A real saint on American soil?

  • Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Dome on the chapel built over St Herman’s Grave on Spruce Island. PHOTOS PROVIDED BY FATHER JOHN PARKER

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Many Americans think of “saints” in only a generic or proverbial sense. Someone who endures endless ridicules from another “is such a saint.” Or likewise a wife who cares for her long-ill husband, nursing him at his bedside for years “is a saint.” And while it is certainly saintly to live and serve in such ways, it is a surprise to many that there are canonized, bona-fide saints in North America, who lived and labored on our soil, and who are recognized here and abroad as having lived such Godly lives, having been so transformed by the love of God that they have been formally identified as Saints, and remembered each year on a specific day — their “birthday” as saints.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the home and grave of one such Saint, who has an impressive title: Saint Herman, Elder and Wonderworker of Alaska. On the one hand, his life was un-notable and even unnoticeable. He was a simple, humble monk, who lived a quiet life of prayer and work. On the other hand, his labors were so infused with godly virtue and the love of neighbor, that he is known throughout all of Alaska (where he lived and served), all of North America and certainly in Russia and Greece. His final resting place is “the Emerald Isle”, Kodiak, Alaska. He served his last days on the majestic and silent Spruce Island,

Herman was a Orthodox Christian monk, who, in 1794 answered a call for needed missionaries to the Russian Mission, a fur-trading expedition in Alaska. He and his companions had been told that there was a church, a school and a group of countless natives who had received Christianity of their own accord, and there was need for those to serve them, teach them and care for them.

So Herman and his monastic friends left Valaam Monastery, on Lake Ladoga near St. Petersburg, Russia, and traveled to Alaska to devote their lives to this effort. This was 1794, remember, not yet 20 years after the American Revolution, and only five years after the writing of the American Constitution. The Wright Brothers wouldn’t fly for the first time for another 107 years. St. Herman and those with him traveled by foot and dogsled, among other humble methods, traversing the entire continent, and then, once close enough, by boat to Alaska. This journey, remarkably, took them only eight months.

On arrival, St. Herman found nothing that had been promised. There was no church built, there were no supplies, there was no school. The head of the Russian fur traders had lied, looking for further favor from the Russian government. Worse still, St. Herman found the Fur Traders exploiting and abusing the local natives.

The Monk Herman’s initial and ongoing work was to appeal back to the Russian Government, to share with them about the abuses that were going on, and then to labor locally in support of the local people. Within three years, most of the natives of Kodiak Island had received instruction and were willingly baptized as Christians. Such evangelization and conversion became the routine along the entire Aleutian Chain, across Kodiak Island, and up and along nearly every river in southern and central Alaska. (The rivers were the main “highways” of the day.) And this is why those visiting Alaska will notice so many of the “typical“ three-bar Crosses on onion-domed churches. The Christianity “native” to Alaska is Orthodox Christianity, brought in the late 1700s, while our nation’s founding fathers were hammering out the Constitution.

St. Herman is known for his remarkable spiritual and physical strength. During an outbreak of small pox, which killed countless people, Herman became the father to countless orphans, whom he nurtured. By his prayers, it is recorded, God spared the native people a terrible tidal wave. He went to the shoreline, place an icon of the Mother of God on the sand and told the people that the wave would not cross that line — it receded into the sea.

Having no potable water on Spruce Island, St. Herman prayed to God and a spring sprang up from the ground, from which I drank last week. It is flowing to this day.

But in addition to his spiritual labors and the work that God wrought through him, he was a laborer. He was seen carrying logs of huge trees which would have taken two or three men to carry.

Mainly, however, he was know for his love and defense of the native Alaskans, for caring for them, baking for them, nursing them to health and caring for them in death. He was glorified, or canonized, by the Orthodox Church in America in 1970 on Aug. 9, and so every year on that day, there is a pilgrimage to serve at his relics — his saintly bones — now enshrined in Holy Resurrection Cathedral on Kodiak Island, and the day after, when wind, waves and weather permit, on Spruce Island, in the tiny chapel built over his original grave.

I had the privilege to celebrate a service in both places, as well as the honor to receive and serve communion from the very chalice from which he used to receive communion. What a gift from God.

You may not know him, but St. Herman is your saint, our saint. The first canonized on American soil. And you are welcome to come and learn more about him at Holy Ascension. To see the icon of this Saint, along with a portion of his holy bones, which we also guard here in Mount Pleasant.


Father John Parker is the priest at Holy Ascension Church in I’On.

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