to glorify the relics of His saint: almost a hundred years after his repose his holy relics were found on June 18, 1998 in the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael of the Ryazan Kremlin, on the eve of the celebration of the Synaxis of the Ryazan Saints and the Synaxis of the Siberian Saints, and the eve of the celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Ryazan Diocese. On September 18, 1998, his relics were transferred to Ryazan’s Trinity Monastery.

Over the course of 35 years of work in this field, he was called “The Apostle of the Yakuts and the Enlightener of the Pagans in Siberia and Asia.“

1 These were natives from southeastern Siberia, in the area near Tibet, who acknowledged the spiritual authority of the Dalai Lama.