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Aug 9 Herman the Wonderworker of all Alaska


Today in 1970, a solemn liturgy at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral on Kodiak Island, Alaska, glorified St. Herman, as the “Wonderworker of All America,” with simultaneous rites taking place at other Orthodox centres. 5 days earlier the US Congress had acknowledged his glorification with a speech in the Senate, and his biography was formally entered into the Congressional Record.


 

Russia's connection with Alaska had formally begin with Vitus Jonassen Bering, a Danish cartographer and explorer, and an officer in the Russian Navy. The Bering Strait, the Bering Sea, Bering Island, the Bering Glacier and the Bering Land Bridge were all named in his honour. The Tsar had commissioned him to captain an expedition to set to sail north from Russian outposts on the Kamchatka peninsula and to establish whether Asia and America shared a land border. Successfully arriving at Kamchatka and determining that there was clear sea between Asia and America, Bering was rewarded and a promoted to the noble rank of Captain Commander. A second much larger, better prepared, and much more ambitious expedition towards North America lead to the observation of Saint Elias mountain , and Kodiak Island sheltering in the Bay of Alaska, 400 miles south of Anchorage. Landing was made at Kayak Island after sighting the southern coast of Alaska, Bering died of scurvy on the return. This would be the first stage of the Russian colonization of the Americas and as Bering’s expedition had harvested 1,500 sea otter pelts, which were sold to Chinese at Lake Baikal - a "fur rush" began and lead to the exploration of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands and the founded of a fur-trading company which eventually received a monopoly from the Imperial government and became the Russian-American Company.


In response to a request from the Company for missionaries to Alaska, Valaam Monastery sent eight Orthodox monks including Herman. The group crossed Siberia and, almost a year later, settled on Kodiak Island. They were shocked to encounter the harsh reality of widespread alcoholism and the harsh treatment of the natives, The men were forced to hunt for sea otter even during harsh weather, and women and children were abused. The monks had been deceived and also were not given the supplies that had been promised them and had to till the frozen ground with wooden implements. Despite these difficulties they made quick progress in baptising and marrying the native Aleutians. However, in the outlying settlements shamans were threatened of course and opposed their message and the Priest-monk Juvenaly was killed in 1796, becoming the First Martyr of North America. The rest set about building a church and monastery and Herman was assigned in the bakery and acted as the mission's steward in charge of resources. Soon they had become the defenders of the native Kodiak population. Herman was especially noted for his zeal in protecting them from the excessive demands of the RAC. In this way he has been compared to Bartolomé de las Casas, the Roman Catholic friar who defended the rights of native South Americans against the Spanish.


He became superior of the mission and the local population loved and respected him, and he ran the mission school, where he taught singing and catechism alongside reading and writing and also agriculture on Spruce Island. However, he longed for the life of a hermit and when the mission was on sure footing, he retired from active duty in the mission and moved to Spruce Island which was separated from Kodiak by a mile-wide strait, making it ideal for eremitic life. Herman named his hermitage "New Valaam." and sleeping on a bench covered with a deerskin he was asked how he could bear to be alone in the forest, he replied, "I am not alone. God is here, as God is everywhere." However, his popularity meant that He received many visitors—especially native Aleuts. There is a long tradition of holy men and women being sought after even when they removed themselves from the world (see the podcast on St Cuthbert Mar 30) Soon his hermitage had next to it a chapel and guesthouse, and then a school for orphans. He also attracted a few disciples, including a Creole orphan Gerasim, a young Aleut woman named Sofia Vlasova, and others. Entire families moved in order to be closer to the Elder, who helped to sort out their disputes