Saint Herman of Alaska (Russian: Преподобный Герман Аляскинский, c. 1750s – November 15, 1836) was a Russian Orthodox monk and missionary to Alaska, which was then part of Russian America. His gentle approach and ascetic life earned him the love and respect of both the native Alaskans and the Russian colonists. He is considered by many Orthodox Christians as the patron saint of North America.
The first missionaries in North America were from the Russian Orthodox Church, and arrived in Kodiak on September 24, 1794. They had traveled for nearly one year: the Valaam Mission had journeyed east across Russia and Siberia to begin the evangelization of Russian America (Alaska) – the longest missionary journey in Christian history.
“Little is known of the early life of the Monk Herman. He was born in Serpukhov in the Moscow Diocese about 1756 and at the age of 16, he began his monastic life at the Trinity-St. Sergius Hermitage near St. Petersburg. While at the Hermitage, Herman developed a severe infection on the right side of his throat which brought him to the point of death. After fervent prayer before an Icon of the Most-Holy Theotokos he fell into a deep sleep, and during this sleep, Herman dreamed that he was healed by the Virgin. Upon waking, he found that he had completely recovered. Remaining at the Trinity-Sergius Hermitage for five more years, he then moved to the Valaam Monastery on Lake Ladoga.
During his stay at the Valaam Monastery, Father Herman developed a strong spiritual attachment to the Elder Nazarius, Abbot and Renewer of the spiritual life of Valaam. He found in Nazarius a gentle, yet effective spiritual guide, whom he would remember for the rest of his life. During his stay in Valaam, the monastery was visited by Gregory Shelikov, head of the Golikov-Shelikov Trading Company, who requested Monks to work in the new mission field in Alaska. Thus, in 1793, Father Herman, with several other Monks was sent by the Holy Synod of Russia to the Alaskan missionary field.
After a journey of nearly a year, the little band of eight Monks arrived on Kodiak Island on September 24, 1794. From Kodiak, the Monks began their effort to convert and educate the natives. Several thousand Alaskans were converted to Orthodoxy, but the Mission did not have the success that had been expected. Archimandrite Joasaph, the head of the Mission, was consecrated a Bishop, but died with two others when the ship on which he was returning to Alaska sank, and Fr. Herman, who, from the beginning had distinguished himself with his humility, compassion for the natives and his administrative skills, became the acting head of the Mission. Eventually only he remained from the original Mission.
After difficult relations with and persecution by the Russian-American Trading Company, which controlled the Alaska Colony, between 1808 and 1818 Fr. Herman left Kodiak and went to Spruce Island, which he called New Valaam. He spent the rest of his life on this island, where he cared for orphans, ran a school and continued his missionary work. He built a small chapel, school and guest house, while food for himself and the orphans was produced from his own experimental garden.
Caring little for himself, Fr. Herman wore the oldest and simplest clothes under his cassock and ate very little. His free time was devoted to prayer and singing the services he could do as a simple Monk, since, in humility, he had refused to be ordained. Thus, his life on the island was that of an ascetic and was in many ways similar to the lives of the early Monks of the Egyptian desert. When asked if he was ever lonesome, Fr. Herman answered, No, I am not alone there! God is there, as God is everywhere. The Most-Holy Angels are there. With whom is it better to talk, with people or with Angels? Most certainly with Angels.
Father Herman continued to grow in his love for the natives while he lived on Spruce Island, for he saw them as newly-born children in the faith, who had to be guided and taught. He had a special love for the children and they were very fond of him. One of his greatest pleasures was being with children, teaching them and giving them the delicacies he made. During this time a ship from the United States brought an epidemic to the Alaskans and hundreds of them died. But they were not alone, for Herman remained with them constantly, going from person to person, Comforting the dying, and praying with and for them. After the epidemic ended, Fr. Herman brought the orphans back to New Valaam with him and cared for them. On Sundays and Holy Days, Fr. Herman would gather the people for prayer and singing, and he would give sermons that captivated the hearts of all those present. As a clairvoyant Elder, he could see into the hearts of his spiritual children and help them.
The natives recognized the holiness of the Venerable One and turned to him for help, seeing in him an intercessor before God. Once there was a great tidal wave threatening the island and the people came to Fr. Herman for help. He took an Icon of the Theotokos, placed it on the beach and said, Have no fear. The water will not go any higher than the place where this holy icon stands; and it did not. On another occasion there was a fire on the island and the people again turned to the righteous Elder, who interceded successfully on their behalf.
Prior to his death, Fr. Herman revealed what would happen to him. He told the people that when he died there would be no Priest in the area and the people would have to bury him by themselves. He also said that he would be forgotten for thirty years and then would be remembered. Father Herman died on December 13, 1837, in the manner in which he had described to his flock. They continued to revere his memory, but the outside world seemed to forget him until the first investigation of his life in 1867, by Bishop Peter of Alaska. Finally, on August 9, 1970, the Holy Monk was glorified by the Orthodox Church in America, in impressive ceremonies at Kodiak, Alaska, and the Blessed Father Herman of Alaska entered the ranks of Saints who are interceding on behalf of American Orthodoxy..” From: http://www.allsaintsofalaska.ca/index.php/the-saints-of-alaska/st-herman
His Eminence, memory eternal, Metropolitan Philaret of Eastern America and New York, during the Glorification of St. Herman of Alaska had this to say regarding Saint Herman:
“We are present at a spiritual triumph, when yet another name is being added to the great ranks of God-pleasers, to our intercessors and protectors: our Venerable and God-bearing Father Herman the Wonderworker of Alaska, the ascetic struggler from the far north of Alaska. Our Church is celebrating his glorification.
We need to bear in mind that the Church, by this glorification, is not making this God-pleaser into a saint. He is glorified by God, he is a saint of God, and he has been attested to by God as a man of righteousness for his holy and pious life; he has been attested to by the gifts of God’s grace; and he has been attested to by his righteousness and holiness…”
Read the entire Homily which was delivered by His Eminence, Metropolitan Philaret of Eastern America and New York, during the Glorification of St. Herman of Alaska by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia on August 9, 1970, at the Holy Virgin Cathedral of the Joy of All Who Sorrow in San Francisco, CA. here.
“Glory be to God for all things!” St. John Chrysostom once said in antiquity. Now we too, having received these gifts of God’s grace, should say from our whole soul:
“Glory be to God for all things!”
- St. Herman of Alaska: . . . Our sins do not in the least hinder our Christianity . . . (orthodoxchurchquotes.com)
- Bread-Making at Valaam Monastery (tosailblue.wordpress.com)
- Unless the Lord Comes to Us: Advent Reflections (svotssynaxis.wordpress.com)
- The Holy Elders of Optina (orthodoxlogos5.wordpress.com)