It’s hard to tell just who Saint Herman of Alaska was before he became a monk. Back in the mid 1700s, not many countries kept birth and death records, and fire, flood, war, and persecution often destroyed the records parishes kept. Memory fades and changes with time.
Historians think he might have been a young teenager from a merchant’s family in Serpukov in the Moscow Governate, but he also could have been Igor Ivanovitch Popov, a military clerk originally from the Vorozenh Governate. The important thing is that he felt a call to a monastic life, and after spending some time in an unknown monastery, he moved to the Valaam monastery several hundred miles north east of St. Petersburg and was tonsured with the name Herman in 1782.
By all accounts, he was a pious and dedicated monastic, who eventually was given a blessing to become a hermit. He moved about two kilometres (about a mile and a quarter) from the monastery and built a small hut. The place he lived is still known as “Herman’s meadow.” He refused an offer to be ordained a priest and sent as head of a mission to China.
In 1792, ten monks from Valaam were sent on a missionary assignment to Alaska. St. Herman volunteered as one of the party. They walked across the whole of Russia, from St. Petersburg to the Kamchatka Peninsula, a journey that took them eight months (it takes eight days by train today) and then boarded a ship for the new world. They arrived at Kodiak Island on September 24, 1794, where they found a situation completely opposite to what they had been told to expect.
During the years previous to the monks’ arrival in Alaska, a booming fur trade had developed. Individual traders, known as Promyshlenniki, had traveled from Siberia to the Aleutian Islands. They were like the American Mountain Men, or the Canadian voyageurs, venturing into wilderness and unchartered territory to hunt and trade. They established relationships with the people they found there and very often married the women in the villages they traded with. In Alaska, they found the Aleut people and sea otter pelts.
The Chinese were wild about these pelts, paying the equivalent of a year’s salary for a single pelt. The Aleut people, for their part, demanded blue glass beads for the pelts, which cost very little, so the traders, in one season, could earn an entire lifetime’s earnings and then retire. Most of them didn’t. They would donate large amounts of their pay to monasteries and the church, and they’d party the rest away, saving only enough to supply themselves for the next trip to the Aleutian Islands.
Then Gregory Shelikov organized The Russian America Company and decided that the best thing he could do was establish a monopoly. With investment from businessmen in Moscow, he was able to hire a number of traders, buy and build large ships to carry guns and furs, and hire the clerical and administrative people he needed to run a large-scale operation that would effectively put the small trader out of business. The Tsar, Paul, granted the monopoly, the small trader was no longer allowed to work, and Gregory was in big-time business.
The problem was that the company didn’t want to pay for the pelts, not even the small amount the blue glass beads would have cost, and they wanted as many furs each season as they could get. The other problem was that the only people who knew how to hunt the seals were the Aleuts. The solution was to force the local Aleut hunters into what amounted to slavery: if they didn’t go out hunting, Baranov, the company manager, threatened to destroy the food supplies the families collected for the harsh, stormfilled winters. The Aleut people protested, and there were some violent incidents, but when it’s a case of ship’s cannon and black powder muskets against spears and knives, the outcome is pretty predictable.
There were barracks, and company buildings in Kodiak, but there were no churches, schools or dormitories for the monks when they arrived, which they’d been told had been built. The monastics had to stay in the same barracks as the Russian America employees, and they were shocked and disgusted by the men’s behaviour – and outraged at the way the men used the young Aleut women and girls. The monks protested, wrote letters back to the hierarchs in Irkutsk and St. Petersburg, and tried their best to protect and advocate for the Aleuts. It was hard slogging.
Baranov lay the blame squarely on the monk Herman; the head of the missionaries, Father Joasaf, and Father Juvenaly. He claimed that if he could just “get rid of” these three ringleaders, the others would give no trouble. As fate would have it, while there were at least three assassination attempts on the men, it was bad luck and bad weather that eventually killed two of the “ringleaders.” Father Juvenaly was sent to the mainland in 1795, where he was killed that same year by some Yupik hunters and a shaman. In 1796, Father Makarios traveled to St. Petersburg to give a first-hand account of the mistreatment of the Aleut people, and in 1799, Father Joasaf traveled to Irkustk to give corroborating evidence. Father Makarios and Father Joasaf – who had been consecrated a bishop (of the Aleutian Islands and North America) while he was in Irkutsk – boarded a ship to return to Kodiak, but died when a storm sank the ship.
That left the monk Herman, who continued to advocate for the Aleutian people, and to minister to them as best he could. The other priests and monks of the original ten either died or gave up and returned home. St. Herman, sometime between 1808 and 1818, moved to Spruce Island just off the coast of Kodiak Island, where he lived for the rest of his life. He moved because he was being persecuted in the town by Baranov and the company men, as well as the Aleuts who were loyal to the Russian America Company, and he feared for his life. Even on Spruce Island, he wasn’t safe. At least once, a delegation came to search his cell, convinced he was hoarding riches. When they couldn’t find anything, the Siberian priest ripped up his floorboards with an axe, to see if the gold was hidden there. Of course, they found nothing – St. Herman had no material treasures at all.
In 1819, there was an epidemic that decimated the population, both Russian and Aleut. It began with a fever and heavy cold and killed within three days. St. Herman nursed as many people as he could, and was blessed not to succumb to the illness. Many children were left orphans, and St. Herman pretty much adopted them, raising and educating them with the help of his disciples, Gerasim and Sophie Vlassov.
St. Herman was not an imposing figure of a man. He was described as a small, attractive and balding man, with grey-blue eyes and a pleasant smile. His voice was not powerful but was easy to listen to. He was humble and did most of his own labour. The saint grew potatoes and cabbages and various other vegetables, preserved mushrooms, and lugged heavy baskets of seaweed to fertilize the garden. He ate little, a mouthful or two of fish or some vegetables constituted his meal, so he was thin and emaciated. He wore a smock of deerskin that he didn’t change for years at a time, an old, worn and patched under-cassock and an even older and more worn riasa. He slept on a small bench, using two bricks for a pillow and a wooden board for a blanket. After his death, his followers discovered he had wrapped sixteen pounds of chains about his torso.
He held prayer services on Sundays and holy days for his native flock, and he taught them church music, which visitors said they sang extremely well. He loved children and children loved him, and it was a joy to him to have the orphans live near him, so he could look after them.
During his lifetime, there were few miracles associated with him. When a flood threatened the island, he laid an icon of the Theotokos on a sandy bank and prayed. The flood peaked just before it reached the icon. Another time, a forest fire threatened the people living on the island, but Father Herman directed them to cut a firebreak of about a meter (roughly a yard). It’s recorded that the fire crossed the break and then stopped before it consumed the rest of the island.
On the night of his death, people living on Afgonuk Island, just to the north of Spruce, saw a pillar of light reaching from Spruce Island to the heavens, and knew that Apa Herman had reposed. According to his wishes, he was buried in the cave near his cell (which he had dug and lived in the first year he came to the island), while a storm raged, preventing his people from removing his body from Spruce to Kodiak, as they had been asked to do by the colony administrator. Eventually, his relics were exhumed and moved to Kodiak, where they remain to this day, and where pilgrims come to venerate the monk who so tenderly cared for their elders and ancestors. There have been a number of verified miracles associated with visits to St. Herman’s relics and to his original gravesite.
Unpublished transcribed talks by Fr. M. Oleksa
Orthodox Alaska, A Theology of Mission, by Fr. M. Oleksa, SVS Press 1992
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