Elder Vasily Shvets — a Warrior of Christ and a Spiritual Beacon

The lives of God’s saints never cease to amaze and inspire us to grow in our faith. Elder Vasily Shvets barely escaped death at the beginning of World War II. Then he made a vow to God and fought to the last day of the war without ever being wounded. He suffered multiple injustices, but they made him more considerate and sympathetic to others. His phenomenal physical strength helped him in his pastoral labours throughout the years of his service. The elder travelled extensively and was known for his exceptional feats of fasting and prayer. With his pious life, he earned himself rich gifts of the Holy Spirit

Life before the war

Vasily Shvets was born in a Ukrainian village on 9 March 1913 into a large family of well-to-do peasants. His parents were people of strong faith. He lost his father early. He died as he was trying to tear down the doors of his barn during a fire. He was raised by his mother, who gave him and the other children an example of spiritual life, industriousness and charity.

Vasily Shvets as a young boy (bottom left). A family photo

After the revolution, the new authorities expropriated their family property. The family suffered from persecution. At sixteen years of age, Vasily left his home to work in a Donbas mine. Simultaneously, he went to evening school, then to a technical college and an artillery course. He was a good student, but he was expelled because of his social background.

The war years

He fought in the Finnish war of 1939 – 1940. Then he supervised a team of prisoners building fortifications on the Baltic Sea. As a young man, he sought to help innocent prisoners. He was denounced for buying fish from the Estonian fishermen and giving it to the prisoners. He was arrested, but through God’s mercy, he managed to clear his name. Soon, he barely escaped arrest because of his surname which some thought was of German origin. Again, the Lord helped him prove to his persecutors that his surname was Ukrainian. Vasily saved the lives of people facing the death penalty and escaped persecution.

During the pre-war years, Vasily had little zeal for prayer or conversation with God. But when the war began, he found himself sunk in a march up to his neck. Desperate, he cried out to God, “Help me, O Lord! I vow to be your servant if You let me stay alive. I will become your servant, please do not let me drown here!” Immediately, the young man found solid ground under his feet and got out of the marsh. After that incident, he served as a rifleman at the front line throughout the war, but never suffered a single wound.

A man of great physical strength, he performed stunts and practised acrobatics from childhood. He even formed a circus troupe that performed before the soldiers between battles. One day, as he was juggling 33-kilogram club bells, one officer was sceptical. He came to the stage to call Vasily’s bluff, only to find that he was not strong enough even to lift the weights from the ground. Impressed, the officer doubled his food portion, and Vasily had this privilege until the end of the war.

After the war

Returning from the army, Vasily settled in Leningrad. He worked as a medical imaging technician in various cancer institutes and studied to be a radiologist. After graduation, he worked as a laboratory director at the medical institute. He happened to gain access to some unique radiographic equipment from Germany and earned money by helping researchers from across the USSR conduct medical experiments. Eventually, he spent all the money that he earned on rebuilding his parish church.

In 1952, he married Olga Dmitrieva, who worked throughout the war as an accountant in a military unit. After several years, they began to live as brother and sister, by mutual agreement and with the blessing of Elder Simeon of the Pskov Caves Monastery. But when he became a psalm-reader preparing for his ordination, his wife listened to the advice of her sister and filed for a divorce.

His friendship with the Venerable Seraphim Vyritsky changed his life completely, making service at the Church his priority in life. Soon after his first meeting with Elder Seraphim, he settled in Vyritsa and stayed there until the elder’s departure.

He was personally acquainted with many other 20th century saints, including the Venerable Kuksha of Odessa, Saint Amphilochius of Pochaev, schema-Hegumen Savva, and Elder Nikolay Guryanov.

In 1954, he came to Pskov Caves Monastery and confessed before elder Simeon. After that encounter, he continued to visit him regularly, treating him as his confessor and conversing with him late into the night. Elder Simeon blessed him into the priesthood and predicted his long life.

A search in his laboratory ended in the confiscation of religious literature and icons and became a final sign for him to leave his secular job. The authorities were attempting to intimidate him and charge him with an offence but had to leave with nothing. Again, the Lord had given him the wisdom to absolve himself and return his books and relics. Finally, he left the institute in 1955 to serve as a psalm reader and joined a religious seminary. When he turned 50 in 1963, he was ordained as a priest and took an oath of celibacy.

Priestly service

The church authorities granted his request to be appointed to head a remote poor parish in Pskov Region, where he began to rebuild the village church. He worked assiduously on mending the dome and painted it with his hands. He worked to earn money for the reconstruction, including by helping the medical researchers in Leningrad make radiographic images for their projects.

The population of the nearby village was dwindling, but a growing number of pilgrims flocked to his church. He had travelled extensively throughout the country and always received a warm welcome. He enjoyed meeting people. He led a life of asceticism and prayer and possessed the gift of healing. Even the severely ill found healing through his prayers. With his guidance, he helped many people bring their lives in order. He would perform up to five sacraments in a day, from baptism and anointment to confession, communion and a church wedding.

After fifteen years of service in his village, he was offered to become a cleric at Pukhtitsy Monastery. But as he was riding his bike to bid farewell to his parish, he fell and broke a leg. Elder Vasily remembers: “The pain was terrible. Lying on the ground, I said to God, thank you for bringing me, a madman, to my senses. I am not going anywhere!”

In the 1980s, he established a skete at his church with a strict monastic rule, where several people ascetised at any given time. He received up to fifty pilgrims in a day. In those years, he was already a disciple of Archimandrite Kirill (Pavlov) of the Holy Trinity and Saint Sergius Lavra.

His life in his parish was never easy. The authorities were taking him to task for every small misstep. They threatened him with punishments and gave him fines. At some stage, the authorities pressured the archbishop to send Elder Vasily on pension. The archbishop signed the order, but Vasily put it in his wallet and continued to serve. The archbishop was only glad.

Father Vasily prayed tearfully for many years at night and sweated profusely even in a cold cellar. Several times, he was offered to become a monk, but he refused.  “I am already a monk in the spirit, but if I accept tonsure, you will see no more of me,” said Elder Vasily. He understood monasticism as a hermitage.

Father Vasily conducted worship services with great piety and observed the rule to the letter. On weekdays, services often lasted until 3 pm. He also observed a strict fast. He never ate any meat or dairy. He only took fish on Pascha, and never had any tea or coffee. He ate almost no salt. He slept very little, but he was always alert and agile up until his old age. Father Vasily never took any medicines and used only popular remedies and herbs. He used an ointment from the butts of the church candles, with lampad oil, incense from Mount Athos and holy water. He ate and drank nothing for three days before making the ointment, and prayed incessantly as he was making it. Several people with mental illnesses and cancer found healing through his prayers.

His last years of life

In 1990, he retired from his duties as the parish priest and travelled extensively as a missionary. He performed extreme unction in people’s homes, and many found healing through his prayers.

He also visited the holy places of Jerusalem, Greece and Italy. Travelling, moving around and being among people was part of his nature.

He spent the last years of his life in Pechory, taking communion at the Pskov Caves Monastery, and then at home. Seventeen days before his departure, he stopped eating, and he had nothing to drink throughout the week before his death. However, he was joyful throughout these days and tried to chant the resurrection hymn.

He fell asleep in the Lord on 10 March 2011 aged 98 and was buried in a crypt in the caves of the Pskov Caves Monastery.

Adapted from: http://alexandrtrofimov.ru/?p=3097

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About the author

Anastasia Parkhomchik,
Literary editor and Orthodox journalist, member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team.

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