Meet my role models: Babushka and Dedushka[1]

By: James Kelly[2]


Most people are born into a faith, usually that of our parents.   If you happened to be born in Greece, you had a 90 percent chance you would grow up Greek Orthodox. In Russia, before Communism, ditto Orthodox. Ireland: Catholic in the south, Protestant Orange in the North. Germany after Luther: Protestant.


Today, my Russian wife and this Irish/German Orangeman have a small united nations of based on the first two – Russian and Greek. I am a Lutheran convert. My son is married to a Greek; my daughter is married to a Catholic. Our grandchildren are a mixture of all of us. Right now we are solidly Orthodox and it is our prayer that we will stay that way.


But the secular world will make it an easy progression for the grandchildren and their families to come.


We practiced what in effect was sticking as close as we could to the core of our family: my Protestant mother, Kathryn, Nadia’s Orthodox parent’s Rev. Vasily and Mat. Pelagia Smirnov. For some years we had two of everything, going by the old calendar we went to a Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) church to be with Babushka and Dedushka as often as we could, especially Pascha.


That changed somewhat because we didn’t want our children trying to grow up with mixed allegiances. We chose to join OCA through St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox in Bethlehem because it was in English.


This year, my wife and I have reached the 50-year mark of Paschas. Many who were born in the faith can claim more. Not many can say that the first time they were in an Orthodox church was their first Pascha. For that story see “A Protestant meets ROCOR.”


A second sidebar on our 2020 experience explains my belief that Orthodoxy must use more livestreaming and social media to communicate with the non-Orthodox public.


In this article, I would like to share a few vignettes of the faith foundation at the base of our personal Orthodox history – Rev. Vasily and Mat. Pelagia Smirnov. It is my hope that other Orthodox parishioners will share the stories of their role models in every way, shape and form.

If two people were to be chosen as examples of lovers of Christ, Rev. Vasily and Mat. Pelagia would be wonderful choices. Their life stories are incredible. Both are products of rampant poverty, widespread illness and the corruption and cruelty of communism and WWII.


He was born in the Moscow area, one of twelve children, six of whom died early on in life. He was a son of a priest who perished in the Stalin purges which killed around 80 percent of the Orthodox priesthood of that era. Reader Vasily apprenticed as a youth in the famed St. Basil Cathedral, but that ended with the Communist Revolution. Some years later he became a deacon and married Pelagia Kadansev. Eventually he was arrested by the communist state because he wasn’t paying the unaffordable church head taxes. He was sentenced to five years of hard labor building roads by pick and shovel.


Pelagia was born in the country, near Smolensk. By the time she was 12 she was nursing her mother through cancer until she died. At 15, she was the mother to her sisters through famine. There was so little to eat that their youngest sister developed rickets and had to be moved about by stroller. She eventually met and married Vasily and they had a child, Nicholas, before Vasily was put into forced labor building the road from Smolensk to Minsk.

After three years, WWII prematurely ended Vasily’s Soviet labors bringing short-lived freedom to wander back toward his family in Minsk. Neither had any idea where the other was. Vasily would stop by churches and inquire whether a lady named Pelagia had been there with her young child Nicholas.  Miraculously, one priest recognized the pair and told him she would surely come to vespers.


The reunited family had little time to enjoy their freedom which was ruined by the chaos of the Nazi advance.  Soon, they found themselves captives of the Nazis. What followed were four more years of hard labor on German farms, doing all the dirty work the Germans wouldn’t or couldn’t do because they were fighting in Russia. They were still under guard, but they were alive and together.


As the allies pushed further toward victory, the skies filled with bombs. On one raid, near the end of the war, alarms sounded and all the Germans scrambled to the bomb shelters. The slave labor had to fend for themselves and all huddled around each other in a barn and prayed with an Orthodox priest who was also a prisoner. It felt like the bombs would never stop, but when they ventured out they discovered that the bomb shelters had received direct hits and many of the Germans were dead or injured.  


These were just a few narrow escapes that tempered their absolute belief in God and forged the intensity of their prayers. They prayed not for simple wishes for nice things. They prayed to survive, and they witnessed many miracles while surviving through numerous horrors. It took five more years in a Displaced Persons camp before they made it to America.


By the time Nadia and I were married, almost 20 years later, life for the Smirnovs had taken a major turn upward. They had property and a roof over their heads. Deacon Vasily was serving in multiple Orthodox churches in southern New Jersey while running a chicken farm of about 7,000 hens.

Mat. Pelagia was ever the workhorse, too. As mother she had three children to raise. Nick, who survived the war years, and Vladimir Walter, closely followed by Nadia. All the kids had duties to attend to with all those birds to feed, eggs to pick and sell.  By the time she was seven, Nadia was already serving as the family interpreter, a sign of her future life as an English teacher.


Mat. Pelagia also made all the church vestments and decorative covers for the feast days.  She cleaned the church, baked the prosphora. She also held a full-time job at local sewing plants, in addition to making hand-tailored clothing for Nadia as she grew up.

I must say that in the era in which we grew up, everybody worked hard. There were no grand social safety nets. My parents, like many others living in the country, kept big gardens, and everybody canned to save money. Meats were not as prevalent as they are today.


But my parents-in-law were on a different level when it came to work AND faith. As if the horrors of communism and the Nazis weren’t enough, tragedy visited them in the way of a t-bone auto accident a few years after they settled in N.J. Matushka Pelagia was a passenger in a car being driven by a friend. She took the worst of the accident. With numerous shattered bones and injuries, she wasn’t expected to live through the night, but God saved her. She survived and spent weeks in hospital and nine months recuperating at home in a full body cast. Nadia tells of using her small hands to reach into and around the cast to help keep her mother clean.


Babushka recovered slowly, lying in a body cast and put her busy hands to crochet gifts for the ladies in the hospital who had helped her so much. One lady who was large statured somehow had given mom the idea that she was not happy with her bras. So Mom set out to crochet a bra that would fit her properly, and she did.  The lady loved them.


She suffered from headaches after the accident, but two things happened eventually. First she got pregnant and delivered her fourth child, Eugene. Then the headaches disappeared.


By the time I entered the picture and married her daughter, the chickens were gone but there was a cow about to calve in one of our early year returns for Pascha. I got a very early wakeup call to get to the barn to help get Manya on her feet.   Mom called every one of her cows Manya after her youngest sister, the one who was so underfed as a child that she had suffered rickets.  Extremely heavy Manya had a very healthy baby. And nobody had a hernia afterwards. Now that’s pretty miraculous, itself.


Babushka did not waste time. Too much to do! When she did something, she did it fast, including walking. Nadia told me that her knee had been shattered in the accident. We took her shopping once, and I was out of breath trying to keep up with her pace. I wondered how fast she could have gone if she had good knees.


We would bring our three children with us, and Babushka would make all their favorite treats. They never learned Russian except for a few phrases, but they definitely knew how to eat in Russian. Seriously, with all she had to do, she always put us ahead of her personal needs, and her meals were always great.


Pop lived to be 89. He was ten years older than Mom and eventually his great strength began to deteriorate. Babushka took wonderful care of him, to her own detriment, until he fell asleep in the Lord. He never learned English, and I never learned Russian, but he treated me as a son, and I treated him with the respect he deserved as my father. My own dad died when I was 21. I knew Pop Smirnov more years than I knew my birth father.   I got very used to hugging and kissing a bearded man on every visit home and especially on Pascha. On feast days, Pop would pull out a bottle of vodka hand flavored with berries of some sort. In later years, a bottle of 20/20 fortified wine was on the table. Sprazdnicum Pop!


I had a heavenly mother-in-law who was a marvelous example. She was not educated, but she was very smart and very pragmatic.

She loved God with all her heart, body, and soul. Nadia did everything she could to keep her safe and secure. In her late 80s she asked to go to a convent nursing home in New York. She wanted to be closer to the church. For a host of reasons, that became a mistake, and a great disappointment, better left for God to judge. It became evident to us that Babushka had to come home.


She was entering dementia, and was in constant pain. We placed her in a home two miles from us where a very good doctor took her off all her conflicting meds and slowly brought her pain under control. She had communicated in five languages in her lifetime, but now it was Russian only. The admission nurse didn’t like that, but the doctor persisted. “Why should communicating with a Russian patient with dementia be any harder than one with dementia in an English speaker.”


Our priest at Holy Trinity brought communion to her regularly, and we brought church to her through Russian CDs of liturgies and varied church music. It wasn’t long before the aides became quite used to the lady they called “MaMA” and would help her turn on her music. The last five years were difficult for Babushka, now blind in a world of total darkness. But the light of Christ was still within her.


We would visit with her twice a day, to make sure she was eating properly and to help her wherever we could.  We were there, in person, but eventually, she lost track of us as daughter and son, but she never lost Jesus. She died at the age of 99.


Sometimes, when she was quiet and listening to her church music I would sit quietly and just watch her as she sat in her wheelchair and quietly repeated her never forgotten prayers.


For her, throughout all the ordeals of her life, God was only a whispered prayer away.


I had no choice but to join the Orthodox Church. I had such wonderful role models.

[1] This article is copyright © to James Kelly and is published here under licence and was first published at This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the author’s written consent.

[2] James Kelly is a retired editor, columnist and journalist with the Bethlehem Morning Call newspaper and is an active member of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Catasauqua, PA.

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