St. Herman of Alaska
Celebrated on Dec 13, 15, July 27, and second Sunday after Pentecost (the Synaxis of the Saints of North America)
Written By: Holden Hooper
Column: Featured Saint of the Month
Issue: Set to Appear in the December Issue of the Newsletter
Born sometime in the 1750s to a family of prosperous peasants in the Voronezh Governorate, Egor Ivanovich Popov served in the military for a while till he entered the monastic life as a novice at Sarov Monastery. He then went to the Valaam Monastery in Finland to receive the full tonsure of a monk in 1782 which is when he received the name, Herman. While at Valaam Herman was under the spiritual guidance of Abbot Nazarius who was also originally from the Sarov Monastery. The Abbot Nazarius had been influenced by the Russian hesychastic tradition of Paisius Velichkovsky. Herman did the obediences of the monastery in a righteous way as was liked by the other monks of Valaam. But Herman wished for the solitary life of a hermit, which he got the blessing to do from Abbot Nazarius. Herman’s new hermitage which became known as Herman’s field was 2 kilometers from Valaam Monastery. Herman was offered to be ordained into the priesthood and asked twice (by Metropolitan Gabriel of St. Petersburg) to join the Orthodox Mission into China, but Herman refused because he preferred the simple life of the solitary ascetic.
The Russians started to colonize Alaska in 1741, due to the large amounts of furs and pelts. Grigory Shelikhov and Ivan Golikov founded the Russian American Company on Kodiak Island which received a monopoly on furs from imperial Russia, on the island Grigory founded a school for the natives who wanted to convert to the Orthodox faith. Grigory and Ivan’s Company made an appeal to the Russian Synod to send priests for the natives. Catherine the great decided instead to send to America a whole mission, the people in this mission were chosen by Metropolitan Gabriel of St. Petersburg who choose Herman and 10 other Valaam monks, who arrived in Alaska on Sept. 24 of 1794.
Upon arriving on Kodiak Island it was quickly realized that Grigory had distorted and hidden facts relating towards the reality of the Russian colony. The natives were treated roughly by the Russian fur-traders who made them hunt for sea-otters in harsh conditions, while the traders abused the native women and children. The morals of the colony were not very high either, with alcoholism and the taking of native “mistresses” being common with the Russian traders. And the supplies that Grigory had promised the mission to have when they arrived were not there, so the monks upon arrival had to grow their food with wooden tools. But even with these difficulties, it did not set back the mission from converting 7,000 natives to the Christian faith, building a church, and a monastery (with Herman as the baker and steward). The team of monks and especially Herman with zeal defended the natives from the abuses and excessive demands of the Russian traders. After 10 years Herman became the head of the mission, even though he was no priest, but the locals loved and greatly respected him. Herman ran the missions school and taught: singing, catechism, reading, and writing. After awhile, he longed for the hermetic life again so he retired from duties in the mission and moved to Spruce Island around 1811-1817.
Herman named his new hermitage the “New Valaam” and sent letters to his Staretz Abbot Nazarius to keep in touch and once wrote “in my mind I imagine my beloved Valaam, and constantly behold it across the great ocean.” While at New Valaam Herman wore simple clothes and slept on a bench covered with deerskin. When visitors asked him how he handled solitude he would respond “I am not alone. God is here, as God is everywhere.” Despite trying to live as a solitary, the native Aleuts flocked to him. A chapel, guesthouse, and a school for orphans were built near his hermitage for the visiting Aleut families that moved near him to have their disputes sorted out. Herman had several disciples amongst the native people and he also taught them agriculture, and he was often the only Russian to help the Aleuts with their epidemics. Herman spent the rest of his life on Spruce Island helping the natives out physically and spiritually, until he reposed in the Lord on Nov 15, 1836
On March 11, 1969, both the OCA and ROCOR canonized St. Herman of Alaska. On the day of his canonization Br. Gleb Podmoshensky was the first to read the canon to St. Herman during the all-night vigil. Br. Gleb would later become Fr. Herman who along with Fr. Seraphim Rose and Laurence Campbell gathered material for St. Herman’s glorification and liturgical services. Frs. Herman and Seraphim Rose would later go on to create the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood which would publish Orthodox missionary information in English and writings that advanced the cause of St. Herman’s glorification as a saint. Some of St. Herman’s relics are enshrined at the St. Ignatius Chapel at the Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania where he is regarded as one of the retreat centers patron saints.