It was Novgorod the Great that nourished and formed the future hierarch-enlightener of Canada. Vanya (diminutive form of Ioann-John) Skorodumoff [in English, “Quick thinker”] was born on January 14, 1888, the son of a village priest. His mother died when he was six. At the age of ten his father brought him to Tikhvin, a town famous for its miraculous Icon of the Mother of God, and there he completed the seminary preparatory school, after which he entered Novgorod Seminary.
From his early years, asceticism entered the boy's life. The Church-centered life of Imperial Russia, with its abundance of monasteries, convents, hermitages and sketes in towns, on lakes and in forests, the wonderworking icons, the hermits unknown to the world, the wanderers and pilgrims, the religious processions with many choruses singing and hells ringing--all this left a deep impression on the young ascetic, At first it was almost game, Vanya and his elder brother would go fishing and stay overnight somewhere outdoors, lost in the warm summer night, talking and reading about the great ascetics of old and the lives of saints. On the way hack they would perform a "podvig" [spiritual struggle or exploit]-carrying a pail of fish on one shoulder without changing for miles, all the way home. At times their shoulders would be bleeding, and although such "podvig" was discouraged at home by the elder sister, who was something of a mother to them, still the boys would be elated for having endured suffering. They also walked some distance barefoot on the snow, unseen by anyone...
In 1908, having brilliantly completed the Seminary course, he entered the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, where he became the devoted disciple of its saintly Rector, Theophan, later Bishop of Poltava. Vladika Theophan (Bystroff) was an intensely learned theologian and a great expert in the Jesus Prayer; to him even the fate of the dead was somewhat revealed. Under his influence the young Skorodumoff was properly introduced to the art of arts, which he apparently practiced well, since for the rest of his life he was constantly in a joyful state, as if experiencing joy like that of Pascha. His graduating thesis was on "Monasticism according to St. John Chrysostom," and the Saint's influence shaped the spiritual personality of the future archpastor for life. On this Saint's day he was tonsured a monk, and 43 years later on the same day he died.
Not long before his graduation his Abba Theophan was transferred to Astrakhan, a large seaport at the mouth of the Volga River, and the faithful disciple, upon successfully graduating from the Academy, gathered all his meager means and undertook the trip down the Volga to his bishop. On the way his fears were quieted by a vision in a dream, which came true just as he had seen it. In monasticism he was given the name of the recently canonized St. Ioasaph of Belgorod.
At first he was sent to teach in a seminary in northern Russia, but soon he was transferred back to his Abba, now in Poltava, where he served as an army chaplain. After the end of the war he taught in Constantinople and at various seminaries in Yugoslavia. There he was known to serve Vespers and Matins daily, which he unfailingly continued to do for the rest of his long life.
A friend of his, a former strannik pilgrim who roamed many holy places of Old Russia, was now in Canada; he wrote from there that the schism of Metropolitan Platon in 1926 left no legitimate Orthodox clergy in Canada, yet the land was so reminiscent of Russia and was fertile for the seed of the word of God. "Do you want to come?" concluded the letter. "I do!" was the immediate response, even though he was quite aware of the hardships that this involved. It was only in 1930, however, that Archimandrite Ioasaph arrived in Montreal. In half a year he was made bishop for Canada. Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky tonsured him in Belgrade on October 12, 1930. Upon handing him the archpastoral staff he warned him of the nature of the Christianity he would meet in America: "You are going to people who have long lived in an understanding of things that has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity. Bring them the teaching of humility; accept this staff as a staff of benevolence and, blessing the people who now stand before you, think of the flock there, who already love you."
And it was precisely the wisdom of humility (smirennomudrie in Slavonic) that taught him to be an exemplary missionary in the post Christian era and preserved him pure in heart. "In my life," said he in his sermon upon being consecrated bishop, "two questions have especially occupied my attention. First: the exploration of the ways of God's mercy. I observed God's unutterable mercy first of all in richly-endowed nature, and explained it to myself that nature subordinates itself to inevitable natural laws. Then I began to observe human life; and even where free wall was leaning towards evil, I always found God's mercy. Then I decided to turn to that which is most sinful, most evil, and I turned to my inward life. It seemed that here there was no place for God' s mercy because there was nothing good in it; but even here I discovered God's mercy, and I remembered the words of the Psalmist:
Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence ?
If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there;.
If I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there.