October 30, 2014
Howell, NJ: Statement from the Diocesan Office regarding St. Nicholas Church in Red Bank, NJ

As a result of recent events in the former parish of St. Nicholas Church at 15 Pearl Street, Red Bank, NJ, and the false rumors surrounding these events, His Eminence, Metropolitan Hilarion, has given his blessing for the publication of a statement of clarification, as well as supporting documentation.

St. Nicholas Church has had a troubled past. Founded in 1950 by the Kuban Cossacks, the building proper has always belonged to the Kuban Stanitza of Red Bank ("Kuban Cossack Association"). However, in accordance with the church’s charter, the parish housed therein was always to be affiliated with the ROCOR Synod of Bishops. Over the past 20 years, the parish experienced significant administrative difficulty, unable to maintain a rector for any long duration. Among the former rectors in this time period were Archimandrite Gideon (Marzev), Priest Andrei Kortusov, Archimandrite Athanasy (Mastalski), and Archpriest Philip Petrovsky. All four reported serious concerns and disagreements with certain parishioners, who over time were able to solidify their positions within the parish and assumed full control over the parish council, chasing out previous members. Disturbingly, their insistence at serving in the church continued even without a pastoral presence, and both regular and irregular lay services were conducted in the church building, including the midnight Paschal service with the placing of the Holy Shroud on the altar table and the blessing of baskets, all without a clergyman present.

In November 2007, Archpriest Serge Lukianov was temporarily assigned rector of St. Nicholas Church; his assignment as rector was made permanent on January 10, 2008. He encountered the same difficulties as previous rectors, namely a refusal to accept his authority as rector over the day-to-day life of the parish, in contradiction of the ROCOR Normal Parish By-Laws. Fearing for the state of the parish, he met with former rector Fr. Philip and representatives of Commerce Bank, where they were able to secure the parish funds and ensure that they would not be improperly withdrawn and spirited away by the parish council. As the situation in the parish deteriorated, Metropolitan Laurus of blessed memory assigned a special investigative commission, chaired by diocesan secretary Archpriest George Larin, to interview parishioners and restore order in the parish in February 2008.

The sudden death of Metropolitan Laurus in March 2008 put the commission’s work on hold, and the report was only delivered to the new First Hierarch, Metropolitan Hilarion, in June 2008. Unfortunately, this delay gave rise to rumors that the commission had been silenced or ignored. Ultimately, the commission’s report showed that the parish council members were steadfast in their refusal to recognize any administrative authority over them, either of the priest or the bishop. It was the commission’s final recommendation that they be removed immediately and new officers elected. During this process, the parish council members abandoned the parish and did not return, instead serving lay services in the basement of a local Episcopalian church, after attempting and failing to infiltrate St. Vladimir Memorial Church in Jackson, NJ.

Following the enactment of the commission’s recommendations (a new parish council was elected in June 2008 and ratified by His Eminence), the former parish council members filed civil suit against Fr. Serge, Fr. Philip, and the bank, later impleading Metropolitan Hilarion. The lawsuit alleged embezzlement of funds and a cover-up; after reviewing the facts of the case, the New Jersey Superior Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, citing the absence of any criminal activity on the part of the clergy, and the court’s inability under the First Amendment to interfere with the inner workings of the Church. The former parish council members appealed to a review board, to the Appellate Court, and finally to the New Jersey Supreme Court. At every level, the ruling of the Superior Court was honored, and the plaintiffs’ case found to be without merit. Significantly, the court explicitly informed plaintiffs that they did not represent St. Nicholas Church (despite absconding with parish property, including the parish seal), and could sue only on behalf of themselves personally, rather than on behalf of the parish.

The former parish council members were told by Metropolitan Hilarion to cease spreading false information and slander against the rector and Fr. Philip. When they refused, they were banned from Holy Communion for one year, in the hopes that this would awaken them to the damage they were causing to the church community. Instead, they were emboldened, and when they sued His Eminence, the ban was made permanent, pending their full repentance. Furthermore, they were banned from holding any officer position in any parish or organization of the Russian Church Abroad.

Parish life at St. Nicholas Church continued as normal, and annual General Parish Meetings elected council members every year from 2009-2014. The minutes of these meetings and their attendant budgets were all ratified by the ruling bishop, Metropolitan Hilarion. Despite the former parish council members’ accusations of embezzlement, all of the money remained in the parish. Much of the money went to repairing and renovating the 100-year-old church building, which was in a dire state in 2007, to the point where city code inspectors had rescinded the Certificate of Occupancy. All of this and more was put in good order, and parishioners lovingly donated new icons, analogia, books, paint, a candle counter, and more.

From 2009 on, the parishes of St. Nicholas Church and St. George’s Kuban Cossack Church in Freewood Acres in Howell (no affiliation to the Kuban Cossack Association in Red Bank) were joined, and services were divided between the two churches. Beginning in December 2013, with the blessing of Metropolitan Hilarion, the rector and parish council resolved to allow Archpriest Rafael Melendez of the Albanian Orthodox Church to serve at St. Nicholas as a Spanish- and English-language mission. However, on May 21, 2014, the eve of St. Nicholas’ feast day, Fr. Rafael arrived at the church to find that the locks had been changed and a sign placed on the door, indicating that the Kuban Cossack Association, owners of the building, were evicting the parish. This was a legal violation of the parish’s longstanding tenancy agreement, and the Association was required to relinquish temporary control of the building to the parish, until such time as a proper eviction notice would be issued.

In response to this, the parish held a special general meeting, at which the parishioners unanimously petitioned Metropolitan Hilarion to close the parish; His Eminence approved, and directed that all parish property be removed from the building, including the iconostasis and cupola. The Metropolitan made it explicitly clear that the building owned by the Cossacks at 15 Pearl Street would no longer function as a church, its belongings transferred to the Eastern American Diocese and its parishioners assigned exclusively to St. George’s Church in Howell. This directive was carried out, and the parish property was removed from the building prior to September 30, 2014. On that date, Mr. George Borisov (Vice President of the Association) met with Fr. Serge to review the property and execute its transfer. All was found to be in order, and the two parted ways on good terms.

In an unexpected turn of events, Mr. Borisov and the Kuban Cossack Association turned over control of the property to the former parish council members, who over the past six years have claimed to be St. Nicholas Church in exile. They immediately took to the internet to decry the "vandalizing" of the church, filing police reports and ignoring the authority of the true parish council and the Metropolitan to close the parish. In direct disobedience to His Eminence’s directive and wishes, they have resumed performing "prayer services" at 15 Pearl Street, and have even attempted to submit insurance claims and register as a tax-exempt church entity.

To all concerned: the Eastern American Diocese and the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia consider St. Nicholas Church in Red Bank to be permanently closed. Any entity claiming to be this parish is doing so under false pretenses, and has neither ecclesiastical nor civil recognition. His Eminence calls on all of the faithful children of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as faithful people everywhere, to pray for the repentance and salvation of these people, who are under deep spiritual delusion. Moreover, all are cautioned to avoid the group calling itself "St. Nicholas Church," which recognizes no spiritual authority and has dedicated significant amounts of time and money to slandering our Metropolitan, our clergy, and our God-loving parishioners.

Documents available for review (PDF):

January 10, 2008 – Directive from Bishop Gabriel of Manhattan assigning Fr. Serge rector

September 20, 2008 – Letter by Metropolitan Hilarion to former parish council members (Russian)

March 31, 2009 – Final Statement by Metropolitan Hilarion on the situation in St. Nicholas Church

November 9, 2009 – Directive from Bishop George of Mayfield to former parish council members

May 22, 2014 – Statement by Metropolitan Hilarion instructing closure of St. Nicholas Church

August 28, 2014 – Directive from Metropolitan Hilarion officially closing St. Nicholas Church

Media Office of the Eastern American Diocese