The Alaskan Mission

Two significant events led to the establishment of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the United States. Firstly, monastic missionaries from the Church of Russia established missions in Alaska, beginning in 1794. At that time, the Alaskan coastland and the numerous islands between North America and Siberia, discovered and explored from 1741, was part of imperial Russia. During the first century of the existence of these missions, many thousands of natives became members of the Orthodox Church. The Alaskan Mission was one of the largest and most significant missionary endeavours sanctioned by the Church of Russia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

During this period, two missionaries were especially significant. With little formal education and without priestly orders, the monk Herman (1760-183 7) came to exemplify the best qualities of the early missionaries on Kodiak Island. During his forty years of missionary work, Herman instructed the natives both about Christianity and about agricultural techniques. He staunchly defended the rights of the natives in the face of exploitation and, because of this, was twice exiled by Russian merchants to Spruce Island, which became his home. Within a few decades of his death in 1837, the natives had begun to honour him as a saint. They collected stories about his service and recorded the miracles attributed to his intercession. His formal canonization took place in 19 70.

Fr. John Veniaminov (1797-1879) and his family arrived on the island of Unalaska in 1824. As part of his missionary work, the young priest created an Aleut alphabet, basing it on Cyrillic characters. A dictionary and grammar soon followed. These provided the basis for a translation of the Gospel of St Matthew and portions of the liturgy. He wrote a basic catechism entitled 'Indication of the Pathway into the Kingdom'. He also taught the natives agricultural techniques, carpentry and metalworking. During ten years on Unalaska, Fr. John constructed a school, an orphanage, and a number of chapels. Moving to New Archangel (Sitka) in 1934, he continued his remarkable missionary work among the Tlingits, who were generally hostile to the Russian merchants. Fr. John also travelled to other missionary outposts. He visited Fort Rus in Northern California in 1836 and also a number of Roman Catholic missions in the region. After the death of his wife, the devoted missionary became a monk, taking the name 'Innocent'. He subsequently was elected a bishop, in 1840. With his return to New Archangel, a new period of missionary activity developed. Innocent was elected Metropolitan of Moscow in 1868 and established the Russian Orthodox Missionary Society before his death in 1879. He was canonized in 1977 and given the title 'Apostle to America'.

Imperial Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. After the sale most Russians returned to their homeland or travelled south to San Francisco, where there was a sizeable Russian colony. The Church of Russia's interest in the mission declined. When a new diocese of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands was established in 1870, the see of the bishop was moved to San Francisco. Both the diocese and the see were now outside the Russian Empire and beyond the canonical jurisdiction of the Church of Russia. Few competent clergy remained in Alaska to care for the faithful, who numbered over 10,000. Moreover, the sale opened the Alaskan territory to Protestant missionaries. With little appreciation of the Orthodox Church, they proselytized among the native Orthodox and showed little regard for their culture. The Orthodox Church, however, continued to maintain a weakened presence in the Alaskan territory and the mission continued to influence the subsequent development of Orthodoxy in the United States.

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