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Sophie Koulomzin

By Jenny Haddad Mosher


Sophie Koulomzin (1904-2000), Eastern Orthodox Christian and Russian émigré, undertook foundational work in the development of formal Christian Education for Orthodox communities living in the West. Initially teaching church school, organizing camps and writing curriculum and books for displaced Russian children in Western Europe, Koulomzin continued her efforts on behalf of the pan-Orthodox community of the United States upon immigrating there with her family in 1948. One of the original organizers of the Orthodox Christian Education Commission (OCEC), she taught Christian Education at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary from 1956-1973. In addition to countless narrative retellings of biblical stories, saints' lives and church history accounts for children, and additional articles and lectures for adults, she authored Our church and our children (1975), which has since been translated from English into Romanian, Russian, Greek and Japanese.


Sophie Koulomzin (née Shidlovsky) was born in 1904 into an aristocratic Russian family, the second daughter and youngest of five children of Serge Shidlovsky (last Vice President of Czar Nicholas II's Duma) and Alexandra Andreevna Sabourov. Her autobiography (1980), Many worlds: A Russian life, begins with a chapter about her pre-revolution childhood entitled "The Happy Kingdom"; within the first few lines, she draws the reader into that bliss. Colder months were spent in a lavish Moscow apartment and the rest of the year on an extensive, new family estate: Voltchy, "the golden dream" (1980, p. 7). Her father impressed her as an entrepreneurial and engaged landowner, building the property up from a few fields and a thatched hut to a largely self-sufficient dominion of approximately sixty buildings. In addition to his political duties, he worked constantly to improve Voltchy and the lives of the people on and around it; for him "Voltchy was the core of our life, the object of our greatest loyalty and love, a love quite difficult to explain reasonably" (1980, p. 9). Her mother also took seriously the responsibilities of her station: overseeing the gardens and household; running a dispensary; arranging educational and vocational opportunities for local villagers, and responding to their various domestic needs; and managing the education of her own children. Koulomzin remembers her as "a very sensitive and emotionally intense person in her spiritual life. Her thinking was shaped both by our own background and the whole way of life of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as by Protestant piety of the Anglican type" (1980, p. 33).

Rigorous schooling was balanced with intense creative play for Koulomzin; her brother Iuri, kept from attending regular school due to illness, was her near constant companion in both. The intensive home school program they undertook included Russian, German, Latin, French, English, science, mathematics, history and geography. This heavy emphasis on language study would prove salvific for Koulomzin in the years to come, as she supported herself and her family with various secretarial and translation jobs across Europe and in the United States. "Evening prayers, Bible reading, and catechism with [her mother] replaced formal lessons in religious instruction" (1980, pp. 28-9). However, Koulomzin also notes the religious influence of her nurse Gania, a "sincere believing Christian" with whom Koulomzin could discuss "social conditions, religion, life"; indeed, it was her relationship with Gania that was Koulomzin's entrée to "class and social distinctions and the injustices involved in them" (1980, p. 16). Church was attended on Sunday mornings and confession engaged in but once a year during Holy Week, as was common practice for the time. The Church's liturgical cycle was a constant and grounding reality, with namesdays (observance of the feast of one's patron saint) looming larger than birthdays, and Holy Week and the celebration of Pascha (Easter) dominating the year. Koulomzin's fluid use of gospel stories, saints' lives, the poetry of church hymnography and prayer, even as a youth writing in her diary, testify to the deep and early impression made on her by the rich resources of the Russian Orthodox tradition.

Sadly, with the eruption of the Bolshevik revolution, the nurturing matrix of Koulomzin's childhood came to an abrupt end. However, the experiences that would shape her faith and, ultimately, her approach as a religious educator, were just beginning. Displaced from their former position in society, their beloved Voltchy gradually nationalized, severe deprivation set in for the family and, with it, increasing alienation from one another. Her eldest brothers lost in the war, her sister, father and Iuri journeying out of Russia as they were able, Koulomzin remained with her mother in Moscow until finally a chance to escape to Germany presented itself. By then, however, much damage had been done.

I know that both then and now there are many places in the world where people suffer far more from hunger than we did in Moscow in 1920. We were always hungry, we were undernourished, but we still had something to eat every day. That hungry winter became such a time of horror in my mind because the experience we went through really destroyed our family relationships, our family life. […] We hid our rations from each other and became suspicious. [[…] The break up of our family did not cause me any grief. Life had become too horrible. In a diary that I kept during that winter, I wrote on January 13, 1920: "The battle of this winter has cost a lot: my friendship with Iuri is destroyed, nothing remains of my love and respect for Father, home life has become a thing of horror that I almost hate. And my faith in God, what has remained of it? I suppose God exists somewhere and perhaps even watches us with pity, but I can't look at Him to find courage[… If only there was someone strong enough to help me[…" One tends to dramatize things at sixteen, but I think the feelings were real. (1980, pp. 51-3)

Finally, after a brief respite in Berlin, and with the help of American YMCA networks, Koulomzin, Iuri and their parents reunited in Estonia. Their time there, 1920-22, proved a challenging existence of inadequate housing, spotty employment and relief work among their fellow Russians. The latter, supported by the YMCA and various American diplomats, gave Koulomzin her initial taste of the YMCA's unique blend of American optimism and Protestant industry, an approach that she found both fascinating and baffling in its practical diagnosis of and assault on life's difficulties. Furthermore, YMCA patronage gave Koulomzin her first experiences teaching younger children Sunday School, being part of a youth group and of emerging independence. That independence, however, was not yet strong enough to allow her to accept, in the face of her father's failing health and her mother's possession of her as the youngest, an all-expenses-paid opportunity to travel to the United States to train as a YMCA secretary. Instead, Koulomzin continued to help support the family and passed her high school graduation exams in a flurry of concentrated study. The family's time in Estonia ended with the death of Koulomzin's father and Koulomzin's relocation to Berlin, with Iuri, to study at the university there on surprise YMCA scholarships.

Whilst the opportunity to continue formal education was a welcome gift, Koulomzin's studies in Berlin never found a strong direction; she explored history, philosophy and art history, but her course choice was dictated largely by her abilities (and limitations) in the German language. However, circumstances in the Russian community enabled this to be one of the most formative periods of her life.

In November 1922, in a moment of rather inexplicable liberalization of its policies, the Soviet government deported a group of eminent Russian philosophers and scientists: Nicholas Berdyaev, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, S.L. Frank, L.P. Karsavin, I.A. Ilyin, B.P. Vysheslavtzev, and a number of others. They were the elite of the Russian religious revival of the early twentieth century, most of them rediscovering Christianity, and more specifically Orthodoxy, after being deeply involved in the materialistic though of the earlier period. (1980, p. 105)

The arrival of these men and their ideas changed Koulomzin's life. Not only did she benefit from the various lectures they delivered on Orthodox Christianity and the more intimate discussions they hosted in the community, but she also came to be used as an interpreter by several of them in their interactions with YMCA officials. Thus she was present to their first explanations of Orthodoxy to Westerners. Participating in these critical attempts at translation, such as Berdyaev's statement to Sherwood Eddy that "Orthodoxy is the fulfillment, the perfection, of freedom in and through the fulfillment of communion, fellowship" (1980, p. 107), influenced Koulomzin's own work of distilling the essentials of Orthodox faith for Orthodox children raised in the West. Also pivotal for Koulomzin and others was a YMCA-sponsored conference, whose schedule the Orthodox participants took in hand and adjusted to better meet their own spiritual and ecclesial ethos.

Father Sergius Bulgakov proposed that each day begin with an early Divine Liturgy and end with Vespers. For some of the students such a participation in the liturgical life of the church was a completely new experience. Even for those who were already fully within the Orthodox tradition this experience of fellowship was enriching and vital. At the end of the week the conference became a retreat. Everyone went to confession and received communion. [[…] I believe that a large number of the people who attended those first conferences became deeply involved in church life and most of the Orthodox church leaders outside of Russian were to a certain extent its product. Personally I was deeply influenced and shaped by what I received there. (1980, pp. 109-110)

However, her time in Berlin was drawing to a close; economic shifts in Germany meant her scholarship no longer covered costs. Donating her own scholarship to Iuri so at least he would be able to complete his degree, Koulomzin relocated to Paris with her mother. There they settled into the burgeoning Russian émigré community and pieced together a living with poorly-paid language and correspondence school teaching. Eventually Koulomzin undertook more formal secretarial training, finally landing a stable job as a translator for a research center. However, the deeper engagement with Orthodox church life and thought she had experienced in Berlin called to her. She continued to be involved with the emerging Russian Student Christian Movement and the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, again used as an interpreter in their meetings. These circumstances convened in her favor when the YMCA, now looking to "give help in projects that the Russian Orthodox people could recognize as authentically valuable and relate to their own Christian experience," secured a grant from John D. Rockefeller which included a scholarship for a Russian Orthodox student with leadership ability to come to the United States and study American methods of social work, youth work, and religious education" (1980, p. 122). After consultation between YMCA officials and the Russian Orthodox hierarch in Paris, and much to the disappointment of her mother, Koulomzin was chosen and departed for a year in New York.

Enrolling in Columbia Teacher's College religious education program in the fall of 1926, Koulomzin wrote regular letters to her mother, cataloguing her new experiences. On October 1, she wrote of her first lecture, "Principles of Religious Education": "It seemed to me that I had arrived from a different planet, that what they call religion here has nothing in common with what we call religion" (1980, p. 127). Yet despite her sense of disorientation upon finding herself sifting through mainline liberal Protestant thought, studying under the likes of Harry E. Fosdick and George A. Coe, Koulomzin's letters display an open heart and mind to her new friends and teachers. The following extracts showcase both this openness and some of her own philosophical and religious priorities.

Next morning attended Chapel again. Fosdick spoke and spoke really well. What impressed me, though, was the beauty of the service, especially the singing. They have a beautiful choir that enters and leaves in procession and the closing hymn was beautiful, both the music and the meaning of the words-it might have been part of an Orthodox liturgy. So they do have this vision, they have experienced this, it must be alive somewhere in their depths, so we can come to understand each other. (1980, p. 127)

[Dr. Coe's] basic idea is that religious education is an education for freedom, for authenticity and for creativity, so he refuses to subscribe to any theology. In his class I feel rather like a Christian facing sixty hungry lions, because I think theology is not something you can simply discard. Much of the time in his class is spent in discussion and with my feeling that to remain silent is kind of cowardly, and my lack of qualifications to defend Christian theology, I face the lions rather nervously. (1980, p. 128)

In addition to the theological challenges, Koulomzin encountered political challenges, in the form of the alignment of many academics and YMCA officials with Marxism and the Soviet experiment. For someone whose entire existence had been demolished by these forces, Koulomzin was nonplussed and even angered by what she saw as their uncritical acceptance by older, distinguished men such as Sherwood Eddy and Jerome Davis. The drive to further unpack Orthodoxy as a Christian tradition and to provide contrasting evidence to a too rosy portrayal of Soviet Russia led Koulomzin to participate in various symposia and facilitate field trips for her new acquaintances, even welcoming Coe to a Saturday night vigil service at the Orthodox cathedral. Yet all this exposition ran parallel to her own learning endeavor, which, by the end of her year in New York, had coalesced into a full-blown, yet utterly unromantic, sense of vocation. Writing to her mother immediately before returning to France:

Even if for the rest of my life I have to pound away at typewriters in fifteen different offices, I know that I will always work with children and for children. Children are my vocation, I suppose. My head is bursting with ideas of all I want to do, and even of the books or at least a book I want to write, a book on church worship for children. After all this is not that impossible.

I also have another feeling or idea about my future work. I think I can never approach a job with a worked-out plan of all I want to do, however good it seems to me. I have first to learn to understand what is already being done, of how it is being done, of what the people who are already working feel and want to do. I have to become one of them, part of their work, and only when this becomes our common experience, when some of my conceited ideas have been knocked off, and I have learned to understand their ideas, only then can something new start growing. (1980, p. 148)

Once back in France in 1927, again sponsored by the YMCA, Koulomzin's task was to "build up the religious educational work of the Russian Student Christian Movement about émigré children" (1980, p. 149). As she recalled later:

My own understanding of my task was influenced by my training in America; I was convinced that it was more important to learn to understand a situation, see its needs, appreciate what was already being done by others, and only then begin to build up what would be an answer to a "felt need." In this way, I felt, the work would grow organically, would not become something imposed. I was also influenced by the years of my past secretarial experience: I believed in giving my work set hours daily, in keeping files and accounting in order, in making reports, and in answering letters without delay. (1980, p. 149)

What quickly emerged as the most pressing needs were updated catechetical materials and a means of dispersing them amongst the large émigré population in France. Koulomzin responded by drafting correspondence courses and new curriculum for Orthodox church schools and organizing summer camps. The camps, inspired in part by the Berlin conferences that Koulomzin had found so transformative, were an outgrowth of her belief that perhaps what émigré children needed most of all was to experience being Orthodox in a non-Orthodox culture. "We were conscious that what really mattered was not the information we gave, or the lessons we taught, but the life we lived, the corporate life of our school and our youth groups, and that our children had to be involved in this corporate life creatively, in their own way" (1980, p. 150). Consequently, the camps were run with heavy input by the children themselves, with liturgical services, chaplaincy and opportunities for confession and communion as much as a part of the fabric of the program as games and lessons. Koulomzin saw the physical care of the children as just as important as their catechism; with many émigré families struggling for the essentials, countless children arrived at camp undernourished. Supplying them with nutritious food was a priority. To support all this activity, Koulomzin solicited funds from the émigré community itself, to supplement the YMCA's contributions via the Student Christian Movement. At one point she engaged in this fundraising alongside Mrs. Elizabeth Skobtsova (later Mother, and now St. Maria Skobstova). Her work with the Student Christian Movement continued for almost seven years, with a brief, two-month interruption in 1930 to take courses at St. Christopher's College in England.

In 1931, Koulomzin married Nikita Koulomzin, a trained engineer whom she had known since their childhood in Russia. In 1933 they welcomed their first child, Elizabeth. Koulomzin continued to operate the summer camp program that year, infant daughter in arms; however, with the arrival of fall, the funding for her work evaporated in the wake of the Depression that had taken hold in the United States. Secretarial and translation work replaced her church work over the next several years as their family grew and they sustained the care of various relatives. Another daughter, Olga, arrived in 1934, and a third, Xenia in 1939.

What followed thereafter was approximately six years of war and occupation in France. Out of initial confusion and hurried preparation came ineffective resistance, bombing, surrender, and the persecution of the Jews. Divided loyalties surged through the émigré community as they wrestled with whether to support Germany against the Soviets. Throughout, Koulomzin and her husband followed employment and adequate lodging wherever they could find them, often enduring extended separations from one another and their children in order to keep the family (which included several elderly relatives) afloat. Koulomzin found herself forced to accept work as a translator for the German occupation forces for a time. Acquiring adequate fuel and food under the restrictions of war and occupation was a constant challenge. Barter and Nikita's creative engineering solutions for their homes filled the gaps left by inadequate income and lack of supplies. In 1943, the family left Paris and relocated to the village of La Séguiniere where, in a primitive cottage without electricity, plumbing, a stove or a toilet, they lived out the rest of the war in the company of their devout Roman Catholic neighbors. It was here that their final child, George, was born in 1944 and baptized by a visiting Orthodox priest.

Upon returning to Paris in 1945, the Koulomzins settled into more steady employment and the rebuilding of their family life and their children's health, supported by care packages from friends in the United States. Soon the World Council of Churches and the YMCA sponsored a part-time position for someone to work to meet the needs of the Russian Orthodox community in France; once again, the position was granted to Koulomzin. The result was the publication of a number of books, carefully designed to meet the needs of Orthodox children living in a post-World War Two Western world. Koulomzin felt the books "set a new standard for Russian religious educational books as regards language, objectivity, closeness to life" and prepared her for her "future activity in the United States on a much larger scale" (1980, p. 264).

Despite steady improvement in the situation in France, Koulomzin and her husband decided, with much prayer and consultation, to immigrate to the United States. Return to Russia, long hoped for, now seemed impossible and their place in French society tentative. Thus, in 1948 they sailed for New York and were received and settled into the Russian émigré community in and around Nyack, NY, with the help of the Tolstoy Foundation and old YMCA acquaintances. Steady employment emerged for them both, if with the challenge of continuing separation and difficult commutes. Eventually Koulomzin found a secretarial position with the National Council of Churches that allowed her a four day work week, leaving an entire day free for writing. By now she had been welcomed as a member of the Sunday School Committee of the Russian Orthodox Church in America and the free time was well spent translating into English some of the books she had helped publish in Paris.

While Koulomzin taught and worshipped in the Nyack parish under the Russian Church in Exile (now Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia/Moscow Patriarchate), she gradually found herself drawn into the life of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America, commonly referred to as the Metropolia (now Orthodox Church in America). This Orthodox body, made up of parishes established in earlier, more diverse waves of immigration, was made up of clergy and laity largely cut off from the struggles of the newer immigrants. Establishing Orthodox identity, especially via religious education, was a chief challenge for the Metropolia. By the 1950s, multiple generations of members had assimilated into American society, youth felt increasingly alienated by services in a language they could not understand (Slavonic) and the Protestant Sunday School model that had been adopted in parishes clashed with liturgical life in distressing ways.

In recognition of these needs, Fr. Georges Florovsky, Dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary (the Metropolia's seminary in New York, but an institution that increasingly served seminarians of diverse Orthodox jurisdictions), invited Koulomzin to give a lecture about CE at a clergy meeting. The address was extremely well received and Koulomzin was hired to teach a regular course in religious education. Thus began a relationship with the wider Orthodox community in the United States that would extend the rest of her life. Koulomzin taught at St. Vladimir's from 1956 to 1973, working with the notable theologians and scholars who had emigrated there from St. Sergius in Paris, including Florovsky, Fr. Alexander Schmemann (whom she had taught in religious education classes in Paris when he was only a boy) and Fr. John Meyendorff. Under their direction, her efforts in religious education became concretely pan-Orthodox. She realized that the disparate ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States would all benefit from a united approach to their religious education efforts, an approach that emphasized their common faith rather than their diverse national backgrounds.

Through connections made at her National Council of Churches job, Koulomzin secured the support of the NCC's division of Christian Education for a consultation on Christian education with representatives of Orthodox churches in America. Beginning in 1954, this group met to study all aspects of the issue, before convening a conference in 1956. At this conference, decisions were made to establish the Orthodox Christian Education Commission (OCEC), to publish a twice-yearly bulletin of articles on Christian Education in the Orthodox context and to work towards the publication of religious education materials to be used in all the different Orthodox jurisdictions. In 1957, Koulomzin left her last non-Church job to commit herself fully to the work of the OCEC. In 1959, the OCEC published a 135 page teacher-training manual; in 1962 came a 100 page, illustrated book for two years work with pre-school children. The same year saw the publication of the now out-of-print Lectures in Orthodox religious education, for which the Rev. Alexander Schmemann wrote this foreword:

In these LECTURES ON ORTHODOX RELIGIOUS EDUCATION the reader will find the substance of a course given each year by Mrs. Sophie Koulomzine at St. Vladimir's Seminary. We believe it proper to inaugurate our Orthodox Theological Library with this volume because it is our firm conviction that in the Orthodox Church in America nothing is more needed today than a clear formulation of religious teaching. In a few years children who now fill every week the church schools will constitute majorities in our parishes. And, thus, the future of Orthodoxy in this country depends on their understanding of their faith, on their readiness to confess and to live it in a world full of temptations and errors.

No one is better qualified to guide us in this responsible task than Mrs. Sophie Koulomzine. Her academic teaching is the fruit of a life-long experience in the field of religious education and her work during the last years as Executive Secretary of the Orthodox Christian Education Commission has won the admiration of those, who are privileged to be associated with her.

May this little book be of real help to all those-priests and teachers who fulfill the greatest of all Christian ministries, that of preparing men for the new life in Christ. (1962, p. 5)

Constance Tarasar soon joined the Commission and in 1965 she and Koulomzin began producing regular periodicals for children: Young Life, Upbeat and Concern. These were filled with stories from the Scriptures, the lives of saints and contemporary Orthodox Christians, all re-written for children, and reviews of secular books deemed fruitful, such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The lord of the rings. During this time Koulomzin also published books with the support of individual jurisdictions. By 1969, Koulomzin felt the Commission established enough to retire and write Our church and our children. At her retirement banquet, she was given a financial gift that would enable her to take a final, integrating trip to Russia in 1970. In the same year, St. Vladimir's Seminary awarded her the Degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. In 1980, she documented her return to Russia in the final chapter of her autobiography, Many worlds: A Russian life. In 1989, she translated an account of the experiences of Christians under the Soviets, Light in the darkness.

In the last decades of her life, her American endeavors flourishing under new leadership, Koulomzin focused her efforts on Russia and assisting a severely weakened but re-emerging Russian Orthodox Church. She became involved with the non-profit Religious Books for Russia (RBR), which worked to make religious books available in Russia, at first through smuggling and importation, then increasingly, with the loosening of restrictions, printing on-site. After the death of its founder Catherine Lvoff in 1991, Koulomzin assumed leadership of RBR until her own death in 2000. During this time, RBR published a number of new books by Koulomzin for use in Russia, including lives of the saints for children and children's catechism and prayer book. In 1999, Patriarch Alexis of the Russian Orthodox Church issued her the Order of St Olga for her many years of service to the Church.

Koulomzin died at age 96 on September 29, 2000. A New York Time obituary written by her granddaughter Sonia Kishkovsky appeared on October 4, 2000.

Contributions to Christian Education

Koulomzin's contribution to CE perhaps seems unremarkable by formal academic standards-stories from the Bible, saints' lives and church history re-written for children, the occasional book review, a now out-of-print textbook on Orthodox religious education, a handful of articles on the nature of the Orthodox CE challenge, a few church school manuals and only one freestanding monograph still in print, written in non-academic style. There were the years teaching in church school programs, at retreats and camps, at St. Vladimir's Seminary and the countless hours of editorial oversight of publications for individual Orthodox jurisdictions and the OCEC, and visits to dioceses to meet and train teachers, all of which left little published trace. Indeed, she herself often wondered at the value of her contribution, reflecting in her autobiography that the success of the OCEC was more a product of being in the right place at the right time, rather than her own brilliance:

What was so wonderful about this work? What inspired us? I think for all of us, it was a time of discovery. The people who gathered at the seminars and conferences discovered the meaning of Christianity, not simply as a set of old ethnic traditions and homey rituals inherited from their immigrant forefathers. They began to see suddenly the depth and breadth of life in the Church. For me it was the inspiring experience of coming in touch with growth in a church body, discerning "the growing edge" of the church. People's ears and eyes were open to hear and see as they had not done before. Of course, their appreciation of my personal work was often exaggerated. As a matter of fact I was an elderly woman, a housewife, a mother and grandmother, with no theological education, but bearing within me the heritage of a great Christian culture and of a great Orthodox revival, shaped by catastrophic historic events. I could speak to teachers and parents in our common, family-life kind of language, making our daily life experience part of our experience of life with God. My particular capacities happened to meet at the right moment the strong need of the people. The greatness of their need and of their receptivity conferred on me a dimension I did not really have. (1980, p. 301)

Indeed, the émigré Russian Orthodox community in France in the inter-war period and the emergent Orthodox Church in America in the mid-to-late twentieth century were irrepeatable crucibles; being in the right place at the right time was indeed an important element in Koulomzin's success. But being the right person-with the full depth of meaning that entails-was just as crucial. That "heritage of a great Christian culture" of which contemporary American religious educators knew almost nothing, that "great Orthodox revival" yet to be translated fully into English and that shaping "by catastrophic historic events", all met in a woman who loved and respected children of all ages, was well-experienced in their practical care, and who had an organized mind, an unafraid and industrious spirit, a disregard for public recognition and a grateful openness towards new contexts.

Koulomzin possessed incredible breadth of life experience: intimate knowledge of wealth and privilege, deprivation and oppression, of a supportive, loving family and the alienation and breakdown wrought by stress and suffering, of life in the heart of a fully engaged Orthodox community and life among non-Orthodox strangers. This deep well of experience equipped her with an unparalleled ability to discern between the essential realities of Orthodox Christian tradition and the trappings of cultural context. While recognizing and appreciating the richness of the Russian Orthodox tradition of her childhood in Tsarist Russia, she understood that, ultimately, the faith that preserves is that which we can carry into a foreign land and use there to rebuild our lives. This understanding made her contributions critically important and infinitely repeatable across the Orthodox diaspora. Further, while valuing the contributions of modern social sciences, Koulomzin identified the narratives of the scriptures and the lives of the saints as the locus of Orthodox faith, the liturgy as its embodiment, and family relationships as the field that could nourish its growth. Consequently, she chose to highlight and champion these elements in her writing and teaching, while still encouraging acquaintance with social science. This choice freed her work to be accessed by laity and clergy, academic and non-academic alike, in generations and cultures beyond her own.

There can be no question as to the crucial role Koulomzin's work played in the transition of Orthodox Christianity into modern, culturally diverse contexts. For Orthodox living in America, her intervention was truly critical. Her stories brought alive to Orthodox children, parents and teachers the rich sources and experiences of the Orthodox tradition in their newly-adopted languages, sources and experiences otherwise completely inaccessible in a society that knew absolutely nothing of them. Her books and instructive articles made significant efforts, for the first time ever, to bring together the valuable research of the burgeoning field of CE with a worldview the largely Protestant architects of the field did not understand. This synthesis bore incredible fruit at a decisive moment.

Exactly how Koulomzin's influence will continue to leaven Orthodox efforts in the United States is less clear, however. While institutional initiatives such as OCEC still exist, how directly her unique philosophical and educational contributions help steer them is uncertain. At this time, no formal archive of her work is preserved by either St. Vladimir's Seminary or the OCA. While both her autobiography and Our church and our children remain in print, no comprehensive biography or analysis of her work has been undertaken by an Orthodox scholar. Her influence in Russia, however, continues to grow as Religious Books for Russia distributes her works liberally.

Further, Our church and our children continues to be translated into new languages, taking on a new role in other countries. For this reason, Our church and our children must be considered Koulomzin's most concrete on-going contribution and a summary of its contents seems prudent.

Our church and our children:

I realize that the present book is not an academic work. In the main it is an attempt to set down my philosophy of Orthodox Christian education-the philosophy of a laywoman, a teacher, a mother, and a grandmother. I am extremely conscious of its inadequacy, of the lack of research and preliminary studies in its preparation. The importance of the subject deserves a much more thorough book, but there is one reason and, I believe, a very valid one for its publication: there is no book in existence dealing with the mission of our Church today to the children living in our society here and now. A very modest and incomplete beginning is better than no beginning at all. (1975, p. 9)

With this humble paragraph, Koulomzin launches the book that continues to be a seminal work on Orthodox Christian education in a non-Orthodox world. Written in English, but now translated into Russian, Romanian, Greek and Japanese, Our church and our children has provided fresh and relevant philosophical underpinnings for Christian Education not only in Orthodox communities in the West, but also for Orthodox communities in Russia and Romania facing the challenge of rebuilding themselves after decades of communist oppression and forced secularization. For all her apologies, perhaps it is precisely Koulomzin's freedom from academic constraints that make her book so valuable. Her willingness to articulate even that which she cannot theologically or educationally systematize results in a book filled with insights accessible to most laypeople.

The Introduction analyzes first the challenges faced by religious educators in general, as they work in a context in which the Christian worldview has broken down. Then she outlines the challenges faced by the Orthodox community in America in particular, as it moves away from being an immigrants' church and grows "through a difficult and demanding period, a process of gradually creating its own traditional patterns" (1975, p. 16). Further, Koulomzin identifies the legacy of false starts in Christian education that American Orthodoxy struggles to overcome: an early reliance on Protestant models of and resources for instruction that seriously undermined generations of laity's comprehension of their own tradition.

In Chapter I, "The Task of Christian Education," Koulomzin outlines five objectives she has discerned as critical to the task of Christian education: conveying a sense of the reality of God; sharing the experience of belonging to a Body; cultivating authentic individual growth; leading children to the recognition of Holy Mystery, of God as beyond human rationality; facilitating the realization that Christian faith encompasses the whole person and all of life.

In Chapter II, "Our Children," Koulomzin relies heavily on Piaget in describing the developmental realities of the following stages of childhood: infancy (ages 0 to 3); preschool (ages 3-6); middle childhood (ages 6 to 10); late childhood (ages 10 to 13); and adolescence (ages 13-16). In each case she expands the description with an examination of the role that developmental realities play in the specific context of the Orthodox family and parish. She makes numerous suggestions of which elements of Orthodox tradition feed the needs of particular stages.

In Chapter III, "Christian Education in the Family," she attempts to "gain a slightly better understanding of just what is the Christian growth that takes place in the family and what are the problems and educational tasks involved" (1975, p. 78). She examines love in family life, the husband and wife relationship, parental love, children's love of parents and siblings, the larger family, the family worldview, family discipline, worship in the home, celebration of feasts and the family's responsibility in Christian instruction.

In Chapter IV, "The Church School," she addresses the limited task of the church school; the objectives of church school teaching (defining them as growth in the knowledge of God, growth in the knowledge of the Church and growth in knowledge of self); what constitutes a lesson; criteria of church school instruction; and church school and the liturgical year.

In Chapter V, "The Teacher," she considers the teacher as a person; communicating with children; leading and working with a group; how much a teacher should know; teacher training; and a church school teacher's vocation.

The Appendix contains "Guidelines for preparing a Church School curriculum."

Our church and our children is a less thorough and systematic compilation of Koulomzin's thought than now-out-of-print Lectures in Orthodox religious education, published as the inaugural volume of St. Vladimir's Seminary's Orthodox Theological Library series in 1962. As a compilation of the lectures she delivered at St. Vladimir's for years, Lectures has more of a textbook feel, with the accompanying reality of out-of-date references. Our church and our children was obviously carefully crafted to avoid this dilemma, to become, at the outset, a classic.

The most stark difference between the two works is the place given over to the family as a means of Christian nurture. Lectures mentions the family only in passing; Our church and our children devotes whole sections to it. Clearly Koulomzin came to believe that the critical role of family relationships in faith development and CE needed to be articulated more clearly and formally, and not simply left to chance. This strand of thought is perhaps the one that Orthodox religious educators since Koulomzin have wrestled with most openly, with no clear resolution or consensus in sight. The turbulence afflicting family structures in the past several decades has hit Orthodox communities as well, with the additional complications found in immigrant communities. How Koulomzin's insights into the role of the family in faith formation might be useful in this new landscape has yet to be explored fully or systematically.

Works Cited

Koulomzin, S. (1962). Lectures in Orthodox religious education. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's

Koulomzin, S. (1980). Many worlds: A Russian life. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Koulomzin, S. (1975, 2004). Our church and our children. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.



  • Fudel, S., translated by Koulomzin, S. (1989). Light in the darkness. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
  • Koulomzin, S. & Tarasar, C. (1967). The Bible lives in the church. Nyack, NY: Orthodox Christian Education Commission. Koulomzin, S. (2009) Biserica si copii nostri. Bucharest: Sophia. [Romanian translation of Our church and our children.] Koulomzin, S. (1968, 1990). God is with us: Bible stories for children. Syosset, NY: Department of Religious Education, Orthodox Church in America. Koulomzin, S. (1968). Heroes for truth: The Orthodox Christian church through the ages, Part 1. Orthodox Christian Education Commission. Koulomzin, S. (1997). The law of God for the little ones. Moscow: Pilgrim. Koulomzin, S. (1962). Lectures in Orthodox religious education. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. Koulomzin, S. (1973). The little child in church: A manual for nursery and kindergarten. Nyack, NY: Orthodox Christian Education Commission. Koulomzin, S. (1980). Many worlds: A Russian life. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. Koulomzin, S. (2000). Miry za mirami. Moskva: Pravoslavnyi Sviato-Tikhonovskii bogoslovskii in-t. [Russian translation of Many worlds]. Koulomzin, S. (1993). Nasha tserkov'nashi deti. Moskva: Martis. [Russian translation of Our church and our children.] Koulomzin, S. (1956, 1963). The Orthodox Christian church through the ages. New York: Metropolitan Council Publications Committee. Koulomzin, S. (1989). To Orthodoxo vioma kai ta paidia mas. Athena: Ekdoseis "Akritas." [Greek translation of Our church and our children.] Koulomzin, S. (1975, 2004). Our church and our children. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. Koulomzin, S. & Tarasar, C. (1962). The pre-school child in the church: Teacher's manual for work in nursery department and kindergarten grades of Orthodox church schools. Reference incomplete. Koulomzin, S. (1998). Sacred history for children. Department of Religious Education and Catechism of the Moscow Patriarchate: Krutitsy. Koulomzin, S. (1994). Stories about the saints. Moscow: Pilgrim. Koulomzin, S. & Kesich, L. (1965, 1970). We learn to worship. Nyack, NY: Orthodox Christian Education Commission. Koulomzin, S. (1966, 1969). We live in God's world: Pupil's workbook. Nyack, NY: Orthodox Christian Education Commission. Koulomzin, S. (1963). We live in God's world: Teacher's manual. Nyack, NY: Orthodox Christian Education Commission. Koulomzin, S. (2000). Worlds in worlds: Memoirs of Russian emigrant. Moscow: St. Tikhon Orthodox Theological Institute.


  • Koulomzin, S. The Advent period in home life. OCEC News. Reference incomplete.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1972). Alaska. Young Life, 7, 5.
  • Koulomzin, S. Children and Christian education. OCA Resource Handbook of Lay Ministries. Retrieved November 15, 2001, from
  • Koulomzin, S. (1972). Days I remember: The Escape. Young Life, 7, 9-10.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1971). Days I remember: A new life begins. Young Life, 7, 1.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1970). Days I remember: A personal reminiscence. Young Life, 6, 1-2.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1971). Days I remember: 2. The lost children. Young Life, 6, 8.
  • Koulomzin, S. (2007). Education and growth. The Orthodox Church, 43, 4, 4, 31.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1972). A gift of singing. Young Life, 8, 4.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1973). Grandmother's cure. Young Life, 8, 8.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1974). Grandpa's saint. Young Life, 9, 5.
  • Koulomzin, S. Holy fools. On the Upbeat. Reference incomplete.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1973). In this sign, conquer!: The story of Constantine the great. Young Life, 8, 9-10.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1972). King of the garden. Young Life, 8, 5.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1970). Life of Father Dimitry Klepinin. Young Life. Reference incomplete.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1969). Mother Mary. On the Upbeat, 1, 12.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1969). My word and I. On the Upbeat, 2, 10.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1959). The Orthodox idea of Christian education. St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, 3, 4.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1971). Painters of the Holy Trinity. Young Life, 6, 6.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1972). Prince Vladimir's choice. Young Life, 8, 1–2.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1974). The prince who found happiness. Young Life, 10, 3.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1973). Remembering church feasts at home. Young Life, 9, 3.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1975). Saint Perpetua. Young Life, 10, 6.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1975). St. John of the ladder. Young Life, 10, 7.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1975). St. Mary of Egypt. Young Life, 10, 8.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1975). Sts. Peter and Paul. Young Life, 10, 9-10.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1974). St. Philaret the merciful. Young Life, 10, 4.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1975). St. Sava. Young Life, 10, 5.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1971). The story of a priest: Father Dimitri Klepinin. Young Life, 6, 4.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1974). The story of Mary. Young Life, 10, 1-3.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1973). Summertime adventure. Young Life, 9, 1-2.

Book Review

  • Koulomzin, S. (1969). The Lord of the rings. [Review of the book The lord of the rings]. Young Life, 1, 4.
  • Koulomzin, S. (1977). Solzhenitsyn's religion. [Review of the book The gulag archipelago]. Religious Education, 72, 1.

Other Materials

  • Casey, B. (1984). Sophie Koulomzin: an oral interview with Barbara Casey. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. [Cassette].

Writings About Koulomzin

  • Bezzerides, A.M. (2004). Foreword. In Koulomzin, S., Our church and our children (pp. ix-xxvi). Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
  • Forest, J. In Communion: Website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (n.d.). Learning to be Peacemakers: A History of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Retrieved November 15, 2011, from
  • (1969). Orthodox Christian Education Commission testimonial dinner in tribute to Sophie Koulomzin, Executive Secretary. [program booklet]
  • Kishkovsky, S. Sophie Koulomzin Dies at 96, Orthodox Christian Educator. (2000, October 4). The New York Times. Retrieved on November 15, 2011, from
  • (1998). Theodoropoulos, H.C. Lives of Notable Women-Sophie Shidlovsky Koulomzin: An Extraordinary Life. St. Nina Quarterly, 2, 2. Retrieved November 15, 2011, from
  • (2010). Vrame, A.C. An Overview of Orthodox Religious Education. International Handbook of the Religious, Moral and Spiritual Dimensions in Education. The Netherlands: Springer.

Excerpts from Publications

Koulomzin, S. (1975). Our church and our children. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. (pp. 24–25).

Religious education must involve growth. Growth means change. One grows from something one is into something one was not, and yet one continues to be the same person. Growth is a process that takes place within the individual: he grows in understanding, in strength, in intelligence, in feeling. When there is no growth there is stagnation. The whole art of education can be defined as 'stimulating growth,' This sounds trite, yet it is one of the most demanding and critical criteria to be applied to the educative process. To what extent does our lesson stimulate growth? To what extent does it stretch our student's capacities? To what extent does our teaching provoke an autonomous process of growth in the students' capacities?

Koulomzin, S. (1962). Lectures in Orthodox religious education. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. (p. 128).

Another basic principle in Orthodox curriculum planning is that it must be built not only around the process of instruction, but foresee progression in the child's liturgical experience. It is not enough to learn about the Divine Liturgy; it is an indispensable part of Orthodox Christian training to participate in the Divine Liturgy with a constantly growing and deepening understanding of it. It is indispensable for an Orthodox school to reflect in all the details of its program the rhythm of Church life, the feasts and the periods of penitence, the joys and sorrows of the body to which we belong. Our children should be taught the Christian meaning of life sanctified by the Sacraments, blessed by the many special services and since our Church proclaims that the Sacraments should not be refused to young children, we certainly cannot exclude these sacraments from our teaching. Our curriculum should also plan for the use of the audio-visual aspects of our church life in training our children: everything the child sees, hears, smells, touches, tastes in Church is a meaningful and important experience that must not be neglected.

Koulomzin, S. (1975). Our church and our children. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. (pp. 129-130).

In religious education we deal with the very core of human personality, the very core of life. Religious education means nurturing the growing human soul in its relationship to God and to fellow human beings. In dealing with these essentials, we must become penetrated by them ourselves. We must possess the religious knowledge we teach, and we must be possessed by the contents of this knowledge. You cannot teach children the story of the Resurrection unless you are filled with its meaning, unless the religious truth of this fact has become a part of you. Unless in your mind and heart you are there with Mary of Magdala, with John and Peter, unless you have experienced the breathless haste of Peter, unless you have said with Mary "Master…" you cannot convey to children the meaning of the Easter story. If you are a Christian educator, you constantly must be penetrated with the great facts of Christianity.

We can go through life as it the world were not created by God, as if Christ were not born, as if He did not die and did not rise from the dead. Our natures are lazy and unimaginative. Then, suddenly, we have to teach all this. We become the vehicles through which these events make their impact on a child's growing mind. It is indeed a stimulating experience to become a wire through which passes this powerful electric current. Once you have experienced this, you have found a real vocation and it holds you.

Koulomzin, S. (1980). Many worlds: A Russian life. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Koulomzin, S. (1975, 2004). Our church and our children . Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Author Information

Jenny Haddad Mosher

Jennifer Haddad Mosher has a ThM from St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary and is an independent scholar.