After last night’s Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, a group of us watched a video on the life of St. John Maximovitch, which spurred my interest in the Russian Church’s missionary outreach in China, where St. John served as Archbishop of Shanghai. In my searches I came across the remarkable and humbling story of Fr. Elias Wen, whose life touched two continents and three centuries, and who at the time of his repose in 2007 was the oldest Orthodox priest in the world.
Wén Zǐzhèng was born in Beijing in 1896 (the same year as St. John). At the age of seven he was baptized and received into the Orthodox Church. (Presumably he received the name “Elias” at his baptism.) I’m sorry that I haven’t found any account of what led him to this decision. In 1931 he was ordained to the priesthood and assigned to serve in Shanghai. There he served under Archbishop John, who in 1946 made him Rector of the Surety of Sinners Orthodox Cathedral.
When the Communists took control of China in 1949, the Orthodox community was forced to flee. Fr Elias went to Hong Kong (then a British protectorate), where he founded a parish and ministered to Russian emigres for eight years. In 1957 he made his final move, to San Francisco, where he was reunited with Archbishop John. He served as priest at Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco for the rest of his life. In 1981 he was elevated to the rank of Protopresbyter.
A memorial by Archpriest Peter Perekrestov gives a moving account of Fr. Elias’ later years:
In 1996 Father Elias’ 100th birthday was marked by the Cathedral parish. Many people remarked how Father Elias was able, in very difficult circumstances, to bring up seven children and provide them with an education. The results of his labors were evident: his children surrounded him with respect, love and care.
After 1996 it became difficult for Father Elias to serve. He continued to bring joy and comfort to the parishioners by attending services, praying in the altar and receiving Christ’s Holy Gifts.
At the end of 2000 he moved to his son Michael’s home and was unable to attend services any longer. He was communed on a regular basis at home.
On Saturday, June 9, 2007, Protopresbyter Elias Wen fell asleep in the Lord at the age of 110. He was the eighth oldest man in the world. His mind remained clear until his repose. He was born in the XIX century, baptized in the XX century when the Russian Church was undivided. He survived the division in the Russian Church and the takeover of his Homeland by communists and reposed in the XXI century. By God’s mercy his repose took place a few weeks after the Russian Church became one again.
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