The future Archpriest John Lee was born John Samuel Lee in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. His family were farmers, on one side Scottish, the other Ukrainian. Although brought up as a Roman Catholic, Father John was familiar with the ways of the Eastern Church, whether Orthodox or Greek Catholic, and borders were often blurred. At school, he remembered being pulled out of the group of children being prepared for confirmation by one of the nuns who explained to him: ‘Not you – you’ve been done already!’ – he had been chrismated at the time of his baptism, and this was later ascertained to have been at the hands of an Orthodox priest.
After finishing school, the young John (known as ‘Sam’ to his family) entered a Catholic seminary and began to study for the priesthood. However, as he told Bishop Anthony some years later: ‘it was not God’s will’ that he should become a priest. In fact, he was deeply unsure about committing to a life of celibacy, and so left the seminary, being compelled to work to repay the debt for his years of study, board and lodging by teaching in Catholic schools in both North and South America, as well as Canada. During this period, he came more closely in contact with the Orthodox Church, rediscovering his roots. After a period of service in the navy, John emigrated to England, working first as a prep school master, before going on to study and qualify as a male nurse. Whilst working at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, he met Shanta Thomas, a nursing colleague, and they were soon married, going on to have two children, Nathan and Hannah.
At first, the Lees worshipped at the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (as it then was) in Emperor’s Gate, but after a short time, distressed by the attitude of some of the more narrow-minded converts who were active there at the time, John started visiting the Patriarchal Cathedral in Ennismore Gardens, where he became acquainted with Metropolitan Anthony. The two began to meet regularly and talk, and Bishop Anthony was able to convince John that God might well have ‘changed His mind’ about his suitability for the priesthood. After preparation including studies with Father Lev Gillet, John was ordained deacon and priest by Metropolitan Anthony in 1979. The bishop later told one longstanding couple in the parish that he felt he had found a man strong and dependable enough to succeed him as parish priest, totally straight-forward and contemporary in outlook.
For the next twenty-five years, until the death of Metropolitan Anthony, Father John committed himself to a life of faithful and uncompromising service as assistant to the bishop, as well as serving as his confessor, confidant, and all-round helper, serving in many ways as the classic ‘cell attendant’. It was Father John who nursed and cared for Bishop Anthony for much of the intensive period of his last illness, attending to him in his dying hours, as well as taking responsibility for his affairs as his legal next-of-kin.
It is, perhaps most of all, as an unfailing and loving parish priest and pastor that Father John will be both best remembered, and most sorely missed. At first, following his ordination, some parishioners were reluctant to accept a change to the status quo. As one parishioner told him: ‘No offence against you, John, but we have Father Anthony already and we don’t need another priest.’ In the years that followed, however, particularly during the long periods when Metropolitan Anthony was unwell, Father John came to be recognised as an indispensable part of life at the cathedral. He was a lively and deeply spiritual preacher, his carefully prepared, pithy but profound sermons and talks always seeming to hit the mark. He rapidly gained a reputation as a compassionate, prayerful yet challenging confessor, and it was as a spiritual father that he perhaps had the most lasting influence on many. Even when, in the last months of his life, he was too ill to celebrate the liturgy or come to church, the queue of those visiting him for confession and counsel remained a constant feature of his ministry. Father John’s work as a pastor was something that he meditated and prayed about on a deep level, finding inspiration in the figures of great saintly pastors and confessors of both east and west – from St Seraphim of Sarov and St Alexei Mechev to St Jean Vianney, the Curé d’Ars.
Father John’s impact was felt in the diocese beyond London through his work with the youth, and in particular as priest of the annual diocesan children’s camps. Here his lessons and celebration of the services, together with his thoroughly kind, firm but fair approach to discipline, his wisdom and uniquely honest way with words will make him an unforgettable figure to many who grew up through the church camps. His was, perhaps, the kind of presence that allowed a seed to be sown in the hearts of young people in the church, resilient enough to survive the turbulence of youth and grow secretly, in order to emerge and flourish sometimes years later.
Further afield, in the early 1990s Father John was given responsibility for instructing and preparing for reception into Orthodoxy a group of former Anglicans in Nottingham, led by their priest, David Gill. This he did, as ever, with faithful dedication, making long monthly visits for talks and services, eventually receiving the group, which was to become the Parish of St Aidan and St Chad, and supporting Father David in his own preparation for ordination as an Orthodox priest.
During the difficult years that followed the death of Metropolitan Anthony, Father John was an exemplary model of wisdom and diplomacy on the one hand, whilst on the other maintaining himself as the focus of unity for the community under his care. Never afraid to speak his mind, Father John’s blunt comments in parish meetings were often precisely what was needed to bring a reality check to frequently difficult and fractious occasions. His one chief concern was to keep together as one flock those who had been entrusted to his pastoral care – a true ‘good shepherd.’ It was this principle, ultimately, which was far more important to him than any questions relating to jurisdictional matters.
For the last fifteen years of his life, Father John dealt patiently and courageously with a deterioration in his state of health, suffering with serious and chronic heart and lung conditions. His determination to keep serving the needs of his flock compelled him to go on in spite of his physical condition, however, in a way that was an inspiration, when many other priests would simply have retired quietly.
Father John was, in many ways, a man of beautiful paradoxes. Outwardly conservative in manners, style of clerical dress and liturgical tastes, beneath the exterior he could be quite surprising in his sensitive and creative approach to pastoral problems, always characterised by a desire to lead the individual through freedom to the chance of salvation. Like his mentor, Bishop Anthony, Father John was extremely well read, not only in theological works but also in the great classics of literature, from which he drew inspiration for his daily life of service in the church. His own life’s journey and experience had been rich and varied, and equipped him with a great capacity for empathy and sensitivity to the needs of others, both material and spiritual. Often Father John himself would be the one calling to care physically for elderly parishioners, his background in nursing standing him in good stead for the task.
There are no complete records of church statistics for the period of Father John’s service as a priest, but the number of those whom he baptised, received into the church, married, anointed, accompanied to the end of their life and sent on to the journey beyond, would certainly extend to many hundreds, if not thousands. For each of these people, Father John was a priestly channel of God’s grace and love, sometimes, it is true, not without chastisement, and never in a sentimental or mawkish way, but always bringing to them a glimpse of the presence of Christ and assurance of His saving love.
May his memory be eternal, and his repose with the saints!