The 13th of December 2011, Feast of Saint Herman of Alaska [New Style], marks the 28th anniversary of the repose of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and a leading Orthodox theologian.
Born in 1921 in Estonia to a family of Russian emigrees, he spent his youth in France, where he received his secondary and university education. He also completed theological studies at the Institut de Théologie Orthodoxe Saint-Serge in Paris, which was then the center of Russian Orthodox scholarship following the turmoil of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
After his marriage to Juliana Orsorguine in 1945, he was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood in 1946, he taught Church History at Saint-Serge until 1951, when he was invited to join the faculty of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, at that time located in New York City. He was quickly recognized as a leading exponent of Orthodox liturgical theology, which sees the liturgical tradition of the Church as a major sign and expression of the Christian faith.
He received his doctorate on July 5, 1959 from St. Sergius, with his dissertation “Tserkovny Ustav: Opyt Vvedeniia v Liturgicheskoe Bogoslovie” ["The Church’s Ordo: Introduction to Liturgical Theology"]. He held honorary degrees from Butler University, General Theological Seminary, Lafayette College, Iona College, and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
Besides teaching at St. Vladimir’s, Fr. Alexander held positions as an adjunct professor at Columbia University, New York University, Union Seminary, and General Theological Seminary in New York, and he was a popular guest lecturer at many universities throughout the country. He was also active as a representative of the Orthodox Church in the ecumenical movement, and held positions in the Youth Department and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.
Dean of St. Vladimir’s from 1962 until his death in 1983, he was instrumental in educating a generation of Orthodox priests. During his tenure, the seminary achieved wide recognition as a center of Orthodox theological studies.
In 1970, he was active in the establishment of the Orthodox Church in America as an autocephalous church, which at that time became officially independent from the Russian Orthodox Church, and dedicated itself to the unity of Orthodox ethnic jurisdictions in this country.
While committed to the cause of an Orthodox Church that would be united and American in character, Fr. Alexander always remained concerned with the fate of believers in the Soviet Union. For 30 years, his sermons were broadcast in Russian on “Radio Liberty” and gained Fr. Alexander a broad following across the Soviet Union. Alexander Solzhenitzyn, who while still in the Soviet Union was one of his admirers, remained his friend after emigrating to the West.
Father Alexander published over a dozen books which received wide circulation, including For the Life of the World; Introduction to Liturgical Theology; Ultimate Questions; Church, World, Mission; and numerous articles and tracts. For the Life of the World, a popular volume on Christian faith as reflected in liturgy, has been translated into numerous languages and remains one of the most popular works on Christianity for the general public. He completed a major study on the Eucharist only weeks before his death.
May Fr. Alexander’s memory be eternal!