Vera Johnston: “Herman — Russian Missionary to America”

 

St. Herman of Alaska

Editor’s note: We first published this article nearly a year ago, but today is St. Herman’s feast day on the New Calendar, and it seemed appropriate to reprint this early Life. The author, Vera Vladimirovna Johnston, was born in the Russian Empire, married an Englishman, and eventually moved to New York. Her own story is extremely fascinating, and we discussed it in some detail in August. This article originally appeared under the title “Herman — Russian Missionary to America,” in a publication called The Constructive Quarterly 7:1 (March 1919). That is, it was written for an audience of literate Christians of various denominations, rather than specifically for Orthodox readers. I have not edited the text at all; any misspellings are in the original.

A Russian missionary to America! Yes, indeed, a servant of God, lowly and simple of heart, who attained to such perfection of spirit that in our day and generation there are many in Alaska and throughout the Orthodox parishes in the United States who think that Herman, the humble monk, should be and will be canonized—a saint of the Church.

In the second half of the eighteenth century the northern boundaries of Russia came so close to America that Russian pioneers reached the Aleutian Islands. Towards the end of the reign of the great Catherine, when Gabriel was Metropolitan of St. Petersburg, it was arranged that the light of Christ should be brought to the inhabitants of these inhospitable islands, which were inaccessible part of the year. Ten recluses of the Valaam Monastery were chosen and in 1794 started for far-off America.

The letters written home to the Prior of Valaam by some of the members of the mission were full of quaint descriptions and observations of the wonders met with in Siberia and in the cold regions of the Pacific Ocean: sea monsters, and the not less monstrous aboriginal Red men, who fought the Russian sailors by night, with queerly carved and painted masks of animals on their heads. Some of these letters are well worth reading after the lapse of 125 years.

However, the mission landed at last, and the success of these preachers of the Gospel among the new sons of the Russian Empire was great. Many thousands became Orthodox Christians, the word taking such deep root in their hearts that time and vicissitudes have done little to sap its vitality even to this day; a school was founded, a church was built, round which were grouped the dwellings of the new converts and their spiritual fathers. Yet the general success of the mission did not continue very long. After five years the Archimandrite Joasaph, head of the mission, who about this time became a bishop, was drowned off the coast of Alaska with other members of the mission; the hieromonk Juvenalius “won the crown of martyrs,” having been killed by the arrows of the natives; and one after another the missionaries disappeared, until only Herman was left.

The Yelovoi Ostrov—Spruce Island—was Herman’s dwelling place. It faces Kadiak, where stood the original church and mission house, and is separated from it by a channel a mile and a half wide, which is so rough at times that Yelovoi becomes entirely inaccessible. The island is thickly covered with fir trees, and there is a swift stream of fresh water on it, so that one is never out of hearing of the murmur of the stream and the noise of rushing tumbling breakers on the stony beach. And it was in this sylvan and watery solitude that the Russian monk worked in America.

Retiring into this wilderness, Herman first of all dug with his own hands a cave, in which he lived until a wooden cell was built for him; but the cave he preserved in good condition during all the forty years he stayed on Yelovoi, retiring there for prayer at times, and destining it for the grave in which his frail old body should find rest at last. Later a small wooden chapel was built next to his cell and a bigger one for the school children.

For more than forty years Herman worked incessantly. He was the first to introduce various European vegetables into these regions. When he was not praying or teaching, he was digging, planting, weeding, watering; and the wild little island produced vegetables on quite a large scale—good potatoes and cabbage. He was an expert at finding edible fungus crops in the thickets beneath the trees; and he pickled great quantities of mushrooms, obtaining salt from the seawater. He carried to his vegetable beds fertilizing seaweed in such a huge basket that it was not easy to lift it even when empty; yet at times the frail old monk transported several of these basketfuls daily, though the distance to the seashore was quite considerable. The endurance and vigour of his emaciated body were incredible, his contemporaries say; for instance, one snowy winter’s night, young Jerassimos, one of his disciples, by chance saw Apa (Grandfather) Herman walking barefooted in the woods, carrying with unbent shoulders a tree so big that Jerassimos said not even four strong men could have borne it. And all this was done to supply food, fuel, clothing, and even school books, for the many Aleutian children of whom he took care. And as if all this was not enough, whenever sufficient sugar and flour could be obtained, Herman made cookies and little cakes for the children, who adored him.

His own food consisted only of a very small piece of fish or a little boiled vegetable. He wore the same light clothes summer and winter. He slept on a wooden bench covered with a doe’s skin, which as years went on had no hair left on it at all, becoming simply a thin piece of leather. Two bricks, carefully concealed from visitors, were his pillow; and instead of a blanket he used a piece of board, which still covers his body in the cave which is his grave. But such as it was, Apa Herman loved his wilderness home. He was a frequent visitor of the Russian officials on the shore, but he always returned home for the night, even if it was very dark, or foggy, and if the sea rolled heavy waves. On the rare occasions when it was necessary to stay away for the night, and his hosts put him in a comfortable bedroom, in the morning it would be discovered that the bed had not been touched, and indiscreet people would have seen him at all hours of the night kneeling in prayer.

Even in his youth he had never looked very robust, for he was sparely built, but not tall; yet in addition to all the physical and moral self-imposed fatigue, he always wore heavy chains on his body, thus inflicting on himself further mortification of the flesh. His nearest disciple in the Aleutian Island, whose name was Ignatius Aligyaga, was often heard in later times to say: “Yes, Apa led a hard life, and no one could follow him.”

Yet, for all the incessant labour of his outward life, his inner life was the more intense of the two, and far the more important in his own eyes. Bishop Peter, who knew Herman well, wrote that his principal concern was “the exercise of spiritual achievements, in the isolation of his cell, where no one could see him.” And this statement is further confirmed by what Herman himself said when somebody asked him whether he did not feel dull, being so much alone in the woods. “No, I am not alone. God is there as He is everywhere. Holy angels are there. Then how can I feel dull? With whom is it better and pleasanter to converse, with men or with angels?”

Herman’s attitude towards the aboriginal inhabitants of Alaska and the way in which he understood Russia’s relation to them is well worth attention. He wrote to the Governor of the colony: “The Lord gave this land to our beloved mother country like a new-born babe, who has not as yet any faculty to acquire knowledge, nor the sense to do so; because of its lack of strength and its infancy, it not only needs protection, but even support; but this it has as yet no ability to ask of anyone. And as Providence has made the prosperity of this people to depend, until some unknown date, on the Russian authorities … I, the humble servant of the people of this land, and their nurse, standing before you on behalf of all, do implore you, writing with tears of blood. Be our father and our benefactor. It is needless to say we have no eloquence. But with our inarticulate infant tongues we say to you: ‘Wipe the tears of defenceless orphans, cool the hearts which are melting in the fire of sorrow, help us to understand what joy is.’ “

Herman’s self-abnegation in his devotion to the Aleutian people was complete. A ship from the United States brought to Sitka a very contagious fatal disease, which spread from there to Kadiak. The plague ran its deadly course in three days. There were no doctors and no drugs on the island. The mortality was such that dead bodies lay unburied for days. Herman wrote of it in the following words: “I can imagine nothing more sad or more horrible than the sight I beheld on visiting an Aleutian kajem. It is a big barn or barrack with bunks, in which the Aleutians live with their families. It held about one hundred people. Some were dead and were cold already, but lay side by side with the living; some were in their last agony; their moaning and screaming were enough to rend one’s soul with pity. … I saw mothers over whose dead bodies crawled little hungry babies.”

And throughout this terrible epidemic, which lasted for a whole month, gradually declining, Herman never gave a thought to his own discomfort or danger. He stayed most of the time with the sick, tending them, praying with them, comforting them or preparing them to die as Christians should.

Herman’s concern for the moral growth of the Aleutians was deep. He read and explained to them the Scriptures. And their progress in singing in Church was quite remarkable. The Aleutians liked his lessons and his preaching, and flocked to his island in great numbers. His talks delighted them, and through them a miraculous influence was exercised over his unlettered listeners. Here is one instance which has reached us in his own description:

“Glory be to the holy ways of God’s compassion! His Providence, which passes understanding, has manifested to me something which I never saw before in all the twenty years I have spent in Kadiak. A little after Easter a certain young woman who can speak Russian well came to me. She did not know me before, had never seen me, but when she came and heard about the Incarnation of the Son of God, and about life eternal, she was consumed with such ardent love for Jesus Christ, that she will not leave me and has persuaded me, in spite of my preference for isolation, in spite of all the obstacles and hardships I represented to her, to receive her. And now for more than a month she has lived in the school and does not seem homesick. Wondering at this greatly, I recall the words of our Saviour, that much is revealed to babes which is hidden from the wise and the prudent.” This Aleutian woman, who was baptized Sophia, stayed on the island of Yelovoi, taking care of the school children, long after the death of the recluse.

Here is further testimony to the work of grace in the hearts of the people, made accessible to them by the simple words of Herman. This testimony comes from the Russian Governor of the colony, who was a man of high social standing at home, well acquainted with the ways and opinions of the great European world. Governor Janovsky writes: “I was thirty when I met Father Herman. I must mention at once that I was educated in the School of the Naval Corps, that I was acquainted with many sciences and had read a good deal. But unfortunately I had but a very superficial understanding of the science of all sciences, the Law of God, and that only theoretically, never applying it to life; in fact, I was a Christian in name only, in thought and deed I was an atheist. My rejection of the holiness and divinity of our religion was only the greater because I read quantities of agnostic literature. It was not long before Father Herman became aware of this. . . . To my great surprise he spoke with much force and intelligence; his arguments were so convincing that, even as I recall them now, it seems to me that no learning and no worldly wisdom could withstand him. Daily we discussed till midnight and even later the subjects of divine love, eternity, the salvation of the soul and Christian living. His delightful talk poured forth freely, unhindered.” In after life Governor Janovsky became known for his truly Christian disposition. He concludes his reminiscences as follows: “For all this I am indebted to Father Herman: he is my true benefactor.” The same official left a description of Herman’s external appearance. “I remember very vividly,” he says, “the Father’s pleasant features, luminous with grace, his pleasing smile, his gentle attractive eyes, his humble quiet disposition and kindly address. He was not tall; his face was pale and covered with innumerable fine wrinkles; his eyes sparkled with inner light . . . and his speech was never loud, but very agreeable.”

From one source and another there is a very considerable record of the life of this quiet kindly Apa of the Aleutian Islands. But perhaps the surest indication of his coming though delayed canonization is in the fact that, having died in his eighty-first year on December 13, 1837, he is still remembered by the descendants of those who were his spiritual children in the true’ sense. The healing and miracle working power of prayer at his poor grave, most of the time snowed up and inaccessible, still prevails in that little known, northernmost corner of America.

Monk Herman died fully prepared, having arranged for all the details and foretold many of the circumstances of his death. On the evening of his death some Russian Creoles and Aleutians saw a pillar of light ascending from the island of Yelovoi, brighter and more distinct than any northern lights. Some of the beholders are recorded as having said: “Father Herman has left us.” And many on Kadiak, Athognak and other islands stretching from America to Asia knelt down and prayed in their simple faith, seeking consolation in their bereavement.

Many are the records of the good deeds and the verified prophecies of this unusual Russian life spent in the service of Americans. But perhaps his own commentary on his life can best show what he really was and what were his aspirations. “The hollow desires of this life draw us away from our heavenly native land; love of these desires and habits clothes our souls as with an unclean garment; the Apostles called this the ‘outer man.’ We, in our wanderings through life, calling on God for help, ought to lift this uncleanness from ourselves, clothing ourselves with new desires and a new love of the future life, and thus judge of our drawing near to our heavenly native land or away from it. It is impossible to do this in haste, but we may follow the example of sick people who desire a glad recovery, and never give up their search for a cure. I can speak suggestively only.”

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