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ST. INNOCENT OF ALASKA
In 1824, 30 years after the establishment of the Russian Orthodox mission on Kodiak Island, a new phase of mission work among the Alaskan people commenced. At that time Fr. John Veniaminov, a 27-year old priest, arrived on the Aleutian Island of Unalaska, Alaska, with his wife and family, thus beginning the 37 years of missionary work in Alaska of St. Innocent, Apostle to America. On Unalaska the young Fr. John built the Holy Ascension Church (photo to the right).
Fr. John was born 1n 1797in the small village of Anga, near Irkutsk, Siberia, seven years before the glorification of St. Innocent of Irkutsk. After his father reposed, the future saint lived with his uncle, the parish deacon, in the family house in Anga (photo to the left). Then, for eleven years he attended the school that St. Innocent had established in Irkutsk. Thus, it was very appropriate when Fr. John later received his monastic name in honor of St. Innocent of Irkutsk.
The brilliant future saint and bishop had numerous gifts in addition to his zeal and love of God. Besides being a scholar, linguist, scientist and writer, he also had many practical and technical skills. In Alaska he worked tirelessly on behalf of the people. He learned the Aleut and other native languages and created written alphabets for them, so he could translate the catechism, liturgical books and Bible for the natives and teach them to read. His famous book, The Indication of the Path to the Kingdom of Heaven has gone through countless editions in many languages(the photo to the right shows an 1899 edition), and is an Orthodox spiritual classic. An original copy of his translation of the Gospel of St. Matthew into the Aleut language (photo to the left), that includes some of his own hand-written notes, is still in the Ascension Cathedral in Unalaska. Throughout his 43-years of missionary work in Alaska and Siberia, the saint traveled extensively, teaching and preaching to the people, who loved him for his gentleness and compassion. As Fr. Herman also had done, Fr. John taught the natives practical skills: construction, carpentry, gardening, animal husbandry, metalworking. He built churches, orphanages and schools, where trades were taught along with religion and traditional studies.
While on a trip to Moscow, on behalf of his Alaskan mission work, Fr. Johns wife died, and in 1840, he was tonsured a monk and consecrated as the first resident Bishop of Alaska. Bishop Innocent traveled throughout his large, new diocese, preaching and serving in the native languages, expanding his prior work. His diocesan center was in Sitka, where he built the St. Michael Cathedral (photo to the left), and established a seminary to train native clergy. (This work is continued today at the St. Herman Seminary on Kodiak Island.) The seminary was located in the Bishop's House (photo to the right) which St. Innocent built, and where he lived. [The Bishop of Alaska continued to live in that house until about 1970, when the State of Alaska bought the historic buillding, restored it, and converted it into a museum. The second floor has been restored to its appearance when St. Innocent lived there, including the still functioning Chapel and bishop's quarters, and includes one of the clocks and some of the furniture that St. Innocent made.]
In 1852 Bishop Innocents diocese was enlarged to an archdiocese, to include the northeastern areas of Siberia. When he moved the center of his activity to Yakutsk in Siberia, he appointed an auxiliary bishop for Alaska. In spite of his requests to retire due to ill health, in 1869 (just two years after Russia sold Alaska to the United States), St. Innocent was made Metropolitan of Moscow (the Head of the entire Russian Orthodox Church), from where he continued to watch over his former mission fields. When St. Innocent reposed in 1879, he was buried at the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra Monastery. He was glorified as a saint in 1977, and now his relics are in a very prominent place, in front of the left front pillar in the Dormition Cathedral at the Lavra (see photo to the left).
As a result of the missionary work of St. Herman and St. Innocent, many thousands of native Alaskans came to know the Lord, and Orthodoxy was established in America, of which all Orthodox people in America are heirs today.
To the right we see a contemporary Russian icon, which includes scenes from the saint's life.
To the left is a small detail of a full-wall-size icon of five of the American saints, painted/written by Fr. Theodore Jurewicz, of Erie, Pennsylvania, and located in St. Innocent of Irkutsk Orthodox Church in Redford, Michigan.
This article was written by Jane M. deVyver, M.Th., Ph.D., and the
photos are by the author.
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