225 Anniversary of the Alaska Mission
On the Occasion of the 225th Anniversary of the Arrival of the Valaam Missionaries to Kodiak, Alaska
Most Rev. + David, Archbishop of Sitka and Alaska
On December 21, 1793, Archimandrite Ioasaph, along with three priest0monks, a Hierodeacon, and a lay monk, and a few support personnel left St Petersburg, Russia to journey over 7,300 miles to the Russian American settlement of Kodiak, Alaska. It remains the longest missionary journey by any group in recorded history. The treacherous journey took 293 days, traversing Russia and Siberia by land, and then a hazardous sea journey by ship to Kodiak. They arrived on September 24, 1794 to begin their work with the native peoples of Alaska, or as the Russians referred to them, “The Americans”.
They began immediately working with the local peoples and defending them against the harsh treatment they were receiving at the hands of the Promyshleniki, the Russian fur traders. They soon found the Alutiiq people flocking to the Orthodox Faith. Not only because of their defense of the native and their treatment, but because they did not present Orthodoxy as the abolition of their native religion, but as the fulfillment of it. The heroic work of these handful of men brought about the spreading of Orthodoxy on this continent. Everywhere they went to bring the Gospel, the Good News, to people who had not heard it before, they found a willing people seeking the True Faith.
When we think about their labors, we should immediately think of the era in which they worked. How difficult was it to get around at that time? What forms of transportation were available to them? Their own feet, perhaps a cart or even a horse and a wagon? Nothing more than that existed and so there was no other means available or even realized. What about their communication? None of our modern conveniences existed either. No phones, radios, teletype or wireless devices to use at all. All they had was a face to face meeting or a written letter, and relying on ships and couriers to get those letters to the proper recipient.
What literature did they have to hand out to help in teaching these new catechumens? They were dealing with a people who had no real written language. No books existed to explain the faith. There were no pocket Bibles to hand out in their own language, simply their own words to the eager ears of the indigenous peoples.
We might look at this and say, “Why bother?” Too much effort for too few people. Would our time be better spent with a people easier to work with in a milder climate closer to home? Fortunately for us, these were not the concerns of the Valaam missionaries. Their only concern was fulfilling the Great Commission of our Lord in Matthew 28, to make disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Nothing else was of any significance. All that mattered was what they knew, there were a good number of people living in Alaska that did not know the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Their zeal to “do the work of an evangelist”, as St Paul says in II Timothy 4, was what drove them, it was what they all lived for; and they were willing to give their life to that end if that was what was needed.
So they went to Alaska, that long and treacherous journey being completed by them all. Under the careful leadership of Archimandrite Joasaph they met every challenge and did so with joy in their hearts. It mattered not the color of their skin, the language of their tongue, the shape of their dress, they were all people created in the Image of God and needed to have that Illumination that only Christ can give.
It should be noted, that of the original missionaries, only Father Herman, the lay-monk remained entirely in Kodiak. In 1795, Fr Macarius was sent to the Aleutian Islands and eventually returned to Kamchatka. Fr Juvenaly, after converting the Kenai and Athabaskans of Cook Inlet, traveled through Lake Iliamna and on to the mouth of the Kuskokwim river where he was martyred in his boat along with his companion whose name we do not have. Archimandrite Joasaph returned to Russia in 1799, aboard the Phoenix, he and the entire retinue perished upon their return to Alaska before they reached Kodiak, articles from the boat floating on shore from the Aleutians to Kodiak Island itself. Fr Athanasius stayed almost entirely in Kodiak and went nowhere else.
By 1821, there was only the humble monk who now lived on Spruce Island, Father Herman. Always an example of true Christian piety and love, he cared for all who came to him, he built an orphanage and school to care for the children who were orphaned by an epidemic. He grew a garden and taught the basics of a Christian life both by word and example. His life, miracles and death are all remembered by the inhabitants of the area and his memory was kept alive in veneration by the native peoples until he was finally Canonized by the Orthodox Church in America in 1970, the first saint of a newly-autocephalous Orthodox Church, as their first official act.
So, let us ask again, “What can I do?” Looking at this history of the first missionaries, we can do much to further the life of Orthodoxy in our land by following the example of Father Herman. These brave and courageous Valaam Missionaries show us the way. How many more devices to we have to use today than they did? How much easier is it to communicate with others compared to them? How much easier is it to travel today than back then? Our resources are very plentiful and yet there is much more that needs done today than before.
This Anniversary is a way of marking the great work of the Valaam Missionaries, but it is also a way of showing us the path forward. In their time, the men of Valaam came forward and made a long journey to reach a people in darkness. How many of our neighbors today are sitting in darkness? How many of them do not know the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? How many have forgotten it? Beloved, you and I are the New Valaam, put here by God to fulfill the Great Commission in our time, with our talents. We are called, as Saint Paul says, to do the work of an Evangelist, using the talents that God has given us for the benefit of those around us. Evangelism is never a completed work, it is always a moving force of transformation in each generation. It is now our time, it is our call to be the ones who perpetuate that great missionary work yet again. In our time, for our people. May All the Saints of Alaska pray for us and help us to fulfill God’s will both today in the time to come. Amen.
Letter to All
By the mercies of God, beginning in the Fall of 2019, The Diocese of Alaska will leverage the divine history of His Church in Alaska to overcome our most pressing problems.
Ours is a history of missions, evangelism, and spiritual and practical discipleship in the Orthodox Tradition. We will apply the treasures of our history to solve the most pressing problems we face today: the aging and shrinking of our Orthodox parishes, our inability to raise-up the next generation of Orthodox Christians, the prevalence of substance and domestic abuse, the difficulty in building cross-cultural communities, and the inability to defend the faith delivered to the saints while being infected by 21st century culture, society, and economics.
To be specific, The St. Herman Seminary Orthodox Theological Seminary Board of Trustees, the faculty of the Seminary, and I have committed to four priorities:
To accomplish these priorities, we have launched three ministry challenges that will be heart and soul of our St. Herman Seminary:
Reader-Excellence Challenge (2019): By deploying thoroughly prepared and thoroughly proven Readers who are also entirely proven leaders of addiction recovery (The Freedom Challenge), early childhood catechesis (Catechesis of the Good Shepherd), and parish revitalization (Come-and-See Catechesis), we will give existing parishes an immediate “shot in the arm” and give existing priests a moment or two to catch their breath. This we have titled, The Reader-Excellence Challenge... and it is very challenging!
Deacon-Excellence Challenge (2021): Step Two is to deploy thoroughly capable and thoroughly proven Deacons. Not only will these Deacon’s be boots-on-the-ground-ready for all liturgical responsibilities on day one of their return to the parish, they will also be proven leaders of teams, able to accept delegated responsibilities of their priests, able to inspire participation of parishioners, and able to lead teams that take care of all the non-liturgical responsibilities of the parish. We have titled this, The Deacon-Excellence Challenge and it will require graduation from The Reader-Excellence Challenge.
Priest-Excellence Challenge (2022): Finally, Step Three is The Priest-Excellence Challenge. In this phase of the revitalization of Orthodoxy in Alaska, the Candidate (who has graduated from the previous two Challenges) will be immersed in the personal dimensions of the priesthood as well as the deep and wide theological and Traditional dimensions of Orthodox Christianity.
I have two requests: (1) Go to the Seminary website (www.sthermanseminary.org) and read about these exciting initiatives in-depth. (2) Talk with your fellow parishioners about The Reader-Excellence Challenge with the intent of your parish applying to send at least one of your number to the Seminary this Fall.
Please notice, we are specifically inviting retired individuals and couples as well as younger adults to apply.
+ DAVID, Archbishop of Sitka and Alaska
2018 All American Council Diocesan Video
2018 Diocesan Assembly Awards