Russian Orthodox Church in America
Russian traders and explorers began to emigrate to Alaska from Siberia in the first half of the XVIIIth 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-Shelekhoff baptized 40 Aleuts on Kodiak Island. The other members of the Company were also interested in bringing to Christianity the natives of Alaska.
Realizing that the layman's missionary service cannot substitute the clergyman's care for the converts and seeing the necessity of a church service for them as also for the Russians, who were coming to America in large numbers, Shelekhoff requested the Holy Synod of the Russian Church to send to Alaska priests and other missionary workers.
In 1792, the Holy Synod, in compliance with the Shelekhoff's request, sent to America eight members of the Valaam monastery, charging them to organize in Alaska missionary work for the natives and to minister the Russians in their spiritual needs. This group of missionaries with Archimandrite Ioasaph as their Superior, arrived on Kodiak Island, Alaska, on September 25, 1793. Here they built a church in the name of the Resurrection of our Lord, and it was the first Orthodox church built in America. One hundred years after, September 25, 1894, when the late Archbishop Nicholas was a Diocesan of America, the Century Anniversary of the Orthodoxy in America was celebrated in San Francisco, then Cathedral city of the North American diocese.
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 savages, as also later Aleut Peter was tortured for the Orthodox faith in Fort Ross, California, by Spanish inquisitors-Jesuits. Father Herman, also one of the eight from Valaam, spent his saintly life among Aleuts on Spruce (Yeloviy) Island, devoting his time entirely to the teaching of natives and care of the school children. 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.
Within two years of progress of the Russian missionaries service in Alaska came a need for direction of church affairs by a unified authority and Archimandrite Ioasaph was consecrated Bishop-to be the head of the American Orthodox Mission. Bishop Ioasaph was consecrated in the city of Irkutsk, Siberia, as Bishop of Kodiak, but on his way to America he perished in the sea with all his staff, when the ship on which he was sailing, "Phoenix," was wrecked near Kodiak Island in 1797.
Bishop of Irkutsk, Siberia, had charge of the mission then. The death of Bishop Ioasaph left American Orthodox Mission without a Bishop for a long time.
In 1824 on Unalaska Island landed a young priest, John Veniaminoff, with his young wife and two little boys, who traveled from Irkutsk to Kamchatka over Siberian snow fields on dog or reindeer sledges and from there on a schooner to Alaska. With this missionary is connected a great development of a Christian work in Alaska.
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. He loved Alaskan natives and American Mission and from Moscow always was helping them. His name still lives in Alaska and will live forever and every article that is connected with his personality is carefully preserved. He is an Apostle of Alaska.
From Alaska Russians moved down the Pacific Coast and established themselves near Bodega Bay in California, about fifty miles north of San Francisco. Here they built a typical Russian settlement with small church in settlement. Many Aleuts from Alaska and Indians of California attended to the services which were held by Russian priest. Aleut Peter, martyred for the Orthodox Faith, proves that Fort Ross did a great service to the Church and should be remembered by Russian descendants.
This church stands there to the present time and Clergy from the Holy Trinity Cathedral of San Francisco. with many of their members, hold divine services here every Fourth of July. The settlement is known as Fort Ross because the main part of it is surrounded with high walls around it and the inhabitants were always on the watch for enemies.
Now Fort Ross is the property of the State, under the Native Sons of California supervision. In 1844, Russians sold their possessions here, including Faralone Islands and the lands on Russian River, Napa, and Sacramento Valleys and moved back to Alaska.
The Civil War of 1863 brought the Russian fleet to the Pacific Coast to protect the Union. Chaplains from the Russian wars were serving the Orthodox people of San Francisco Russians, Serbians, Greeks and others. Father Cyrill baptized many children, among them John Dabovich, now Father Archimandrite Sebastine, first American born missionary here from Serbian parents.
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.
In 1870 American Orthodox Mission was organized into a diocese of Aleutian Islands and Alaska and the Bishop who was appointed by the Holy Synod the same year was a Diocesan Bishop for all America. After Bishop Innokenty there were two Bishops. Peter (1859-1867) and Paul (1867-1870) , who were Sufragan Bishops of Kamchtka diocese with the title of Novo-Archangelsk, the city on Sitka, and after them Bishop John was the
St Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church
1855 Middletown Road
Glen Mills, PA 19342
PO Box 231
Gradyville, PA 19039