Orthodox Missionary Work in Alaska

An account of the missionary work of Fr. John Veniaminov (who became known as St. Innocent of Alaska) among the native peoples in what is now Sitka, Alaska.

This account is translated from the Russian and taken from The life and work of Innocent, the archbishop of Kamchatka, the Kuriles and the Aleutian Islands and later the metropolitan of Moscow:

Sitkha or New Archangel is a good distance from the Aleutian Islands, and lies almost within touch of the mainland of America. The climate here is noted for being damp, and during most part of the year the weather is gloomy and foggy. The soil on this island (now known as Baranov — the name of one of the Governors) is marshland and partly stone, covered with a thin layer of putrefied matter. Novoarhangelsk is situated on the western coast of the island, and at that time it was the central headquarters for the government of the Bussian Colonies in America. Novoarhangelsk (New Archangel) or Sitkha is surrounded by mountains, which are covered with forests of tall trees of the fir species. It should be mentioned that the woods of this Hitkha (the Indian name) or Baianov Island are of a wonderful growth, some of the trunks of spruce measuring 150 feet in length.

The inhabitants of this Island — the Eolosha (or Thlinket tribe of Alaskan Indians), among whom the Reverend Father Veniaminov had now to labor, differed from the Aleuts in appearance as well as in character. In appearance they are handsome: they have large black eyes, correct face, black hair, and are of medium stature. The Eolosha has a proud and selfish nature. On visiting the Bussians they would don their best apparel and maintain a haughty bearing. They are very revengeful; if a Kolosha for some reason could not avenge himself during his life for some offense, he would transmit his revenge to his generation. The Eolosha possess a lively mind and they are sagacious.

They were less acquainted with the Christian religion than the Aleuts. Towards the Bussians, especially before this time, they were hostile, and such a bearing greatly impeded the spread of Christianity among them.

After his arrival in Sitkha, Father John commenced work in the same way he had done on the Island of Ounalashka, i. e. he began by learning the language and customs of the Eoloshas, and then proceeded to preach the Word of God to them. At the same time, as was his wont, he gave freely of his labor, his strength, his health. As in Ounalashka, now also he often preached to his congregation in the church, and when possible visited them in their homes, and there in the family — as a father among his children — he told them of the Orthodox religion. The Kolosha learned to love their
teacher, and commenced to receive him with a welcome, willingly and attentively listening to his lessons.

Living among the Koloshas, Father John wrote sermons for them in their native tongue and translated the sacred books, which helped much in spreading Orthodoxy among them. The labor of the Reverend John Veniaminov was not lost; the result was that the number of Christians in that country increased very rapidly.

For five years Father John worked on Baranov Island (Sitkha). His fifteen years of active missionary life (first in Ounalashka, then in Sitkha) was distinguished with the zeal that made famous the first teachers of the Gospel. He always went about his work with great care, and thereby drew to himself the rough hearts of the savages; he would convince, but not urge, then patiently wait for their own petition, asking for baptism. For the children Father John opened schools, and taught them from books he had himself compiled.
Finally, besides enlightening the natives with the knowledge of the Gospel, he taught them the different trades of smith-craft and carpentry, and also introduced inoculation (to prevent epidemics among them). In this way he won their hearty sympathy; the Indians loved him. And he really was their benefactor and teacher.

Troparion to St. Innocent of Alaska

You evangelized the northern people of America and Asia,
Proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to the natives in their own tongues.
O holy hierarch Father Innocent,
Enlightener of Alaska and all America, whose ways were ordered by the Lord,
Pray to Him for the salvation of our souls in His Heavenly Kingdom!

St Michael's Orthodox Cathedral in Sitka, Alaska

Further reading:

St Innocent of Moscow and Alaska

Biography of St. Innocent of Alaska


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