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Brief biographies of Orthodox saints who lived in North America
SAINT HERMAN OF ALASKA
Herman was born into a simple, merchant family in a suburb of Moscow around 1758. He entered the monastic life in 1772 at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Skete near St. Petersburg and, in 1779, transferred to the ancient and famous Valaam Monastery in what is Finland today.
At one point while he was at the Trinity-Sergius Skete, the right side of his throat became infected and an abscess formed. He was unable to swallow and his condition worsened, bringing him close to death. As he lay in pain one night, he turned to his icon of the Theotokos and asked her to pray for his health. He then took a moist towel and with it wiped the face of the Virgin and covered his swollen face with the towel, continuing in prayer. Falling into sleep, he saw a vision of the Theotokos healing him. When he woke up in the morning, the swelling was gone and the abscess was completely healed.
In the 18th century, Russia’s borders expanded and merchants discovered the Aleutian Islands that formed a chain across the Pacific Ocean to America. With the opening of these islands, the Russian Church recognized the imperative to bring the Gospel to the native inhabitants. The Holy Synod asked for ten men to be sent from the Valaam Monastery to missionize the new territories. Father Herman was among those selected for the historic and holy endeavor. After traveling for nearly a year, the group arrived in America on September 24, 1794, to begin their work. They immediately set up a base of operation and school on Kodiak Island, teaching the natives in both Russian and Aleut and traveling throughout the Aleutian Islands and the Alaskan mainland. Several thousand of the natives quickly received the Gospel and were baptized.
Within a few years, most of the other members of the original missionary party died; but Herman lived and worked on Spruce Island for more than forty years. He lived in a little hut, and not far from this he built a schoolhouse and a guest house. Father Herman himself spaded a garden in front of his hut, raising potatoes, cabbage, and other vegetables. He worked with superhuman strength. He was seen one winter night, for example, carrying a large log that would normally have required four men to lift; and he was barefoot! Everything that he acquired as a result of his immeasurable labors he used for the feeding and clothing of orphans and for books for his students. He loved all and everyone loved to converse with him and to hear his sermons, especially the children, for whom he would bake cookies. He even conversed with wild animals and he fed bears out of his hands. Because of the many miraculous events and healings associated with him, he is known as the “Wonderworker of America.” One day, for example, an earthquake caused a tidal wave which threatened to devastate the island. Father Herman placed an icon of the Theotokos on the beach and held a prayer service. Afterward, he told the people that the water would rise no further than the icon; and it was so.
Just before he died, Father Herman asked one of his spiritual children to light the candles and read the Acts of the Apostles. The cell filled with a wonderful, fresh, floral scent; and the elder’s face began to glow. Father Herman fell asleep in the Lord on December 13, 1837. His spiritual children kept his body lying in state at the orphanage for a number of weeks, but it did not decay and the sweet scent continued to linger about him.
Almost immediately, the local faithful considered their elder to be a saint; and devotion to Father Herman spread across Russia, Finland, and North America. On August 9, 1970, clergy and laity from the entire Orthodox world gathered in Kodiak formally to declare St. Herman as the first saint glorified on this continent. His feast day is commemorated on December 13.
Icons and Commentary courtesy of the North American Saints Shrine at St. Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Church in Oklahoma City, OK
Icons by Janet Jaime