Mission to Alaska
During the 18th century Russian missionaries began to move across Siberia towards the Pacific Ocean. In 1794 ten monks from the Valaam Monastery in Russian Finland and two other nearby monasteries arrived on the island of Kodiak in Alaska. These first Orthodox missionaries to North America were pleasantly surprised to find nearly all of the Native Americans quite eager to accept the Orthodox Faith. In fact, many of them had already been baptized by laymen working for the Russian American fur-trading Company.
The missionaries were careful to honor the local religion and culture as much as possible, especially as the natives’ basic worldview was in many ways already oriented towards the sacramental, tradition-based worldview of Orthodoxy. This very much helps explain how it was that some 12,000 natives were baptized and/or chrismated by the missionaries in their first two years there.
The missionaries also proved to be ardent champions of the human rights of the natives, who were often abused by the managers of the Russian-American Company. At the same time, many of the fur-traders married native women, and a distinctive creole, Aleut culture gradually developed.
One of the first ten missionaries, Saint Juvenaly of Lake Iliamna, left Kodiak to spread the Faith on the Kenai Peninsula of the mainland, and beyond. He was martyred by natives in 1797, thus becoming the Protomartyr of North America.
Another member of this first missionary party was Saint Herman of Alaska, a deeply pious, hesychastic monk who eventually settled in a hermitage on tiny Spruce Island, near Kodiak Island. His gentle compassion and care for the natives won their hearts. With his glorification as a saint by the newly formed Orthodox Church in America in 1970, he became North America’s first officially canonized saint.