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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 Valaam Monastery.

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 Valaam.

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 natives.

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 husbandry.

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 beneficial.

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 America.

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.

 

 



 


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