Vyazniki-Hong Kong: a Life-Long Mission
An obscure tombstone with Cyrillic letters can be found in a tiny graveyard in downtown Hong Kong. The stone marks the spot where archpriest Dmitry Uspensky was buried. A graduate of the Vladimir Seminary, he was the priest in charge of one of the most far-flung Orthodox parishes—right at the very heart of Chinese land under the British flag. He combines the functions of a priest, missionary, politician and diplomat.
A provincial priest
Dmitry Ivanovich Uspensky was born in 1886 in Vyazniki, Vladimir province, into a family with many generations of priests. Following in his father’s footsteps, he graduated from the Vladimir Seminary in 1907. He was a model student, especially talented in foreign languages, which predestined his future career.
At that time, the Russian Orthodox Church needed missionaries in the Far East, and Dmitry decided to go. However, to be able to effectively convert the population of Manchuria, an Orthodox priest need to be fluent in Chinese, Mongolian and Korean; therefore, as a student Uspensky was assigned to the Chinese-Mongolian branch of the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages in Vladivostok. Upon graduation, having learned at least three new languages, Uspensky returned to his native Vladimir in 1913.
The young priest soon bid farewell to his family and returned to the Far East. It turned out that he had left his native Vladimir region for good; that was the last time he ever saw any of his loved ones. Uspensky was given the task to oversee a church in the village of Nikolo-Alexandrovskoe, near Khabarovsk. At the same time, he lectured in the Khabarovsk Women’s Gymnasium. In 1917, Uspensky started serving on Russky Island, in the Peter the Great Gulf, Sea of Japan, in the Vladivostok Fortress.
In the heat of the Civil War in 1920, Uspensky was transferred to the Chinese city of Tianjin, where he engaged in ministerial and missionary work and perfected his Chinese. His stay of over seven years in Tianjin compelled Father Dmitry to become proficient in Chinese. He compiled a Chinese language textbook and a voluminous Russian-Chinese dictionary. His mission colleagues jokingly referred to him as the “Chinese Apostle.”
In March 1927, Uspensky was officially assigned to the Russian church mission and delegated to Beijing. After the White Army was defeated, more than 500,000 refugees from Russia flowed into China from the Far East and Central Asia. Therefore, the priority task for Orthodox missionaries in China was to take care of their fellow countrymen.
From Hong Kong to Manila
After seven years of service in Beijing, Dmitry Uspensky, now an archpriest, was sent to southern China in 1934 to organize regular Orthodox services there. The Orthodox Church was terribly short of priests in that vast country. Hong Kong, Canton and Aomin were very seldom visited by Orthodox priests from Shanghai. The tireless Uspensky undertook vigorous activity in the region and won the favor and support of the local Orthodox population. It is through his effort that three new missions were opened – Petropavlovsky in Hong Kong, named after the icon of the Mother of God, “The Unexpected Joy” in Canton, and Troitski in Macao. In the autumn of 1934, the priest founded an Orthodox community in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. In 1937, Uspensky opened a mission in Aomin. Hong Kong was Uspensky’s headquarters and there he organized a church choir and a Sunday school for children and adults.
“To Our Victory!”
During the Great Patriotic War, Uspensky supported the Red Army in his sermons, wishing Russia victory over the Nazis. He also came out against the Japanese, who destroyed an Orthodox Church in Manila. In 1945, Uspensky’s parish accepted the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchy; however, after the 1949 revolution in China, the first wave immigrants started leaving for Australia, Brazil and Canada in fear of repression. There were numerous proposals for Uspensky himself to flee revolutionary China, but the priest stayed with his community.
Uspensky suffered from spiritual isolation for almost 20 years before the head of the foreign church relations department of the Russian Orthodox Church, Bishop Juvenaly of Zaraisk, visited Hong Kong on his way to Tokyo in 1968. By that time Uspensky’s health had seriously deteriorated. He was unable to conduct services independently, but met the young archpriest from Moscow in his full regalia.
On the morning of January 17, 1970, Archpriest Dmitry Uspensky died in Hong Kong, just one day short of his 84th birthday. The distinguished pastor and missionary was buried in the Colonial Cemetery for foreigners. However, nine years later, a local highway project required that the cemetery be leveled. Uspensky’s remaining followers addressed then Governor-General Edward Richard Schreyer with a request to move Father Dmitry’s ashes to a spot that would not be disturbed by construction. Schreyer, whose mother was an Orthodox immigrant from Ukraine, was eager to fulfill that request.
The main shrine of the Orthodox church in Hong Kong, which was closed after the demise of Dmitry Uspensky, the worshipped Icon of Apostles Peter and Paul, was given to the newly-created St. Trinity parish in Melbourne, Australia. Hong Kong reopened an Orthodox parish as late as 2004. Archpriest Dionisy Pozdnyaev of the Moscow Patriarchate’s foreign church relations department, who previously served in Southeast Asia, was assigned to head the parish. In 2008, the congregation of the Trinity Church in Melbourne handed the Peter and Paul Icon over to the Hong Kong parish – Father Dionisy and his community. The short ceremony made a special mention of the contribution by Archpriest Uspensky, whose mission continues.