Saint Innocent (secular name: John Evseyevich Popov-Veniaminov) was born into the family of a church server on August 26, 1797 in the village of Anginskoye, Verkholensk District, Irkutsk province. In his fifth year he was already receiving instruction in reading and writing from his ailing father, who died in August 1803.
In 1807 the future bishop entered the Irkutsk theological seminary, subsisting on a meager state grant. In 1817, a year before completing his studies at the seminary, he married, and on May 18 of that year was ordained deacon of the Church of the Annunciation in Irkutsk. Upon graduation from the seminary in 1818, Deacon John Veniaminov was appointed a teacher in a parish school, and on May 18, 1821 he was ordained priest to serve in the Church of the Annunciation.
Father John Veniaminov served only two years in that parish, but in this short time was able to win the deepest respect of his parishioners by the purity of his life, his conscientious celebration of divine services, and his pastoral zeal.
But the Lord did not intend Father John Veniaminov to fulfill God’s call in Irkutsk. Divine Providence led him onto the path of apostolic service in the distant Aleutian Islands.
At the beginning of 1823, Bishop Michael of Irkutsk received instructions from the Holy Synod to send a priest to the island of Unalaska in the Aleutians. However, no member of the Irkutsk clergy was prepared to volunteer for this arduous mission. Then Father John Veniaminov announced his willingness to devote himself to pastoral service on these distant islands.
In later life Saint Innocent would recall how after an inner struggle he had said: “Blessed be the name of the Lord!” and was consumed by a burning desire to devote himself to the service of people ignorant of Christ, but, according to eyewitnesses, eager to hear the teachings of the Gospel.
On May 7, 1823 Father John Veniaminov departed from Irkutsk for his new home accompanied by his aging mother, his wife, his infant son Innocent, and his brother Stefan. Their journey was long and exceptionally difficult. It took them more than a year to travel from Irkutsk to the island of Unalaska, which they finally reached on July 29, 1824.
It was from this point in time and place that the man who in his own lifetime became known as “the apostle of America” began his indefatigable apostolic mission, a mission that was to last almost half a century. His apostolic feats were achieved in the severest climatic conditions constantly fraught with mortal danger.
After he and his family had made their home in a wretched earthen hut, Father John Veniaminov undertook as his first task the construction of a church on the island, and set about studying the local languages and dialects. He trained some of the islanders to be carpenters, metalworkers, blacksmiths, bricklayers and stonemasons, and with their assistance in July 1825, he undertook the construction of a church, which was consecrated in honor of the Ascension the following July.
Father John Veniaminov’s parish included not only the island of Unalaska, but also the neighboring Fox Islands and Pribilof Islands, whose inhabitants had been converted to Christianity before his arrival, but retained many of their pagan ways and customs. Their new spiritual father often had to travel from one island to the other, battling through the stormy ocean waves on a fragile canoe, at enormous risk to his own life and limb.
His travels over the islands greatly enhanced Father John Veniaminov’s familiarity with the local dialects. In a short time he had mastered six local dialects, and selecting the most widespread of these, he devised for it an alphabet of Cyrillic letters, and translated into that dialect the Gospel according to St. Matthew, as well as the most frequently used prayers and hymns. These were so successfully adopted by the local populace that they soon displaced the shamanic chants. The zealous missionary waged a vigorous campaign against the vicious practices of the natives, and soon succeeded in eliminating them.
Father John Veniaminov’s first translations, the Catechism and the Gospel According to St. Matthew, appeared in Aleut (Fox Island dialect) in 1828. He also wrote an article in this language, The Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven and compiled a grammar for this Aleut dialect. Father John Veniaminov’s zeal was not confined to the propagation and affirmation of Orthodoxy amongst the Aleutians, and so in 1829, with the blessing of Bishop Michael of Irkutsk, he undertook a journey to the American mainland, to Nushagak, where he brought the word of Christ to the inhabitants of the Bering seacoast, and baptized those who believed.
In November 1834, Father John Veniaminov was transferred to Sitka Island, to the town of Novoarkhangelsk. This opened up to him a new and broader field of missionary activity amongst the Tlingits (or Kolushchans), who had not previously been missionized, due to their firm allegiance to pagan ways.
In Sitka, Father John Veniaminov devoted himself body and soul to the illumination of the Tlingit people, having first assiduously studied their dialect, mores and customs. His linguistic labors were crowned with great successes here too, and bore fruit in the composition of a scholarly work, Notes on the Kolushchan and Kodiak Tongues as well as Other Dialects of the Russo-American Territories, with a Russian-Kolushchan Glossary, the publication of which was greeted as a great event in the scholarly world.
In contemporary descriptions of Father John Veniaminov’s fifteen-year missionary service on the islands of Unalaska and Sitka, he was likened to St. Stephen of Perm. His sound judgment and common sense earned him access to the coarse, but simple and good hearts of the local people. The truths of Christ’s teaching were conveyed to them in accordance with their mental development: they were instructed in an atmosphere of total freedom of belief, and the truths were not forced upon them. Father John Veniaminov patiently waited until people manifested a desire to be baptized. A school was built for the local children, and he provided it with readers and textbooks that he composed and translated by his own hand into the local dialects, and he was their teacher. After leading them into the light of the Gospel, he instructed them in various crafts and trades, he even taught the Tlingits how to vaccinate. This approach won him the trust of the stubborn pagans. Father John Veniaminov’s contemporaries record that the natives loved their teacher and illuminator like a real father, since he was indeed both benefactor and father, teacher and patron to his spiritual children that he had saved for Christ.
In his fifteen years of missionary activity in the Aleutian Islands, Father John Veniaminov was led by his increasing familiarity with the problems of missionary work to the conclusion that a successful development of missionary service in these areas demanded, first and foremost, the construction of many new churches, the founding of a permanent mission in the American north, the appointment of clergyman and missionaries, and the establishment of a deanery under a diocesan bishop.
Father John took these proposals to St. Petersburg, where he reported to the Holy Synod on the state of the Church’s mission in Russian America, and asked assistance for its expansion and improvement.
Father John submitted his translations of the Catechism and the Gospel According to St. Matthew and his treatise, The Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven, to the Holy Synod, and sought their permission to have these printed in the Aleut language as a necessary precondition for the success of the mission. The Holy Synod granted permission on February 12, 1840. Then Father John departed for Moscow to pray before the city’s shrines, to collect donations for the mission in America, and to present himself to Metropolitan Filaret, who, when recalling Father John Veniaminov, would always say: “There is something apostolic about that man.” Father John was summoned by the Holy Synod to St. Petersburg in the autumn, where he was to report on the state of the mission in North America, and on his own missionary labors. By decree of the Holy Synod, he was raised to the rank of archpriest by Metropolitan Filaret on Christmas Day.
In early 1840, while he was in St. Petersburg, Father John Veniaminov received news of the death of his wife on November 24, 1838. He sought permission to return to Irkutsk to his bereaved family, but Metropolitan Filaret dissuaded him from this, and consoling him in his profound grief, urged him to take monastic vows. This suggestion came as a surprise to Father John, and he initially ignored it, setting off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra and to Kiev.
Upon his return to St. Petersburg, Father John Veniaminov decided to accept monastic tonsure.
On November 29, 1840 Archpriest John Veniaminov made his vows before Metropolitan Filaret and was given the name of Innocent in honor of Bishop Innocent of Irkutsk. On November 30 he was raised to the rank of archimandrite.
At the same time, the Holy Synod decided to establish a special episcopal see for the Russian-American churches. On December 15, 1840, in the Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God in St. Petersburg, Archimandrite Innocent Veniaminov was nominated to the newly established see, and consecrated Bishop of Kamchatka, the Kurile and Aleutians Islands. His see was located on the island of Sitka in the town of Novoarkhangelsk, which he reached in September 1841.
His exalted episcopal dignity did not distract Bishop Innocent from his apostolic service, but, on the contrary, invested it with even greater authority. In his letters His Grace gave a modest account of his missionary labors on Sitka. On April 30, 1842 he wrote: “My activities since my arrival in Sitka have been nothing great. They are as follows: (1) a missionary team has been sent to Nushagak, which will reach its destination no earlier than the middle of this June…; (2) on December 17, the theological school was opened, at present numbering 23 Creole and native students…; (3) in the spring, I visited Kodiak to inspect the churches there and was pleased beyond all expectations by what I saw. The Kodiaks have become quite unlike their former selves… and, as they themselves informed me, are now ‘beginning to come out of the darkness into the light’.... In two days time I shall be setting off on an inspection tour of my diocese, which will continue for the duration of 16 months.”
On May 5, 1842 His Grace, Innocent set off on this tour of his far-flung diocese. On May 28, the Feast of the Ascension, he arrived on the island of Unalaska and served in the church he had built and consecrated. The local Aleuts presented their beloved archpastor with “eagle rugs” (round mats with an image of an eagle on it for hierarchs to stand on during divine services), skillfully woven out of grasses and fine roots. Then, after visiting Atka, Unga, Pribilof, Bering and Spruce Islands, on August 18, 1842 Bishop Innocent arrived in the town of Petropavlovsk (on Kamchatka). Later, by winter routes he set off from here on a tour of the Kamchatka churches. After his arduous winter journey through Kamchatka, he reached the town of Okhotsk in April 1843, where he spent a little over four months, during which time he was able with his paternal benevolence to win the trust of the native tribes, which greatly helped him propagate amongst them the Word of God.
In August of that year he departed for Sitka, bringing to an end his first journey through his extensive diocese. In 1846, Bishop Innocent undertook a second journey, and in 1850 a third extensive journey across the Asian part of his diocese. He celebrated Liturgy in all the churches he visited, and molebens or All-Night Vigils in the chapels, and everywhere he delivered homilies. By decree of the Holy Synod on April 21, 1850, Bishop lnnocent was elevated to the dignity of archbishop for his fruitful missionary labors. In 1852 the Yakut area was admitted to the Kamchatka Diocese, and in September 1853 Archbishop Innocent took up permanent residence in the town of Yakutsk. From there the archbishop took frequent trips throughout his enlarged diocese. He devoted much energy to the translation of the Scriptures and service books into the Yakut language.
In the first half of 1857 Archbishop Innocent made a tour of Yakutia and North America, inspecting his most distant parishes, and at the end of June he was summoned to St. Petersburg to participate in the sessions of the Holy Synod. Archbishop Innocent’s proposals that the see be transferred from Yakutsk to the Amur, and that vicariates be set up in Sitka and Yakutsk, were accepted and approved by all the members of the Holy Synod. He was not happy about spending so much time at the Holy Synod sessions, and on January 21, 1858 he was—“at his own request”—released from attending the Holy Synod sessions. He quickly left for Irkutsk by way of Moscow. From Irkutsk he went on to the Amur to the town of Nikolayevsk, where he consecrated churches, preached Christianity to the region’s native tribes, and then returned to Irkutsk in September, traveling through Ayan.
In July 1859 an event of profound significance took place in the Church in Yakutia. Through the care and labors of Archbishop Innocent, his Yakut flock for the first time heard the Word of God and divine service in their native tongue.
Because of its remoteness from the diocesan center, and also as a result of the opening of two vicariates in the Kamchatka Diocese in Novoarkhangelsk (1859) and Yakutsk (1860) and the appointment of vicar bishops to these vicariates, Archbishop Innocent decided to transfer his see from Yakutsk to the town of Blagoveshchensk. He departed from Yakutsk to Irkutsk in February 1860 to consecrate the Vicar of Yakutia, and then made two journeys (in 1860 and 1861) along the Amur and the Ussuri, and then around Kamchatka. When on its way from Nikolayevsk to Kamchatka, the archbishop’s vessel was torn from its mooring off Sakhalin by a powerful storm and ran aground a few meters from a stone reef (on the night of August 29, 1861). No one was injured, and all were safely transported to shore in the early morning. As they had no choice but to go on to Kamchatka by way of Japan, Archbishop Innocent and his companions secured passage on a ship bound for Tokyo, where they arrived on September 9. This was the second occasion on which the apostle of America met the apostle of Japan, Archbishop Nicholas (Kasatkin) of Japan, since canonized as Equal-to-the-Apostles. A few months earlier in the town of Nikolayevsk, Archbishop Innocent had given his blessing to Hieromonk Nicholas on the eve of the latter’s departure for missionary service in Japan.
In October, when he arrived in Petropavlovsk (on Kamchatka), Archbishop Innocent conducted his fourth tour of Kamchatka.
In September 1862 Archbishop Innocent settled in his new see in Blagoveshchensk, and continued his archpastoral service with unabated zeal, tending to the spiritual needs of his flock, and preaching the Word of God among the heathen.
In April 1865 the Holy Synod issued a decree appointing Archbishop Innocent as a member of the Holy Governing Synod.
The concession of the Russian territories in North America to the United States of America caused Archbishop Innocent great anxiety for the fate of the still young Orthodox Church in that area, which had been largely founded and built up through his own apostolic labors. He therefore believed that the American vicariate should not be closed down, but its residence transferred from Novoarkhangelsk to San Francisco. In addition he insisted on the necessity of appointing a new vicar with a knowledge of English, and proposed that the vicar bishop and all the Orthodox clergy in America should celebrate Divine Liturgy and the other church services in English, for which purpose the service books should be translated into the English language.
On November 19, 1867, Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow reposed in the Lord. Archbishop Innocent was fond of quoting the verse from the Psalms: “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord” (Ps 37:23), and the Lord saw fit to guide the steps of His good servant Innocent to a new exalted and responsible service in His Church. On January 5, 1868 Archbishop Innocent of Kamchatka was appointed Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna, successor to the man he had so deeply revered and in whom he had confided his missionary activities, seeking his guidance and help. According to eyewitnesses, the news of his appointment to the Metropolitan see of Moscow and Kolomna, which reached him in Blagoveshchensk on January 18, 1868, seriously troubled the aging hierarch and missionary. For a whole day he was in a state of anxiety, “and in the evening, before retiring, prayed longer than usual, staying long on his knees.” In February he departed for Moscow, the place of his new service, and arrived there on May 25. The day after his arrival, Metropolitan Innocent celebrated Divine Liturgy in the Cathedral of the Dormition, delivering a short, but deeply moving and humble address to his new flock before the service, after the Hours. After his apostolic salutation invoking the grace and peace of God the Father and of Jesus Christ our Lord upon the flock, Metropolitan Innocent said: “Who am I that I presume to take up both the word and the authority of my predecessors? Reared in a time and place of great remoteness, more than half of my life spent in a distant land, I am no more than a humble tiller of a small portion of Christ’s pastures, a teacher of infants and those in the infancy of faith. Is it fitting that one such as I, the least of Christ’s laborers, should be allowed to work in this great vineyard of Christ, glorious and ancient? And that such a teacher should be entrusted with a flock from whose bosom teachers and mentors, and even teachers of teachers go forth to all ends of Russia?. ... Who am I next to my predecessor? There can be no comparison… But who am I to oppose the bidding of God, the King of Heaven, without Whose will not even a hair falls from our heads?. ... No, I said to myself, let it be done to me as it pleases the Lord: ‘I shall go whither Thou biddeth!’ And thus I have come to you. And so, bless me, O Lord, in my new undertaking! Brethren and fathers, especially you, our enlightened mentors and fathers, it is not befitting that you should have an ignorant hierarch such as I am. But for the love of Christ bear with me and remember me also in your private prayers; intensify your prayers that heresy and sophistry do not take advantage of my ignorance and steal into the heart of Orthodoxy.” On May 31 Metropolitan Innocent made his first entrance into the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra in his capacity as its Holy Archimandrite.
Metropolitan Innocent’s administration of the Moscow Diocese was characterized by his energetic attendance at and participation in everything that an archpastor of the Church could and should be concerned with in his diocese. Any person desirous of seeing him would feel no fear in approaching him, being fully confident that he would receive a kind and cordial reception, sympathy for his grief, and a readiness to provide all possible assistance both in word and deed. And no one ever went away from him without receiving help and solace.
In November 1868 Metropolitan Innocent traveled to St. Petersburg to take part in the sessions of the Holy Synod, the first of many such visits, the last being from January to March 1878.
Metropolitan Innocent’s advice and assistance, as that of an experienced missionary, was sought by many young missionaries and, in particular, the apostle to Japan, Hieromonk Nicholas Kasatkin. Hieromonk Nicholas was deeply influenced by the metropolitan and on his recommendation undertook a serious study of the Japanese language. In 1870 the Holy Synod established the Japanese Orthodox Mission, headed by the now Archimandrite Nicholas Kasatkin, a move that was made under the influence of Metropolitan Innocent. Shortly before his death, Metropolitan Innocent expressed his desire to see an episcopal see established in Japan, a wish that was fulfilled in 1880.
Both in Moscow and in the Holy Synod, Metropolitan Innocent achieved, under the guidance of Divine Providence, a great deal for the missionary cause that he had been unable even to conceive of during his own time in the field, and which no one else had been capable of achieving.
In 1875 it was upon Metropolitan Innocent’s proposal that a fourth Moscow saint, Philip, was added to the list of those whose feast is celebrated on October 5. Previously, since 1596, this had been the feast day of the Holy Hierarchs of Moscow—Peter, Alexis and Jonah.
In 1876 the revelation of serious misprints and unintelligible phrases in some of the service books led Metropolitan Innocent to call for a revision of all these books. A special committee was set up in Moscow for this purpose.
Metropolitan Innocent’s administration of his diocese brought fruitful results: many members of the Moscow and village clergy were provided with houses by their communities, and their standard of living improved, all thanks to funds raised by Metropolitan Innocent; a home for retired clergymen was opened in 1871; a diocesan school of icon painting and other arts was opened for poor children and orphans of the clergy who were not able to attend ordinary schools (1873); Metropolitan Filaret’s school for daughters of the clergy was reformed, primarily for those not receiving any pensions or subsidies; and a church dedicated to the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God was built for the Moscow Theological Academy.
Feeling that his end was approaching, on Holy Tuesday (March 27, 1879) Metropolitan Innocent requested that the Sacrament of Holy Unction be administered to him. On March 29, Holy Thursday, after early Liturgy he received Holy Communion. On Holy Saturday (March 31), at 2.45 a.m. the great hierarch and apostle went to sleep in the Lord. On April 5, 1879, the body of Metropolitan Innocent of Moscow was laid to rest at Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. Two epitaphs were engraved on his headstone: “May the Lord God remember your episcopacy in His Kingdom, now and ever, and unto ages of ages” and, “We beseech Thee our Lord Jesus Christ to hear the prayers of Metropolitan Innocent and have mercy on us.”
Of the many characterizations of Metropolitan Innocent left to us by his contemporaries, the following is perhaps the most descriptive: “His Eminence, Innocent stands out magnificently among all our Orthodox hierarchs, ancient and new, for his remarkable and unique qualities. Having grown up and worked up to the age of seventy in the midst of nature, surrounded by simple children of nature, he was himself approachable, kind and welcoming, straightforward and free of partiality, caring not for show or finery, nor prone to flaunt either his knowledge or his accomplishments, and his behavior at all times was simple and humble. His great natural intelligence was enriched with a wealth of knowledge that few possess. His heart had no place for envy and cunning, ambition and vanity, desire for riches or for earthly comforts. Since early childhood he had to wage a constant struggle with severe natural conditions and people, resisting need and privation, and he taught himself patience and industry, courage and perseverance, self-control and resourcefulness, restraint and the ability to be content with little, and implicit submission to the holy will of God in all circumstances. ...”
It is perfectly clear that His Eminence, Innocent was from the first years of his apostolic service totally devoted in body and soul to the Holy Church and to the propagation of the Word of God; that he was outstanding in his sobriety and clearness of intellect, which was combined with a profound faith in the Lord; that he was a man of great industry, in possession of enormous resources of energy and willpower; and that he was benevolent. gentle in heart, selfless and modest.
Preaching the Gospel was for His Eminence, Innocent the main task in life. This he accomplished in the face of great hardship and privation. He had to cover great distances in small boats across tempestuous seas, and in sleighs driven by dogs or deer across snowy wastes. There is ample factual evidence to illustrate these journeys that seriously undermined his health. However, they brought him great spiritual joy. He wrote as follows to his bishop in Irkutsk about his missionary expedition to the island of Unga in 1828: “Words cannot describe the zeal with which the Aleuts received my teaching, the gratitude with which they honored me for having instructed them, or the spiritual pleasure which teaching them brought me. Thanks be to God the Word, for granting me His Word, and for enlightening and comforting them with the Word.”
The preaching of the Word of God played a predominant role in His Eminence, Innocent’s apostolic ministry. He was a remarkable preacher, and would never fail to avail himself of an opportunity to deliver a sermon or hold a discussion and, once he was consecrated bishop, he energetically exhorted his clergy to do likewise: “Woe to him who is called and ordained to propagate the Word, and does not do so!” he wrote. “When explaining the objects of faith it is important to speak circumspectly, clearly, distinctly and in as few words as possible, or your sermon will have little success. ... You must convey to your listeners the essential message of all Jesus Christ’s teaching: that we repent, believe in Him and nourish a selfless and pure love for Him and all mankind. ... If you are to win your listeners’ hearts you must speak from your heart, for it is the strength of our heart’s feeling that moves us to speak. So only one who is filled to overflowing with faith and love will be able to speak with a wisdom which his listeners’ hearts will be unable to resist. ...” More than a hundred years have passed since the death of St. Innocent of e ternal memory, but the memory of this holy man is still fresh in the mind of the Church, in the hearts of countless Christians who venerate him as a man pleasing to God, an apostle and hierarch.
On October 6, 1977, by decision of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia together with the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox, acting on the official request of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, the Holy Hierarch Innocent was numbered among the saints. His feast is celebrated twice a year—on October 6 and March 31. In 1994, during excavations on the grounds near the Holy Ghost Church at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, St. Innocent’s precious relics were discovered and are now profoundly venerated by the faithful both in Russia and America.
This article is adapted from the English translation of the Act ot the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church published in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, English Edition, Issue 1, 1978.