A Reflection: The Last Days of His Eminence, Metropolitan Nicholas
I realize that all of the Metropolitan's friends, clergy and faithful who loved and respected him could not be with him in his last days, but perhaps this recollection of those days will give you a sense of being with us through his final journey.
As many of you observed at the Metropolitan's 75th birthday celebration, he was in declining health. He had undergone chemotherapy treatments, but had finished them about 6 weeks before his party. He was weak but still hopeful, and he never complained about pain except in his knees. The Moleben Service at his birthday celebration was the last time he entered his Cathedral. He was not able to celebrate Services after that, although he was able to pray in his private chapel in his residence. And of course, his favorite prayer book was always next to his chair.
On March 3rd, fearing he might have pneumonia because of a nagging little cough, we took him to his personal physician and long-time friend of twenty-five years, Dr. David Johns, a primary care doctor. The doctor assured us there was no pneumonia, that the Bishop had clear lungs and good oxygen levels, BUT he told Bishop that his tests were not good; that the cancer doctor could not cure the cancer, and that he should try to get his affairs in order. The only dry eyes in that room were those of the Metropolitan. That was the first time any doctor gave such hopeless news. His days that followed brought more signs of weakness and loss of appetite. A wonderful man and friend of all of us, Giorgi Plakakis, stopped by the residence to see Bishop and saw that Father Frank was having great difficulty lifting and moving the Bishop. He went home, packed some clothes, and stayed at the Residence every night to help Father and then went to his job every morning. Giorgi truly is an angel. On Thursday, March 10th, Ann Melanie Yurcisin, daughter of the late Chancellor, Fr. John Yurcisin, called to see if she could come during her lunch hour to pay a visit to the Bishop since there were so many people around him after his party that she couldn't get to him. She had such a nice visit with the Bishop. George and Rosemarie Smisko were visiting and made us all lunch, and there was laughter and reminiscing. That night we had a nice dinner but Bishop ate very little. Bishop slept on his lift chair recliner in the kitchen that night because he felt more comfortable in it. By this point, he was no longer able to make it to his second floor bedroom suite, to his other comfortable chair, where he would pray and read. In his last days, amazingly he was reading the book, The Joy of Suffering.
After a restless night, he and Father talked at about 3 a.m. Bishop dozed off, and Father sat with him until 6:30. When Father tried to wake him to get him ready for the day, he could not get a response from the Bishop. Hospice sent a nurse, and arrangements were made for Bishop to be transported to Windber Hospice. Two of our grandchildren, Jonah and Xenia, joined me. Rosemary and George were also there. Father anointed Bishop and placed his stole over Bishop's head where it remained to the end on Sunday. We covered Bishop with a small quilted throw that he received for his birthday from the new Holy Cross Mission in Columbus, Oh. All of their parishioners had done a square to make up the quilt. We called the Seminary students together with Fr. Nik Ference to come to be with their Bishop until the transport arrived. Then the Chancery staff was called: Pani Betty Jean Baranik as well as Fr. John Baranik, Claire and Nancy. Our children left their jobs to come to be by their Bishop, and the rest of our grandchildren joined us. Father John and Pani Marie Brancho were also called as they live up the street from the Bishop since retiring. While waiting for the transport, we played a liturgy CD, and when he was taken from the Bishop's Residence a CD of his dear Perth Amboy bells was played as he left. He would always make us listen to that bell CD every time he thought of it. The transport team wrapped Bishop in white blankets, including a white towel tightly around his head. It reminded me of the image we see on Lazarus Saturday. It was a beautiful last departure from the Bishop's Residence.
It was the "Deacons' Weekend" at the Seminary, and that also was a blessing. Seminarians and Diaconate students met Bishop at Hospice, and every hour, two more students would arrive to read the gospels in his suite. They read from 2:30 to 10:00 p.m. and started Saturday at 8:00 to 12:00 p.m. Different times during the day on Friday, whoever was in the room would start to sing his favorite church hymns – mostly in Slavonic – since we knew he loved it. It was a very beautiful thing. He was still unresponsive until about 9 p.m. Friday and at that time he started to open his eyes. Everyone was on their feet and we all started hymns again as well as talking to him. Fr. Deacon David Mastroberte led us in one of Bishop's favorite Christmas carols, "Koli Jasna Zvizda", but he only recalled one verse. The Bishop laughed and we cried (we were prepared the next day, as Fr. Miles Zdinak brought the music). He tried his hardest to speak to us but he was too weak. He was with us for 30 or 40 minutes, even receiving Communion from Fr. Miles, until his eyes closed again. At 10 p.m., Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Orthodox Diocese of Charleston, along with several others, visited the Metropolitan. Bishop had a calm night. On Saturday morning, Bishop Joseph Adamec, Bishop of the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese arrived. He said something to the Bishop, and it brought Bishop back to us for a few minutes. We were all on our feet singing again. Each time we sang, there were hymns from the Liturgy, hymns from Easter and Christmas, and folk songs. Archbishop Demetrios and Fr. Mark Arey arrived followed by Archbishop Antony of the Ukrainian Orthodox Diocese and Father Michael Rosco. Mother Christophora and Sister Barbara from the Monastery in Ellwood City visited also. They thanked him for all the support he has given them over the years. Many clergy and friends stopped in to see him, and again, it was all beautiful.
Last night was a restless night. His eyes were no longer opening and it was evident that there was a change. It was very peaceful in the room – we either sang or had soft liturgy music playing all day. About 2:45 p.m., Fr. Frank knew Bishop was getting weaker He put a blue and white epitrachil over the Bishop's head (it had been given to Fr. Robert Buczak by the Bishop). Father put on his epitrachil and proceeded to read the Prayer for one who is at the point of death". When he had completed the prayer, he layed the open book across the chest of the Bishop. At about 2:53 I told Father that the nurse was coming in at 3 o'clock to do vitals. He told me there would be no need. At 3:00, our beloved Metropolitan took his last breath with many friends and relatives by his side. Father then read the "Prayer at the parting of the soul", and we sang the Panachida.
No matter how sad it was to lose our Bishop, there is great joy in knowing that from Friday until today, there was so much love surrounding him. Everyone tried to make his last days as happy and prayerful as possible. It all came naturally – nothing planned – just spontaneous - anyone who wished to was welcome to spend time with His Eminence, often there were more than twenty people present with him in his hospital suite. We felt as well, the love and prayers of every member of our diocesan family who were spiritually present during these .
I know that every person who was present at some time during these three days will never forget the closeness that they felt in helping him pass from this life to the next in such an intimate, personal way. It was a pleasure and an honor to serve you, Bishop. Ispola eti Despota.
Pani Connie Miloro
Editor's Note: Pani Constance Miloro is the wife of Protopresbyter Frank P. Miloro, Diocesan Chancellor, and a member of the Diocesan Chancery Staff. Words cannot possibly express the gratitude and admiration of the clergy and the faithful of the Diocese for the humble and loving care the Miloro family have taken of our beloved Metropolitan both during his illness and throughout his years of Episcopacy.