A Place Out of Time | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

A Place Out of Time 

These Parts: Rock City, IL--To the traveler who happens upon it, the Russian Orthodox Community of Lost Lake seems a mystery, a touch of the ancient and the foreign set inexplicably among the cornfields. But to those who live and worship there it is a hav

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The sky is clear and cold as midnight approaches in the rolling farmland northeast of Freeport. It's a Saturday night in mid-April, and as windows go dark in the farmhouses people are just beginning to gather at Saint Vladimir Russian Orthodox Church.

Here near the hamlet of Rock City, an area that's heavily Lutheran and Methodist, Saint Vladimir's is a strikingly exotic place of worship. It's a redwood Byzantine structure, onion domes and all, set amid a stand of trees 50 yards back from a man-made lake. Here members of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, a branch of orthodoxy still loyal to the czars, are filing inside to celebrate Easter with a lengthy double mass, conducted almost entirely in Old Church Slavonic, a liturgical language dating from the 12th century.

About 50 parishioners, many aged immigrants from the former Soviet Union, enter the dimly lit church and take their places in back. The oldest members of the congregation sit on benches near the windows, but most people stand, as Saint Vladimir's has no pews. At the front of the church is an elaborate wall of carved wood, hung with icons of Jesus, the apostles, and various saints. Beyond the icon wall, nearly hidden behind a set of swinging doors, is the altar, where Father John Sykaluk will preside through much of the service.

As the observance begins Sykaluk, a heavily bearded man dressed in a gold and black cassock, swings a censer back and forth, spreading clouds of incense over the congregation. Then a group of men helps him conduct a Bible and a statue of Jesus with its face covered, representing the Savior's grave, back to the altar. As Sykaluk makes his way, a small choir chants a song.

At midnight the priest emerges through the altar doors, dressed now in white to symbolize the risen Christ. As the bells peal in the darkness, he leads the congregation out the church's door clutching a ring of candles and lilies and singing "Christ is risen" in Slavonic. The choir answers him. Ordinarily the faithful would walk around the church three times--signifying the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost--but the grass has been freshly planted and no one wants to trample it. Sykaluk distributes more incense, and finally leads the worshipers back inside the church, where altar boys have replaced the black cloth that had draped every surface with white.

The Easter service lasts long into the night. By 3:30 AM, when Sykaluk blesses baskets of cheese, eggs, and sausage--food prohibited during Lent--for a celebratory breakfast in the church hall, two dozen diehards are still participating. But then this is a church of diehards.

Saint Vladimir's is the center of the Lost Lake community, or Vladimirovo, as it's also called. The community consists of the church, the lake, a summer camp, and a subdivision of about 15 small houses. To the casual observer, the city tourist who happens upon it on the way to Galena or the Wisconsin Dells, Lost Lake seems a mystery, a sniff of the ancient and the foreign set inexplicably amid the cornfields. But to the people who live and worship here it is a haven of comfort and familiarity. "This is a little bit of home," says Sophia Michajewicz, a Rockford banker who serves as the church treasurer. "It's what I picture a village back home is like--not big, but a place where everybody helps each other."

The Lost Lake subdivision, which covers about 50 of the community's 80 acres, is governed by an association that collects modest dues from the residents, money it has used to coat the gravel streets with oil (to keep the dust down) and to erect green street signs that bear the names of Russian cultural and political heroes of the past--writer Aleksandr Pushkin, composer Peter Tchaikovsky, and Igor Sikorsky, the inventor of the helicopter, who fled Russia after the revolution that brought the communists to power in 1917.

Most of the parish's 33 families make their homes away from Lost Lake, in Freeport, Rockford, or Wisconsin. The residents of the subdivision are mostly old-timers, immigrant Russians in retirement. Nikolai Gladkin is typical. He grew up in a village near Kursk, the son of a farmer hostile to the communist government; in 1937 his father was arrested, and the family never saw him again. In 1943, as the Russian army was about to retake Kursk from the Germans, Gladkin traveled west with the vanquished forces. "My family stayed, but I went," he says. He served the German army until the war ended and afterward had no interest in returning to his homeland. "The Soviets would say I was an animal anyway." In 1950, fresh from a displaced persons camp, he emigrated to work in the citrus farms of California.

In time he moved to Chicago. He met his wife Antonina, a native of Saint Petersburg and a widow with a young son, at Saint George Orthodox Cathedral on North Wood Street. Gladkin, by now a drill press operator, bought a house in North Lawndale and had three sons with Antonina; they became members of the Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral, led by Seraphim Ivanov, the Chicago archbishop of the Church Abroad.

When Seraphim established Lost Lake in the early 1960s, the Gladkins bought a lot there and built a garage that they used as a summer getaway. In 1968, as the last whites fled Lawndale after the riots attending the death of Martin Luther King, the Gladkins took up permanent residence at Vladimirovo, enlarging their summer place by combining it with a mobile home. Both adults, like so many who moved to Lost Lake at the time, found work at Micro Switch, a manufacturer of switches and sensors located in Freeport.

Nick Gladkin, now in his mid-70s, loves Vladimirovo for the chance it gave him to own a full acre of land. Other residents seem to share his plain affection. Lucy Zavolokoff, the president of the Saint Vladimir's sisterhood, finds comfort in the simple social life. "You visit your neighbors, and your neighbors visit you," she says. Nilij Garmasch, a retired body-shop worker from Humboldt Park, praises the place in a thick accent that recalls his youth in the Ukraine. "It's country. Very quiet. No traffic. The church and the little lake. Clean air. Good people all around."

The residents keep a distance from the affairs of Rock City and Stephenson County, preferring to handle their own problems. "When I need help, someone comes and takes care of me," says Zavolokoff. "Especially with driving. People drive me shopping or to the doctor, or I'll be driving to Chicago and I bring things back. We're like family." The oldest resident (until very recently, when she moved back to Chicago to live with her daughter) was Helen Botian, a mentally sharp yet feeble woman of 95. No nursing home for her: Botian was tended to three times a day by Nelli Karpinski's mother.

The old-timers talk with one another in Russian, and when the conversation turns to politics there's always a stiff strain of anticommunism and a reverence for America. "Communism means dictatorship, and I don't like that," says Garmasch. "The communists in Russia don't treat people like they should," says Lucy Zavolokoff, originally from Kiev, who met her husband, Peter, in a displaced persons camp in Germany. "You can't speak to anybody there, or you couldn't until a bit ago. But it's heaven in the United States. Anyone can make something of himself. You don't need a high education. You don't have to wait for the government to give you anything."

The residents' hostility to the state of life in the former Soviet Union bears on their choice of a religious denomination. The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad is distinguished from the Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow by its refusal since the time of the revolution to accept domination by the communist government. The Church Abroad, originally called the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, reveres the Romanovs, the old royal family, as martyrs and has canonized them.

Likewise the Church Abroad is distinguished from the more liberal Orthodox Churches in America by its hidebound adherence to ancient customs--for example the Slavonic services, standing during prayer, and the hierarchical respect followers are supposed to accord the priest and the father of each family. The Church Abroad follows the old Julian calendar rather than the modern Gregorian, so that Christmas and Easter, for instance, occur later for it than they do for other Christian denominations. The women, under centuries-old strictures, are not allowed to wear pants in church and are supposed to cover their heads. After a woman has a baby, she is not to appear again for services until her child has been christened.

John Sykaluk, on weekdays a Rockford machinist, functions as Saint Vladimir's parish priest, and he is not the stickler he should be about all the rules. Some women can be seen in church lacking a scarf or hat. "Most of the old people who come to church prefer the services to be in Russian," Sykaluk says. "But when I see young people I put in a little English. Some people tell me the incense bothers them, so I try not to use too much."

Despite such concessions to youth and modernity, Saint Vladimir's is a struggling church. Sykaluk is paid $25 a week for his labors, which is all the congregation can afford. The choir is composed of a half-dozen seniors, like Nick Gladkin, who know the Orthodox hymns and chants by heart. "We don't sing well, but somebody has to," says Gladkin. There is no time to train young American-born members in the songs, there aren't enough children to populate a Sunday school, and there's a constant problem finding altar boys. "A few years ago a 68-year-old was the altar boy," confides parishioner Lydia Korsh.

Training young people in the faith and culture of their ancestors is the purpose of Lost Lake's summer camp, which is conducted for four weeks every year on the property that adjoins the church. The campers, aged 7 to 16, come for what their parents hope will be a stiff immersion in old Russian life. They sleep in open-air cottages. Each morning they don uniforms--khaki shirts and blue pants or skirts--and march military-style to breakfast. The morning is taken up with classes on the Russian Orthodox religion and Russian history and language. Everything is conducted in Russian, "or at least we try to," says George Ignatiev, a mechanical engineer from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who is the camp chairman. "For those kids who don't understand there are interpreters."

Some of the special activities sound rather onerous. For two weeks, normally the first two weeks of camp, the kids observe a fasting diet to prepare for confessing their sins and receiving communion on the holiday of Saints Peter and Paul in mid-July. Outings include forced marches to state parks nearby. But most afternoons the kids can change out of their uniforms and pursue the usual summer-camp activities--swimming, hiking, fishing, and so on. In the evenings there are movies, bonfires, and hayrides, and on Friday night the camp holds a dance that thumps with rock music.

The highlight of the summer comes on July 28, Saint Vladimir's Day. Parents and Church Abroad priests converge on Lost Lake for a service and a march to the campground. At 2:30 in the afternoon the campers put on a program of skits, dancing, and singing, and then there's a picnic of traditional fare--Russian-style hamburgers, cabbage roll, rye bread, and borscht.

Bishop Seraphim Ivanov, the founder of Lost Lake, was born Leonid Georgovich Ivanov in 1897 in Kursk, the son of a printer. He served in the White army loyal to the czar during the revolution, and with its defeat by the communists he fled to Serbia. He earned a doctorate in philosophy and theology at the University of Belgrade, and in 1926 he went to a monastery at Mount Athos in Greece, attached to the Church Abroad, where he became a monk. He assumed the name of Seraphim of Sarov, a 19th-century ascetic from his home city.

In 1944, when communist troops moved into Czechoslovakia, Seraphim and 14 monks fled to what they felt would be safety in Berlin. But soon the Soviet army was closing in. Seraphim led his party across the Swiss border and, after a sojourn in Geneva, on to the U.S. in late 1946.

In 1958 Seraphim became the archbishop of Chicago and Detroit, assuming command of a region that actually extended from Pennsylvania to California and south to the gulf states. The headquarters of this domain was the Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral, a brownstone at 2141 W. Pierce. Services were held in the front parlor of the second-floor apartment. Soon Seraphim bought a Protestant church at Kedzie and Dickens, originally built as a synagogue.

Fearful that the quickly assimilating offspring of Church Abroad families were forgetting their roots, Seraphim revived an old dream he'd had of organizing a camp in the country. During the summer of 1960, or so the story goes, he drove out north and west of Chicago searching for a site and got lost in a thunderstorm. In the rain he came upon a commercial fishing lake that was up for sale and decided to buy it. The name Lost Lake is said to refer to Seraphim's being lost when he found the land, but at least one newspaper account says the fishing hole was already called Lost Lake Farm.

Seraphim's dream camp opened in 1961, drawing 50 youngsters for a four-week session. There were classes. The kids wore khaki-and-blue uniforms, much as they might have as scouts in prerevolutionary Russia. "We hope to provide a wholesome setting for the youngsters in which to nurture their belief in God," counselor Valentin Schlegowski told the Freeport Journal Standard. "It will also give us a chance to refresh our knowledge of the mother country. We hope to do this in our newly adopted country without forsaking the culture of the old."

In buying and expanding Lost Lake Seraphim had financial help--a bank loan and gifts from Serge Belosselsky-Belozersky, an expatriate Russian prince--and he also sold off lots in the subdivision to members of the Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral. (Nick Gladkin paid $400 for his acre.) The cathedral parishioners started putting up cabins and trailers for summer use. They built a rectory and a church, a majestic arch over the entrance to the campground, and a barn that became the gathering place for festivities. John Logwinenko, a church deacon with a summer house at Lost Lake, built the church from a log kit and did the elaborate wood carving inside.

Seraphim and his secretary, an archimandrite (or highly placed monk) named Theophan Shishmanov, who had known his superior since Europe, became fixtures at Lost Lake. Seraphim taught the religion classes at camp, embroidering them with his personal remembrances. Theophan taught the camp courses in music and language, and on Saturdays during the school year he would conduct religious classes in which he'd discourse on the Bible and miracles. When in residence Seraphim occupied the upstairs of the parish house, which featured a private prayer room packed with icons. Theophan lived in a room on the first floor.

Seraphim was fair-skinned, with rosy cheeks, a prominent nose, a long white beard, and blue gray eyes; one eye was mostly blind due to an injury he received picking mushrooms in 1926. Theophan, five years younger, stood five-feet-six, with small hands, a gray beard, a sweet face, and a humble demeanor. The monk practiced his humility by constantly repeating, mostly in silence, what's called the Jesus prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner."

Seraphim maintained a strict attitude toward his congregation, based on his interpretation of doctrine and his belief that followers of orthodoxy should, above all, be obedient to their superiors. "He was an old-soldier bishop, a tough cookie," says Nicolas Victorov, a longtime camper. There was no candy allowed at camp, or radios. Campers who spoke English were punished by having to stand motionless underneath the church bell for half an hour. In church Seraphim, austere in his black robe and hat, would reproach anyone who so much as whispered; women, instructed by church teaching to be subservient and decorous, were in danger of being tossed out for wearing a short skirt or a sleeveless dress.

Seraphim displayed a fierce temper. "He could tell anyone off in no uncertain terms if he had reason," says Father Gabriel, a monk who tended to the archbishop in his later years. He was hardest on Theophan, frequently chastising his attendant in public for his failings. According to Gabriel, Theophan accepted the fits of temper "as his daily bread, since in the Orthodox church monks are supposed to remain humble and absolutely pious." In truth Theophan and Seraphim were extraordinarily close, to the extent that they heard each other's confessions.

Gabriel describes the relationship between Theophan and Seraphim as that of a stern father paired with a loving mother, with positive effects for their offspring. "Such a father will slap the children around, and so they will turn to the mother," says Gabriel. "She smooths everything out and makes it right, and makes the children understand what the father is trying to say." To the parishioners at Saint Vladimir's and the residents of Lost Lake, Theophan was the mother, and Gabriel says they turned to him for comfort and interpretation.

To his credit, Seraphim did display some warmth, and even humor. "He would come up with something once in a while that made you giggle," relates Lydia Korsh, whose husband Larry is now the church sexton. Someone once asked Seraphim what he felt about Archbishop Makarios, who was elected the first president of Cyprus. "Envy," said Seraphim, rolling his eyes. Church Abroad priests couldn't go swimming, because they weren't allowed to expose their bodies. But one summer some campers tossed the bishop into the lake fully clothed. "He enjoyed that immensely," recalls Gabriel. "He could be strict, to be sure, but above all he loved the children, with their bright faces and their innocent pranks."

By 1970 11 families, the Gladkins and others, had moved permanently to Lost Lake. The adults found employment in Freeport and the children, largely teenagers, went to school in nearby Dakota.

There were tensions, the brunt of them borne by the Lost Lake youngsters. "The surrounding community didn't know who we were," remembers Walt Gladkin, who started out in eighth grade. "We were settling in a strong German community, and there were stories about us being communists. There was some hostility from the local kids at first." Says Victor Sidorenko, another of the 70s-era kids, "We weren't accepted in school. We would try to make friends, but we were considered foreigners. The other kids were cold." Sidorenko encountered verbal abuse and scuffles on the school bus. Though Walt Gladkin says he was fairly comfortable after a year in the country, he endured wisecracks on into high school. His wrestling coach called him "Vladimir" and wondered when they'd be getting together for borscht.

Eventually, however, the locals got used to the Russian kids. Plus the elders of Lost Lake were successful in fence-mending efforts of their own. Mildred Gesvent, an American of Finnish descent who was the longtime sisterhood president, encouraged outsiders to visit and hosted luncheons to improve understanding. George Gesvent, Millie's husband, was quoted as saying, "Once people understood we were not communists but victims of communism, they accepted us."

As time wore on, the 70s-era kids grew to love Vladimirovo. Compared to North Lawndale, says Walt Gladkin, the unfettered life-style of Lost Lake was a welcome change. "I liked the freedom, and still do," he says. "Where else can you sit around and hear the birds, go fishing, and toboggan in winter?" Nelli Schubin felt confined by Lost Lake ("It was my little Peyton Place," she says), and yet she also grew extraordinarily close to her peers. "After all, we were the only kids around," she says. She ended up marrying a Lost Lake kid, Ray Karpinski.

In 1971 Seraphim suffered a series of strokes, which affected his ability to speak and forced him to walk with a cane. Three years later Alypy Gamamovich, a monk at the Church Abroad's main monastery in Jordanville, New York, came out to Chicago to help Seraphim. Alypy, an accomplished icon painter, contributed many of the statues that grace Saint Vladimir's today. In 1983, shortly after Seraphim received chemotherapy for bladder cancer, Alypy assumed the role of archbishop--but not the title. "He [Seraphim] never actually resigned," recalls Alypy. "He told me I could take over, but that I should ask him about important cases."

Seraphim had permanently moved out to Lost Lake with Theophan, though the rural surroundings failed to blunt the bishop's health problems. In November 1985 Seraphim's intestines were found to be ridden with cancer. He provided for his succession by anointing Sykaluk, the parish choir director, a priest in a special ceremony at Saint Vladimir's. "I was scared because I was taking on such a big responsibility," Sykaluk remarks of his ascendancy, "but in time you take on more knowledge and experience and like everything else it works out."

Even as he grew sicker, Seraphim insisted on conducting services at Saint Vladimir's. When the worshipers could no longer hear his voice from the altar, he took to using a tiny microphone. He raised the possibility of being buried near the church, but local officials reportedly vetoed the idea for sanitary reasons; anyway, says Gabriel, the Church Abroad wanted the archbishop to be buried near church headquarters in Manhattan. Seraphim elected to die at the church's hermitage in Mahopac, New York. He had established that hermitage himself after the war; it was his first significant assignment in the U.S.

He arrived at Mahopac on February 19, 1987. On July 17 he attended services marking the murder of Czar Nicholas and his family in 1918, then went into seclusion, reading only the Gospels. On July 25 he didn't ring for breakfast and was found dead. He was 89 years old. Theophan, his companion for nearly 30 years, died the following November.

In 1991 the Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral, the seat of the Chicago and Detroit diocese of the Church Abroad, moved from Chicago to a new $900,000 buff-colored church in Des Plaines. Archbishop Alypy conducts services there, though in the summer he and his second-in-command, Father Vladimir Boikov, spend time at Lost Lake.

The summer camp continues to be popular among Church Abroad families. "Some years we have a good turnout, some years less good," says camp chairman George Ignatiev, "but I do see more interest in general in cultural background and heritage, so I expect things to improve." The rules have relaxed a tad from Seraphim's day. Kids can bring radios now (though "they can only listen to them in their free time," says Ignatiev). There is a camp store, operated by the youngsters, where candy and pop are sold.

Saint Vladimir's Church, which never had a large membership, retains a core of enthusiasts, among them three generations of Gladkins. "You feel better after church," says Nick Gladkin, who is 73. Walt Gladkin, 36, a car dealer with a house on a nearby lake, attends services regularly, and his young son is an altar boy. "I take him every Sunday, and he enjoys it," says Walt.

But Saint Vladimir's future is tenuous. Some of the younger members are ambivalent. "I enjoy going to church, but I don't know Russian that good," says Nick Korsh, Larry and Lydia's 20-year-old son. "It's hard to pay attention, to get into it." Nelli Karpinski, now a legal secretary who lives in Dakota, sometimes brings her children to services, and they, likewise, grow bored. "My kids don't know Russian," says Karpinski, "and with the way education has become so fast-paced--and with all they have to know--I don't have the time to teach them. For our folks, Lost Lake is their heritage, and they'd be lost without it. For us kids the tug just isn't there. We have different lives."

Father John Sykaluk is 62. "If something happens that forces me to give this up," he says, "I don't know if they are going to find anybody to replace me. And if they don't, can they continue the church?" Says Archbishop Alypy, "I hope he [Sykaluk] will be in good health forever, probably longer than I am. I don't know what I will do in the future."

Lost Lake as a residential community remains isolated. "The Russians are close-knit, and they keep pretty much to themselves," remarks Les Taylor, owner of the grocery in Rock City. Lucy Zavolokoff, the sisterhood president, finds it hard to foster relations with outsiders in Rock City and Freeport, like Millie Gesvent used to do. "I would like for people to come visit and have coffee, but I can't do it alone," says Zavolokoff. "Besides me, there aren't enough people who speak good enough English."

The old immigrants who populate the Lost Lake subdivision are dying--there were three funerals the last year alone. "Vladimirovo is a village of widows," says Father Gabriel, now stationed in New York. Most of the 70s-era kids have scattered, to California, Texas, and elsewhere in Illinois. Only two remain at Vladimirovo: Victor Sidorenko, who is divorced, and a pregnant Kathy Schoonhoven; when she gives birth Lost Lake will have its first newborn resident in years.

The community is losing its residential exclusivity. A covenant in the bylaws of the home owners' association, that houses could only be sold to Orthodox Russians, has been lifted, says Nick Victorov, the association president, who resides in Rolling Meadows but weekends at Lost Lake. Recently a house was sold to a carpenter from Streamwood who is not Russian. In the fall the home owners' association is going to start conducting its meetings in English, not Russian, says Victorov.

It's hard to find any concrete reminders of Seraphim and his era. A street near the church is named for Prince Belosselsky (though the name is spelled wrong on the sign), and another street is named for Seraphim. There is a picture of the archbishop in the parsonage, but otherwise he lives only in the memory of his parishioners. "He was the main man," says Walt Gladkin. "Basically all of Lost Lake reminds me of him."

For information on the Lost Lake-Freeport area, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

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