He was the renaissance man’s renaissance man. Not only was he an intellectual powerhouse, a tall, sturdy and strong figure of a man, with a faith big enough for two continents, he was a designer and a builder too. He brought the word of the Gospel to unlettered peoples and not only taught them to read and write but cemented in them a faith which has lasted over a hundred years.
St. Innocent is known as the Equal to the Apostles and the Enlightener of North America. Born in 1797 in a small village just outside of Irkutsk, Siberia, he was fated for a clerical life from his birth. His father was the sacristan of the village church, and his uncle was the deacon. After his father died, John Popov, as he was known, was taken in by his uncle, taught to read and to make and repair watches (his uncle was a clockmaker by trade). A few years later, John was sent to seminary in Irkutsk, so his mother could receive a small stipend with which to support the rest of the family. John was an exemplary student, bright, dedicated, quiet and helpful. For a variety of reasons, he was given a new surname while at seminary – Veniaminov or Benjamin. After graduation, he married and settled down to life in Irkutsk as a priest, but God had other plans for him.
The call to Alaska came, and at first, Fr. John refused it. As he pointed out, “why should I . . . when I had one of the best parishes in the city, when I enjoyed the love of my parishioners and the good graces of the authorities, when I already owned my own home and had a larger salary then the salary being offered . . . [in] Unalaska?” But quite suddenly he changed his mind, and he and his family traveled the 2200 miles by river and foot from Irkustk to Okhotsk on the eastern Siberian seaboard and set sail for Alaska in 1823. He arrived in Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands the following year. His parish extended thousands of miles, accessible mostly by water. His main transportation was kayak. When he wasn’t traveling, baptising, marrying and teaching the Aleut people their faith, he was learning their language, and with the help of John Pankov, a local Aleut translator, he invented an alphabet and began to translate the gospels and liturgical services into Fox-Aleut. At the same time, he recorded the weather every day, designed and built churches, in several cases carving the iconstasis for them, made notes about the local plant and animal life, learned and wrote down the beliefs and customs of his parishioners and organized schools for the children. In 1834, because of the arthritis in his legs, from trying to fit his six-foot body into a kayak designed for someone a whole lot smaller, and the exposure to the icy waters, he was transferred to Sitka, where he began to work with the Tlinglit people.
Soon after that, he received permission to travel to St. Petersburg to oversee the publication of the second edition of the books he’d translated into the new Fox-Aleut language. He also had his book, “Notes on the Islands of the Unalaska Region,” published to great acclaim in both Russia and Europe. While he was in the Russian capital, in 1840, he received word that his wife had died, while visiting family in Irkutsk with their children. After the Tsar promised to undertake the education of his family, Fr. John agreed to become a monastic, being tonsured with the name Innocent, after the first bishop of Irkutsk, and was promptly made bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Kamchatka. He returned to Alaska and instituted a number of changes. He moved the seminary from Siberia to Sitka, and expanded it into the All Colonial school, where classes were held in both Russian and Aleut in subjects like accounting, navigation, and other practical and artistic subjects, as well as in traditional seminary curriculum. He designed the cathedral and built the clock for the clock tower with his own hands and established a number of new missions in both Alaska and Kamchatka. He undertook to learn another new language in Siberia, invented another alphabet and oversaw the translation of sacred literature into Yakut. In 1850, while he was on a tour of the Kamchatka portion of his diocese, he was greeted, on his arrival in Kamchatka as an Archbishop. At some point during his travels, the Holy Synod had promoted him!
Through the 1850s, he corresponded with the Holy Synod, and Metropolitan of Moscow Philaret, about his impending retirement. His arthritis was no better, and his eyesight was beginning to suffer, and his health in general was declining. He wanted to be sure that whoever replaced him would be fully briefed on conditions in the diocese and would be able to minister to the people there properly and with due consideration for their particular needs.
During the negotiations of the sale of Alaska to the USA, Archbishop Innocent was concerned about the survival of the Orthodox faith in North America, and made several recommendations: that the Diocesan see be moved to San Francisco, and that all liturgical materials be translated into English, that a bishop who spoke and understood English be appointed to the diocese, and that the bishop be given permission to ordain converts to the Orthodox faith and priesthood from the general American population.
In 1868, he was informed that the Tsar had appointed him successor to his close friend, Philaret, late Metropolitan of Moscow. He served the church, God and the people of Moscow as faithfully and as devotedly as he had every single day of his life to that point. His door was as open to the street sweepers and the charladies as it was to the Tsar himself, and one of his greatest delights was listening to his parishioners as they confided their problems and troubles to him, and he gave them advice and support. One of his greatest accomplishments as Metropolitan was to establish the Royal Missionary Society to pray for and financially support the establishment and growth of mission parishes in Siberia and North America. Saint Innocent fell asleep in the Lord on Holy Saturday in 1873, and was canonized in 1977. Holy Father Innocent, pray to God for us!