Fr. Sebastian Dabovich on St. Innocent of Alaska
Editor’s note: The following lecture was given by Fr. Sebastian Dabovich on August 15, 1897 to the parish school St. Sergius in San Francisco, in the presence of Bishop Nicholas Ziorov. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the birth of St. Innocent Veniaminov, the great Alaskan missionary and later Metropolitan of Moscow. The text was originally printed in Dabovich’s 1898 book The Lives of the Saints (1898).
As I stand here in the midst of this gathering, I picture in my mind another company, greater than this, filling the spacious halls of a more magnificent structure in the capital city of the Russian Empire — Matushka Moskva (dear mother Moscow). My imagination reaches still farther out, and I behold another throng of busy citizens, together with young Seminarians and prayerfully inclined Christians, away off in Siberia, in the city of Irkoutsk. Methinks I hear them speak the very name of him whom they have come to honor, Innocentius. My whole being thrills with a veneration at the sound of that name. My heart is filled with gladness when I think of the pure joy and reasonable pride of the country folk in rural Anginskoe of the Province of Irkoutsk — the native home of the Most Reverend Metropolitan Innocent.
Yet all these multitudes and territorial distance are but a part of the whole, celebrating a great event. Look you, the tribes of Kamchatka with the Yakout race sing of him, while the Aleut and the Alaskan Indians gratefully commemorate their teacher on this day — the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. While the great Orthodox Missionary Society in Russia, which to-day upholds our prosperous Church in Japan and in other parts of the world, is paying honor to the sacred memory of its founder, we too bless this one hundredth birthday of our first Bishop in America — the same Innocentius, Metropolitan of Moscow.
This great Missionary, who passed away from this visible world eighteen years ago, and rests with his remains in the holy Troitse Sergiev Monastery, still dwells in the loving hearts of the different peoples of his spiritual charge. I understand and feel the special privilege which I enjoy to-night, and for which I most heartily thank thee, Gracious Bishop and Most Reverend Father in God. Deeply feeling the love of our Archpastors, I become bold and venture to look into the unseen, where I behold the spiritual eyes of our first hard-working Missionary, with kindly light beaming upon this gathering and approving of the feeble words of your son (to the Bishop), and your brother (to the Clergy), and your pastor (to the Congregation) — one of the first born of the young American Orthodox Church!
John Veniaminov, indeed, was a great man. As one of the first priests in Alaska, he labored for fifteen long years in several parts of that vast region, making his home, principally, first in Ounalashka and then in Sitkha. In those pioneer days of Alaska an Aleutian badairka or small canoe made of the skin of a walrus was the only means he had for his constant locomotion, and not seldom for his voyages of a longer course. It often happened that, in a mean, wet climate, his only comfort for whole months would be found in an earthen dug-out. I will not detain you by repeating; you will soon hear, and also read for yourselves, of his life, and then you will know how in the Providence of God the Reverend Father John became to be known by the name of Innocent, and how he returned to Alaska — as the first bishop there, and likewise our first bishop in America! Brief accounts of his life are now printed in English, as well as in Russian and other languages, and may be had for nothing, comparatively.
There are several people in this city who have personally seen him, and remember well the wholesome instructions of their gentle pastor — Bishop Innocent, later the Metropolitan of Moscow. Besides the elder brethren and the elder sisters among you, some of the people mentioned are also fathers in their community. Our present Bishop and beloved Father in God was at one time under the spiritual rule of the Most Reverend Innocentius, and that was during his student life in the Academy of Moscow, when Innocent was the Bishop of the Church of God in that Province.
I have strong reasons for maintaining my assertion that this Missionary Priest, John Veniaminov, also landed on our shores here, and — how I love to dwell on the thought! — he bestowed God’s blessing upon our beautiful California. It was in the fall of 1838 that this God-fearing worker left Sitkha in a sailing vessel — to voyage down the whole length of the great Pacific, and make his way around Cape Horn to Europe and St. Petersburg. At that time the government of Alaska, following the wise counsel of Baranov (another great man), obtained and held land in California, where it had a flourishing colony in the part now known as Sonoma county. Baranov was well aware of the worth of Alaska, but he needed California as a store- house of grain for the Great North with its many resources and grand coast. The globe-circumnavigating vessels, coming from the north, certainly must have anchored in California waters, in order to take on supplies and make a final preparation before setting sail to round the Cape for Europe. And so it is possible that our dear Missionary may have even offered the Divine Liturgy in the chapel at Fort Ross, and also baptized the Indians in Russian River. I do not attempt to speculate on the idea that our apostle trod the sands where now our splendid city of San Francisco is built. For memory’s sake I simply ask: Is there not a history attached to Russian Hill in San Francisco?
A most remarkable man was this Russian priest from Siberia. He was a mechanic, navigator, school-teacher, administrator, and a preacher of the Gospel. A poor orphaned boy, too young to earn his own bread, must depend upon the charity of poor relatives and even strangers for his very existence. From a little town in the heart of Siberia he finds his way into the city of Irkoutsk, where he becomes a pastor, beloved by his devoted people. Then he goes, as he thought, to give up himself with his entire strength and knowledge to the simple Aleuts, who sat in darkness in the distant islands of the ocean. It was he, as he afterwards sat in the councils of the Most Holy Governing Synod of our Church, who moved the proposition that the Orthodox Bishop in America should transfer his residence from Sitkha to San Francisco.
God selected the priest, John Veniaminov, to bear the light of Orthodox Christianity from the East to the West, from Asia to America! And nobly did the Great Russian Church prove herself worthy of the apostolic power of rightly dividing the Word of Truth by carrying out the work in all its detail. She faithfully keeps the apostles’ will as expressed in these words: Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and teaching; she elevates her Missionary to a high post. In his new office as an archpastor, the M. Rev. Innocent created two more dioceses in Eastern Siberia, besides the church of Alaska. He was ever sailing over the ocean, or driving in reindeer and dog sledges over a country thousands of miles in extent, everywhere baptizing the natives, for whom he has introduced the use of letters, and translated the Gospel into their native tongues.
It has been, and still is, the habit of some who are unfriendly to the Orthodox Church to speak of her as a dead church. Such a daring charge could be uttered for three reasons, and they are these: Such persons are either determined upon a certain course of public policy, with no respect for the truth, or they are not inclined to think well of Eastern Christians, whom it would be inconvenient to recognize as brethren while enjoying personal comfort through social connections; but if it be not that, it is then because of a light head and total ignorance of the facts in universal history. In modern times the Russian Church has proved, in more instances than one, that she is alive with the missionary spirit. May we condemn the Slavonic Orthodox Church in the Balkan States, and in Austria, simply because she is struggling for her existence in spite of the aggressive intrusion on her own ground of the brethren of the Society of Jesus? Nor is the influx of American Sectarian preachers in Arabia and in Palestine, a reason which could justify any one in saying that the Church of Christ in those parts is dead! In these days we know something of what enslavement to the Turk involves. And what, in common justice, to say nothing of Christian charity, have we a right to expect from those groaning under such bondage? Have we the conscience to ask that they should make converts, when now for five hundred years they have been struggling, as in a bloody sweat, to keep Christianity alive under Moslem tyranny? And, in that time, how many martyrs of every age and condition have shed a halo around the Oriental Church? Not less than a hundred martyrs of these later days are commemorated in the services of the Church, and countless are the unnamed ones, who have suffered for the faith, in these five hundred years of slavery. In 1821, Gregory, Patriarch of Constantinople, was hung at the door of his cathedral, on Easter Day. Many other prelates and prominent ecclesiastics were put to death in Adrianople, Cyprus, the Ionian Islands, in Anatolia and Mount Athos. And yet, none apostatized from the faith of Christ. Are not such martyrdoms the best way of making converts? It was thus that, in the first three (and more) centuries of our era, the Church was founded in those lands by the apostles and their immediate successors. How can it be said that, among people who could so die for the faith, there was no real spiritual life ? Has not the Greek Church shown by her deeds the steadfastness of her faith?
But it is not our purpose to lecture on history. Nor is it that out of mere curiosity we are here. Let us now look to the duty we have before us this hour. We are gathered here to show our gratitude to our benefactor, and also in a becoming way to honor the memory of our dear Archpastor, Metropolitan Innocentius. Remembering him who has had the rule over us and our fathers — the Christians of this Diocese; remembering him who had spoken unto us the Word of God, let us now, according to the Divine commandment, consider his end, so that we may be able the better to follow the example of strong faith, which he gave us throughout his whole life. Although he was much weakened in his last days by old age and sickness, yet the venerable prelate retained his mind clear up to the last, and truly his course on earth was appropriately crowned with a bright Christian end. Tell them, he said, as he was about to sleep, that no eulogies be pronounced at my funeral, they only contain praise. Let them rather preach a sermon, it may be instructive; and here is the text for it: The ways of man are ordered by the Lord.
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