Holy Tradition teaches us that the first pilgrim to the Holy Sites, where Our Lord Jesus Christ was born, taught, performed His many and great miracles, suffered, was buried, arose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, was His Most Holy Mother, the Virgin Mary. Throughout the ages Christian hearts strived to follow Her example.
The people of Russia, soon after their conversion to Christianity, began performing pilgrimages. We know of Abbot Daniel, who visited Jerusalem in the XII century and lit a candle for the Land of Russia. By the eighteen hundreds the annual number of Russian pilgrims reached into the thousands.
In 1847 the first Russian Ecclesiastical Mission was sent to Jerusalem. It was headed by the learned Archimandrite Porphyrius (Ouspensky, who later became a bishop). This Mission did not enjoy recognition from the Turkish government and was a private venture of the Russian Church.
Archimandrite Porphyrius and his partners (among them - Hieromonk Theophan, the future bishop-recluse) settled at the Monastery of the Archangels in the Old City. Their goals were: scientific research, the question of arranging pilgrimages, and to acquaint themselves with the local church situation. Unfortunately, their work was interrupted by the Crimean War and the Mission had to return to Russia.
After the war, emperor Alexander II became concerned about the Russian pilgrims in the Holy Land. Russia, at this time, had neither a consulate, nor any other institution, such as the future Orthodox Palestine Society, to protect or provide assistance to the Russian traveller.
In 1857 the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem was officially inaugurated, this time with recognition from the Sultan of Turkey. Its purpose was to offer Russian pilgrims spiritual supervision, provide assistance, and sponsor charitable and educational work among the Orthodox Arab population of Palestine and Syria.
The Mission also served as the representative of the Russian Church to the Mother of all Churches - the Church of Jerusalem.
The Mission arrived in Jerusalem on 31 January, 1858, and, again, settled at the Monastery of the Archangels. Its chief was the talented Bishop Cyrill of Melitopol. He was succeeded by Archimandrite Leonid (Kavelin), under whose tenure, in 1870 the Mission moved from the Monastery of the Archangels to its own property, known as the Russian Compound.
Archimandrite Leonid was followed by the famous Archimandrite Antonin (Kapustin). The latter's name is synonymous with the Mission. Almost everything that the Russian Church acquired or built at one time or another in the Holy Land is connected with his name. May his memory be eternal!
To list just but a few of Father Antonin's achievements: purchases of lands in Hebron with the Oak of Mambre, the summit of Mount of Olives, property in Jaffa with the tomb of Tabitha, gardens in Jericho, the plot of land in Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the founding of the Convent at Ein-Karem - "the hill country",.. and more. Under his supervision, churches were built in Jaffa, the Mount of Olives, Ein-Karem and Gethsemane. He was also actively involved in the excavations that revealed the Threshold of Judgement Gate.
Father Antonin's work was continued by his successors, the archimandrites: Arseny, Raphael, Alexander and Leonid II (Sentsoff). The latter acquired lands in Bethany and Jenin, and laid the foundation of the church of the Forefathers in Hebron.
Unfortunately, World War I stopped everything. Archimandrite Leonid, together with the entire staff and priests of the Mission and the senior sisters of the convents, was expelled from Palestine. All the churches were closed. Turkish soldiers occupied the Russian Compound. The sisters who remained suffered bitter needs and oppression.
Only in 1919, when the British Mandate was established, was the personnel of the Mission able to return from Egypt. Churches were re-opened and services resumed.
Archimandrite Leonid passed away in 1918. Father Meletius, second in rank, took over. He would eventually be succeeded (between the two world wars) by Archimandrite Cyprian, Archimandrite Ieronym, Hieromonk Athanasios and Archimandrite Anthony (Sinkevich). Theirs was a time of big difficulties. The war and occupation by Turkish soldiers left the churches and buildings in dire need of repair, while the Mission's main source of support - Orthodox Russia - was lost. Nevertheless, during this period, a school for girls was opened in Bethany, the convent in Gethsemane came into being, and land was purchased on the banks of the Jordan River.
In 1920, when contact with Moscow was lost and Metropolitan Anthony organized the Highest Church Authority abroad (predecessor of the Synod of Bishops), the Mission immediately submitted itself under its jurisdiction.
Soon after, Archbishop Anastassy (later metropolitan and second primate of the Church Abroad) was sent to Jerusalem to help legalize the situation under the new conditions.
The War of 1948 and subsequent division of Palestine into Israel and Jordan, deprived the Mission of many holdings, mainly the Russian Compound with the Trinity Cathedral, the convent in Ein-Karem, property on Mount Carmel, the church of St Peter with the tomb of Tabitha in Jaffa, and Magdala - on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, all this going to the Moscow Patriarchate.
However, on a more cheerful note, the Mission was able to purchase the site where once stood the first lavra in the Holy Land - the Monastery of St Chariton in Wadi-Faran.
In 1951 Archimandrite Dimitry was assigned as chief. With the loss of the Russian Compound, the Mission headquarters and residence of the chief was moved, first to Gethsemane, then to Mount of Olives.
In 1958 the Mission solemnly celebrated its centennial. The Synod of Bishops delegated Archbishop Alexander of Germany to head the festivities.
During Father Dimitry's successor - Archimandrite Anthony II (Grabbe), the headquarters were transferred once again, this time to the Russian Excavations, near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Old City. Now they are back on Mount of Olives.
In the years between 1986 and 2001, at one time or another, the following served either as chiefs, acting chiefs, or temporary chiefs: Archpriest Valery Lukianov, Archpriest Vladimir Skalon, Archimandrite Alexis (Rosentool) - twice, Archimandrite Nicholas, Archimandrite Theodosius, Archimandrite Bartholomew, Igumen Alexej (von Byron) and Archimandrite Peter (Loukianoff). The current chief is Archimandrite Joasaph (McLellan).
During the decade of the 1990s, due to political pressures in place at the time, the Monastery of the Forefathers with the Oak of Mambre in Hebron, and both gardens in Jericho were taken by force, and administrative control of them was given to the Moscow Patriarchate. The changes in Church life that culminated in the reconciliation of the two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church leave us hopeful that these and other points of contention will be resolved in a spirit of brothery love, pastoral concern and mutual understanding. At present, the gardens in Jericho are jointly administered by the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission and by the Ecclesiastical Mission of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Today, the Mission rejoices in the ever-increasing numbers of Orthodox pilgrims from Russia, the Ukraine and other countries of the diaspora who visit our churches and holy sites. We continue to celebrate the divine services, commemorating all those who help us, support us, and ask for our unworthy prayers. We rejoice also in the vibrant life of our monastic communities and in bearing witness to the spiritual heritage of the Russian Orthodox Church, unbroken from Tsarist times, and in guarding the physical inheritance of Imperial Russia.