St. Herman, Enlightener of Alaska

The wonder-working saint was the first missionary to the Aleuts.

BY: Herman Tristram Engelhardt

 

On September 24, 1794, a band of missionary monks brought Orthodox Christianity to America. They traveled 7,000 miles in an epic year-long journey across northern Russia to Kodiak Island.



Their journey had begun in Valaam Monastery on an island north of St. Petersburg near the border with Finland. Of this band of monks, two would be glorified as the first Orthodox saints in America. St. Juvenaly achieved this in a martyr's death, dying offshore from an Alaskan village in 1796.

St. Herman became holy through a life of ascetic struggle. He was born in Serpukhov in the diocese of Moscow to a businessman's family, most likely in about 1757. No one knows his birth name, only that he became a monk at age 16, joining the Holy Trinity Sergius Hermitage, 12 miles from St. Petersburg, where he was given the name Herman.As a young monk he had a serious neck infection, which was miraculously cured after asking for the prayers of Mary, the Mother of God.

He was a man of medium stature, pale complexion, and lively gray-blue eyes. In his old age, his long beard was brilliantly white and his face full of wrinkles from years of labor in Alaska.

From the beginning, his life consisted of prayer and care for the Aleut people of Alaska. He fasted and kept vigils; to humble his body, he wore a 15-pound chain.

For years he lived isolated in a hut where he prayed daily. Asked if he got lonely, he answered that he was not alone, for God was everywhere and there were angels to talk with.

He lived simply, dressed in the same old, worn cassock and mantle year round. His pillow was two bricks wrapped in deerskins. Instead of a blanket, he used a board.

St. Herman was revered by the Aleuts because of his selfless love. They referred to him as their dear Apa, or grandfather. When a smallpox epidemic came by ship from the United States, he cared for the Aleut victims -- nursing them, praying with them, and then caring for their orphaned children. He established a school for the orphans, taught them and counseled them.

St. Herman was also the Aleuts' defender, writing to the government on their behalf.

From the recollections of the captain of a visiting frigate we have one of his most famous injunctions: "For our good, for our happiness, at least let us give a vow to ourselves that from this day, from this hour, from this minute we shall strive above all else to love God and to fulfill His holy will."

There are many accounts of his miracles. He once marked with an icon exactly where a tidal wave would stop. Similarly, he marked where a forest fire would halt. He was recognized as a clairvoyant, wonder-working elder.

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