Who is St Alexis of Ugine?

Among the saints added to the calendar of the Orthodox Church at services in the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky in Paris in May 2004 was Alexis Medvedkov, a priest who died in 1934. (The icon above, the work of Maria Struve, was used at the services of glorification.)

St Alexis of Ugine was born in Russia in 1867. He went to seminary and afterward became a reader and choir director at a St Petersburg parish. He felt unworthy of the priesthood but finally, encouraged by St John of Kronstadt, accepted ordination. He was sent to serve a village 60 miles from the capital. As was the case for many priests, his meager salary was not enough. Side by side with his neighbors, he worked the land. Yet he also lived a life of mind and spirit, saving money to buy the writings of the Church Fathers. He was a parent as well — he and his wife had two daughters. His pastoral zeal was recognized — in 1916, age 49, he was made an archpriest. Then the next year, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, he was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death. Remarkably, his eldest daughter succeeded in freeing her father by offering herself as a hostage in his place. The effects of torture, however, remained with him for the rest of his life. Because of nerve damage, his right eye was always open wider than his left.

In 1919 the entire family managed to escape to Estonia where Fr Alexis worked in a mine and then as a night watchman. In 1923 he became assistant priest at a local parish, also helping in the parish school. In 1929, following prolonged illness, his wife died.

After this heavy blow, he was invited by Metropolitan Evlogy in Paris to come to France. He was sent to the town Ugine, near Grenoble, to serve as rector of St Nicholas Russian Orthodox church. A local factory employed 600 Russian immigrants.

He often celebrated the Liturgy on weekdays as well as Sundays and feast days. He was known for how carefully he intoned each word when he stood in the sanctuary. After services, he would stay on to do memorial services and meet whatever other needs were brought to him by his parishioners, never charging money.

His congregation proved difficult. The parish council was dominated by secular-minded lay people of a military background, men used to giving orders, whose main interest was politics. Some harassed Fr Alexis during services. Some were abusive. When insulted, he replied with silence. He patiently endured the criticism of those who regarded the services as too long or criticized him for not dressing better.

His health declined — doctors diagnosed cancer of the intestines. In July 1934, he was taken to hospital. His died on the 22nd of August. On the advice of a physician who warned that Fr Alexis’ cancer-ridden body would rapidly decompose, he was buried in a double coffin.

His parishioners, even those who had been hostile, came to remember him as an exceptionally modest man, shy, full of gratitude, prayerful, outgoing, compassionate, slow to criticize, eager to forgive, generous with what little he had, who never turned his back on anyone in need.

A friend who visited him during those final weeks of his life recalled him saying: “In my parish the true parishioners are the children, the children of my parishioners … and if those children live and grow up, they will form the inner Church. And we too, we belong to that Church, as long as we live according to our conscience and fulfil the commandments … Do you understand what I mean? In the visible Church there is an invisible Church, a secret Church. In it are found the humble who live by grace and walk in the will of God. They can be found in every parish and every jurisdiction. The emigration lives through them and by the grace of God.”

It was a life of ordinary sanctity — small deeds of holiness performed day after day that were either taken for granted or ridiculed. He might have been entirely forgotten had it not been for a decision by the Ugine town council in 1953 to build flats on the site of the cemetery. The remains of those buried in the old cemetery were moved. On the 22nd of August, 1956, precisely 22 years after Fr Alexis’s death, workmen came to his grave and found that his double coffin had entirely disintegrated but his body, priestly vestments and the Gospel book buried with him, had not decayed.

I have left out many details of his life, but you see the main lines: great suffering, endurance, patient service to impatient people, belief in the face of disbelief, an uprooted life, the early death of his wife, his own hard death, a love of prayer, a constant witness to God’s love — and then a sign after death that served to resurrect his memory and inspired the decision that this humble priest ought to be remembered by the Church. The memory of the Church is the calendar of the saints.

– Jim Forest

note: This text is a portion of a lecture given in Oxford May 31, 2004, at the annual conference of the Sourozh Diocese. Read the full text of the lecture.