Saturday morning began with a thunderbolt: a dear fellow-priest from my diocese began his phone call to me early that morning with the words, “Did you hear about Fr. Alexander?” I had not heard about Fr. Alexander Pihach, but soon was informed that he had died suddenly and unexpectedly earlier that day. After travelling to Toronto from Saskatoon on his way to Moscow where he served as priest at the Representation Parish of St. Catherine’s, and arriving in Toronto very late, he had been picked up at the airport and was eating at the home of a fellow priest in Toronto when he suddenly collapsed afterward on his way to bed and died. He had been lately been given a clean bill of health after his cancer treatments, and was looking forward to many more years of fruitful ministry. He was 64.
I was not the only one who felt as if he had been struck by lightning. Fr. Alexander (or “Fr. Dennis” as he had been known for years) had served as Chancellor in the Canadian diocese for many years, and as Rector of parishes across the country. He was well-known, and even more well-loved.
I met him when I was still an Anglican priest investigating Orthodoxy. I had travelled three hours from northern Saskatchewan to the city of Saskatoon to observe the odd phenomenon of an Orthodox Liturgy being served in English. Dennis was a deacon at the parish there. I had many questions, most of them dumb. I also asked him, “What’s the deal about this ‘jurisdictions thing’?”. He and his priest exchanged a meaningful glance, and then Dennis answered, “The only place to talk about Orthodox jurisdictions is either on your knees or in a bar.” I didn’t understand it then, and could only later appreciate the combination of wit, wisdom, pragmatism and humour that characterized Dennis Pihach. It was a combination that would later help keep many people sane when he served as Chancellor for the diocese through some interesting years to come.
If I had to pick one phrase that described my friend of many years, it would be the phrase “holy pragmatism”. Fr. Dennis was above all things a holy pragmatist, determined not to die on any hill but the one chosen by God. He knew how to roll with the punches (and there were many punches), to find the one thing needful, to keep both his integrity and his sense of humour—no mean feat—and to share his wisdom and perspective with those who needed it most. He had the gift of friendship, of connecting with people very different from him in both point of view and temperament, and of enriching them by that gift. He had no time for pretentious unreality (what the world calls “BS”), and sat lightly on worldly honours. If Fr. Dennis/ Alexander thought that something was nonsensical or that a man was an idiot, the thing in question probably was nonsense, and the man probably was an idiot. He had a judgment and discernment that could be relied upon, and yet he despised no one. He saw the Church with all its flaws, and loved her just the same.
Fr. Dennis/ Alexander was a big man, and his big frame contained a big heart. Those of us who knew him well knew that we had a place somewhere in that heart. He would sometimes call me from Moscow (across heaven knows how many time zones) just to talk and connect and encourage. Alas for me and for us all: our phones may now ring many times, but he will never again be on the other end of the line. We are all the poorer for his passing, and will not soon see his like again. May his memory be eternal.