The Story Told by a Russian Priest
While visiting Westport, Co. Mayo, in August 1999, we were delighted to find this article in a recent issue of ‘Cathair Na Mart’, the journal of the local historical society. It is the story of Fr Nicholas Couris, as told to Westport solicitor Patrick Shanley.
Some years ago a friend, whose family owned a hotel at Oldhead some miles from Westport, told me that he had a Russian priest and his sister Lioba staying with him. His name was Fr Nicholas Couris. My friend was something of a philanthropist and his custom was that if he found somebody in need and he thought him worthy of some encouragement, he would give him a month free in his hotel at the end of the season, in this case, September.
He had found this priest living in an apartment, which someone who was also charitably inclined had given for free occupation during his life to him and his sister, who was employed in the United Nations Secretariat and had been released to look after him as he was old, suffered from arthritis and his wife was long dead. He ministered to a small congregation of White Russians at an Orthodox Church on the Quays in Dublin. Naturally, he had a dwindling congregation and there were not very much means available to them or him.
My friend said, ‘Paddy, as you are acquainted with things Russian beyond most, it would be a nice act if you would come out and see him, and perhaps take him out in your car’, which I proceeded to do.
When I went into the lounge at the hotel, I recognised at once the person I had come to see. He met my idea of a typical Russian priest, dressed in black, a large cross hanging down from his neck, and a small pointed beard.
He was expecting me, and he put down the magazine he was reading to greet me. And then he said, ‘Paddy, do you know what I am reading? I am reading about Fatima and how Our Lady told these children to whom she appeared in 1917 at the height of our Russian Revolution, when religion had been banished from my country and all people connected with it driven out, “Pray, and Russia will return to her Faith.” You do not know how that consoles me to read about it.’
And I could not but marvel to think how that message told through these little peasant children so many years ago had helped him, who was as you will see, a very sophisticated man indeed. The wisest politicians in the West could not believe then that this would come about and yet it did though he did not live to see it.
I saw Fr Nicholas more than once in the course of September and I gradually learned as much of his story as he chose to tell me. His story was something very much like many of his class. He was of minor nobility and was an officer in the imperial guards at St Petersburg, afterwards Petrograd and later Leningrad, and now again St Petersburg. At the turn of the century it was the capital of Russia. The imperial family and the Tsars lived there and all the government officers were there.
He told me how in the winter the great families of Russia would give receptions at their houses, and the officers of the Guard would be invited and there he fell in love with a daughter of the house. But it was a hopeless love. Her family was among the greatest in Russia and owned half the Ukraine. They had played a big part in Russian history.
With the royal family he travelled to the great courts of Europe, including Vienna where the Hapsburgs ruled. The old Emperor, Franz Joseph, was still living, having ascended the throne in 1848 and during whose early years the great Strauss wrote his waltzes. He travelled also to Berlin where the royal family Hohenzollern reigned.
The Great War came in 1914 and he fought against the Germans. That war proved a disaster for Russia. She was in no sense ready for that war and suffered a terrible loss of men and property which led to a complete collapse of the monarchy and society generally. Revolution broke out, and the future Fr Nicholas had to defend his Tsar until at the last he had to flee the country without a penny. In Constantinople he met the woman to whom as a young guardsman he had lost his heart. They married and eventually they made their way to England.
When the last war ended, England realised that the Soviet Union was a very great power indeed. She had the greatest army on the Continent and she was in possession of both Vienna and Berlin, the capitals of Austria and Germany, so England instructed her diplomats to start learning Russian. A house was rented in Wicklow in Ireland, and the future Fr Nicholas went there to teach these diplomats Russian. Some of our Irish diplomats also went there to learn the language, among whom was Conor Cruise O’Brien, later to be a minister in one of our governments.
The marriage produced one son, and sad to say, this little boy got diphtheria, which in those days before penicillin was generally fatal, and he died. Some time passed and his wife died and he was attacked by arthritis himself, so that his position living in this great house became quite untenable.
Now it was decided that Fr Nicholas should go to America where there was a seminary to train Orthodox priests, so that he could return and serve the Russian Orthodox Church in Dublin. Of course, there were no such seminaries in Russia itself as all religions were banned there. He was now about seventy years old and he suddenly became very ill. The doctor was called and said to him, ‘Nick, you have faced death many times in the wars, and therefore, I can tell you the truth without any cover-up. You have incurable cancer and you will die in about three months.’ Fr Nicholas replied, ‘All the money I have in the world is one dollar in my pocket, and I am prepared to bet you that I do not have cancer.’
There is a rather beautiful little church in Washington called the Church of the Blue Virgin, because there is a famous stained glass window there showing the Virgin dressed in blue. Fr Nicholas went there and prayed earnestly because his position was very worrying. If he had cancer, as the doctor said, he could not continue at the seminary and what was to become of him now. As he saw it, he could not just be idle and wanted to engage in useful work. That night he suffered terribly but in the morning he was well. Subsequently he came back to Ireland, and his course was finished serving as the pastor of the Russian Church.
Fr Nicholas is dead now and the world he knew has all vanished with him. I am reminded of Shakespeare’s words, ‘The broken pageants of a dream’, or those of the poet Tennyson in regard to a vanished world:
And sometimes, down that road did pass
A curly-headed shepherd lad
Or a page in scarlet clad
Or an abbot on an ambling pad
Down that road of Camelot.
CATHAIR NA MART, No. 17, 1997
Memories of Father Nicholas
I received your recent newsletter, and was pleased to see the article on Father Nicholas Couris of blessed memory.
Father Nicholas received me into the Orthodox Church some 22 or 23 years ago. In fact, he received seven or eight members in those early years, and possibly some before I knew him.
Before he became a priest, Father Nicholas, his wife and son lived in a house in Collon, Co. Louth. He grew mushrooms, and carried them by car to the Fruit Market in Dublin for sale. I do not know much about his wife, but after his funeral a local coffee shop worker (or owner) told me his son died as a result of an accident on his bicycle — he ran into a wall. I do not know if this is true or not, but it is different from the account in the article you reprinted. Maybe what I was told was wrong.
When I met Father Nicholas, his sister Luba was staying with him in a two-storied house in Pembroke Lane. The main room on the top floor was converted into a chapel, and some 18 people regularly attended the Divine Service there on a weekly basis, until he became so feeble the service was held every second week. Yet he regularly visited the sick — who were mainly Greeks — as he was the only Orthodox priest in Ireland.
One Palm Sunday, I think it was in 1976/7, the year of his repose, Father Nicholas went into the back garden to collect the palms for the service. It was snowing very heavily, and he fell and broke his hip. He lay down, unable to move, for about an hour, until his sister, concerned about his absence, went out and found him. He was immediately hospitalised in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, and following operation was transferred to a nursing home. Archbishop John (Shakhovskoy) of San Francisco (of the OCA) happened to be in Dublin en route to a conference in Sweden, and being a former student with Father Nicholas in Russia, he called to Father Nicholas’s home. Learning of his accident, the Archbishop visited him in the nursing home.
Two days later, Father Nicholas died. His funeral in Collon was attended by hundreds of his friends and the then Protestant Archbishop of Dublin and Roman Catholic monks from the nearby Abbey, and other clergy. There were some 40 old Russians in the Holy Protection Parish in Dublin at one stage, but this dwindled over the years.
After Fr Nicholas died, Father Alexis (of Brookwood) attended to the remainder of the parish for six or seven years, serving the Divine Liturgy three or four times a year, and attending to their spiritual needs as they became ill, and died. I remember Marusa (Maria Batueva) who always asked that she be buried according to the Russian rite, and when she died a £10 note was found in her Bible, for the priest. Sadly, of Father Nicholas’s parish, only one remains. It is difficult to determine all who belonged to the parish in the early years, because the Russians listed all their relatives — most of whom perished in 1917, or were not contactable — and the early parish (before Father Nicholas became a priest) was looked after by visiting clergy, or priests who spent some time in Dublin studying in University etc.
I hope this might help your understanding of the old Russian parish of the Holy Protection and Father Nicholas.
Ruaidhri Mac Eoghain