From the Life of Valaam Monk, St Herman of Alaska:
SAINT HERMAN OF ALASKA, the first “American” saint, was the first to bring Orthodoxy to this continent. He came to America as a young monk in 1794 as part of the original Russian Orthodox mission to Alaska. He lived there until his repose, and for more than four decades taught the natives by word and example. With his own severe asceticism a secret, he ministered to both physical and spiritual needs of the people. And his memory is preserved, fresh and personal, among their descendents to this day. Ironically, however, he is unknown to so many other Americans. By his prayers may we, also, truly receive the Gospel he brought and follow the way that he taught.
IN 1793 AN ECCLESIASTICAL MISSION was composed in Valaam Monastery and sent to preach the Word of God to the natives of Northwestern America, who ten years before had come under Russian rule. Among the members of this mission was the Monk Herman, the future Elder of Spruce Island. . . .
Monk Herman came from a merchant class family in the town of Serpukhov in the Moscow diocese. We do not know what he was called before his monastic tonsure, nor do we know what his last name was. From his very young years he had shown a great zeal for living a pious way of life, and became a monk sixteen years after his birth. At first he entered the Holy Trinity Sergius Hermitage, located on a Finnish bay on the Peterchoff road about twelve miles from Petersburg. At that time St. Sergius Hermitage was attached to St. Sergius Lavra (near Moscow) and was governed by superiors sent from the Lavra. It is most likely that Father Herman, a native of the Moscow territory, had visited Moscow and made pilgrimages to St. Sergius Moscow Lavra. There he would have had occasion to find out about a holy branch of the holy Lavra, Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Petersburg Hermitage.
At St. Sergius Hermitage, incidentally, a carbuncle appeared on the right side of Father Herman’s neck, under his beard. The pain was horrible. The swelling grew rapidly and disfigured his whole face; it was very difficult for him to swallow and there was an intolerable smell. In such a dangerous condition, expecting to die, Father Herman did not turn to an earthly physician, but, locking himself in his cell, with warm prayer and tears he turned to the Icon of the Heavenly Queen, begging her intercession for his healing. He prayed the whole night, then with a wet towel he wiped the face of the Immaculate Theotokos, and tied the towel around the swelling on his neck. Continuing with tearful prayer until, in exhaustion, he fell asleep on the floor and dreamed that he was healed by the Most Holy Virgin. In the morning he awakened and stood up and, to his great amazement, he found himself completely healed. The swelling had dispersed without breaking, leaving only a small lump as a little reminder of the miracle. The doctors who were told about this healing did not believe, insisting that the carbuncle must have been cut out, or had broken by itself. But the words of the physicians were the words of the weakness and inexperience of man in the face of the grace of God overcoming the order of nature. Such incidents humble man’s mind under the mighty hand of God’s mercy!
Father Herman lived at St. Sergius Hermitage for some five or six years. Then he moved to Valaam monastery, which is situated on the archipelago of the majestic islands amid the waters of Ladoga Lake. With his whole soul he came to love Valaam monastery, its unforgettable Abbot, the great Elder Nazarius, and all its brethren. “Your paternal kindness to my lowliness,” he wrote later to Abbot Nazarius from America, “will not be erased from my heart, neither the terrible impenetrable Siberian wilds, nor its dark forests, nor will the great rivers wash away the memory; neither will rough seas extinguish these feelings. For in my mind I imagine my beloved Valaam and look always at it across the great ocean.” In his letters he addresses Elder Nazarius as “most holy, my beloved Batiushka,” and all of the Valaam brethren he called “beloved and most cherished.” He called his deserted Spruce Island, the place of his dwelling in America, “New Valaam.” And, as is apparent, he was always in contact with his spiritual homeland. As late as 1823, thirty years into his stay in America, he wrote letters to Father Nazarius’ successor, Abbot Innocent.
Here is what was said concerning the life of Father Herman on Valaam by his contemporary (who was also tonsured by Abbot Nazarius and was the future Abbot of Valaam), Father Barlaam. Father Herman went through various obediences, and was always ready for any good work; he was, among other things, sent to the city of Serdobol to supervise the marble quarry there. The brethren loved Father Herman and would daily wait impatiently for his return from Serdobol to the monastery. Having tested the zeal of the young ascetic, the wise Elder Father Nazarius blessed him to go and live alone in the desert. This desert was located in a dense forest, about a mile’s distance from the monastery and it has until now retained the name: Hermanova – later known as Herman’s field. On feast days Father Herman would come from his desert to the monastery. During vespers, he would standing in the cliros, he would sing in a pleasant tenor voice the refrain of the canon “Sweetest Jesus, save us sinners,” “O Most Holy Theotokos, save us,” and the tears would pour out of his eyes like water out of a bucket.
In the second half of the last century the boundaries of Holy Russia on the north were being enlarged with the activity of Russian promyshlenniki (scouts and pioneers). The Aleutian islands were discovered. The Aleutian are a chain of islands that stretch from the eastern border of Kamchatka to the western shore of Northern America. Having discovered these islands, it was found there was a holy need for the evangelical enlightenment of the native inhabitants there. Metropolitan Gabriel, with the blessings of the Synod, entrusted Elder Nazarius with the holy task of selecting capable men from the Valaam brethren. Ten men were chosen, and one of their number was Father Herman. In 1794 the chosen men left Valaam Monastery for their appointed destination. The evangelizers quickly spread the evangelical light with holy zeal among these newest sons of Russia. Several thousands of people accepted Christianity. A school was founded to educate the newly baptized children. A church was built where the missionaries lived. But by the unfathomable ways of God the general success of the mission was not long standing. After five years of greatly profitable activity the head of the mission and his whole entourage were drowned. (The head of the mission was Archimandrite Ioasaph, who had been raised to the rank of a bishop). Before him, the zealous Hieromonk Juvenaly had been granted the crown of martyrdom. The others, one after another, left the mission. Finally, only Father Herman remained. Grace was given to him to labor longer than all his brothers in enlightening the Aleuts.
We mentioned before that the place where Father Herman lived in America was Spruce Island, called by him “New Valaam.” This island is separated from Kodiak Island by a strait that is two miles wide. A wooden monastery is located on Kodiak for the placement of members of the mission and a large wooden church built in the name of Christ’s Resurrection. Spruce Island in itself is not large and is all covered with forest. A small river runs from the middle of the island and empties into the sea. Father Herman chose this picturesque island by himself as a place for his seclusion. He dug a cave in the ground there with his hands and spent his first whole summer in it. By winter’s onset the Russian American Company built a cell for him near his cave. He lived in this cell until his death, and asked that the cave be his grave on repose. Not far from the cell there was constructed a wooden chapel and a little wooden house for his school and for visitors. This was the place of great ascetic labors by Father Herman over the next four decades of his life. In the garden, he himself dug the beds, planted potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables. He had a basket, to carry sea cabbage (kelp) from the shore in order to fertilize the earth; it was so big that people said it would be hard for one man to lift it by himself. Father Herman, however, to the amazement of all, would carry it loaded with kelp, without any outside help, for long distances. One winter’s night his disciple, Gerasim, accidentally saw him in the woods and walking barefoot with such a huge log that it would hardly be possible for four men to carry. Thus labored the Elder. All he did to provide food, clothing, and books for his orphans, was filled with immeasurable toil.
His clothing was the same winter and summer. He did not wear a shirt. Instead he wore a form of deerskin shirt without sleeves, which, for more than eight years, he would not take off and could not change. Consequently all the fur wore off and it became soiled. In addition he wore his shoes, his cassock, his faded and patched mantle, and his klobuk (monk’s hat). He walked everywhere in this clothing in all types of weather: in rain, snow, winter storms, and in severe frost.
His bed was a medium-sized bench, covered with deerskins whose fur had worn out with time. For his pillow he had two bricks which were hidden under the deerskins and were thus not noticeable to visitors. He had no blanket; a wooden board, which he would lay on his stove, replaced it. Father Herman called this board his blanket and willed to have his dead body covered with it. It was fully his size. “When I visited the cell of Father Herman,” stated Constantine Larionov, “I, the sinful one, sat on his bed and I consider it the height of my happiness! ”
When Father Herman was a guest among the company’s personnel he would talk on soul-saving matters and would sit up until past midnight. He would not stay the night though. No matter what the weather was like, he would always return to his desert hermitage. If for some reason he was compelled to spend the night away from his cell, they would always find his bed had not been slept in, so Elder had not slept after all. The same thing would happen in his desert hermitage. There he would spend the night in conversation, showing his complete disdain for rest.
The Elder ate very little. When visiting as a guest, he would barely taste the food set before him and would go without dinner. In his cell, a very small portion of fish and some vegetables made up his meals.
His body, worn out by labor, fasting, and vigils, was weighed down by fifteen-pound chains that he wore. These chains are to this day treasured in the chapel where, it has been said by some, they were found behind an icon of the Mother of God at the Elder’s death; another explanation is that they fell out from behind the icon at his death.
Describing the ascetic labors of Father Herman, his disciple, the Aleut Ignatius Aliaga adds “Yes, Apa conducted a hard life, and no one can imitate it.” He was referring only to the external activities of the Elder. “However, his main activity,” Bishop Peter said, “was performed in the seclusion of his cell where no one saw him; only outside his cell did they hear him sing and perform the services in accordance with the monastic rule.” Such testimony of the Bishop is confirmed by the following answer of Father Herman himself. The Elder was asked “How do you, Father Herman, manage to live alone in the forest, don’t you get bored?” He answered “No, I’m not alone there! There is God, and God is everywhere! There are holy angels! How can one be bored with them? With whom is it more pleasant and better to converse, angels or people? Angels, of course!”
How Father Herman regarded the native inhabitants of America, how he understood his relationship to them, and how he had compassion for their needs, he expresses himself in one letter addressed to the former governor of the colonies, Yanovsky. “The Creator has given to our beloved motherland this region. Like a newborn babe, it is still without strength or knowledge of any kind, nor sense. It demands not only protection, but also, because of its weak and tender age, it demands support. But it is still not even possible to ask anyone to do this. The dependence of this people is a blessing of Holy Providence, given as it is into the hands of the Russian authorities here, for an unknown period of time, and is now given into your hands.
“For this reason I, the most humble servant of the local peoples and their nurse, stand before you with streaming tears and write my request of you to be a father and protector to us! We, of course, know no eloquence, but we say, with the halting tongue of children, wipe away the tears of defenseless orphans, cool the heat of sorrow in melting hearts, give us to know the meaning of consolation. ”
As the Elder felt, so he also acted. He always interceded before the authorities on behalf of the transgressors, defending those who were being hurt, helping the needy ones in any way he could. The Aleuts of both sexes, as well as their children, would often visit him. Some would ask for advice, others complained that they were pressured, still others sought defense, or requested help: everyone received satisfaction to the degree it was possible for the Elder to give it. He looked into their grievances, he tried to make all be at peace, and he worked especially to bring harmony back to families. If it was not possible to make peace between husband and wife, the Elder would separate them for awhile. The necessity of such measures he explained thus: “Better to let them live separately without fighting and quarrelling. Believe me, keeping them together might be very frightening. There were cases where the husband would kill the wife or the wife would drive the husband to madness!” Father Herman especially loved children. He would give them crackers and bake pretzels for them. The little ones were especially attracted to his gentleness. The love of Father Herman for the Aleuts would often reach the point of self-sacrifice. . . .
The Elder especially cared about the moral enlightenment of the Aleuts. With this aim in mind, he made a school for orphaned Aleut children. He himself taught them the Law of God and church singing. He would gather the Aleuts for prayer in the chapel near his cell on feast days and Sundays. Here his disciples read the Hours and other prayers for them, and the Elder himself would read the Epistles and Gospels, and teach them with his words, while his girl students would sing. The Aleuts loved to listen to the instructions of Father Herman: these talks of the Elder were very interesting, and they had an astounding power of influence over his listeners. . . .
Yanovsky, the governor, recounts many instances where St. Herman warmed the hearts, not just of the natives, but of the Russians. . . .
Perhaps the best known saying of St. Herman’s was given to his fellow Russians. . . . In a conversation with a group of sailors, he quizzed them on their love of God. When they all glibly claimed to love God, he responded: ‘And I, a sinner, have tried to love God for more than forty years, and I cannot say that I perfectly love Him,’ But he later added , ‘at least let us make a vow to ourselves, that from this day, from this hour, from this very moment, we shall strive above all else to love God and to fulfill His Holy Will!’ . . .
Yanovsky describes Father Herman’s external characteristics in detail. “I clearly remember,” he says “all the features of the Elder’s face: it shone with grace; his pleasant smile; his meek, attractive look; his humble, quiet manner; and his pleasant words. He was not of a tall stature, his face was pale, covered with wrinkles, his eyes were gray-blue and full of brightness, and on his head he had a few gray hairs. His speech was not loud, but very pleasant.” . . .
“Another time I was telling him how the Spaniards in California captured fourteen Aleuts, and the Jesuits [Franciscans] were pressuring them all, to accept the Catholic faith, which the Aleuts would in no way agree to do. ‘We are Christians.’ they said. ‘Not true, you are heretics and schismatics,’ argued the Jesuits, ‘and if you do not submit and accept our faith, we will torture all of you to death.’ Then the Aleuts were placed in prisons by twos. The Jesuits came into the prisons in the evening, with lamps and lit candles, and again began to persuade two Aleuts there to accept the Catholic faith. ‘We are Christians,’ was the answer of the Aleuts, ‘and will not change our faith! ‘ Then the Jesuits began to torture them, at first one, while the other was a witness. They cut off one joint on the Aleut’s feet, and then the second joint, then one joint on the finger and then a second. Then they chopped off the feet and hands; the blood flowed, the martyr endured and firmly repeated the same thing: ‘I am a Christian.’ In such suffering, he died from loss of blood. On the next day the Jesuits promised to torture his friend the same way, but in the night they received an order from Monterey that all captured Aleuts should be delivered there immediately with a convoy. In the morning they were all sent away, except for the deceased Aleut. This was told to me by an Aleut witness, a friend of the martyred one, who had escaped torture. I then reported this to the headquarters in Petersburg. When I finished my description, Father Herman asked ‘And what was the name of the Aleut?’ I answered, ‘Peter, but I do not remember his last name.’ Then the Elder stood up before the icon, piously crossed himself and pronounced: ‘Holy new martyr Peter, pray to God for us!'” . . .
He never sought anything for himself in life. For a long time after his arrival in America, out of humility he refused the rank of hieromonk or archimandrite, and remained forever a simple monk. Father Herman, without the slightest fear of those in power, worked for God with all his zeal. With meek love, disregarding rank, he reproached many for their unsober life, disrespectful behavior and oppression of the Aleuts. The self-condemning anger of these people rose against him, made all kinds of difficulties for him, and slandered him. The slanders were so powerful that often people of good will could not detect the lies in their accusations against Father Herman, so well were these accusations covered by external correctness. You would have to say that it was the Lord Himself who preserved the Elder. . . .
Father Herman also endured many sorrows from demons. This he revealed to his disciple Gerasim when the latter, entering the cell without the usual prayer, did not receive answers to any of his questions. The next day he asked for the cause of yesterday’s silence. “When I came to this island and settled in this wilderness,” Father Herman said to him, “many times the demons came to me as if from some need, in the form of people and in the form of animals. I endured a lot from them: both all kinds of sorrows and temptations, and, therefore, I now do not speak to anyone who comes into my cell without prayer.”
Having dedicated himself entirely to the will of the Lord while zealously laboring alone to glorify His all-Holy Name, far away from his homeland amidst many sorrows and deprivations, and having labored for many decades with lofty self-denial, Father Herman was endowed with many supernatural gifts from God.
In the middle of Spruce Island there is a little river that runs from the mountain down into the sea. There were always large logs of driftwood at the mouth of this river, brought there by storms. In the springtime when the fish would first appear, the Elder would dig in the sand so that the river could pass by and the fish in the sea would hasten up the river. The disciple of Father Herman, Ignatius Aliaga, said, “It would happen that Apa would say: ‘Go and get a fish from the river,’ and I would go and get one. He used to feed birds with dried fish and great numbers of them would nest near his cell. There where even some ermine living under his cell. This little animal, after giving birth to its litter, is unapproachable, yet the Elder would feed them with his bare hands. ‘Wasn’t that (the feeding of the ermine) really a miracle we have seen?’ asked his disciple Ignatius. Father Herman was also seen feeding bears. With the death of the Elder both the birds and the beasts disappeared: even if someone were to care for it willingly, the garden would not give forth a crop (after the death of the Elder).”
Once there was a flood on Spruce Island. The inhabitants ran with fear to the Elder, whereupon he took an icon of the Mother of God from the house where the students lived, carried it out and placed it on shallow ground. He began to pray. After the prayer, he turned to those who were there and said: “Do not fear, the water will not go further than the spot where the icon is standing!” True to his prophecy, the water did not go past the spot where the icon was placed. He promised them that the icon of the Holy Queen would protect them in future times of similar need. He assigned his student Sophia the task of placing the icon on laida – shallow ground – in case of flooding. This icon is still preserved on Spruce Island. . . .
Once the forest on Spruce Island caught on fire. The Elder, together with his disciple Ignatius, made a clearing in the forest thickets about a yard wide to the foot of the hill by turning the moss up, and said: “Be at peace, the fire will not cross this line.” The next day when, according to Ignatius, there seemed to be no hope for salvation, the fire came with great force up to the moss which the Elder had upturned, it ran along it, and stopped, not touching the forest on the other side of the line.
A year prior to the news that was received in Kodiak about the death of a Metropolitan, Father Herman said to the Aleuts that their big spiritual leader had died.
According to Bishop Peter, the Elder often used to say that in America they will have their own bishop, and that there will never be a time when America will be deprived of a bishop. His prophecy came true in time.
“After my death,” Father Herman used to say, “there will be a plague and many people will die from it, and the Russians will join with the Aleuts.” It is true that about six months after the death of the Elder, there was a smallpox epidemic in Alaska that caused such an atrocious number of fatalities that in several villages only a few people remained alive. This compelled the colonial authorities consolidate the Aleuts: thus from twenty villages there remained only seven.
“Although much time will pass after my death,” Father Herman used to say to his disciples, “My memory will not be forgotten and the place of my dwelling will not be empty. A monk, similar to me, fleeing the glory of men, will come and will live on Spruce Island. And Spruce Island will not be without people.” . . .
“When I die,” the Elder would tell his disciples, “you bury me next to Father Ioasaph. Kill my bullock at once. He has served me enough. Bury me by yourselves and do not tell of my death in the harbor The inhabitants of the port (Kodiak) will not see my face. Do not send for a priest and do not wait for one to come: your waiting will be in vain! Do not wash my body, place it on the board, fold the arms on the chest, bind me in my mantle and with its edges cover my face and my head with my klobuk. If someone should wish to say good-bye to me, let him kiss the cross (in my hands); do not show anyone my face. After lowering me into the earth cover me with my blanket.” This blanket, as we have already mentioned, was the board that was always in his cell.
The time was approaching for the departure of the Elder. One day he called his disciple Gerasim to his cell to light candles before the icons and to read the Acts of the Apostles. After some time his face shone and he loudly pronounced: “Glory to Thee O Lord! ” Then, ordering Gerasim to stop the reading he said that it was pleasing to the Lord to prolong his life one week more. After a week, again according to his order, the candles were lit and the Acts of the Apostles were read. The Elder quietly leaned his head on the chest of Gerasim, the cell was filled with fragrance, his face was shining – and then Father Herman was no more! Hence, he reposed with the sleep of the righteous in the 81st year of his long-suffering life, December 13, 1837.
In spite of the will of Father Herman expressed before his death, his disciples did not decide to bury him without letting anyone in the harbor know about his death. They were afraid of the Russians, the Aleuts said.
An envoy was sent with the sad news to the harbor. Upon his return the envoy informed them that the manager of colonies Kashevarov forbade them to bury the Elder until his arrival, he had ordered a good coffin to be made for the deceased and he himself would bring it without delay. However, such instructions were contrary to the will of the deceased. And so a frightful wind blew, rain began to pour, and there developed a terrible storm. The traveling distance from the harbor to Spruce Island was not a long one, only two hours, but no one would venture to go into the sea in such weather. It continued in such a way for a whole month; the body of Father Herman lay in the warm house of his disciples. There was no change in his face and not the minutest smell from his body. Finally the coffin was delivered by the experienced old man, Cosmas Uchilisschev. No one from the harbor came, and the inhabitants of Spruce Island placed the earthly remains of the Elder into the earth themselves. So was fulfilled the last wish of Father Herman – and the wind calmed down and the surface of the sea was as smooth as a mirror.
Also, for some unknown reason, they did not kill the bullock, but the day after the death of Father Herman his bull apparently began to miss him so much that in his despair he hit a tree with his head and fell to the ground dead.
One evening in the village of Katari (on Afognak Island) an unusual pillar of light was seen over Spruce Island that reached to heaven. Stunned by this miraculous phenomenon, the elderly Creole Gerasim Vologdin and his wife Anna said to themselves: “It looks like Father Herman has left us!” and began to pray. Subsequently they were informed that precisely at that time the Elder had passed away. This pillar was seen in other places by other people as well. That very evening, in another village on Afognak Island, people saw a man being lifted up from Spruce Island toward the clouds.
Having buried their Father, the disciples of the Elder erected a wooden memorial over his grave. “I saw it myself,” said Kodiak priest Peter Kashevarov, “and now I can say that it is by no means touched by time and looks as if it were nailed together today.”
Seeing the glorious life of podvig of Father Herman, his miracles, seeing the fulfillment of his prophecies and finally his blessed falling asleep, “generally all the local inhabitants have an awesome respect for him as a holy ascetic, and are entirely convinced that he was pleasing to God,” (Bishop Peter).
In 1842, five years after the repose of the Elder, while traveling by sea to Kodiak and finding himself in extreme danger, Archbishop Innocent of Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands, looked at Spruce Island and said in his mind: “If you, O Father Herman, have pleased the Lord, then let the wind change!” And indeed, even a quarter of an hour did not pass, said the Bishop, when the wind became favorable to them and they successfully landed on the shore. Archbishop Innocent served a pannikhida at the grave of the blessed one out of gratitude for this deliverance.