Father Valery Lukianov: Engineer-Priest Who Built His Russian Orthodox Cathedral
Father Valery Lukianov ’55CE is most likely the only priest ever to engineer and build his own cathedral. Decades before building his church, however, the Shanghai-born Russian Orthodox priest began an immigrant’s journey that took him halfway around the world.
His father, after fighting in the Russian Army during World War I, served with the anti-communist White Army, which was defeated during the Russian Civil War (1917-1922). His parents and other White Army survivors fled Russia and were given refuge in Shanghai. After high school, Valery began engineering studies in Shanghai at Universite l’Aurore. One year later he was hired as a civilian motor-pool dispatcher by the U.S. Navy in Shanghai.
“In 1948, when China was being taken over by communist forces, my parents immigrated to the United States to join my sister and settle in New York,” Father Lukianov said. “I was twenty-one, an adult, and there were no openings in the U.S. immigration quota for people born in China. So I was evacuated to the Philippines, just before Shanghai fell.” In 1950, he finally arrived in the U.S. to join his parents and sister. Six months later he was drafted and served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – in statistics at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and in cartography at an American Army base in Orleans, France.
In 1955, after resuming studies at Poly on the recommendation of a relative and graduating cum laude, he began his professional life as a designer of oil-refinery structures. Later, he earned his professional engineering license and was hired by a Long Island company that designed public and commercial buildings – experience that would serve him well later.
Continuing to work as an engineer – and inspired by his devoutly religious parents – he entered the diaconate in 1963 and was ordained a priest in 1967. Preferring to keep his ordination a private matter, he continued working as an engineer for almost two years, until 1968, when he was assigned to become rector of St. Alexander Nevsky Church in Howell, New Jersey. There, he and his wife, Irene, raised their five sons.
Father Lukianov meshed engineering with his religious life when he began to build a larger church for his growing parish. Ground was broken in 1989. To stay within budget, he undertook the engineering and construction himself. “Frankly, it was a great risk,” he said. “I had been involved in the design of large structures, but I lacked deep field experience… I could never have done it by just being daring. I believe God put my faith to the test. We faced immense difficulties. But it was joyous to see the edifice take shape, and with God’s help we completed it soundly and meticulously. In 1997, after we installed 12 bronze bells from Holland, frescoes and carved, gilded ornamentation, the cathedral was consecrated in a sumptuous ceremony with seven bishops and dozens of priests officiating.”
Father Lukianov has published a six-volume collection of spiritual, historical and liturgical works in Russian and English. His best-known book, Lantern of Grace, chronicles the canonization of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco (1896–1966), a noted Eastern Orthodox ascetic, a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.
From campus days, Father Lukianov holds an indelible memory, a bit of advice from a history professor that seems to have informed his own life. “He told our class, ‘Remember, you did not come here to learn how to become rich. You came here to acquire knowledge needed to make life better and to help others.”