Our St. Herman
Brotherhood and Monastery has for a long time had great respect
and appreciation for the life, testimony and work of Pastor
Richard Wurmbrand, a Jewish convert to Christianity who suffered
for fourteen years in Communist prisons in Romania due to his
unrelenting Christian activity. Back in 1979, our co-founder Fr.
Seraphim Rose spoke about Pastor Wurmbrand to seminarians and
pilgrims at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York. In
succeeding years we corresponded with Pastor Wurmbrand himself,
sent him Orthodox materials, and met with him at some of his
In 1996 our
Brotherhood made personal contact with a man who had been in
Communist prisons in Romania at the same time as Pastor
Wurmbrand, and for the same reason: the Romanian Orthodox priest,
Fr. George Calciu. Fr. Seraphim Rose had also spoken at great
length about Fr. George and his courageous preaching of Christ
in Romania. We were overjoyed to get to know him here in America,
learn from his faith, and benefit from his wisdom and experience.
became known to us that Pastor Wurmbrand and Fr. George were
friends. Fr. George told us that Pastor Wurmbrand had confessed
to him many times in the United States—not as a sacrament, since
Pastor Wurmbrand was a Lutheran—but as before an Orthodox priest
and friend. Before these talks, in which he disclosed his
struggles, Pastor Wurmbrand would always cross himself.
had also confessed to an Orthodox priest many years prior to
coming to America, when he was in Communist prison. He told Fr.
George about this when he met him in Pennsylvania in 1989. In a
recent letter Fr. George informed us about what Pastor Wurmbrand
had told him:
was in a prison hospital for terminal illness. The majority of
the people from this prison had to die.
One day, a
new transport of prisoners came to the jail. Among them was a
very humble Orthodox priest from a village. He seemed so simple
that the guards made all kinds of jokes about him. The prisoners
were in the courtyard—a special place surrounded by a fence—and
the guard brought in the newcomers, all in rags.
said to them, “Look, guys, this is a priest. He was sent here by
the prison administration to hear your last confession—all of
you.” He was alluding that they all had to die, including the
Pastor Wurmbrand said, “He [the guard] prophesied: in less than six
months, everyone came to this priest and confessed. I was among
Pastor Wurmbrand was in critical condition in a hospital in
southern California. He had not eaten for ten days, and it
looked like he was dying. He was asked which pastor should be
called, and he asked for Fr. George Calciu. Fr. George was
telephoned and was prepared to come, but the danger passed and
Pastor Wurmbrand got better. Still, Pastor Wurmbrand was in such
a condition that he had to be kept in a nursing home—a Catholic
nursing home in Torrance, California.
In July of
1998 Fr. George went to see Pastor Wurmbrand. Shortly after this
visit, he sent us the following message:
was very excited to see me. He is in a nursing home, very weak;
he cannot swallow anything, even his own saliva. I found him
sleeping, because he wanted not to be tired and to be able to
talk longer with me. After half an hour he awoke and was pushed
in his wheelchair to a small yard, where there was a statue of
the Mother of God. We talked a few minutes all together: his
wife Sabina, two Romanian ladies, Nicolae Popa and a young man.
everybody left Richard and me alone. We started by remembering
the time in prisons, and he remembered something very touching.
He said: ‘I was in prison with different people: Orthodox,
Catholic, Romanian, Hungarian, German, etc. And I noticed that
the Hymn to the Mother of God existed in all the languages,
except Hebrew. And I decided to compose this hymn in Hebrew,
because Mary is a Jew and Hebrew was her language.” He started
to sing, with his weak and trembling voice, the hymn in Hebrew.
The melody was very Jewish, composed by him. I was deeply
impressed. The statue of the Mother of God was there, watching
and blessing us. . . . He told me that, in his heart, he loved
Orthodoxy, but considered he was not worthy of it, and because
of this he did not succeed in becoming fully Orthodox.
If you go to
Richard and talk to him, ask him to sing “Ave Maria.” And be
prepared to tape the song. He loves very much the Mother of God,
and I am sure he will be happy in his heart to let this song be
a testimony of his secret Orthodoxy. I was not prepared and
failed the occasion.
Thinking that this
might be our last opportunity to meet and talk with Pastor
Wurmbrand, we set off to see him almost immediately after
receiving Fr. George’s letter.
Hieromonk Gerasim, Mother Nina (who had spent two years in a monastery in
Romania) and I arrived at the nursing home in the morning of
July 28. Pastor Wurmbrand greeted us with love and was happy to
see us. We went with him in his wheelchair to the same courtyard
in which Fr. George had spoken with him.
concern was what he could do for us. We were moved by how he, so
weak and enfeebled himself, was so desirous to give to others.
I asked him
how to face persecution, if and when it comes. He told us not to
be fearful of persecution. “Persecution must come to all
Christians,” he said, “but do not be afraid.”
asked him how to bear suffering. He said that he had always been
afraid of suffering, but then he began to be joyful in
suffering. “Be joyful!” he exclaimed, “leap for joy!” As Mother
Nina remarked later, as he said this his eyes seemed like a sea
of light opening into eternity.
asked him about the song he had composed to the Mother of God in
Immediately he sang it for us, and we recorded it on
(audible from min,7 of recording)
as Fr. George had urged us to do. Mother Nina wept. When he
finished singing Pastor Wurmbrand said that Mary was the closest
one to Jesus, and was the only one to change His will.
(Evidently he was speaking about Christ’s miracle of changing
water into wine. According to the commentary of St. Cyril of
Alexandria, at that time the Mother of God did indeed persuade
her Son to do something He did not desire; He did it out of
obedience to her.) We could see, as Fr. George had told us, that
Pastor Wurmbrand had great love for the Theotokos.
Soon we were
joined by friends of Pastor Wurmbrand: a Romanian woman, her two
sisters, and her American husband. Pastor Wurmbrand’s legs began
to hurt him; he was wincing from the pain, and asked to be taken
back inside to his bed. (As we later learned, the pain was due
to severely advancing leg neuropathy contracted during his three
years of solitary confinement, when he was obliged to stand
interminable hours, being kept on a starvation diet.)
Once he was
settled into his bed, he sang for us once again his song to the
Mother of God: first in English, and then in Hebrew. He
explained to us the circumstances under which he composed it
(this, too, we recorded on tape). “I was in a very bad situation
in prison,” he said. “Prison was not always very bad. Sometimes
there are better times, sometimes worse times. It was a very bad
time. And I prayed that the times would change, and they did not
change. Then I promised that if it [the situation] changed for
the good of the prisoners, I would translate this song into
Hebrew. In five minutes the situation changed.”
We began to
sing Orthodox hymns with Pastor Wurmbrand: “Christ is Risen” and
“Holy God” in Romanian. Even though it was hard for him to sing
and he would choke and cough, he sang the hymns with his whole
I asked him
if he would like to be anointed with holy oil, and he gladly
consented. Anointing three times his head, hands and feet with
oil from the reliquary of St. John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and
San Francisco, I said aloud the prayer of blessing to our Lord
Jesus Christ, asking for St. John’s intercessions. After this
anointing Pastor Wurmbrand looked more peaceful and ceased to
show obvious signs of being in pain.
We were there
for almost three hours. We returned in the evening and were met
by Sabina Wurmbrand, who beamed with the same joy as did her
husband. She too was very glad to see us, especially Mother
Nina. Sabina had been in Communist prison for three years
together with Orthodox nuns.
second visit Pastor Wurmbrand asked us to gather close to him,
and he kept asking us for a “word.” He was extremely interested
to hear about the missionary work of our Brotherhood.
impressed with his humility. When, for example, I mentioned Fr.
George Calciu to him, he said, “Fr. George is a great man. He
loves sinners. That’s why he loves me.”
Sabina for their checkbook, because he wanted to give a donation
toward Mother Nina’s upcoming trip to Romania. We assured him
that it was not necessary for him to go to the trouble, but he
said emphatically, “We have to show our Christian love through
concrete acts.” (Sabina did not have the checkbook at the time,
but soon thereafter she sent Mother Nina a letter with a sizable
donation, which was then given to an Orthodox publishing house
After a while
Sabina began to be concerned that her husband was becoming too
tired, and said she thought everyone should leave and let him
rest. But Pastor Wurmbrand did not want us to leave, and tried
to postpone our departure as long as possible. Finally we did go
when visiting hours ended. He expressed his gratitude to us, and
as we walked out of the room he looked at us with longing.
were truly grateful for this meeting. We were able to experience
firsthand Pastor Wurmbrand’s love for God and neighbor, which
had been tested and tried in the crucible of suffering for our
Lord Jesus Christ. We were witnesses, too, of his love for God’s
Most Pure Mother, and of the respect and esteem in which he held
the Orthodox Church and her tradition.
Damascene Christensen is from St. Herman of Alaska Monastery, Platina, California.
From left to right: Hieromonk Gerasim, abbot of St. Herman of Alaska Monastery; Pastor
Wurmbrand; Hieromonk Damascene; and Mother Nina.
Intro to Pastor
Wurbrand's own article:
Throughout the era
of the Communist domination of Eastern Europe, there were many
heroes who suffered and died in prison for trying to help
Christians behind the Iron Curtain. One of the most well-known
of these heroes is Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran minister
who started an underground ministry in Romania in 1945. Of the
next twenty years, he spent fourteen in prison. Finally ransomed
out of Romania in 1965, he established a ministry to smuggle
Bibles and practical aid to the families of Romanian martyrs. He
died in February of this year, suffering to the end from the
maltreatment he had received at the hands of the Communists.
Magazine featured an article by Richard Wurmbrand in its
September, 1987 issue. As this article, reprinted here, clearly
shows, Pastor Wurmbrand was deeply impressed by the faith and
dedication of the Orthodox Christians he met in Romania. Fr.
Damascene Christensen recently spent time with Pastor Wurmbrand
near the end of his life. Fr. Damascene’s reminiscences of those
meetings show how Wurmbrand’s attachment to the Orthodox Faith
persisted and deepened into his dying days.
Pastor Wurmbrand himself and those whose stories he relates are shining
examples of how faithful Christians can not only survive, but be
illuminated through the dreadful sufferings of imprisonment.
With My Own Eyes
A Lutheran Pastor’s
Firsthand Account of Prison Life
by Pastor Richard
I am a Christian
from an Orthodox country—the country of Romania. Having been in
prison for fourteen years for my faith, it is now my missionary
work to help persecuted Christians in Communist countries. I
would like to tell you the stories of several Orthodox
Christians with whom I was privileged to come into contact
during my time in prison. Their examples and their deeds have
been a constant source of encouragement to me throughout the
The first man was a
priest who was put in jail at the age of seventy. His name was
Surioanu. When he was brought in with his big white beard and
white pate, some officers at the gate of the jail mocked him.
One asked, “Why did they bring this old priest here?” And
another replied with a jeer, “Probably to take the confessions
of everybody.” Those were his exact words.
had a son who had died in a Soviet jail. His daughter was
sentenced to twenty years. Two of his sons-in-law were with him
in jail—one with him in the same cell. His grandchildren had no
food, they were forced to eat from the garbage. His whole family
was destroyed. He had lost his church. But this man had such a
shining face—there was always a beautiful smile on his lips. He
never greeted anyone with “Good morning” or “Good evening,” but
instead with the words, “Always rejoice.”
One day we
asked him, “Father, how can you say ‘always rejoice’—you who
passed through such a terrible tragedy?”
“Rejoicing is very easy. If we fulfill at least one word from
the Bible, it is written, ‘Rejoice with all those who rejoice.’
Now if one rejoices with all those who rejoice, he always has
plenty of motivation for rejoicing. I sit in jail, and I rejoice
that so many are free. I don’t go to church, but I rejoice with
all those who are in church. I can’t take Holy Communion, but I
rejoice about all those who take. I can’t read the Bible or any
other holy book, but I rejoice with those who do. I can’t see
flowers [we never saw a tree or a flower during those years. We
were under the earth, in a subterranean prison. We never saw the
sun, the moon, stars—many times we forgot that these things
existed. We never saw a color, only the gray walls of the cell
and our gray uniforms. But we knew that such a world existed, a
world with multicolored butterflies and with rainbows], but I
can rejoice with those who see the rainbows and who see the
the smell was not very good. But the priest said, “Others have
the perfume of flowers around them, and girls wearing perfume.
And others have picnics and others have their families of
children around them. I cannot see my children but others have
children. And he who can rejoice with all those who rejoice can
always rejoice. I can always be glad.” That is why he had such a
beautiful expression on his face.
Let me interrupt to
tell you about another Orthodox Christian. He was not a priest,
but a simple farmer. In our country, farmers are almost always
illiterate, or nearly so. He had read his Bible well, but other
than that he had never read a book. Now he was in the same cell
with professors, academicians, and other men of high culture who
had been put in jail by the Communists. And this poor farmer
tried to bring to Christ a member of the Academy of Science. But
in return, he received only mockery.
“Sir, I can’t
explain much to you, but I walk with Jesus, I talk with Him, I
Don’t tell me fairy tales that you see Jesus. How do you see
cannot tell you how I see Him. I just see Him. There are many
kinds of seeing. In dreams, for instance, you see many things.
It’s enough for me to close my eyes. Now I see my son before me,
now I see my daughter-in-law, now I see my granddaughter.
Everybody can see. There is another sight. I see Jesus.”
“Yes, I see
“What does He
look like? How does He look to you? Does He look restful, angry,
bored, annoyed, happy to see you? Does He smile sometimes?”
He said, “You
guessed it! He smiles at me.”
come hear what this man says to us. He mocks us. He says Jesus
smiles at him. Show me, how does He smile?”
That was one
of the grandest moments of my life. The farmer became very, very
earnest. His face began to shine. In the Church today there are
pastors and theologians who can’t believe the whole Bible. They
believe half of it, a quarter of it. Somehow they can’t believe
the miracles. I can believe the whole of it because I have seen
miracles. I have seen transfigurations—not like that of Jesus,
but something apart. I have seen faces shining.
appeared on the face of that farmer. I would like to be a
painter to be able to paint that smile. There was a streak of
sadness in it because of the lost soul of the scientist. But
there was so much hope in that smile. And there was so much love
and so much compassion, and a yearning that this soul should be
saved. The whole beauty of heaven was in the smile on that face.
The face was dirty and unwashed, but it held the beautiful smile
bowed his head and said, “Sir, you are right. You have seen
Jesus. He has smiled at you.”
Now, to come back
to this priest, Surioanu. He was always such a happy being. When
we were taken out for walks, in a yard where there was never a
flower, a piece of herb, or grass, he would put his hand on the
shoulder of some Christian and ask, “Tell me your story.”
men would talk about how bad the Communists were. “They’ve
beaten me and they’ve tortured me and they’ve done terrible
listen attentively; then he would say, “You’ve said plenty about
the Communists; now tell me about yourself. When did you confess
forty years ago.”
“Let us sit
down and forget the Communists and forget the Nazis. For you are
also a sinner. And tell me your sins.”
confessed to him—I confessed to him, too, and I remember that as
I confessed to him, and the more I told him sins, the more
beautiful and loving became his face. I feared in the beginning
that when he heard about such things he would loathe me. But the
more I said bad things about myself, the more he sat near to me.
And in the end he said, “Son, you really have committed plenty
of sins, but I can tell you one thing. Despite all of these
sins, God still loves you and forgives you. Remember that He has
given His Son to die for you, and try one day a little bit, and
another day a little bit, just to improve your character so it
should be pleasant to God.”
experiences with this priest were among the most beautiful
encounters of my life. He is no longer on this earth. He was an
example of what real Orthodoxy is all about. There exists such
Orthodoxy. I don’t see much point in becoming an Orthodox from a
Lutheran background or from a Baptist background or from any
other background unless one desires that kind of Orthodoxy. His
was an excellent Orthodoxy, a pure Orthodoxy. May God help us
all to be truly Orthodox, after the example of so many saints
who are depicted on the icons, and after the example of so many
saints alive today.
"A Good Confession"
There was a brigade
in Romania which was only for priests, bishops, pastors, rabbis,
and laymen—whoever was in prison for his faith. One day a
political officer came to inspect that brigade. Everybody stood
at attention, and at random he called out a young man (whose
name was Coceanga) and asked him, “What have you been in your
replied, “Sir, what I have been in my civilian life, I will be
forever. I am a priest of God.”
priest! And do you still love Christ?”
was silent for a few seconds—seconds as long as eternity,
because he knew that his eternal destiny would be decided in
those seconds. The Lord said, “Whoever confesses Me before men,
him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But
whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My
Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32, 33).
after a little meditation, his face began to shine—I have seen
so many shining faces—and with a very humble but very decided
voice he said, “Captain, when I became a priest, I knew that
during Church history thousands had been killed for their faith.
And as often as I ascended to the altar dressed in those
beautiful, ornate robes, surrounded by the respect and love of
the congregation, I promised to God that if ever I had to
suffer, if ever I wore the uniform of the prisoner, I would
still love Christ."
went on to say, “I so pity you. We have the truth, and you have
whips. We have love, and you have iron bars on prison cells.
Violence and hatred is a very poor argument against truth and
love. If you were to hang all the professors of mathematics, if
all the mathematicians were hanged, how much would four plus
four be then? It would still be eight. And eight plus eight would
still be sixteen.
change the truth by hanging those who speak the truth. If all
the Christians were hanged, it would still remain so that there
is a God, and He is love. And there is a Savior; His name is
Jesus Christ, and by confessing Him a man can be saved. And
there exists a Holy Spirit, and a host of angels around the
earth. And there exists a beautiful paradise—you can’t change
I wish there
was a way to convey the tone with which he said those words. We,
the others, were ashamed because we believed in Christ, we hoped
in Christ, but this man loved Christ as Juliet loved Romeo and
as the bride loves the bridegroom.
"An Undying Love"
When I was in jail
I fell very, very ill. I had tuberculosis of the whole surface
of both lungs, and four vertebrae were attacked by tuberculosis.
I also had intestinal tuberculosis, diabetes, heart failure,
jaundice, and other sicknesses I can’t even remember. I was near
At my right
hand was a priest by the name of Iscu. He was abbot of a
monastery. This man, perhaps in his forties, had been so
tortured he was near to death. But his face was serene. He spoke
about his hope of heaven, about his love of Christ, about his
faith. He radiated joy.
On my left
side was the Communist torturer who had tortured this priest
almost to death. He had been arrested by his own comrades. Don’t
believe the newspapers when they say that the Communists only
hate Christians or Jews—it’s not true. They simply hate. They
hate everybody. They hate Jews, they hate Christians, they hate
anti-Semites, they hate anti-Christians, they hate everybody.
One Communist hates the other Communist. They quarrel among
themselves, and when they quarrel one Communist with the other,
they put the other one in jail and torture him just like a
Christian, and they beat him.
And so it
happened that the Communist torturer who had tortured this
priest nearly to death had been tortured nearly to death by his
comrades. And he was dying near me. His soul was in agony.
night he would awaken me, saying, “Pastor, please pray for me. I
can’t die, I have committed such terrible crimes.”
Then I saw a
miracle. I saw the agonized priest calling two other prisoners.
And leaning on their shoulders, slowly, slowly he walked past my
bed, sat on the bedside of this murderer, and caressed his head—I
will never forget this gesture. I watched a murdered man
caressing his murderer! That is love—he found a caress for him.
said to the man, “You are young; you did not know what you were
doing. I love you with all my heart.” But he did not just say
the words. You can say “love,” and it’s just a word of four
letters. But he really loved. “I love you with all my heart.”
Then he went
on, “If I who am a sinner can love you so much, imagine Christ,
who is Love Incarnate, how much He loves you! And all the
Christians whom you have tortured, know that they forgive you,
they love you, and Christ loves you. He wishes you to be saved
much more than you wish to be saved. You wonder if your sins can
be forgiven. He wishes to forgive your sins more than you wish
your sins to be forgiven. He desires for you to be with Him in
heaven much more than you wish to be in heaven with Him. He is
Love. You only need to turn to Him and repent.”
prison cell in which there was no possibility of privacy, I
overheard the confession of the murderer to the murdered. Life
is more thrilling than a novel—no novelist has ever written such
a thing. The murdered—near to death—received the confession of
the murderer. The murdered gave absolution to his murderer.
together, embraced each other, and the priest went back to his
bed. Both men died that same night. It was a Christmas Eve. But
it was not a Christmas Eve in which we simply remembered that
two thousand years ago Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It was a
Christmas Eve during which Jesus was born in the heart of a
things which I have seen with my own eyes.
Note: Pastor Richard
Wurmbrand was the founder of Christian Missions to the Communist
World, Middlebury, Indiana.