For almost two thousand years, Orthodox Christians have been actively spreading the Gospel. Following the gradual conversion of the Roman Empire over the first three centuries, missionaries from the Greek-speaking Church of the Eastern Roman Empire (hence the term “Eastern Orthodox”) evangelized much of the Middle East, the Balkans, Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and lands to the east. The most remarkable, and ultimately successful, missionary effort of this era was undertaken by SS Cyril and Methodius, brothers who are credited with creating the Cyrillic alphabet and who helped to lay the foundations for Slavic culture. When in AD 988, Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus (contemporary Ukraine) embraced Orthodoxy, monastics, following the examples of SS Cyril and Methodius, provided Kievan Rus with living examples of Christian values. Several centuries later, two monks, Hourg and Barsanuphii, journeyed east to Kazan, capital of the Tartars, learned the Tartar language, and established a monastic community for the conversion of the Mongol peoples. St Stephen of Perm (1340-96), another monk, would in turn journey beyond Kazan, across the Ural Mountain, into the forests of Siberia to labor among the pagan Zyrians. There Stephen devised a Zyrian alphabet, translated the Gospel, and subsequently converted an entire people. This model of monastic evangelization became the pattern for other Russian Orthodox missionaries as they trekked ever eastward, eventually establishing a network of missions across Siberia and along the entire Pacific Rim: in China (1686), Alaska (1794), Japan (1861), and Korea (1898). The eight Orthodox monks who arrived in Alaska in 1794 were simply part of this centuries-old missionary heritage of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Beginnings of the Alaskan Mission
In 1648, the Russian explorer Simeon Dezhnev sailed from the Arctic Ocean, around the Chukotka Peninsula, and founded the post of Anadyr on the Bering Sea, facing Alaska. During the next several generations, Siberian entrepreneurs ventured across the straits to engage Native Americans in commerce. Rumors of these early permanent Russian settlements on Alaskan soil during this period persist among Alaskan native peoples today. Whether permanent or occasional residents, these Russian frontiersmen brought with them not only beads, blankets, pots and pans, but their religious traditions as well. Orthodox laity brought the Orthodox faith to North America, baptized the first converts (often their own native wives and Creole offspring), and even constructed the first chapels. Clergy and official missionaries came much later.
In 1728, and again in 1741, Vitus Bering and Alexis Chirikov mapped the Alaskan coast, and in the process set off a “Fur Rush”—creating a Russian “Wild East” much like the later “Gold Rushes” of the American “Wild West.” For the next forty years, Russian traders and trappers would make annual or biannual trading expeditions to the Aleutian Archipelago in search of valuable sea otter pelts. Poorly equipped, these Siberian entrepreneurs were not seasoned military men, but frontier adventurers, much like Daniel Boone. Unlike Boone, though, these adventurers were bachelors. Inevitably they married local women who provided their Siberian husbands with the same clothing, tools, and food they would have given native Alaskan spouses. Thus, when the British Captain James Cook visited the Aleutian Islands at the end of the century (1793), he could not distinguish the Slavs from the native Alaskans. The Siberians had been completely acculturated into the material culture of the Aleuts.
This pattern of intermarriage and gradual evangelization of the indigenous people provoked some resistance. A major uprising against the Siberians—during which some 200 Siberians and an equal number of Aleut warriors were killed—took place around 1764. Despite occasional outbursts, the Aleut, Russian, and Creole communities gradually returned to a generally peaceful coexistence.
In the 1780’s a Russian trader, Gregory Shelikov, argued that sending annual trading expeditions to the New World across the Bering Strait was unnecessarily expensive and dangerous. The time had come, he argued, for the establishment of permanent trading posts in Alaska. The importation of a few hundred Russian settlers, Shelikov reasoned, could lead to the systematic exploitation of the sea otter habitats all along the Alaskan coast—and vast profits. As the natives might not be receptive to such a colonial intrusion, Shelikov suggested that the commercial adventure assume a military dimension as well. A Russian settlement in Alaska, atop the North Pacific, would extend Russian political and military influence as far as Spanish California, British Hawaii, and the Spanish Philippines.
In the summer of 1784, Shelikov set out for Kodiak Island to establish his Alaskan base. By all accounts except his own, Shelikov’s expedition was greeted with hostility and armed resistance. Subduing the Kodiak islanders in a bloody encounter, Shelikov returned to St Petersburg to relate his conquest and present a request for a monopoly on the ensuing fur trade to the imperial court. He installed Alexander Baranov as company manager, governor, and virtual dictator of the small Russian colony. Shelikov did not live to see his Russian-American Trading Company receive its monopoly, nor did he ever return to Alaska. Baranov, however was to rule both the colony and the company with an iron fist for 27 years.
The Alaskan Mission
To convince the imperial court of the seriousness of his colonial scheme, Shelikov journeyed to Valaam and Konevitsa monasteries, located on the Russo-Finnish border, to recruit monastic volunteers for the new settlement in Alaska. One Archimandrite, three priestmonks, one deacon-monk, one lay monk, together with several staff members, left St Petersburg on December 21, 1793. They arrived in Kodiak on September 24, 1794, having travelled 7,300 miles in 293 days. Upon arrival, the monks were shocked at conditions in the colony.
It was not the poor living conditions, inhospitable weather, nor the strange customs and foods of the native peoples that so upset the monks, but the violent and exploitative behavior of their own Russian countrymen. Within a few weeks, the leader of the mission, Archimandrite Joasaph (Bolotov) was sending vivid reports of abuse back to Shelikov, believing that Shelikov would intervene. Receiving no reply, Joasaph, the priest-monk Makary, and the deacon Stephen returned to Russia in 1798 to report firsthand about Baranov’s outrageous actions. On their return to Alaska, their ship sank, and all aboard perished (1799). In retaliation for such continuing “interference,” Baranov placed the remaining monks under house arrest, forbidding them any further contact with the native peoples (1800).
St. Herman of Alaska
Despite continuing oppression by the Company, native Alaskans flocked to join the Orthodox Church. The priest-monk Juvenal reported baptizing several thousand himself. Although Juvenal would be martyred by hostile natives in 1796 , the more general success of the Alaskan mission can be explained only by the heroic efforts of the missionaries in defending the Alaskans from Baranov and his henchmen, as well as by the missionaries’ sensitive approach to the pre-Christian spirituality of the Aleuts. The Russian monks presented Orthodox Christianity not as the abolition, but as the fulfillment, of the Aleut’s ancient religious heritage. Most persuasively, the personal example of the monk Herman provided the natives with tangible evidence that the Gospel, when embraced with full dedication and commitment, produced God-like men.
To avoid harassment (and possible assassination at the hands of Baranov’s men), the monk Herman left Kodiak sometime between 1808-1818, and relocated to Spruce Island, three miles to the north. He named his small hermitage “New Valaam,” in honor of his former monastery, from earlier generations of Orthodox monks had set out to evangelize Karelian, Lapp, and Finnish tribespeople. At New Valaam, Herman spent the rest of his life teaching the Aleuts, nursing the sick, raising orphans, praying, and working miracles. Most importantly, through his kindness, compassion and personal holiness, Herman exemplified an ideal Christian life. The last surviving member of the original mission, Herman died in 1837. His remains repose in Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Kodiak. The Aleuts never forgot the humble monk nor his legacy of prayer and deeds. Largely at their insistence, Herman was canonized in 1970 by the Orthodox Church in America as the first Orthodox saint America.
Following Baranov’s death in 1818, social and economic life in Russian Alaska stabilized. In 1824, Fr John Veniaminov, his wife, children, and mother-in-law arrived in Unalaska, opening a new chapter in the story of the Alaskan Mission. Quickly learning Unangan Aleut, the language of the Fox Islands, Veniaminov translated the Gospel of St Matthew with the assistance of local Aleut chief, Ivan Pan’kov. The two also collaborated on the translation of a catechism. Together they opened a parish school in Unalaska in 1828.
Traveling from village to village by sea kayak, for which he would later suffer constant pain and some crippling in his legs, Veniaminov impressed his parishioners with his fluency in their language, respect for their traditions, and pastoral concern. In 1836, he joined a Russian schooner traveling south to minister to those stationed at the most distant Russian outpost in America, Fort Ross, near San Francisco. While in Spanish California, Veniaminov visited the Franciscan missions along the coast, conversing with the Spanish monks in Latin. In a rare gesture of ecumenical goodwill for the time, Veniaminov even built small pipe organs for at least two of the Catholic missions.
Veniaminov returned to European Russia in 1839 to report on his missionary work. During this journey, his wife died in Siberia. After some hesitation, Veniaminov accepted monastic tonsure and ordination as the Bishop of Kamchatka, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, in late 1840. Upon his return to Alaska, Veniaminov founded an All-Colonial School for the “training of native and Creole (mixed ancestry) clergy, seamen, navigators, physicians, accountants, cartographers, and artisans” in New Archangel (Sitka). He quickly learned the local Tlingit language. In 1844 he designed and began the construction of St Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral for the capital of Russian Alaska—a structure which continues to dominate Sitka to this day.
In 1852, Veniaminov was raised to the rank of archbishop and transferred to Yakutsk, Siberia. There he learned yet another native language and continued his missionary work among the native peoples of Siberia. Veniaminov ended his days (+1879) as the Metropolitan of Moscow (the senior hierarch of the Russian Church), where among his other accomplishments he established the Imperial Missionary Society. At the request of the Orthodox Church in America, Veniaminov, who is buried at the Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra in Sergiev Posad, Russia, was canonized as “St Innocent, Enlightener of the Aleuts, Apostle to America and Siberia,” by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977.
Father Jacob Netsvetov
In 1828, Father Jacob Netsvetov, a Creole of Aleut and Russian ancestry and graduate of the Irkutsk Seminary, was ordained to assist Veniaminov (then still a priest) in the evangelization of the Aleutian Islands. Later, when Veniaminov was ordained bishop, he assigned Netsvetov to begin missionary work in the Yukon river delta. Making his headquarters at Ikogmiut, a village today called “Russian Mission,” Netsvetov labored for nearly twenty years among the Yup’ik Eskimo. At the invitation of Athabascan Indian tribes upstream, he preached to, converted, and baptized hundreds in the Innoko River in 1852, thereby narrowly averting a tribal war. Netsvetov described this accomplishment in his personal diaries: “What a joy to see so many joined to the Church of Christ; former enemies, now living together in peaceful coexistence.” Without the benefit of technology, without the protection or physical support of military or legal authorities, and hundreds of miles from the nearest European outpost, Father Jacob preached the Good News and brought salvation to thousands of Alaskans during his decades of service. In recognition of his outstanding work, Netsvetov was made a member of the Imperial Order of St Anna and knighted by Tsar Nicholas I. Fr Netsvetov was canonized by the Orthodox Church in America at St Innocent’s Cathedral in Anchorage on October 15-16, 1994. He is venerated as “St Jacob, Enlightener of the Peoples of Alaska.”
The Meaning of the Alaskan Mission
Through St. Herman, the Alaskan Mission was blessed by the traditional monastic example which SS. Cyril and Methodius provided to the Slavs, centuries earlier. By SS. Innocent and Jacob, the Alaskan Mission demonstrated the linguistic adaptability, cultural sensitivity, and educational outreach characteristic of Orthodox missions from Moravia to Kamchatka. Unfortunately, the heroic missionary work of the Siberian traders who married, converted, and raised their families in the Orthodox faith, and that of their children, the first Native American Orthodox evangelists, have received less attention. Nevertheless, through all their efforts the foundations of the Alaskan Mission had been firmly laid.
With the transfer to American rule in 1867, most ethnic Russians, including the vast majority of Orthodox priests, returned to Russia, leaving the 12,000 native Christians, 9 Orthodox parishes, 35 chapels, 17 schools, and 3 orphanages to fend largely for themselves. In 1872, the diocesan see was transferred from Sitka to San Francisco, and the bishop was able to supervise the mission only from afar. Over the next 100 years, the Alaskan mission received only sporadic assistance from the Orthodox community in the “lower 48.”
Nevertheless, the mission continued to grow, largely through the efforts of indigenous leaders. Despite the fact that the mission never had more than 15 priests, scores of new parishes and chapels, as well as schools and orphanages, were built. Lay leaders continued to conduct services, preach, and teach even in the absence of clergy. The Orthodox Church in Alaska was able to survive because, from its very beginning, it was envisioned, in the best tradition of Orthodox missionary spirituality, as an indigenous church, not as a “diaspora..”
 This chapter was co-authored by Fr. Michael Oleksa.
 In 1980, the OCA Diocese of Alaska canonized Juvenal, together with other martyrs of Alaska, known and unknown.
 For a fuller listing of St. Innocent’s accomplishments see Paul Garrett’s biography, St. Innocent: Apostle to America (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979).
 Orthodox America, p. 19.
 For a more detailed discussion, see Richard Pierce, The Russian Orthodox Religious Mission in America, 1794-1837 (Kingston, ON: The Limestone Press, 1978); Bishop Gregory (Afonsky), History of the Orthodox Church in Alaska, 1774-1914 (Kodiak, AK: St Herman’s Seminary, 1977); and Michael Oleksa, Alaskan Missionary Spirituality (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992).