More than 100 pilgrims ventured to Monk’s Lagoon on Spruce Island to mark the 49th Annual St. Herman of Alaska Pilgrimage on Friday. Walking up the small wooden chapel where St. Herman lived and prayed, countless footsteps were muffled by thick beds of moss while a canopy of spruce trees arched overhead.
Leading the services was Metropolitan Tikhon, leader of the Orthodox Church in America, who presides over dioceses across the United States, Canada and Mexico. He was joined by Archbishop David, who presides over the dioceses in Alaska. For both, this marks a once-a-year occasion to visit Kodiak.
“People come here for a lot of different reasons,” said Archbishop David during the boat ride from the Kodiak harbor to Spruce Island, basking in the warm sun on a clear August day. “Some are physically ill and they hope that St. Herman will help them by coming here. Others have issues of the heart. They’re troubled by someone or something and they’re looking for the relief they can get by being in a place of spiritual strength.”
To get to Monk’s Lagoon, pilgrims must make an hourlong journey by boat from Kodiak, relying on Kodiak fishermen and locals who volunteer their boats. On Friday morning, Spruce Island glowed green under a clear sky and a warm sun. In the waters of the lagoon, puffins and otters could be spotted nestled in kelp beds.
In 1970, St. Herman of Alaska became the first Orthodox saint canonized in North America. In the 49 years since then, pilgrims have traveled to Spruce Island, the site of Herman’s death, every August, to celebrate him on the anniversary of his canonization. After services, pilgrims enjoy a picnic organized by the residents of Ouzinkie, a Native village on Spruce Island.
Ouzinkie Native Corporation Director Darren Muller was one of many Ouzinkie residents in attendance Friday, along with his wife, Faith Chichenoff-Muller. The Ouzinkie Native Corporation owns most of the land on Spruce Island, excluding Monk’s Lagoon, which is owned by the Orthodox Church. Residents of the village of Ouzinkie, which number around 150, often participate in the pilgrimage.
Muller said that two weeks before the pilgrimage, he and other village residents traveled to Monk’s Lagoon to clean the short trail that leads to the church, and install benches for pilgrims to sit on during the picnic.
“We’re so happy to see other people here,” he said after the services Friday. “We want to show off.”
St. Herman is still an important figure for Darren and Faith, who teach their kids who he is and what he meant to them growing up. For four of their nine children, this is their first year participating in the pilgrimage.
Herman, a Russian Orthodox monk, was born in the mid-18th century and traveled to Kodiak in 1794 as one of 10 monks sent from Russia to serve as priests for Alaska Natives. Alaska was part of the Russian Empire until it was purchased by the United States in 1867.
The monks were successful in their mission, sometimes converting entire Native villages at a time to Orthodoxy. Herman became known as a staunch defender of the Native people from abusive Russian fur traders.
“We can’t say that all the fur traders were mean and cruel, but enough of them were mean and cruel that somebody had to speak up,” Archbishop David said. “And the monks that came over were the ones that spoke up.”
To this day, many Alaska Natives are practicing members of the Orthodox Church. Archbishop David estimated that the Orthodox Church of America has between 60,000 and 80,000 members in Alaska, the majority of whom are Native. Throughout the state, there are 35 Orthodox priests. Thirty-two of them are Alaska Natives.
“In Orthodoxy we believe that everybody is born towards sainthood, but only some of us make it. And the church doesn’t know all the saints, but St. Herman, because he was so outstanding, is one of the saints that the church recognizes,” Archbishop David said.
The Orthodox Church has different categories of sainthood, including martyrs, venerable fathers and passion bearers.
“St. Herman was a venerable father because during his lifetime, he always worked for others,” Archbishop David said. “(He) was a lay monk and he never sought higher office.”
Orthodox clergy wear different colored vestments depending on the type of ceremony. During Friday’s services, they wore green, a color associated with venerable fathers.
Herman moved to Spruce Island in the beginning of the 19th century, and lived there in near solitude until his death in 1836. After his canonization, his relics were transferred to the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Kodiak, where they remain today.
On Thursday, pilgrims gathered in the Kodiak Cathedral to pray and prepare for the next day’s voyage. Pilgrims mixed with tourists from a cruise ship docked in town, as the Metropolitan and other clergy led services. After services, pilgrims attended a banquet at the Afognak Center, where they had the opportunity to share where they are from.
This year, pilgrims included a Russian explorer, a Ukrainian monk, and a graduate student in physics from Wisconsin. Pilgrims also came from Minnesota, Texas, New York, Washington, California and Pennsylvania.
According to Archbishop David, pilgrims come to Kodiak to celebrate St. Herman because he is known around the world for his virtues.
“People find out by word of mouth. We don’t advertise. It’s not like a carnival or a festival or anything. This is a spiritual journey,” he said.
Among those who come to participate in the pilgrimage, some choose to return year after year.
“Once you’ve done it, its like something you taste and is really good to eat, and you want to have it again,” Archbishop David said.
Brandyn Sampson, who came from Port Angeles, Washington, has been participating since 2008.
Sampson, a practicing member of the Orthodox Church, first came to Monk’s Lagoon after he moved to Kodiak as a Coast Guard helicopter flight mechanic. He left Kodiak in 2011, moving to Florida, then to Hawaii, and finally to Washington, but he has always come back and participated in the festivities.
“Kodiak is home, it’s where the heart is,” Sampson said. “I come back with a little more appreciation each year.”
Pilgrims also included nuns who reside in solitude on St. Nilus Island. Just five sisters live on the small island, which is owned by the Orthodox Church and located between Kodiak and Spruce Islands.
Mother Nina has lived there for 20 years, and attends the pilgrimage every year. For her, it was special to see the ground where St. Herman walked, she said, while sitting in the shade on Monk’s Lagoon.
While some pilgrims stayed in the shade as they polished off plates of salmon, some children splashed in the bay, cooling off. Record-hot temperatures made for an unusually warm affair. The 79-degree temperature measured in Kodiak on Friday marked the hottest pilgrimage date on record.
St. Herman’s gospel was preached “not only to the poor and oppressed Native peoples of Alaska, but also to sophisticated and educated maritime officers,” Metropolitan Tikhon said in his sermon during the services.
Metropolitan Tikhon, who lives in Long Island, New York, called on pilgrims to reflect on the challenges of global warming. He recalled the first Earth Day, which took place in 1970, the year St. Herman was canonized.
“Today, the most talked-about environmental issue is, of course, climate change — global warming — which here in Alaska you are particularly aware of, in the form of melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels,” he said. “If we ruin this world, can we possibly escape to build another?”