In Memoriam: Fr. Alexander Warnecke

[Spring/Summer, 2002]

by Fr. Alexander Garklavs

   July 1, the Feast of SS Cosmas and Damian, will mark the first year anniversary of Fr. Alexander Warnecke’s falling asleep in the Lord. There is no question that his impact on the OCA and on the Diocese of New York and New Jersey were monumental. While it may be too early to attempt a full assessment of his life, we would like to offer a few reflections and recollections about the extraordinary man.

   Fr. Alexander was a gifted man, intelligent, with broad interests, and a remarkable sense of confidence. He was a genuine leader. While most of us are prone to more talk than action, he was a person who got things done. He was not afraid of making difficult and unpopular decisions. A man for whom the adjective "great" could be ascribed, he was respected from fear as much as from love. His accomplishments are almost legendary. There have been few, if any, priests in the history of the OCA, who have done as much in terms of institutional development (for example, St. Andrew’s Camp, St. Andrew’s School, SS. Cosmas and Damian Adult Home) or who had a greater scope of involvement (parish ministry, youth worker, seminary trustee, diocesan administration, pension board leader, adult home executive, etc.). Many people have benefited from these accomplishments, but we can also profit from coming to an understanding of the man.

   Fr. Alexander was of member of the "greatest generation." He was blessed with good parents and a good upbringing. During World War II he served in Europe in the US Air Force and, with his knowledge of Russian, became a translator in the Intelligence Department in the Office of Military Government. After the war he enrolled at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and Columbia University. He graduated, but in a sense he never left the seminary. He was immensely affected by the education he received and especially by the Dean, Fr. Georges Florovsky. (I recall serving a Presanctified Liturgy with Fr. Alexander and questioning him about a certain liturgical point. He replied that "this is the way Fr. Florovsky did it and this is the way I do it.") He was ordained priest in 1950 and for a short while worked as Fr. Florovsky’s assistant. Later he would be instrumental in the seminary’s relocation to Crestwood. He was a member of the seminary’s Finance Committee, chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee, and Corporate Secretary of the Board of Trustees. He devotion to St. Vladimir’s was not just an emotional attachment of a faithful alumnus. He believed that the seminary had given him a profound theological vision of Orthodox Christianity. As a student of Fr. Florovsky, and working together with seminary Deans, Frs. Schmemann, Meyendorff and Hopko, Fr. Alexander contributed much of his time, talent and financial support to make St. Vladimir’s Seminary a major influence in shaping the character of American Orthodoxy.

   In 1951 Fr. Alexander was assigned Pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Church, Syracuse, NY. He would remain there for the rest of his life. After but a few years in Syracuse he was instrumental in getting the entire church painted in a traditional Russian style by the famous iconographer Pimen Sofronov. The visual beauty of the church reflected the vibrant parish life that Fr. Alexander was responsible for creating. A unique person in many ways, he would develop a unique pastoral style, difficult to describe and impossible to imitate.

   But he did possess two qualities that are fundamental for pastors. He loved the Church and he loved people. His love for the Church was unwavering and uncompromising. As pastor he was faithful to Orthodox liturgical tradition (including attention to facets like the church choir and altar servers) and had a conservative but balanced sense about how liturgical life could be adjusted for contemporary use.

   He also had an appreciation for the social dimensions of parish life. Fr. Alexander genuinely liked people, whether they were young or old, sick or healthy, rich or poor. He worked especially hard in fostering creative programs that would expose young people to religious principles and Orthodox tradition. For youth work he spared no expense of time or money. His encouragement and nurturing of youth workers continued until his very last days. St. Andrew’s Camp, which Fr. Alexander was instrumental in founding in 1960, has produced hundreds of grateful alumni, many of whom are now active in the Church in various capacities. He did not overlook the needs of older people and was the driving force that made SS. Cosmas and Damian Adult Home in Staten Island, NY a reality.

   Fr. Alexander was very much a "people person," with a jovial way about him and a quick wit. Spending time with him, especially over a casual meal, you could not fail to appreciate his fascinating and engaging personality. He knew many Russian and Slavic aphorisms and could always think of an appropriate quote.

   For members of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, Fr. Alexander was a force to reckon with. During the many years of his tenure as Chancellor of the Diocese, his influence and direction were felt everywhere. Working together with ruling Diocesan hierarchs, and for the last twenty years or so with Archbishop Peter, Fr. Alexander had a comprehensive understanding about diocesan life. Astutely instinctive, he was a person of boundless energy and enthusiasm, who used his talents in efficient and creative ways. There was something truly evangelical about him. He was instrumental in several mission projects and was always open to fresh ideas in matters of outreach. For years he traveled once a week from Syracuse to the Metropolitan area for Diocesan business. Even during the last few years, when declining health began to take a toll on him, he kept moving, traveling, attending meetings, not standing still for too long. He was not always easy to work with, but he would get results from people. Depending on the occasion he could inspire, compliment, cajole, disagree or discipline. If he criticized you he did so to your face and not behind your back. Fr. Alexander asked a lot from others but was willing to roll up his sleeves to get work done and never gave less than 100% to a project that he was involved in. He had the ability to overlook his personal feelings in working for the larger good and could come to a sense of compromise and cooperation when necessary.

   The priesthood is a calling to a life of sacrifice, one way or another. There may have been a "golden age of theology" but for pastors it has always been the "time of the Cross." Today’s Orthodox pastor is a strange phenomenon: held to a double standard by his flock, always concerned about the spiritual and physical welfare of the parish community, challenged by temptations and loss of confidence, fighting the influences of secularism and materialism, all this and addressing the needs and concerns of his own family. He must be traditional but also contemporary, firm and yet merciful, loyal and obedient but creative and imaginative, all at the same time.

    This is the background on which Fr. Alexander Warnecke’s life and work has to be considered. In a half-joking way Fr. Alexander often used to say, "It’s hard to be humble." In fact, this is a profound truth. It is hard to be humble today, but it is an essential pastoral quality. Arrogance is the pervasive characteristic of our times and all good Christians struggle mightily against it. Perhaps it was not obvious to all, but Fr. Alexander struggled to maintain humility by never-ceasing to fulfill what he believed was his God-given vocation. He was a tireless worker and thoroughly committed to making the light of Orthodox Christianity shine as brightly as possible in the place and time where he lived. Following the lesson of the parable of the talents, he did not bury his gifts but used and developed them, fulfilling God’s word and will. "As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God; whoever renders service, as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies; in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 4.11).

    The faithful steward of God, the Protopresbyter Alexander, has gone now to his eternal reward. May Our Lord Jesus Christ remember him in His heavenly Kingdom and may He enable us also to recall Fr. Alexander’s many great virtues, and adopt and use them for the glory of His holy Orthodox Church.

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