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Again Magazine, Volume 15, No. 4, December, 1992 Pages 28-31
Saint Innocent of Alaska
By Father Joseph Fester
On March 31, 1878, Great and Holy Saturday, Metropolitan Innocent, Apostle to America and Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia, entered his eternal rest at the age of eighty-two. Although blind and crippled from the effects of decades of exposure to the harsh elements of Alaska and Siberia, he was active to the end, revealing a missionary spirit which has inspired all those who know his life.
The missionary life of Saint Innocent holds many important lessons for us today as his spiritual children involved in missionary work.
AN IRRESISTIBLE CALL TO THE MISSION FIELD
Born near Irkutsk, Siberia in 1797, young John Popov (his last name was later changed to Veniaminov in honor of the great Siberian bishop, Benjamin) went to school at the diocesan seminary in Irkutsk. He demonstrated at an early age a wide range of interests, including woodworking, watchmaking, and linguistic skills, which would serve him well in his later life.
John grew to an imposing six-foot-three inches in height, and was a man full of energy, never content to have idle time on his hands. He graduated from seminary at the top of his class and was a candidate to continue his studies at the Moscow Theological Academy. Instead he chose to marry Catherine, the daughter of a local priest, and embark on a life as a parish priest.
During this time, winds of enlightened missionary zeal were sweeping across Russia emphasizing the multi-national character of the Russian Empire. The Russian Orthodox Church, by sending new missionaries into its eastern Siberian and Alaskan regions to train native clergy, created written native languages so that Holy Scripture and liturgical service books could be translated, providing liturgy and worship in the native tongues.
The call went out for missionaries to fill this need, but at first few responded. Even Father John Veniaminov, newly married, with a family and a widowed mother, could not humanly see how he could help. He was further dissuaded by the stories he heard from returning trappers and adventurers who told of the harsh conditions in Alaska.
A dramatic change occurred, however, when John encountered an old Russian adventurer named Kriukov. Kriukov related the same stories concerning this severe and primitive frontier, but went on to tell of the genuinely kind native people of Alaska who, although they were pagan, would give a wayfaring stranger their last crumb of bread. Upon hearing Kriukov’s report, John experienced an extraordinary change of heart. He later wrote, “Blessed be the Name of the Lord! I began to burn with desire to go to such a people!”
EAST TO ALASKA
Kriukov had put a human face on Alaska, and the young Veniaminov answered the call. On May 7, 1823, Father John, Catherine, their son, his mother, Thekla, and his brother, Gabriel, left Irkutsk for a 2200-mile circuitous trip overland to reach the Siberian seaport of Okhotsk. After securing the necessary provisions for the next leg of their trip, they left Okhotsk for the treacherous two-month sea voyage to Sitka, their first stop in Russian-America.
Wintering in Sitka before being able to travel to their final destination of Dutch Harbor (Old Harbor), Unalaska, a dot on the specks which make up the Aleutian Island chain, the never idle priest by the end of his sixth day in Sitka started a twice-weekly school for the children of Sitka and began his study of the native Aleut language. When he finally arrived on Unalaska on August 1, 1824, he remarked in his diary, “For the first time since the birth of Christ—in fact, from the creation of the world—the Divine Liturgy has been celebrated on Unalaska!”
It was this vision of his work which kept Father John focused on his task as a missionary. His first goals were to visit all of his parishioners (an area encompassing several thousand square miles), to build a Church in Dutch Harbor and establish a center where the people would gather to hear the Word of God, and to learn the native language well enough to preach to the people.
The historic Orthodox missionary approach which Father John incarnated in his life is based on five points.
1) AFFIRM the culture, and the people you evangelize, as Christ affirmed humanity by becoming man.
2) ASSESS and critique the culture; distinguish between truth and error; recognize and affirm all truth in it.
3) BUILD on those godly elements of the culture. Use them as “stepping stones” to and for better communications.
4) EXPLAIN and beautify that truth in its fullest context, in Orthodox truth.
5) USHER that truth toward its transcendent identity in our Eucharistic procession into the Kingdom of God.
By encouraging the native culture through its language and customs, Saint Innocent also discovered the godly elements of the culture. Finding the common ground to build upon that truth, he always moved it towards its ultimate fulfillment of Orthodox truth. Even though some native customs were quite un-Christian, Saint Innocent did not condemn such practices outright. Rather, he found that truth which was present, and offered to explain that truth by teaching the Christian Gospel.
Saint Innocent believed that the key to understanding and evangelizing the Tlingit natives around Sitka was to understand the legendary life of El, their god. In doing so, Saint Innocent discovered how best to teach the Tlingits about Christ, and just as importantly, methods not to use.
His respect for the people he was called to evangelize was authentic. He offered his considerable talents by producing the Gospel of Saint Matthew in Aleut (he first had to create an alphabet since Aleut was not a written language), and later a catechetical work written originally in Aleut entitled Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as a 1200-word Aleut-Russian dictionary and grammar book on the Fox-Aleut language.
IT COMES WITH THE TERRITORY
All of these accomplishments were done for the most part during the long winter months when travel was impossible. However, when the short summer traveling season was upon him, he made the most of it. For Saint Innocent that meant becoming an expert with a one-man kayak.
Traversing hundreds of miles of dangerous and unpredictable open sea to reach his parishioners, a “parish” which encompassed thousands of square miles, was always eventful. One such “routine” trip (as he called it) in 1828 found Saint Innocent kayaking from Unalaska to Umnak and Akun Islands (part of the Aleutian Chain). This trip featured twice being bestormed at sea and twice being forced to make safe camp on deserted islands to wait out the storm, and once almost being capsized by a pod of whales!
Travel was always physically testing. Cramped in a small kayak, with the cold water slapping on the sides of the boat, even the best native clothes to protect skin and body could not stop all of the piercing cold. The years of exposure took their toll when rheumatism invaded Saint Innocent’s legs. It never stopped him, but merely slowed him down a bit!
When Saint Innocent was fortunate enough to be able to travel by ship (which meant automatic sea sickness for him) on his yearly missionary journeys, the trips were at best arduous because of alternating storms and calms which slowed progress. Patience, a noted virtue of the native peoples, became a necessary virtue for Saint Innocent, and one he cautioned all his missionary priests to acquire.
FROM MISSIONARY TO METROPOLITAN
Saint Innocent’s life had three distinct stages: missionary priest in Alaska, from 1824 to 1840; missionary bishop in Alaska and Siberia (after the death of his wife), from 1841 to 1868; and missionary Metropolitan of Moscow, from 1868 to 1878. Each of these three periods also embraced the three aspects of true missionary work: to plant, to nurture, and to educate.
As a missionary priest in Alaska, Innocent planted scores of Churches and baptized thousands of natives. He planted seeds of faith in the hearts of the native Alaskans, and traveled to the far reaches of his “parish” to give people the opportunity to encounter the living Word of God and be counted members of His Body, the Church. He did this with courage and unflagging determination. With his increasing responsibilities as bishop and metropolitan, he took advantage of his position to do as much as he could to further the call of the Church to always be missionary in nature.
As a missionary bishop in Alaska and Siberia, he reorganized his diocese to make its missionary work more effective. He pushed for and received a local bishop specifically for Alaska, and a bishop for Siberia, who were both sensitive to the unique character of each region and recognized the need for more local contact between the bishop, his priests, and the flock. He continued his work in translating more native languages so that the native people could hear the Word of God in their own tongue, in itself the greatest sign of affirmation of their culture. He encouraged his priests to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel, and he gave them his own example as a model. When his diocese included both Alaska and Siberia, a single missionary journey to his diocese would encompass over 15,000 miles by foot, dog-sled, kayak, cart, and ship!
A SOCIETY FOR MISSIONARY STUDIES
As Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia, Saint Innocent turned his attention and life experiences to educate others about the central importance of missionary work. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Orthodox Missionary Society in 1869. Saint Innocent knew, and he now felt compelled to share with others, that the work of being a missionary was not limited to just a few who would call themselves missionaries, but that the Church by definition is missionary!
In his address to the first meeting of the Missionary Society in 1870, Saint Innocent declared that missionary work and projects were the attention and work of all the members of the Church. “Matters of faith and of the Church must be considered equally important and necessary for the laity as for the clergy. In this unity of the spirit consists the true power of the Orthodox Church and our hope of success in all she undertakes for her own good and honor.”
On that first day the Orthodox Missionary Society counted 150 members. Its second meeting saw 470 members, and the work of the Missionary Society flourished until the Russian Revolution in 1917.
VISION FOR NORTH AMERICA
In his final years, Saint Innocent saw for his beloved adopted home of Alaska and America an independent future. Saint Innocent envisaged the missionary effort in America to move beyond Alaska to the lower United States itself, with New York being the probable site for the diocesan see. Saint Innocent viewed Alaska as the first stop for the Orthodox Faith in North America. From there he envisioned it spreading to all of America.
As Metropolitan of Moscow he sent new bishops and priests to America. Even though Alaska by then was owned by the United States, he rejoiced in this new reality because it opened the entire United States to the possibility of being evangelized.
“…I see in this event one of the ways of Providence by which Orthodoxy will penetrate the United States (where even now people have begun to pay serious attention to it). Were I to be asked about this, I would reply. . .appoint a new bishop from among those who know the English language. Likewise, his retinue ought to be composed of those who know English. . .ordain to the priesthood for our Churches converts to Orthodoxy from among American citizens who accept all its institutions and customs. Allow the vicar bishop and all the clergy of the Orthodox Church in America to celebrate the Liturgy and other services in English (for which purpose, obviously, the service books must be translated into English). To use English rather than Russian (which must sooner or later be replaced by English) in all instruction in the schools to be established in San Francisco and elsewhere to prepare people for ordination and missionary work.”
These directions, given over 125 years ago, show how fully Saint Innocent trusted the native peoples of different cultures to fully embrace Orthodoxy if they were given the opportunity. He also knew that Orthodox missionaries must capitalize upon this opportunity by knowing the culture they were to evangelize from the inside out, so as to take advantage of its strengths and avoid its weaknesses.
A MISSIONARY MARVEL
No other person in modern times has come close to matching the missionary feats of Saint Innocent. He has been called a “renaissance man” by some. He was a master carpenter, watchmaker, inventor, linguist, original translator, noted ethnographer, sociologist, teacher, and scholar. But for all these talents, were it not for his first calling, a missionary priest and bishop, none of these talents would have been fully utilized.
It is as missionary that we know Saint Innocent, because his life was one which incarnated the verse of Holy Scripture, “The Lord guides a man safely in the way he should go” (Psalm 37:23). May his life of dedication and courage guide us as we look ahead towards the bicentennial celebration of Orthodoxy’s arrival in America.
Father Joseph Fester is the Director of the Office of Church Growth, Stewardship, and
Evangelization for the Orthodox Church in America.
For further reading on Saint innocent and Orthodox missionary activity:
Saint INNOCENT, Apostle to America by Paul Garrett, SVS Press
Orthodoxy And Native Americans: The Alaskan Mission by Barbara Smith, SVS Press
Alaskan Missionary Spirituality, ed. By Michael Oleksa, Paulist Press
Orthodox America 1794-1976: Development of the Orthodox Church in America, Orthodox Christian Publication Center
•Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven by Saint Innocent, Holy Trinity Monastery Press
All of the above are available through Saint Vladimir Seminary Bookstore,
575 Scarsdale Road, Crestwood, NY 10707