On October 18, 1867, the Russian Empire formally ceded Alaska to the United States. The next month, St. Innocent was elected Metropolitan of Moscow. Shortly after this, Innocent sent the following letter to the Ober-Procurator (the Tsar’s representative) of the Holy Synod.[*]
Rumor reaching me from Moscow purports that I wrote to someone of my great unhappiness about the sale of our colonies to the Americans. This is utterly false. To the contrary, I see in this event one of the ways of Providence whereby Orthodoxy will penetrate the United States (where even now people have begun to pay serious attention to it). Were I to be asked about this, I would reply:
A. Do not close the American vicariate – even though the number of churches and missions there has been cut in half (i.e., to five).
B. Designate San Francisco rather than New Archangel the residence of the vicar. The climate is incomparably better there, and communications with the colonial churches are just as convenient from there as from New Archangel (if not more so).
C. Subordinate the vicariate to the Bishop of St. Petersburg or some other Baltic diocese, for once the colonies have been sold to the American Government, communications between the Amur and the colonies will end completely and all communications between the headquarters of the Diocese of Kamchatka and the colonies will have to be through St. Petersburg – which is completely unnatural.
D. Return to Russia the current vicar and all clergy in New Archangel (except churchmen) and appoint a new vicar from among those who know the English language. Likewise, his retinue ought to be composed of those who know English.
E. Allow the bishop to augment his retinue, transfer its members and ordain to the priesthood for our churches converts to Orthodoxy from among American citizens who accept all its institutions and customs.
F. Allow the vicar bishop and all clerics of the Orthodox Church in America to celebrate the Liturgy and other services in English (for which purpose, obviously, the service books must be translated into English).
G. To use English rather than Russian (which must sooner or later be replaced by English) in all instruction in the schools to be established in San Francisco and elsewhere to prepare people for missionary and clerical positions.
This is obviously a remarkable vision. St. Innocent calls for an English-speaking bishop and English-language church services, books, and schools. He speaks of “converts to Orthodoxy from among American citizens,” and he foresees the day when “Orthodoxy will penetrate the United States.” The greatest missionary of modern times lays out his plan for an American Orthodox Church, and 140-odd years later, we are still struggling to make real that vision.
Needless to say, the Russian Church did not fully implement St. Innocent’s suggestions. Yes, San Francisco soon replaced Sitka (New Archangel) as the diocesan seat, but the use of English did not become the norm, and converts were few and far between. In fact, outside of Alaska, the Russian Mission established only two parishes in the quarter century following the sale of Alaska, and one of them — Nicholas Bjerring’s New York chapel — was not only not missionary, but decidedly anti-missionary in its focus. Orthodoxy would not begin to “penetrate the United States,” as St. Innocent put it, until the great immigration in the 1890s. And it wouldn’t embrace large numbers of converts until well into the 20th century.
Whatever one’s views on jurisdictional claims, it is clear that the Russian Church missed a golden opportunity when it failed to take St. Innocent’s advice. Had they done so, the immigrants of the 1890s would arrived in America and been met with a well-established Local Orthodox Church, rather than a struggling mission centered in far-off Alaska and with a few outposts on the Pacific Coast.
But in another sense, the Russian Mission itself can’t totally be blamed for its relative failure in the 1867-1892 period. Administering Alaska alone was a massive job for the bishop; spreading Orthodoxy throughout the rest of the continent while simultaneously caring for his Alaskan flock would have been well-nigh impossible. Furthermore, funding was an issue: if the Tsarist government didn’t want to foot the bill for missionary work in the United States, the Russian Church was largely out of luck.
Still, one can’t help but read St. Innocent’s vision and wonder, “What if?” I suppose it’s now up to us, a century and a half later, to make that vision a reality.
[*] Printed in Paul D. Garrett, St. Innocent: Apostle to America (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979), 275-277.