Dozens of pilgrims celebrated the 41st anniversary of the canonization of St. Herman of Alaska by journeying to Spruce Island to visit the holy site where Orthodox Christianity celebrates its first roots on the American continent.
The annual pilgrimage draws many locals, but also Orthodox from across the United States and from abroad. Those traveling to Spruce Island Monday came by water in everything from kayaks to the 70-foot former tug boat Le Manguier, landing on the beach by skiff before heading up to St. Herman’s Chapel for the outdoor liturgy.
St. Herman came to Kodiak in 1794 and proceeded to convert the Native population to Christianity, but he came into conflict with Russian officials, particularly over their treatment of the Native people, said John Dunlop, dean of St. Herman’s seminary.
“He defended them in many ways,” Dunlop said. “He wrote letters back to Russia complaining of the treatment they were receiving and he was actually under house arrest for a short time in Kodiak.” The retreat at Spruce Island, then, was a kind of exile, but also allowed St. Herman to follow the life of a hermit, following the cycles of prayer of the church.
“The people who come on the annual pilgrimage come because they love Father Herman,” Father Michael Oleksa said. “They want to see where he lived and where he died,” he said. “If there’s a holy land in North America, at least for us, this is it. It’s a magnificent and holy place.”
Jonah Paffhausen, Metropolitan of all America and Canada, spoke at the Liturgy, asking the pilgrims gathered to take a moment and take in the silence of the holy place.
The other sites of importance in the area include St. Herman’s spring, where pilgrims drink fresh water, and the gravesites of those who came after St. Herman, cared for his possessions and carried on his legacy of caring for the people here.
“For us it’s walking on holy ground and having a taste of what holiness is like,” Oleksa said. “To have the same experience in the Old World may be more accessible — Kiev, Moscow, the holy mountain (Athos), Meteora in Greece — but this is our Holy Land now because of that one holy man who lived here and basically sanctified this forest, this spring and this ground on which we walk today.”
David Young, who led the singing at the Divine Liturgy, said he was amazed he could visit the Lower 48 and see the influence of St. Herman, for example, in churches named after the first saint from America to be canonized by the Orthodox Church.
“When people come to Alaska for the pilgrimage they carry (the story) back with them, and then more and more people around the Lower 48 are regarding him and venerating him and naming their churches after him,” Young said.
“When I went to Kansas City, for example, I had no idea that there was going to be anything about St. Herman there,” Young said. “There was a stained glass window with him and it was surprising that here’s Alaska right in the middle of the Midwest.”
The experience for first-time pilgrim Sophia Kellachow was one of stepping from one world into another.
“You could feel the true mysteries of the faith,” she said, “not only because you are there, where it began historically, but because it is permeated with prayer.”
Another first-time pilgrim, Jeanette Parker, said what she will take away from the experience is the deep, peaceful quiet — something she will try to remember in the hustle and bustle of daily life.
“When you walked in the forest the peace and the quiet was almost something tangible,” she said.
By Wes Hanna
Photos by Sophia Kellachow