Russian traders and explorers began to
emigrate to Alaska from Siberia in the first half of the 18th century.
Being of the Orthodox faith, Russians taught the natives, Christian
doctrine and the truth of their Orthodox Church.
They succeeded very well in their
missionary work, though it was new to them. Merchant Golikoff baptised a
group of Aleuts on Umnak Island in 1763 and little later, in 1774,
another Russian merchant and organizer of the Trading Company of Alaska-Shelikhoff
baptized 40 Aleuts on Kodiak Island. The other members of the Company
were also interested in bringing to Christianity the natives of Alaska.
The Orthodox Church in America traces
its origins to the arrival in Kodiak, Alaska of eight Orthodox
missionaries from the Valaam Monastery in the northern Karelia region of
Russia in 1794. The missionaries made a great impact on the native
Alaskan population and were responsible for bringing many to the
Orthodox Christian faith.
In 1794, the Tsarina fulfilled Grigorii
Shelikhov's pleas to establish an Orthodox mission in Alaska, and the
first formal Orthodox Christian Mission to America arrived on September
24, 1794, in Kodiak. This Mission consisted of eight Monks and two
Novices, together with ten Alaskan natives who had been taken to Russia
by Shelikov in 1786. Igumen Nazary spent several years selecting
proper personnel for the Alaskan Mission assuming great responsibility
in their proposed missionary work. Finally he was in a position to
appoint men for that mission, as follows:
1. Head of the Mission,
Archimandrite Joasaph (1761-1799), son of the Priest, graduated at
Yaradlov Theological Seminary, teaching four years in the preparatory
Theological School of Rostov, consecrated to monastic order in 1786 and
was ordained as Hieromonk in the Valaam Monastery in 1792.
2. Herman (1757-1837) monk of the
3. Joasaph (Kosma Evseyev), monk
of Valaam Monastery, friend of Monk Herman.
4. Hieromonk Makary (1750-1799),
hierodeacon (1783) and in 1793 transferred to Konev Monastery near
5. Hieromonk Yuvenaly (1761-1796)
Hovorukhn, son of the Laborer of Nerchnisk factory, Siberia, formerly
mining officer, monk of Valaam monastery in 1791, Hieromonk in 1793,
outstanding in his monastic life.
6. Hieromonk Aeanasy born in 1758
in Moscov, son of a peasant monk of Valaam in 1788.
7. Nectary Hierodeacon, son of a
merchant, monk of Sarov Monastery 1787 and transferred to Alexander
Nevsky Monastery in 1793 in Saint Petersburg.
8. Hierodeacon Stephen (Hovoronukhin),
brother of Hieromonk Yavenaly, mining officer, ordained in Irkutsk on
the way to Alaska.
The Valaam Mission was prepared for
Alaska by the direct order of Empress Catherine, in which she mentioned
that the head of the mission should have mitra (golden cap) on his head,
the distinction of Archmandrite high rank.
Metropolitan Gabriel prepared special
detailed instructions to him about missionary work among the pagans of
Alaska consisting of 34 points. Archmandrite Joasaph, head of the
mission had very good Theological education in Seminary and experience
in teaching of theological subjects in the theological preparatory
school with noted administrative ability.
The average age of the missionaries was
around forty years with Monk Herman with the longest experience in
monastic life, very loyal to Valaam Monastery and its superior Igumen
Nazary. Hieromonk Makary was a very energetic, fearless boatman
who explored the Kodiak coast in a small native boat after arrival.
Hieromonk Afanasy, son of a peasant,
had experience in gardening. Hieromonk Yuveraly was very modest
and keen observer and reasonable minded.
The Valaam Mission departed from Saint
Petersburg December 25th 1793 and arrived in Kodiak September 24th,
1794. There they built a church in the name of the Resurrection of
our Lord, and it was the first Orthodox church built in America.
This Mission discovered on Kodiak
Island hundreds of natives who had been taught the rudiments of the
Orthodox Faith, and had been baptized by laymen. Gregory Shelikov, one
of the founders of what was to become later the Russian-American
Company, had himself baptized about two hundred Aleuts on Kodiak Island.
The American Mission immediately began
the work of establishing the Church in Kodiak and the Islands and later
on the mainland of Alaska. Despite great difficulties, this Mission was
very successful, for virtually all the remaining natives of Kodiak
Island were baptized in just three years. During this period, one of the
missionaries, Hieromonk Juvenaly, was martyred at Lake Iliamna by
The zeal and ability of the first
Russian missionaries was well manifested in Alaska. They brought to the
Church more than twelve thousand new members and had churches and
chapels built in every Christianized settlement. One of the
Missionaries, Father Yuvenaley died a martyr at the hands of the
natives, as also later Aleut Peter was tortured for the Orthodox faith
in Fort Ross, California, by Spanish inquisitors-Jesuits.
In 1798, Archimandrite Joasaph
returned to Irkutsk in Siberia and was consecrated on April 10,
1799, Bishop of Kodiak, the first Bishop for America, but he and all
his staff, including Hieromonk Makary and Hierodeacon Stephen of the
original Mission, perished in the sea May 21, 1799 when the ship on
which he was sailing, "Phoenix," was wrecked near Kodiak Island.
Father Herman, who from the beginning, had distinguished himself
with his humility, compassion for the natives and his administrative
skills, became the acting head and eventually, only he remained from
the original Mission.
Though the American Mission was now
reduced to half of its original number, it continued its work. Notable
was the great spiritual and missionary work of the Monks Herman and
Joasaph. Not only did they instruct the natives in spiritual and
religious matters, but they also taught them practical, secular
subjects, such as mathematics, carpentry, agriculture, as well as animal
In 1799, Tsar Paul I (1754-1801)
awarded Shelekhov's Russian American Company monopolistic control over
trade and government, thus inextricably entwining the Company and the
Church. The Company financed the Church in its missionary and
educational work, while the Church became the custodian not only of the
colony's morals -- often in opposition to Company practices -- but also
of the spiritual and intellectual nurturing of the Native Alaskans.
Although the initial confrontation of
Russians and Alaskans was sometimes bloody, with the coming of the
Orthodox priests relations generally became more harmonious and mutually
The primary goal of the Alaska mission
was to convert the Native population to Orthodox Christianity. Education
and "pacification" of the Natives, despite their importance to the
Russian American Company, were adjuncts to this goal. Conversion was
encouraged by the Tsar, as head of the Church, and by the hierarchy. The
Church Archives contain numerous statistical records of conversions and
descriptions of exceptional instances, as in the case of one Stefan. The
annual reports contain invaluable genealogical information: dates of
births, deaths, and marriages; Native and Christian names; places of
origin, and the like.
After difficult relations with and
persecution by the Russian-American Trading Company, which controlled
the Alaska Colony, between 1808 and 1818 Fr. Herman left Kodiak and went
to Spruce Island, which he called New Valaam. He spent the rest of his
life on this island, where he cared for orphans, ran a school and
continued his missionary work. He built a small chapel, school and guest
house, while food for himself and the orphans was produced from his own
experimental garden. His grave there now is a shrine for Alaska and his
name is pronounced with a reverence as that of a saint by the Aleuts.
In 1824, with the arrival of the
Missionary Priest John Veniaminov in Unalaska, a new impetus was added
to the missionary work already done. The original missionaries had been
replaced by others, so that by the time of the arrival of Father John,
only the Monk Herman, now retired to Spruce Island, was left of the
original American Mission. He died on December 13, 1837, and on August
9, 1970, he was canonized as the first Saint of the Orthodox Church in
Father Veniaminoff stayed in Unalaska
for ten years and loved his new flock, the Aleuts. He was to them a
priest, teacher, doctor, nurse and mechanic. He taught them not only how
to believe right, but also how to live right. This good priest was so
interested in the welfare of his Aleuts that he instructed them how to
wash themselves with soap, how to nurse the children and how to use the
food. He acquainted the savages with the rules of hygiene and introduced
some industry among them, such as even making watches and clocks, etc.
He made all Aleuts of the Islands and nearby places Christians and
educated them. He invented the Aleutian alphabet and composed the
grammar. He translated the Holy Scripture and other books into Aleutian.
Father Veniaminoff was a genius and a great missionary.
In 1834 Father Veniaminoff was
transferred to Sitka and labored among Kaloshs with the same zeal and
success. Here stands St. Michael's Cathedral which is even now an
ornament for Alaska and which was built by him, and the clock on the
belfry that shows time even now was made by his hands. In 1840 Father
Veniaminoff was consecrated Bishop to Alaska and was administering the
Mission for 15 years more. He opened a Seminary here, organized
Ecclesiastical Consistory, and wrote very valuable rules and books that
have not lost their value up to these days, and especially the one
entitled "The Way to the Kingdom of Heaven." In 1855 Bishop Innokenty
(this was Father Veniaminoff's name since he became a monk) was
transferred to Blagovieschensk, Siberia, and from there to Moscow where
he served as a Metropolitan of that great city till his death in 1879.
Around 1840 Father John was elected to
the episcopacy, taking the name Innocent. The Church continued to grow
among the native Alaskans, but Bishop Innocent also visited California
and the Orthodox community at Fort Ross, north of San Francisco. He
eventually returned to Russia, where he was named Metropolitan of
Moscow. Among his many accomplishments was the translation of Scripture
and the liturgical services into the native dialects, for which he also
devised a grammar and alphabet.
In 1867 Alaska was sold by Russia to
the United States and with this sale came the change in the status of
the clergy of the American Orthodox Mission. They became foreigners to
the new Government and some, who accepted United States citizenship,
became foreigners to their mother country Russian Government agreed to
continue the allowance from its treasury for the support of the American
Orthodox Mission and the United States Government agreed to leave the
church properties in the possession of the Mission so long as there
shall be members of the Orthodox Church who would need them for the
religious purposes. Despite the radical changes wrought by
Americans, the deep impression of Russia and Russian Orthodoxy remain to
this day in Alaska.