Russia native Father Valentin Iurochkin learns diocesan life in East Tennessee
By Gabrielle Nolan
The word “catholic” means “universal,” and one priest who exemplifies this universal faith is Father Valentin Iurochkin, IVE, the current parochial vicar at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga.
Father Iurochkin, 29, is a Russian citizen by birth who came to the United States as a priest after years of traveling and studying around the world.
“I’ve been to almost [all of] Europe. I’ve been to America. . . . I’ve been to South America . . . Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil,” he said. “Going to Asia, I’ve been to Russia, Japan, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. . . . I’ve been to the Philippines and Taiwan . . . yeah lots of countries. I’ve been to Africa also, but actually I was in the airport.”
From living and studying in multiple countries, Father Iurochkin is now fluent in five different languages: Russian, English, Italian, Spanish, and Mandarin.
But such a transitory lifestyle requires a certain detachment from the world, which Father Iurochkin learned at the young age of 6 when his parents left Russia for the United States, and he remained behind with his grandparents to raise him. Today, his parents reside in Detroit.
“It wasn’t a challenge for me to go to a different country, to learn a new language,” he said. “Maybe because I wasn’t that attached to my family, that’s why it helped me to be . . . just, OK, I have to go to study.”
In 2010, an opportunity arose for him to join his family in the United States on a green card, but Father Iurochkin turned it down to focus on his faith and instead he joined a religious community called the Institute of the Incarnate Word.
“I did prioritize my faith over my personal sentiments or feelings,” he said. “I said to myself, I will be going to the seminary and finish it; I’ll serve God and afterwards maybe, if He wants, I’ll go to America, you never know. Here I am.”
“I went to visit my family several times during the past 10 years, but, yeah, I never had this struggle to not be with my family,” Father Iurochkin said. “It helps me to be more detached maybe, which doesn’t mean that I don’t love them. I love them a lot, but it helps me to also feel free to go away at any time.”
Father Iurochkin was not born into a Catholic family but discovered the faith as a young teenager searching for the truth.
“Our schools had told us all the heresies about the Catholic Church. . . . So I wanted to know whether it’s true or not, so I started to learn it,” he said. “I found out it was all a big lie, what they were teaching in the schools for us in Russia about Catholics.”
A key influencer in Father Iurochkin’s life was Maryknoll missionary Father Joseph McCabe, an American priest who was working in Father Iurochkin’s hometown of Khabarovsk, Russia, and built a church there. Father McCabe spoke Russian well and taught the Catholic faith to Father Iurochkin.
“I came there and knew nothing about the Catholic Church, but I loved a lot of music, I loved the choir, so I joined a choir,” he said. “I wasn’t Catholic yet. So, I started singing in a choir, and maybe six months later I decided to be baptized.”
At age 14, he was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church. While that is a significant day for every Christian, something special happened to Father Iurochkin at his baptism.
“I already felt a vocation to the priesthood in the moment when I was baptized, so that’s a pretty cool, unique experience,” he said. “So four years later I entered the seminary.”
After being sent to Tajikistan for a year of pre-seminary discernment, Father Iurochkin studied at the Cardinal Barbarigo Seminary in Italy, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
He was sent to Ukraine for one year to serve as an assistant in the minor seminary, and during this time was the war between Russia and Ukraine.
“I was compelled to learn Ukrainian because they didn’t like Russians,” Father Iurochkin said. “I think one time, one guy insulted me . . . but I spoke in Russian and he started to say bad words.”
“So many different experiences, I mean it’s just incredible; you meet so many people, I mean you’re passing through this unique experience for the Ukrainian War,” he said. “Scary about the war in Ukraine, it really did shape my personality, I think.”
Following his time in Ukraine, Father Iurochkin returned to Italy and began his theology studies.
Also during his seminary years, he was sent to Argentina for Spanish classes and to the Philippines to study Mandarin and English. It was the hope of his general superior that he would become a missionary priest to China.
“I went to the University of Taipei; several times I went to Taiwan,” Father Iurochkin said. “I already knew like 2,000, maybe, characters to write them and to speak. I knew how to almost say the whole Mass in Chinese, so I was pretty advanced already.”
Father Iurochkin was ordained to the priesthood on March 25, 2019, at the Cathedral of St. Sebastian in the Philippines.
“[It] was difficult sometimes in the seminary, but I was really glad that I survived,” he laughed.
“I made it, and thanks be to God . . . thanks to the support of the priest from Maryknoll who was coming to the Philippines, he was also working in Hong Kong, but he came several times to visit me,” Father Iurochkin said. “He came straight to the seminary, and he encouraged me to continue, so that was really something beautiful.”
Unfortunately, religious persecutions in China worsened, and the Catholic Church went underground, putting an end to Father Iurochkin’s missionary training to serve there. Instead, he began his priestly ministry back in Tajikistan.
Months later, Father Iurochkin was traveling to the United States on summer vacation and received an invitation from Father Jesús Guerrero to visit the Diocese of Knoxville.
It was years earlier, shortly after his baptism, that Father Iurochkin met and befriended Father Guerrero, a priest of the diocese who was abroad studying the Russian language.
This connection proved to be life-changing when Father Iurochkin came to Knoxville and met Bishop Richard F. Stika and attended the Convocation of Priests in Chattanooga.
“I’d never had an experience of diocesan life before,” Father Iurochkin said. “First of all, the bishop, Bishop Richard, he received me so nicely—for the guy who was just ordained, he just accepted me.”
Upon returning to Italy, Father Iurochkin petitioned to serve in the Diocese of Knoxville, which Pope Francis approved by the end of the summer. He arrived in Knoxville at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus with his visa in November 2019.
“[Bishop Stika] knew that my family was here [in the States], so that also maybe opened the door for him to let me join the diocese, but besides all of that, just was very kind, like a father, so that’s helped me a lot,” Father Iurochkin explained.
Before beginning his ministry, however, Father Iurochkin’s first order of business was to obtain a driver’s license.
“Bishop told me you have to get your license, because I didn’t know how to drive,” Father Iurochkin said.
“It was so funny because when I was there, Bishop Stika himself, he came several times to me, he told me, ‘Well, would you like me to drive with you?’ And I told him no, no, please don’t do a thing about that . . . It was so funny,” he said laughing.
After successfully passing his driver’s exam, Father Iurochkin arrived for his assignment at the basilica in Chattanooga on Dec. 30, 2019.
“When I got just here, it was difficult a little bit, because . . . the parish is working already, right. So just coming to a new place you have to get used to it,” he said. “I am not the extrovert guy . . . it’s helping me a lot to know the people and know that I have to do it, and I’m getting used to it more and more, and it’s getting easier and easier.”
In his ministry at the basilica, Father Iurochkin wears many hats. He celebrates the Mass in English, Latin, and Spanish and assists the Spanish community with several liturgies. He also is the chaplain of the Newman Center on the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga campus and, most recently, of the apostolate Courage.
“The people, parishioners are really very nice to me. They also understand, you know, when you’re a young priest sometimes you make mistakes,” Father Iurochkin said. “It’s also helping me to try to imitate [Father David Carter] and to learn. Absolutely, he’s a mentor.”
Father Iurochkin’s passion for learning has him hoping to pursue another degree in the future, whether that be law, theology, or a new language.
“I love it. I’m glad if I’ll be able to place my strength, my abilities for the service of the people, so if Bishop decides that . . . I have to go to learn, for example, something so that I may be more dedicated to serve people of God, I’ll be happy to do it,” he said.
His other main passion and hobby is playing classical music on the piano, which he began to play at the age of 14 after joining the church choir in Russia.
“It’s charging me, you know, giving me energy, and I just love it,” Father Iurochkin said. “I want to express what I feel . . . so this is kind of helping me to my faith, absolutely.”
Father Iurochkin has already given three piano recitals at the basilica and has prepared for a fourth recital, which he is to perform Dec. 11 at the basilica.
“It’s bringing . . . not only me closer to God through the music I’m playing but also other people, and I hope that will be helpful also to their faith,” he said. “Music is one of the transcendentals, you know, which is something that is touching God himself.”
“I see it as a way to interact with the people, to let them know that it is not only Mass or prayer, it’s also entertainment,” he continued. “I’d like to give that talent I have at the service of the community.”
For information on the upcoming recital, view the event calendar on the basilica’s website at www.stspeterandpaulbasilica.com.