Bearing Much Fruit: A Review of Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney by the Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood
In 1904, a Syrian immigrant – newly widowed, deeply grieving, and struggling to raise his four young children alone on his rural Nebraska homestead – became “the first man to be ordained [an Orthodox priest] by the first Orthodox bishop consecrated in the Western Hemisphere [Saint Raphael of Brooklyn]” (p. 5). That man - Fr. Nicola Yanney – had already endured a harrowing immigration to the United States from the small village of Fi’eh al-Koura, located in modern Lebanon. Struggling as many of his fellow Christian Syrians did under the rule of the Turks, Fr. Yanney sought a better life in America and endured weeks of wretched, sickly travel to pass through ubiquitous Ellis Island in 1893 with his young bride. Eventually making his way to Nebraska, he obtained a homestead and a small “soddie” (a mud brick house), which served as the setting and source of a hardworking and faithful life with his young and growing family for a decade.
However, tragedy struck, and Fr. Nicola Yanney entered into a spiritual destiny that would result in the pouring out of his own life while he, in turn, poured life into thousands of others on the Great Plains.
What is the cost of faith in such a life? And more importantly, what is its reward?
So explores a new book from Ancient Faith Publishing: Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney by the Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood. This biography provides an engaging and emotional narrative of the life and ministry one of America’s most important Orthodox missionary priests whose labors helped form what we now know as the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. Written by the Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood, which researched, translated, and pieced together years of Fr. Yanney’s life (including his handwritten sacramental records he kept while traversing thousands of miles across the Midwest until his untimely death in 1918), Apostle to the Plains captures in inspiring and heartbreaking detail the choices, sacrifices, crosses, and ultimate legacy of a man, nearly forgotten, whose faith brought “the sacraments to Syrian immigrants who otherwise would [have] starve[d] spiritually” on the Great Plains (p. 269).
Reading this biography was deeply personal for me, for I attend and serve, as best I can, my own small parish on the plains. Families who either directly immigrated to the United States or are related to immigrant families also helped establish our small parish on the plains: St. Andrew Greek Orthodox Church. Through their faith, hard work, sacrifice, and vision, these early parishioners, set apart from their brethren on the South Plains and hungry for the spirituality of their homeland, helped form the church in which I would one day become Orthodox.
Without these faithful people – and the traveling and permanent priests who were willing to come to minister to them on the South Plains – Orthodoxy would not be alive right now in West Texas. I was humbly reminded as I read Apostle to the Plains that I, as an Orthodox Christian living in the American Southwest, am indebted to Fr. Nicola Yanney. “Father Nicola was responsible for baptizing almost one thousand souls,” writes the Brotherhood. “Through his constant missionary journeys across the plains, he ministered to many thousands more” (p. 266). Only God knows how the souls Fr. Yanney touched spread their faith and how these early channels of Orthodoxy in America lead to my own encounter with the Church.
This biography presents to a world of modern readers a man almost forgotten in time, but one to whom all Orthodox readers should be immensely grateful. To understand the impact of Fr. Yanney’s life and what his legacy means for Orthodox Christians living in America today means tracing not just my own church’s roots, but also the entire history of the Orthodox faith in America, including early priests, like Fr. Yanney, who sacrificed for others to the point of martyrdom. As this beautiful biography points out, Fr. Yanney was “a worthy model of the Christian life,” for he died as he lived: ministering to those around him. “Having loved his own,” Fr. Yanney, likewise, “loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
I highly, highly recommend this powerful book to anyone interested in Church history in America – in particular, those who live across the Great (and Southern) Plains – or who want to know more about the impact one man can make in so short a life. “Through the daily sacrifice of his priesthood, Father Nicola laid down his life for his friends in imitation of his Master. Truly, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit’ (John 12:24)” (p. 267).
Fr. Nicola Yanney – and the biography the Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood has produced in his honor – bears much fruit, indeed.
Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Fr. Nicola Yanney is available in print and eBook at Ancient Faith Publishing and Amazon. Thank you to Ancient Faith Publishing for providing an advanced copy for review.