Evangelizer, Teacher, Visionary

St. Innocent of Alaska

Equal to the Apostles, Enlightener of North America
1797 - 1879

Drawing of St. Innocent by the Very Rev. L.P. Koulos which appeared on the cover of the 1997 OCA Desk Calendar and the OCA Sourcebook.

Throughout 1997 Orthodox Christians in North America will celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of their “apostle” and first bishop—St. Innocent (Veniaminov).

Born on August 26, 1797, in a remote village in Siberia, John Popov (who later assumed the surname of Veniaminov) studies for pastoral service at the seminary in Irkutsk. After his marriage to Catherine Sharina (1817) and ordination to the priesthood (1821), Fr. John volunteered for missionary work in Alaska.

Arriving with his family in Unalaska in the Aleutian island chain (1824), Fr. John began his remarkable career as a missionary priest and bishop in the far-reaches of the Russian Empire—Siberia and Alaska. Following the death of his wife (1839), he entered monastic life by taking the name Innocent and was elected the first resident bishop of Alaska (1840-58).

A person with many skills and interest, Fr. John carefully studied the traditional cultures of his flock and well as their natural environment. He also designed and built churches including the Mission House and St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka. 

An accomplished linguist, Fr. John learned the various native Siberian and Alaskan languages of his diverse flock. While serving in Unalaska, he learned Unangan, the Fox Island dialect of the Aleut people. Along with Aleut leader Ivan Pan’kov, he devised a written grammar and alphabet, translating the Gospel of St. Matthew and liturgical texts. His spiritual treatise Indication of the Pathway into the Kingdom of Heaven was first published in Unangan and was the first Aleut book.

Later in his life he was appointed Metropolitan of Moscow (1868). However, Metropolitan Innocent’s evangelical zeal never diminished—establishing in 1868 the Orthodox Missionary Society. He died in Moscow on March 31, 1879, and was canonized a saint of the Orthodox Church on October 6, 1977.