Stefan Ustvolsky was a Russian Orthodox priest excommunicated from the Most Holy Synod in Saint Petersburg and pretend bishop in early Ukrainian Canadian history. He called himself Bishop Seraphim, Metropolitan of the Orthodox Russian Church for the whole of America and started the All-Russian Patriarchal Orthodox Church in 1903 in Winnipeg. His claim of consecration was backed by forged documentation and the church eventually fell apart around 1908.
On Mount Athos there existed and still exists a Russian enclave. What little is known about Ustvolsky’s life before his arrival in Canada, John Bodrug tells in his memoir: “On Athos, living out his life and fast approaching the grave, was the aged Patriarch Anphim. That Patriarch, like the other Patriarchs, disliked Russian Orthodoxy for the reason that in Russia the Tsars had abolished the Patriarchate and substituted themselves as heads of the Orthodox Church. In the monastery at Athos, there lived a Master of Theology, Father Stephen Ustvolsky, who had previously been a Court priest in St. Petersburg. When his wife deserted him to live with a Polish Colonel, Ustvolsky became a monk on Athos. The retired Anphim ordained this same Ustvolsky and sent him to America as Bishop in defiance of the Russian Synod.” :33
This story which Seraphim told upon arriving in Canada is compromised on a number of fronts. In the Orthodox Church, persons who are alive are normally not called "Holy," except for the patriarchs, in which case the word refers rather to their office and not the person. In fact, the then Patriarch of Constantinople was named Joachim, and there is no record of anyone named Anphim in Greece. Furthermore, a dispute between the Tsar and the Holy Synod over the church seems highly unlikely, since the Synod was practically a Russian government agency.
Now calling himself Bishop Seraphim, Ustvolsky left for the new world. He arrived in New York in 1902, where he stayed with Ukrainian priests briefly. Again, in Bodrug’s words: “Thus in 1902, Bishop Seraphim arrived unexpectedly from Athos to America. Our dissenters from Catholicism met Seraphim in New York, but found that Seraphim was a Russian patriot who recognized neither Ukraine nor Ukrainians. Disillusioned, they refused to accept him as their Archbishop and later all returned to their Irish Bishops, ‘repenting’ of their errors.”:33
"Due to various indiscretions and problems with alcohol" Seraphim quickly lost the trust of the intelligentsia who invited him to Winnipeg, and a coup took place in which they moved to get rid of him while not losing his congregation. It was decided that John Bodrug and John Negrich would infiltrate Seraphim’s church, as priests. They were already theology students at Manitoba College. Bodrug describes the moment: “Out of that meeting (with Cyril Genik) came the decision that Seraphim could continue as Seraphim, and we would accord him due respect, but, having once established leadership over his priests, we would undertake to preach not Orthodoxy, but Evangelical Christianity. As for the forms and traditions in the Church ritual, we would honour those which did not conflict with the spirit of Christ and the teaching of the Apostles. Within a week of that meeting, Negrich and I went to Winnipeg to see Seraphim. We found him at prayer in his modest room. Genik introduced us to Seraphim, and we turned out to be the first people able to converse with him in his native Russian, which we had learned as leaders of the Doukhobors. (The Principal of Manitoba College had released Bodrug and Negrich from February through May 1899 to help in settling 10,000 Doukhobor immigrants who had arrived from the Caucasus; they worked as interpreters for the Immigration authorities.) Seraphim blessed us using both hands (Bishop’s blessing), and invited us to sit down. He asked us exactly who we were, when we had arrived in Canada, and what schooling we had had. He questioned us as to whether we had the willingness and the call to become Orthodox priests. We told him that we were Protestants by conviction. He smiled and said: 'We will make fine Orthodox priests out of you. The Protestant Anglican Church is a daughter of the Orthodox Eastern Church.'”:37
Sometime later, Bodrug describes their ordination as priests: “Saturday morning, we accompanied Seraphim on a mission to Brokenhead, about fifty miles east of Winnipeg. The church was small, but a great many people had gathered there. During the service, Seraphim ordained us as priests.”:40 Seraphim knew the liturgy by heart, and did not even glance at the Missal. Though apparently Seraphim ordained priests indiscriminately for a fee, it was only so indiscriminate, as according to Bodrug’s account it was tougher for Bodrug and Negrich to get ordained by Seraphim than for them to be accepted as students of theology at Manitoba College.
Charismatic, Seraphim "...ordained some 50 priests and numerous deacons, many semi-illiterate, who carried out priestly duties throughout the settlements, preaching independent Orthodoxy and trustee ownership of church property. In two years this church claimed nearly 60,000 adherents…":xiii
Seraphim left for Russia to try to obtain funding for his thriving church. He returned to Winnipeg in the autumn of 1904, but brought no such funds with him. “Those who opposed the Holy Synod did not dare to support Seraphim in Canada. Seraphim did bring back photographs showing him celebrating the Bishop’s Mass, with the assistance of Father Ivan Kronshtadsky, a miracle-worker famous throughout Russia. Many other priests at the altar of the cathedral appeared in that photograph, and Seraphim was in the middle wearing a mitre on his head and with a crozier in his hand.”:81
Upon his return, Seraphim was astounded to learn that in his absence Bodrug and others had reorganized his church. He pronounced anathema on these priests and anyone who supported them. So began the split between Seraphim’s church and the new Independent Greek Church headed by Bodrug.
After Seraphim’s departure from Winnipeg, there are records in the Ukrainian Voice newspaper of him selling Bibles to railroad workers in British Columbia. But other versions (in Russian and Polish history) have him returning to Russia. Possibly, being a larger than life figure, people mistook someone else for Seraphim and only thought they saw him in British Columbia, and these are the reports that trickled back to Winnipeg.
The success of Ustvolsky's church led to the emergence of legitimate Ukrainian Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox churches to serve the needs of the Ukrainian pioneers. In 1912, Nykyta Budka was named the first Ukrainian Catholic bishop in Canada and in 1918, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada was formed.
- Bodrug, Ivan. Independent Orthodox Church: Memoirs Pertaining to the History of a Ukrainian Canadian Church in the Years 1903-1913, translators: Bodrug, Edward; Biddle, Lydia, Toronto, Ukrainian Research Foundation, 1982,
- Yereniuk, Roman, A Short Historical Outline of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, www.uocc.ca/pdf, page 9
- Bodrug, Ivan. Independent Orthodox Church: Memoirs Pertaining to the History of a Ukrainian Canadian Church in the Years 1903-1913, translators: Bodrug, Edward; Biddle, Lydia, Toronto, Ukrainian Research Foundation, 1982.
- Hryniuk, Stella. "Bishop Seraphim". Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
- Martynowych, Orest T., The Seraphimite, Independent Greek, Presbyterian and United Churches
- Yereniuk, Roman, A Short Historical Outline of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada
- The Formation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada
- Православная Церковь Всероссийского Патриаршества