Saint Barnabas of Vetluga was born in Great Ustiug. Before going off into the wilderness he was a priest in one of the city churches. In 1417 the monk settled at one of the banks of the River Vetluga at Red Hill, where he labored in solitude for 28 years, “toiling for God in psalmody and prayer, he subsisted on grass and acorns.” In the words of the author of his Life, there came also to St Barnabas “wild animals, and many bears lived near his cell. He, however, walked among them, as though among cattle, watching after them and delighting with them; rejoicing in the great God that these beasts had become tame for him.”
There was not a single human habitation in the area of Red Hill as far off as 50 versts. Occasionally wilderness people would visit “for a blessing,” and he would predict to them that after his repose on the banks of the River Vetluga “God would multiply the human habitation, and upon the place of his dwelling monks would live.”
According to Tradition, in 1439, before he settled at the River Unzha, St Macarius (July 25) came there for instruction and guidance. St Barnabas died in old age on June 11, 1445. After the death of the ascetic, at the place of his efforts many monks came to dwell “from various lands” and “after them farmers” and “many people did spread all along this river all the way to the great River Volga.” At Red Hill the monks built two churches, one in honor of the Most Holy Trinity, and the other, over the grave of the monk, dedicated to St Nicholas the Wonderworker. They founded a cenobitic monastery, which received as its name “the Varnavinsk wilderness-monastery.” The Life of Saint Barnabas was written in 1639 by a monk of the Varnavinsk monastery, “the most venerable hieromonk Joseph (Dyadkin), who later, in the imperial city of Moscow, was in charge of the directory of book printing.” For the authentication and verification of the miracles, which occurred at the grave of the monk, in that same year of 1639 there was an uncovering of the holy relics under the direction of Patriarch Joasaph.
With the passing of time at the place of the Varnavinsk monastery there arose the district town Varnavin, and the chief church of the monastery became the cathedral church dedicated to the Holy Apostle Barnabas.