Where Faith Is Alive
Maybe in this world there is not a single village that has two large monasteries, two saints, three bishops. And Lelić has all that. The sanctuary on the plateau called Velimirovića Luka is the endowment of Bishop Nicholas and his father Dragomir. It was consecrated in 1929, and until 1996 it was a parish church, then the Kaone Metochion, and since 2001 an independent monastery. Since 1991, the relics of the holy bishop Nicolas of Serbia have rested in his endowment

By: Bojana Nikolić
Photo: Aleksandar Ćosić, Bojana Nikolić

Lelić Monastery is located in the village of the same name, about ten kilometers south of Valjevo. It is a karst, hilly and mountainous village with many sinkholes, and few springs and running water. It is one of the few, if not the only one, which has two monasteries, two great sanctuaries, the mentioned Lelić and Ćelije, and three bishops ‒ Nikolas, his nephew Jovan and Artemije. It is also exceptional because St. Nicolas and Ava Justin, two pillars of modern Orthodoxy, lived in it and still rest there today.
This sanctuary was built on a gentle plateau called Velimirovića Luka. It is dedicated to St. Nicolas the Miracle-Maker, the most frequently celebrated Serbian baptismal name. Its greatest benefactors were the Holy Bishop Nikolas of Ohrid and Žiča and his father Dragomir. It is considered a place of worship of exceptional importance, since it houses the relics of Saint Nicolas, whose reliquary is located on the south side of the nave.
When we approach the monastery, we will come across a large, beautifully decorated memorial fountain on the right side. On the opposite side of the road, we will see a village house, offering a wonderful view of the monastery complex. In front of us is a church with a bell tower, residence and a massive fence around the monastery. In the church yard, next to the church, there is a residence. To the north, we see a spacious courtyard, where a summer residence is being built, and to the south – a cemetery, with the chapels of the Velimirović family (where Bishop Jovan rests), the Nedić family, as well as a memorial chapel dedicated to Lelić’s warriors and several neighboring villages killed in the liberation wars of Serbia (1912‒1918). West of the yard is a spacious and beautifully decorated residence for pilgrims. East of the altar we see Kata’s fountain, dedicated to Saint Nicolas. Kata was his mother.
There is a legend about the origin of this church, recorded in its annals. Svetozar Radosavljević, a resident of Lelić, said that on one occasion, while watching over cattle together with other children as a child, a certain Milan Radosavljević passed by them. He called the children and said: ”See that place. There will be a beautiful church there. I will not live to see it, and neither will many of you, but some of you will see.” Svetozar said that Milan died a long time ago, as well as many children he was playing with at the time, and that he was lucky to see what Uncle Milan prophesied. The idea of ​​building a church came from Nikolas Velimirović, then Bishop of Ohrid. During his visit to his hometown, he discussed this with the villagers, who very cordially agreed that Lelić also had his own church.


Bishop Nicolas (christened Nikola) was born on Tucindan, January 5, 1880. His father Dragomir was a village clerk and he decided which children from the village who would go to school. From the Velimirović family, he chose a boy whose father did not like it, so he commented: ”If it is so nice, why didn’t you enroll your Nick?” And so Nikolas was enrolled in the elementary school within the monastery of Ćelije, in his village. He was the best student. After graduating from junior high school in Valjevo, he enrolled in the seminary in Belgrade. After that, he was a teacher in the villages of the Valjevo region for a while. He studied at several faculties, in Switzerland, Germany, England and Russia.. He defended three doctoral theses, two in the field of theology (in Bern and Glasgow), one in philosophy (in Geneva). After returning to the country, he became a monk in 1909 in the monastery of Rakovica near Belgrade, where he was ordained to the rank of hierodeacon and hieromonk in the same year. He worked as a professor at the Theological Seminary ”St. Sava” in Belgrade. He spent some time in Russia on advance studies. During World War I, the Serbian government sent him on a diplomatic mission to England and the United States to mitigate the effects of anti-Serbian hostile propaganda. Immediately after the end of the war, he was elected bishop of Žiča in 1919, and the following year, at his own request, he was appointed bishop of Ohrid-Bitola diocese. Then he achieved significant results in working with the Devotionalist Movement. He was, and still is, considered a great thinker, preacher, one of the smartest and most spiritual Serbs.
Bishop Nicolas covered the costs of building the church with the bell tower and painting the interior. According to the testimony of the locals, he put out and mixed lime with them. The church was modeled after the design of the Church of St. John Kane in Ohrid, the endowment of Duke Grgur from 1361. It is a church with a central dome, resting on free-standing pillars (a developed type of inscribed cross). It was built of stone, whitewash and brick, and the exterior was grouted. The iconostasis, windows, doors and tables are made of walnut wood. The iconostasis with icons and frescoes was made by famous artists Krsto Nikolić and his son Rafailo from Lazarpolje, a place between Bitola and Debar. Models for frescoes were found in the monasteries of the then southern Serbia, and today’s Northern Macedonia, thus we recognize the influence of Byzantine art. The walls are painted in the al secco technique. The wall painting of the Lelić church is very skillfully executed. The standing figures of saints in the first row of the south wall of the nave and the church fathers from the altar are especially well painted. This group is joined by standing figures from the pillars.
These painters also had their shortcomings, such as those noticeable in some scenes of Christ’s suffering on the south wall, where knowledge of anatomy was visibly shown, but not skill in composing. While they insist on details on icons, even exaggerate in that, on frescoes the same painters give up details, pay more attention to the color and content of the painting, which in the end ”pleases the eye”.


In 1934, Bishop Nicolas was re-appointed bishop of Žiča, where he remained until the beginning of World War II. His national-cultural and Christian-educational work particularly came to the fore in that period. At the time of the Concordat crisis in 1937, he defended the Serbian Orthodox Church, fighting with both live and a written word. Immediately after entering Kraljevo, in April 1941, the Germans arrested Bishop Nicolas in Žiča Monastery and took him to the Ljubostinja monastery, where he remained until 1942. From there he was taken to Vojlovica Monastery near Pančevo, where he found Patriarch Gavrilo Dožić and his nephew Jovan. In September 1944, Patriarch and Bishop Nikolai were transferred to the infamous Dachau concentration camp. They were liberated by the Americans on May 8, 1945. He lived in Europe for a while, and then moved to the United States. He also taught at one Russian theological academy and several Orthodox seminaries, including the Serbian seminary ”Saint Sava” in Libertyville. He died in the Russian Monastery of St. Tikhon in Pennsylvania on 18 March 1956. According to his own wish, he was buried in the Monastery of St. Sava in Libertyville, next to the graves of King Peter II Karađorđjević, Jovan Dučić and others. He rested there until 30 April 1991, when his relics were transferred to Serbia.
The Yugoslav communist government waged an unprecedented campaign against Bishop Nicolas, which lasted until his death and even after. It pronounced him a traitor and collaborator of the occupiers. With the establishment of a multi-party system in the country in the 1990s, the bishop began to be spoken more freely about, as an ”unsurpassed spiritual person, religious philosopher, brilliant orator and Christian preacher, national conciliator and peacemaker, about his immortal work”. This opened the way for his relics to be transferred to Serbia, to his native Lelić, where, according to his will, he should rest in the endowment he built for himself during his lifetime. Although there was good will among both secular and ecclesiastical authorities, the only way the relics could be transferred was for one of the bishop’s closest relatives to submit a request privately. Nicolas’ nephew Tiosav Velimirović gladly agreed to that. As an orphan, Tiosav was educated by his uncle. As a student, Tiosav approached the Communists and joined the party Nicolas was not happy about that, but he still helped and bore with him. When his nephew became a judge, the communists told the bishop that he had not succeeded in convincing even his nephew to believe in God. During one meeting between the two of them, Tiosav made him very angry, to which Nicolas replied: ”You will not see me alive.” They had no idea that this was their last meeting. The bishop was soon arrested by the Germans. After all, decades later, Tiosav was particularly looking forward to the return of his uncle’s relics to Serbia and Lelić, seeing it as his farewell.


On 12 May 1991, the relics of Bishop Nicolas were solemnly welcomed in Lelić. This was taken very seriously. The Welcome Committee was formed and a rich program ”In honor of Nicolas” was organized. About 50,000 bishop’s admirers were present. There were about two hundred buses. The convoy of cars that accompanied the coffin was welcomed in Valjevo by the nuns of Ćelija Monastery. The road from Valjevo to Lelić was congested with people, buses and passenger cars. From the village cooperative home to the church, the monks carried the coffin in their hands accompanied by spiritual songs. The liturgy was served by Patriarch Pavle with numerous archbishops. Some of the most prominent and intelligent people of that time spoke about the bishop, such as academicians Nikola Milošević and Milorad Pavić, Bishop Lavrentije... Tiosav Velimirović was supposed to greet his uncle with a welcome speech on behalf of his relatives, but he passed away the night before his uncle’s return.
This sanctuary was a parish church until 1996, when it became the convent of Kaone Metochion, whose abbot was Milutin (Knežević), now late Bishop of Valjevo. In 2001, Lelić became an independent monastery, and its first abbot was now the late Archimandrite Avakum.
The current abbot, Father Georgije, welcomed us cordially and talked to us. He took us through the monastery complex and told us a lot of lesser-known data and interesting facts.
– A large number of pilgrims visit the monastery – Abbot Georgije told us. – They come both from the country and from abroad. We can see believers from all Orthodox countries, from Russia and former Soviet republics, Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanians... They met Bishop Nicolas of Serbia through his written works, which encouraged them to pay homage to his relics. School children also come, excursions... They are especially looking forward to the saint, their faces shine even more and differently than with adults.
Holy liturgies are held daily here. We ask Father Georgije about the miracles in Lelić, and he says:
– Where there is a living faith, there are miracles. With pure and firm faith, prayers are answered.


The Last Judgment
The biggest challenge for the painters in Lelić was the scene of the Last Judgment, which occupies the entire north wall. This scene is specific and rare in recent Serbian painting. In the central part, we notice the figure of Jesus Christ as the judge, sitting on the throne dressed as a bishop. The painters successfully created this scene, taking into account the large area of ​​the wall on which it was painted.


Although there was a great famine while the temple was being built, it was completed in just two years (1927‒1929). It was consecrated at the Day of Transfiguration in 1929 by Bishop Mihailo of Šabac and Valjevo, with the co-service of the founder, Bishop Nicolas, and eight priests. The list of guests was compiled and the protocol of the ceremony was personally designed by Bishop Nicolas. The king, several ministers, representatives of the local military and civilian authorities, all the hierarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church, numerous priests and monks, the Circle of Serbian Sisters, Christian communities and prominent individuals were invited.


Chapel to the Warriors
Southeast of the church, there is a memorial chapel created in memory of the soldiers from Lelić and the surrounding places who died in the Balkan and the First World War. It is built of stone, brick and whitewash. Funds for the chapel were provided by the families of the victims, as well as King Aleksandar I Karađorđević. It was consecrated in 1933 by Metropolitan Josif of Skopje. Since Bishop Nicolas thought that it was not appropriate to place a memorial plaque and the names of the founders on the frescoed church, the village teacher Branimir Popović came up with the idea to erect a memorial chapel. On its western side is the dedication, and on the other three names and surnames of the fallen warriors. About forty meters south of the church, Bishop Jovan built a chapel in 1989 dedicated to his uncle Nicolas, in which he also rests himself.


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