There is a cold country in the far north covered with deep forests and snow most of the year. The people there have been Orthodox for centuries, and Orthodoxy has become an integral part of their culture. These words could apply to several countries, but here they refer to parts of Alaska.
From the 18th century to 1867 Alaska was part of the Russian empire prior to its sale to the United Sates. Alaska became a center of the fur trade. One of the Orthodox saints of Alaska was St. Herman, canonized in 1970, the first Orthodox saint to be canonized in North America. St. Herman was a monk of Valaam monastery, one of a group of missionaries from that monastery who came as missionaries to Kodiak Alaska in 1794, invited by the Russian American Company to preach the Gospel to the Alaskan natives. When the missionaries got there, the found that the natives were in various ways being treated badly by the Company and St. Herman and other missionaries defended the natives from such mistreatment. Within several years of their arrival the monks baptized as many as 7000 Alaskans.
St. Herman never became a priest, but became head of the mission in 1807. He ran the mission schools, which taught religious subjects as well as agriculture. Although St. Herman loved the members of his flock, he longed for the solitude of a hermit’s life, and in 1811 moved to Spruce Island, about a mile from Kodiak. He lived a strictly ascetic life, but many of the natives came to him, especially on Sundays and feast days.
His hermitage soon had a chapel, a guest house and a school. In addition to preaching the Gospel and teaching secular subjects, St. Herman took care of many of the natives during an epidemic. St. Herman was deeply loved by the native Alaskans and they still think of him as their “Apa” or grandfather. Tradition holds that the people on Kodiak Island knew the moment of St. Herman’s death because they saw a pillar of light emanating from his hut on Spruce Island into the sky.
The example of St. Herman, like that of other great missionaries of the Orthodox Church, show how one can transmit all the traditions of Orthodoxy while respecting the positive aspects of the pre-Christian culture.
St. Herman was a tireless missionary and was known as a miracle worker. He was canonized in 1970 and his relics lie in the cathedral in Kodiak. The cathedral in Kodiak, as well as the site of his hermitage on Spruce Island, are places of pilgrimage for Orthodox people from all over the world.
Venerable Wonder-worker Herman pray to God for us!