St Herman of Alaska and the Kyivan Missionary Vision

Alaska was the final frontier of the vast expanse of the Tsarist Russian Empire.  Like Siberia, it was a place to which Kyivan missionaries were sent to introduce Orthodoxy and Christianize the native peoples.

The Ukrainian Choir of Siberian Missionary-Saints was, by the eighteenth century, quite impressive.  Among them were:  St John Maximovitch, Metropolitan of Siberia, who translated the Divine Liturgy into Chinese;  St Paul Koniuskevich, Metropolitan of Tobilsk and a poet and Kyivan academic;  St Innocent Kulchitsky, Bishop of Irkutsk;  St Sophronius Krystalsky, also of Irkutsk; and St Theophilus Leschynsky, Apostle of Siberia who built more than 2500 Churches there;

Thanks to these, Orthodox Christianity had become sufficiently rooted among the Siberian peoples, so much so that the cult of some Siberian saints started to take hold back home in Ukraine and Russia. 

Such was the case with St Basil of Mangazea whose Icon is still in the Kyivan Church of St Volodymyr. 

When the monk, Herman, went to Alaska, he was going as a representative of a well-established missionary tradition that preached the Gospel while, at the same time, inculturated the message of Christ within the familiar context of the people being evangelized.

St Herman is said to have been of Ukrainian ancestry because of his Ukrainian “G” when he signed his name.  The Ukrainian alphabet had 33 letters, one more than the Russian.  While the Russian “G” always had a hard sound, the Ukrainian alphabet had a separate letter for it that looked like an upside down ‘L’ with an upward line on its tip.

This letter was forbidden in the Russian Empire.  It was one of those symbols that helped keep Ukrainian identity in tact and separate from that of their Great Russian brothers (they are “brothers” because the Ukrainians could CHOOSE their friends . . .).

St Herman stubbornly kept this tradition and so left us a testimony to his true cultural roots. 

However, what is an even greater witness to his belonging to the Kyivan Church is Herman’s missionary methods that he used for spreading the Gospel among the Aleutian and other peoples of Alaska.

When Roman Catholic missionaries move into the field of endeavour, they tend to start a “building campaign.”  They build churches, rectories, halls, hospitals and other things that can be and are useful to the people they are preaching to.

Orthodox missionaries, especially those of the Kyivan school, have a different approach, however.

Like the Apostles, they seek out someone who is sympathetic to them in a village or else take up residence somewhere near the people they have been sent to.  They begin serving the Divine Liturgy and the Horologion.  They thus establish a core nucleus of the Church from which they preach the Word of God.  It is thus God and His Presence among the people who ultimately draws them to Himself, from this perspective.

St Herman started out by building a hut for himself that was under ground, to protect him from the cold.  He established an outpost of the Thebaid on Kodiak and Spruce Islands.  He worked with the people to teach them useful crafts and gardening techniques.  He taught them literacy skills.  By his example, he proclaimed to them the redeeming message of Jesus Christ.  By his Orthodox devotion, he inculcated in them a love for the Church of Christ. 

St Herman didn’t believe that the legends of the Alaskan peoples needed to be “thrown out” so that they might become Christians.  As St Innocent of Alaska would also write later, those legends, such as the legend of how the Earth came into being, could be left alone, as could all those local traditions that did not contradict the Gospel.

Indeed, there is a fascinating story in the life of St Innocent about an Alaskan, John by name, who said he already knew all about the Holy Trinity and Christ.  When asked how he knew, he said that Three Men had been teaching him about these truths.

He was asked to introduce these Three Men to the missionaries, but that meeting, at the last minute, could not take place.  It is celebrated in Alaska iconographically with the Three Men portrayed as the Trinity Herself (again, “Trinity” in Slavonic is feminine)!

As a result of this Kyivan approach to missions, the Native Peoples of Alaska quickly adopted Orthodoxy as their “own” faith.

In 1815, when the Spanish took San Francisco from the Russians, a number of Orthodox Aleutians were taken into custody.

They were baptized at the hands of Roman Catholic priests.  Among their number was an Orthodox Aleutian named Peter and who had benefited from the missionary outreach begun by St Herman. 

Peter refused baptism, saying that he had already been baptized an Orthodox Christian.  He showed the Spaniards his Orthodox Cross that hung around his neck.

Told that he was a “schismatic,” Peter was then given over to the civil authorities and was martyred for his faith as the Protomartyr of the Aleutians and the first-fruits of the Alaska mission.

St Juvenal the Hieromartyr was clubbed to death by pagan Aleutians.  As they walked away, he got up and ran after them, preaching as he went.  They then set upon him again, and clubbed him, they thought, again to death.  As they walked way, they heard Juvenal following and preaching loudly again.  After a few more incidents like this, they began to realize that there was something going on here . . .   A white pillar marked the spot where St Juvenal’s body lay that night and for several nights to come.

St Jacob Netsvetov, son of a Russian civil servant and a Native woman, became the first Native Orthodox Priest in Alaska and the translator of the Scriptures and Service Books into several Native languages.

St Innocent Beniaminov, later Metropolitan of Moscow, took the name of St Innocent Kulchitsky as that of his missionary Patron.  He rode over the Alaskan tundra in a sled pulled by Samoyed huskies.  (The popular Siberian breed is named for the Siberian tribe “Samoyed” which means “to eat oneself” as they will eat weaker members of their own packs when they are very hungry).

St Innocent, the Enlightener of the Aleuts, drove with a Jewish doctor friend of his.  His friend could not believe the sacrifices Innocent was making for his faith.  Why did he do it, he asked him?  “For rewards in Heaven,” Innocent replied.  Soon after, his friend became an Orthodox Christian himself.

The Alaska mission also extended itself to Japan via St Herman and St Innocent.  When Nicholas Kassatkin was going to Japan, St Innocent asked him what books he was taking with him.  Nicholas showed him his Russian, Slavonic, German and French texts.  Innocent took them and threw them out the window, telling him to apply himself only to learning the Japanese language, which would prove difficult enough to him.  In fact, it took Nicholas seven years to master Japanese.

Innocent then asked his young friend what he would wear to Japan.  When told he would be wearing the cassock he had on him, Innocent frowned and told Nicholas he would not be respected.  He then made a silk cassock for him, replete with a beautiful silver Orthodox pectoral Cross.  After long years as a missionary, Nicholas Kassatkin was glorified as the Patron Saint of Japan and her Orthodox Church.

St Herman was of the Paisian school of Hesychasm and the Prayer of the Heart.  He was an Elder who blessed those that came to see him with his Cross and Scapular, since he wasn’t a Priest.  There is the story of the miraculous blessing of the waters on Epiphany by an Angel sent from Heaven, since there was no priest where Herman was.

St Herman’s motto was:  From this day, from this moment, let us love God above all else!”

St Herman’s efforts were crowned not only by the establishment of a strong native Orthodox Church in Alaska, but throughout North America where so many people are now becoming Orthodox.  Others are investigating Orthodoxy closely as a spiritual alternative to the aridity of cosmopolitan new ageism amid floundering western church attempts to be “relevant” to contemporary men and women.

That is the heritage of  Kyivan Christianity and her misionary vision whose principles St Herman applied in his work throughout his life.St Herman and All Saints of Alaska, pray unto God for us and for Orthodoxy in North America!

Source: Ukrainian Orthodoxy

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