St. Herman of Alaska

Courtesy of WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

St. Herman of Alaska.

This weekend, Orthodox faithful throughout the world will join Kodiak Orthodox in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the canonization of St. Herman of Alaska, one of the first Russian missionaries who brought the Gospel to Alaska.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, most of the faithful will be celebrating at a distance far exceeding 6 feet. They’ll stay at home, joining services on the internet. 

Before the pandemic hit, the parish of Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Kodiak had planned to host the visiting pilgrims, including hierarchs from all over the world. Like previous pilgrimages, the 2020 agenda included divine services, banquets and a trip to Monk’s Lagoon on Spruce Island, where St. Herman spent his final years.

Although most pilgrims had to cancel their plans to travel to Kodiak, many island-wide pilgrims will be in town to attend services at Holy Resurrection Cathedral and travel to Monk’s Lagoon. 

Rosabel Baldwin, who served the cathedral for many years as a starosta and tourist guide in the summer, said this summer’s scaled-down pilgrimage is much the way it was in the early years of the annual pilgrimage. “It was more of a local event,” she said.

After  living in California for 26 years,  Baldwin moved back to her native Kodiak Island just in time to witness the 1970 canonization. It was a wonderful experience that Baldwin remembers to this day, she said.

Following  the canonization, the relics of St. Herman were transferred from their resting place beneath the Sts. Sergius and Herman Chapel on Spruce Island (the namesake of the chapel is a different “Herman”) to a reliquary in Holy Resurrection Cathedral.

This very week, Orthodox churches in Alaska hold a service honoring St. Herman. The service, called an Akathist, tells St. Herman’s story through graphic hymnography. The lyrics depict the bearded monk praying fervently to God in a hovel in the middle of a Sitka spruce forest. He cares for the sick. He loves children who gather around him, affectionately calling him Appa, a fatherly title. 

He defends the Natives from the abusive Russian soldiers. He performs miracles. In one scene, he holds back a tidal wave by laying down an icon of the Theotokos on the beach. 

St. Herman was known for his mysticism and asceticism. He denied basic comforts so he could concentrate more fully on God. 

He often went bare-footed. He wore a raggedy, deerskin smock. When he did sleep, which wasn’t very often, he laid his head on two bricks and crawled beneath a board for covers. 

He wore a heavy chain around his neck. It was a physical reminder of the life of sacrifice, self denial and service he embraced. 

“I am not alone,” he told an inquirer who wondered how he could survive as a single man in the wilderness. “God is here, as God is everywhere. The holy angels are here. With whom is it better to talk? With people or with angels?”

Herman, born Egor Ivanovich Popov, was tonsured a monk at the monastery of Transfiguration of the Savior on Valaam  Island on Ladoga Lake in northern Russia. 

Herman and nine fellow clergymen began an arduous journey to Kodiak Island in 1793 to bring Christianity to the Alaska Natives. The trip, which was made through the wilderness of Siberia and across the Pacific, lasted about a year. 

St. Herman was anxious to serve the Natives of Kodiak, many of whom were living in squalor. Governor Alexander Baranov and his men were abusive to the Natives. They forced the men to go on long sea otter hunts and expeditions. 

Because the men weren’t around to trap weasels and fox, and hunt sea otters and birds, it was up to the old men and young boys to do the work. 

In order to survive, the women processed fish and sewed clothing for Russian soldiers, getting paid precious little. 

In 1806, Herman was appointed head of the Kodiak mission. He and Baranov clashed often. 

Through St. Herman’s influence, Natives were allowed to hunt on their own, rather than working for the Russian American crews. 

Identifying himself as the Alutiiqs’ servant, St. Herman appealed to the newly appointed governor, Simeon Yanovskii, to be “a father and patron for us, wipe the tears of defenseless orphans.”

Yanovskii reported that Father Herman miraculously survived a raging epidemic, which had affected everyone on Kodiak Island, even babies. The death rate was so high that no one was available to dig the graves. 

“Only Father Herman was not ill,” Yanovskii wrote. “God in His invisible way protected His faithful Servant. The elder visited the sick, comforting, praying, healing some and preparing others for death, as well as praying for those who had already fallen asleep.” 

St. Herman moved to Spruce Island in 1810. Some surmise he did so to escape the persecution of Baranov and his lackeys, but others, such as the late Dr. Lydia Black, opted that a war between Russia and Britain may have had something to do with the move. 

At Spruce Island, St. Herman found solitude where he could devote his time to prayer and simplicity. He dug a plot for a garden, which he fertilized with seaweed. The crops he raised fed children in the school he founded. 

St. Herman taught the art of gardening as well as Scripture, language, cooking and other subjects. 

Whenever possible, he ministered to the people of the neighboring village of Ouzinkie. 

On Nov. 15, 1836, during a raging storm, Herman of Valaam gave up the ghost. According to one report, a pillar of light ascended into the heavens right after he had breathed his last.

St. Herman emerges as an important figure in understanding the effect the Orthodox faith has had on the Native people. 

Historian, instructor and lecturer Father Michael Oleksa said  that he was a “legitimate shaman, authenticating Christianity to the Alutiiq people.”

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