On December 23, 1880, Dragomir and Katarina Velirnirovich gave birth to their first child, a son. He was born in the town of Lelich, among the Povlen Mountains of western Serbia. When he was born, he was so weak that they had him baptized soon after birth. He was named Nikola, after the family’s patron saint, St. Nicholas of Myra. As Nikola grew up, he grew stronger. (Dragomir and Katarina had 8 other children after Nikola, but unfortunately all of them passed away during WWII.)
Nikola’s parents were hardworking farmers who loved God and His Church so much that they always stopped their work when it was time for prayers. They kept the fasts and lived their life by the liturgical cycle of the Church. Katarina was a very holy mother, and she taught her children about God, the saints, and the holy days of the Church year. She also would take Nikola to the Chelije Monastery for Communion, even though it was a three miles walk to get there. When he got older, Nikola remembered his mother’s commitment to taking him to church, and he was grateful.
It was in that same monastery where Nikola first started school. His spiritual father, Father Andrew, taught Nikola to read, to write, to do math, and he also taught him about his culture. Father Andrew also taught Nikola the Scriptures and the teachings of the Holy Fathers of the Church. Nikola loved to learn. Even during summer vacation, Nikola would sneak away to the monastery church’s bell tower and hide there all day so that he could read and pray!
After Nikola had finished 6th grade, he wanted to enter the Military Academy. He was not accepted to the school, though, because he was too small to do everything that military cadets needed to do. Since he could not go to military school, Nikola applied to the Seminary of St. Sava in Belgrade. He was accepted to the school, and he began the life of a seminarian. He did not just study the normal things seminarians study, though: he also read the important writings of famous writers in Europe (like Shakespeare, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Marx to name a few). He especially liked Peter Njegosh’s writing, and gave a speech about him for his final big project when he was finishing at the seminary in 1902. Everyone who heard this speech was amazed: they could tell that Nikolai was very, very smart.
Unfortunately, during his years at seminary, Nikola got sick. He was not eating well, and the housing at the seminary was not good, so he was sick when he graduated. Nikola’s doctor told him to spend time on the sea coast. So after graduation, Nikola taught in a few villages during the school year, but spent his summer break on the seashore. As he rested at the shore, Nikola wrote. He wrote the life of Bokel the Montenegrin and Dalmatin; and he started a Christian newspaper that contained some of his first published writings.
In 1905, Nikola was chosen to study abroad. He went to Switzerland, Germany, England, and Russia during this time of his life, and he studied very hard. In 1908, he received his Doctorate in Theology. The very next year, 1909, Nikola worked for (and got) his Doctorate in Philosophy, this time in Oxford, England. He was so smart and could learn quickly: not many people have two doctorate degrees at age 28!
That fall, Nikola became very sick. He was in the hospital for more than two months. While he was there, Nikola prayed and told God that if He saved him from this illness he would serve God and His Church. God healed him, and brilliant Dr. Nikola laid his possibilities for greatness aside and became a simple monk. Monk Nikolai was tonsured and ordained to the priesthood on the same day, Dec. 20, 1909. The Hieromonk Nikolai served God with all of his heart and mind, and was soon elevated to Archimandrite.
Archimandrite Nikolai was sent to Belgrade to teach at the seminary there. However, before he could teach, he needed to take a test (because the people at the seminary discovered that he had never taken 7th and 8th grades). The test was an oral test: he had to stand before the examiners and answer questions that they asked him. Everyone who heard him speak at that test could not believe how well he spoke. No one could even ask him a question about his answers. So, of course he passed the test! But before he was allowed to teach, the people at the seminary thought it would be good for him to spend some time in Russia. So he went to Russia for a year. While he was there, Archimandrite Nikolai wrote “The Religion of Njegosh,” his first great work.
Back in Belgrade, he went on to write many others, including a collection of homilies that he called “Sermons at the Foot of the Mount” (he said he called it this because “Christ spoke on the Mount, but I dare to speak only at the foot of the Mount.”) He also wrote “Beyond Sin and Death,” which was a very deep book written in a way that ordinary people could understand. Besides his writing, he taught at the seminary, and many of his students went on to become monks, theologians, and clergy because they had been so inspired by Archimandrite Nikolai. He taught philosophy, logic, history, and foreign languages; and his writing made him well known on around the world.
And then World War 1 began. In the summer of 1914, Archimandrite Nikolai was asked to go to England to find help for his Serbian people. Because he had a doctorate degree from Oxford, he was welcomed by the British, who not only agreed to support the Serbian people, but also awarded him a Doctorate of Divinity from Cambridge University while he was there!
In the summer of 1915, Archimandrite Nikolai was sent out again. This time, he was sent to New York City to gather help from the (now American) emigrants. 20,000 volunteers came back with him to help protect their homeland from the Austrians; and many sent money to help their suffering brothers and sisters back home. During this trip to America, Nikolai had a dream in which an Angel of the Lord told him that he would come back to America to begin the American Serbian Diocese. (That dream later came true.)
At the beginning of 1916, Archimandrite Nikolai went back to England, where he wrote more books and articles. He stayed in England until the end of the war. Again, the British liked his work, and he was given another Honorary Doctorate of Divinity. This one was in 1919, from the University of Glasgow, Scotland.
Nikolai was chosen to be the new Bishop of Zhicha. On March 12, 1919, when he was only 38, Nikolai was installed as the bishop. He cried happy tears during the consecration service: he had spent years trying to get help for the Serbian people whom he loved so much, and now he would actually be able to help them himself, as their bishop! He spent two years helping the Serbs in Zhicha as well as throughout Yugoslavia. Like Christ, he healed the sick, set spiritual captives free, and preached. In 1921 he was transferred to the Diocese of Ochrid and Bitola. Everywhere he went, Bishop Nikolai worked to help people be united peacefully. And all the while he worked, he wrote more books. One of those books, Prayers By the Lake, is full of prayers that are useful to Orthodox Christians today.
In 1924, Bishop Nikolai was sent to the United States, arriving in New York City again. This time he went around speaking about the situation in Europe, thanking the American Serbs for their help, and beginning to gather the Serbian parishes in America into an Archdiocese.
Six months later, he went back to Belgrade to report on the church in America. He was nominated to become the Bishop of the American Serbs, but not everyone in his homeland was ready to give him up. This made it hard for the Bishop, so he went on a pilgrimage retreat in 1922 to the Holy Land and then to Mt. Athos. He needed this time away to be refreshed and to receive counsel from God. When he returned, Bishop Nikolai nominated another bishop to be the first bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America. The synod agreed with that nominee, who then went to America. This meant that Bishop Nikolai could stay and continue writing. He wrote many books that helped people become closer to God and the Faith. He also encouraged people to pray, which they did, and it started a new dedication to prayer that helped to strengthen the Serbian Orthodox Church. In the next few years, he paid another visit to the United States (in 1927) stopping in London on his way back home to Serbia. During this trip, he challenged people to repent, warning that something terrible would soon happen in Europe. Back in Ochrid, he wrote several more books, including The Prologue of Ochrid, which has become a spiritual classic.
Early in 1930, the bishop went to Vatopedi Monastery, on Mt. Athos. A Pan-Orthodox conference was taking place, and while he was there, he was able to lead the Orthodox faithful of different nationalities in a way that helped them show that the Orthodox Church is united as the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” After that conference, Bishop Nikolai returned home and continued writing until war began in 1941.
When the Germans occupied Yugoslavia that same year, Bishop Nikolai was arrested. He was sentenced to prison in Dachau, the famous prison camp in Germany. Bishop Nikolai spent two years imprisoned in Dachau. While he was there, he saw (and suffered) some of the most terrible tortures against humans that the world has ever known. Even in prison, he wrote. He wrote a prayer to the Theotokos (he said later that her protection is the reason he survived Dachau) and a sort of diary about his time in the prison camp. An American division of the Allied Forces got Bishop Nikolai his freedom on May 8, 1945, and, after a brief stop in London, he moved back to the USA.
He took a little time to recover (his back and leg were giving him trouble after his imprisonment) and then began to lecture again. Just a little over a year after his release from Dachau, Bishop Nikolai was given another Doctorate: this one, a Doctorate of Sacred Theology, was from Columbia University.
For the next few years, Bishop Nikolai taught at St. Sava Seminary in Libertyville, Illinois, and wrote books, some of them in English! In 1951,the bishop moved to St. Tikhons Russian Orthodox Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, to serve as a professor (then dean, and even rector) of the seminary there. During his years at St. Tikhons, Bishop Nikolai wrote books and articles in a variety of languages (he could read, write, and speak seven languages fluently) so that Orthodox people of various backgrounds could read things in their own language. He also lectured in different seminaries and monasteries on the east coast of the United States. He often lectured and gave his homilies in English so that more Americans could understand what he was saying.
And then, one night (between the 17th and 18th of March, 1956), Bishop Nikolai fell asleep in the Lord. He was 76 years old, and praying in his cell at St. Tikhons when he fell asleep. There were many services held for him, beginning at St. Tikhon’s, then in New York City and finally in Libertyville, IL, where he was buried on March 27, 1956. Twenty-five years later, his body was returned to Serbia and laid to rest behind the church of the Chelije Monastery, right in his hometown of Lelich, where he used to hide during summer vacations to read and pray.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich, please pray for us and for our salvation!
Loving thy homeland thou didst sojourn as a patriot to secure aid for God’s suffering children,
And as a new Chrysostom thou didst preach to those in darkness
The rediscovery of the Foundational Rock, Christ the Lord,
In the Eternal Homeland of God’s Kingdom.
Thy pastoral love for all, O Confessor Nikolai, was purified in captivity by the godless,
Demonstrating thy commitment to the truth and thy people;
Therefore, O venerable Bishop, thou hast attained the crown of eternal life.
Here are additional resources and ideas to help you prepare to share the life of St. Nikolai Velimirovich with your Sunday Church School students:
Find more information about St. Nicholai Velimirovich’s life, including a few pictures and his icon here: http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/stnikolai.aspx
Read some of St. Nikolai Velimirovich’s letters to dignitaries, fellow clergy, and others here: http://www.babamim.com/st_bishop_nikolai__his_letters (Don’t worry, the letters in other languages have been translated to English!)
Consider praying some of the prayers that St. Nikolai Velimirovich wrote in “Prayers By the Lake.” You can find the prayers here: http://www.sv-luka.org/praylake/
Pray this prayer for your Sunday Church School students. The prayer is for children, and was written by St. Nikolai Velimirovich: http://www.saintgregoryoutreach.org/2014/06/a-prayer-for-children-by-saint-nikolai.html
St. Nicholai Velimirovich once said that similar things happen when we receive Holy Communion and when we give to those in need. In both cases, we receive Christ. Ask your Sunday Church School students what they think about that. What could he mean? Then share this story that he told: https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/st-nikolai-reflection-on-giving-alms-to-the-poor/ After you share the story, talk together about how you can live in a way that reflects this. Consider ideas of things you could do together as a class and/or as a parish to better receive Christ when He appears as the poor in your community and around the world. Plan a hands-on project that you can work on together, and then prepare and do it! Give each student a copy of this part of the quote: http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/st_nicholai_velimirovich_in_holy_communion.pdf Have them decorate it in a way that reminds them of your plan, so that they can bring/do whatever it is that you decide to do as a group to help.
Talk with your middle-to-older students about suffering. Did St. Nicholai Velimirovich suffer? Who do you know that is suffering? Do your students ever suffer? What do they think about suffering? Do they like it?
Read this quote from St. Nicholai to your students: “Every sin, however small, would inevitably bring death if Mercy were not to allow suffering in order to sober men up from the inebriation of sin; for the healing that comes through suffering is brought about by the grace filled power of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit.” (The oldest students will want to ponder the entire quote, found here: https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/st-nikolai-velimirovich-only-the-foolish-think-that-suffering-is-evil/.) Talk together about how this perspective can (and should!) change our opinion of suffering.
With older students, you may want to follow up with a discussion of this related quote: https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/st-nikolai-velimirovich-blessed-is-the-man-who-uses-his-sufferings-knowing-that-all-suffering-in-this-brief-life-is-loosed-on-men-by-god-in-his-love/
Print these quotes from St. Nikolai Velimirovich. Cut them into individual quotes and place them all in a basket. Invite older students to pull them one at a time from the basket and discuss them: https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/category/sayings-from-saints-elders-and-fathers/st-nikolai-velimirovich/page/5/