In The Steps Of St. Herman
By Father Andrew Harrison
When I graduated from the seminary I had considered ministry in Alaska. The parish on Paul’s Island was open. The island is one of the Pribilof Islands located in the middle of the Bering Sea half way to Russia. As it turned out, I was assigned to Alberta Canada as a missionary priest serving four parishes.
I have always had a yearning for Alaska. Maybe it had something to do with St. Herman. On the day of his canonization, I celebrated the Akathist service in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania outdoors because St. Herman lived in among the trees on Spruce Island. If I remember correctly, Fr. John Matusiak, the founding priest of St. Luke, then a seminarian was present. St. Herman was the patron saint of the missionary parish I was involved in founding in the Denver suburbs. Each year the patronal feast day was celebrated with an outdoors liturgy near Breckenridge in the Colorado Mountains. Since St. Herman’s feast day always fell during the Dormation fast, barbequed salmon was served at the picnic which followed.
I was also assigned to another parish named after St. Herman in Oxnard, California. When celebrating the feast days of St. Herman on August 9th and December 13th I would tell the stories about his life as a missionary. I would describe his arrival in Alaska in 1794 as one of a missionary team which included six monk priests, two deacons and two simple monks. I would explain the horrible conditions they encountered, the lack of food, the living conditions of bunking with rugged pioneers of questionable character, the broken promises made by the Colonial Administrator, Alexander Baranov of a suitable church and most of all the way the native Alaskans were being enslaved. Saint Herman is known for his defense of native rights and the love he showed to the people. I would tell stories of his miraculous life bringing the Orthodox faith to the Aleut people. They tell stories of how St. Herman placed an Icon on the beach in front of the on rush of a title wave which acted as a barrier protecting their village. His death on December 13, 1837 was marked by supernatural phenomena. The natives say a pillar of fire rose over his hut. The future St. Innocent reported a miracle in his life when he asked St. Herman for his intersession during an Alaskan winter storm. (See http://www.stlukeorthodox.com/html/saints/sthermanofalaska.cfm)
The OCMC mission trip to Alaska, which took place this past July, was a special experience for me. I had been to Alaska three times before: twice teaching alcohol and drug abuse prevention and treatment at St. Herman’s seminary and once for the celebration of St. Herman feast day on Spruce Island. These were very busy visits. There was not much time to meditate on the spiritual aspects of being in Alaska. The pilgrimage to Spruce Island was a spiritual event but it left little time to experience walking in the steps of St. Herman. This mission trip truly was a walk in his steps.
Our mission team of 12 arrive in Kodiak Island much like St. Herman did in 1794 although we traveled by air, he traveled by ship after traversing Russia which took almost year, but for us crossing the US only took hours. Vespers and Liturgy were celebrated at Holy Resurrection Cathedral the place where the body of St. Herman now rests. When he arrived, Holy Resurrection church was under construction and was not completed until 1796. Fr. John Dunlap, the dean of St. Herman’s Seminary, Matushka Bea and Presvytera Renee from the OCMC gave our team the orientation. I suppose that Baranov gave St. Herman’s team some sort of orientation. We were instructed in the native mentality, customs, traditions as well as the social problems. Warnings were given to us about our perceptions and assumptions about Alaskan village life.
St. Herman experienced the corrupting influences of pioneer life in Kodiak and eventually had to move to Spruce Island which was the area of his missionary activities. He settled on the secluded north end of the Island which was his place of retreat. He lived in a hut, farmed, fished, cut fire wood for the winter and prayed. He was a simple monk who was familiar with this life style growing up in the forests outside of Moscow. Our first introduction to Spruce Island was a brief visit to Monk’s Lagoon. Fr. Innocent rector of Holy Resurrection parish, was our skipper of the small fishing boat which took us from Kodiak When we landed I walked from the beach on the path to the chapel built over St. Herman grave. The path winds through clusters of ferns and old growth spruce trees covered with moss. Team members prayed, collected soil from his grave and water which trickled from a pipe under a spruce tree. I walked back down the path to the beach thinking about St. Herman’s life. I Imagined living for 40 years on this isolated wind swept Island following Christ’s call to make disciples, baptizing them. On the beach I reached down and picked up a stone with a cross formed in it. Was this a sign that St. Herman was blessing our missionary labors?
We returned to the boat to continue our voyage to the village of Ouzinkie. St. Herman walked the 7 miles each day to teach catechism to the villagers. St. Herman especially enjoyed the children. Our religious instruction for the children would only continue for a week. We were able to obtain some sense of village life in the way the children drifted in and out of our camp which we wrongly perceived as lacking parental supervision. We started with 25 children; it went up to 30 and dropped to 10. We had morning prayer, read Bible stories, taught classes and made religious crafts. I helped them make cardboard models of Orthodox Churches. One group of children was taught about baptism. When some of the students requested to be baptized we were all surprised and overjoyed. This must have been the same joy St. Herman had when the children asked him to baptize them. On the day before we left Ouzinkie, I had the privilege of concelebrating with Fr. John, the baptism of four children. Among the sponsors of those children were grown children, members of our team that I baptized. I believe St. Herman is pleased and maybe wants us to return. To think of it, St. Luke parish and Holy Nativity parish on Spruce Island are united through the baptism of those children. We should establish a continuing relationship with some kind of a sister parish program.