On February 4, I wrote an article on an 18th century Russian bell that currently hangs in an old Roman Catholic mission in California. Thanks to Mr. Clifford Argue, I have since learned a great deal more about the Kodiak Bell, and I am convinced that this bell needs to be returned to the Orthodox Church in Alaska.
As most American Orthodox Christians know, in 1794, nine Russian monks arrived on Kodiak Island in Alaska and initiated the first Orthodox mission in the New World. The missionaries included the wonderworker St. Herman and the future hieromartyr St. Juvenaly, and their leader was Archimandrite Joasaph Bolotov, who would go on to become the first Orthodox bishop consecrated for service in the Americas. (Tragically, the newly-consecrated Bishop Joasaph drowned when his ship sank en route to Kodiak, and it would be nearly a half-century longer before a bishop, St. Innocent Veniaminov, would set foot in Alaska.)
Anyway, in 1796, the Kodiak Bell was cast for the first Orthodox church in Alaska — the Church of the Resurrection. The bell bore an inscription, which, translated into English, reads something like this: “In the year 1796 in the month of January this bell was cast on the island of Kodiak by the blessing of Archimandrite Joaseph during the sojourn of Alexander Baranof.”
That bell now hangs at the historic Roman Catholic mission of San Fernando Rey de Espana, not far from Los Angeles. How it got there remains a mystery. One story — which I briefly related in my original article on the bell — is that the Russian nobleman Nikolay Rezanov exchanged the bell to the Spanish for food on an 1806 visit to California. The bell found its way to Mission San Fernando and was there as late as 1860. It was then removed and buried to protect it from vandals, was forgotten, and was finally rediscovered in 1920. It’s a colorful story, with a lot of romance, but it appears to be mostly speculation, with little hard evidence to back it up.
In the book The Mission Bells of California, by Marie T. Walsh (1934), there is a fascinating chapter entitled “Russian Bells in California.” The Kodiak Bell is featured prominently, and after relating the Rezanov story, Walsh offers this alternative theory:
Shortly after the transfer [of Alaska to United States control] two shipments of bells were made from Sitka to San Francisco. One of these shipments was consigned to Hutchinson & Hirsch on January 21, 1868, and the other to [Russian consul] Klinkofstrom on November 18, 1868. Also, in 1882, the three bells from the Kodiak church were sent down to be recast by a San Francisco company, but were substituted with other material. Reverend [Alexander] Kashevaroff says that he remembers ringing the 1796 bell as a boy for the church services and on big holidays, especially during Christmas and Easter, when the bells would be rung the whole day in honor of the feast. So taking this historian’s word for it, the Kodiak bell first saw California in 1882 and not in 1806 as has been so romantically suggested.
I plan to reprint the whole chapter at some point, as Walsh provides a lot of details and theories.
Anyway, so much for the basic history. In 1987, on the eve of the millenium of Russian Orthodoxy, OCA priest Fr. Andrew Harrison, then of St. Innocent Church in Tarzana, California, wrote to Pope John Paul II to ask that the Kodiak Bell be loaned to the Orthodox in Alaska. Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles responded, granting permission for a 3-month loan in 1988. Most of the details were worked out, but for reasons that remain unclear, the loan never happened and the bell has remained at Mission San Fernando to this day.
That was 23 years ago. And while the idea of a three-month loan is nice, honestly, that bell belongs in Alaska, permanently. It is one of the few surviving artifacts from the original Kodiak Mission — from the original Orthodox temple in the Western Hemisphere. It should be, not loaned, but returned. Because, however it got down to a Roman Catholic mission in California, it is of comparatively little value to its present owners, in light of its extraordinary significance for the Orthodox Church.
This calls to mind two recent “returns,” both of which are relevant for our purposes. First, there was the celebrated 2004 return of relics by Pope John Paul II to the Ecumenical Patriarchate — relics of the great Fathers St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom. Here, the late Pope should serve as a model for the current owners of the Kodiak Bell, willing to return a precious relic to the Orthodox in a spirit of Christian friendship.
Even more recently, there was Harvard University’s 2008 return of 18 historic bells to Danilov Monastery in Russia. These bells had been donated to Harvard in 1930 by a philanthropist who saved them from destruction by the Communists, and they were ultimately returned in exchange for a new set of bells (donated by a Russian foundation). Here, too, we see a model for the Kodiak Bell situation: we Orthodox should raise the (certainly small) sum of money necessary to create a replacement bell, to give to Mission San Fernando in exchange for the Kodiak Bell.
In my view, this plan — for the Roman Catholics to return the Kodiak Bell in exchange for a high-quality replacement — is exactly the sort of “ecumenical” activity that has positive benefits all around. It would foster goodwill between the two groups, attract positive attention from outsiders, give the Orthodox an important relic from their past, and give the Roman Catholics a new artifact demonstrating our Christian brotherhood. This can happen, and should happen.
This article was written by Matthew Namee. Many thanks to Mr. Clifford Argue for his invaluable assistance.
Yesterday, we posted the St. Peter the Aleut entry from Richard A. Pierce’s Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary. In that excerpt, Pierce offered this theory: “Since the extermination of Indians on ‘Il’mena Island’ by Aleut hunters led by the Russian Iakov Babin, there with the RAC brig Il’mena, occurred at about the same time as the alleged martyrdom of Petr the Aleut, discovery of additional facts on the one may help explain the other.” This, of course, raises the question, “Who was Iakov Babin, and what did he do?” Here is Babin’s brief entry in the same Pierce book (page 14):
Babin, Iakov (fl. 1815-1839?), fur hunter. A peasant from Tobol’sk, he entered service of the RAC [Russian-American Company] about 1805 and was assigned to the Ross settlement in California. About 1815, while hunting for sea otters off what the Russians called Il’mena Island, probably after their ship, the Il’mena, in Southern California, Babin apparently allowed his party of Aleut hunters to exterminate the local Indians. When the Aleuts involved in the affair returned to Sitka, Chief Manager A.A. Baranov took statements from them, and in 1818 his successor L.A. Hagemeister ordered Babin brought on the Kutuzov to Sitka for further questioning. From there he was to be sent to St. Petersburg, for inquiry by the Main Office, though whether this was done is unclear. In 1825, stating that he had received nothing from the company since 1805, he requested permission to leave the colonies, but remained, for on 30 January 1827 he married, at Sitka, Anisiia, “a baptized Indian of the people of Albion (i.e., of California).” On 23 January 1827 a daughter, Matrona, was baptised at Kad’iak. On 6 February 1838 he married Elisaveta Unali at Kad’iak, and there, in either 1839 or 1841, he died.
It’s just a theory, but it’s possible that St. Peter’s death was actually a revenge killing. The Il’mena was, after all, St. Peter’s ship — at least, it was the ship he was on at the time of his capture. Was St. Peter present at this alleged massacre (since, after all, the Il’mena was his ship)? Were the Indians who killed St. Peter related to the Indians killed by the Russians and Aleuts on Il’mena Island? Is it possible that the two events are unconnected?
It seems to me that, if we want to understand what happened with St. Peter in 1815, we must understand this purported Il’mena Island massacre as well.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
Editor’s note: The late Dr. Richard A. Pierce was among the foremost historians on Russian Alaska, and his many books remain standards in the field. In 1990, he published Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary (Kingston, Ont., Canada: Limestone Press). Among the many entries in the book is one on St. Peter the Aleut (pages 397-398). I’ve reprinted that excerpt below. While Pierce himself regards St. Peter’s martyrdom as “probably a fabrication,” he points to some very intriguing sources and other incidents that warrant further study.
Petr the Aleut, Saint. (d. 1815?), in June1815 the RAC [Russian-American Company] brig Il’mena took on supplies at San Francisco and then sailed south to poach sea otters along the California coast. In August, 8 baidarkas under the Russian fur hunter Boris Tarasov came ashore at San Pedro, but the Spanish authorities ordered them off. On 17 September, Tarasov landed again, and he and 24 Aleuts were seized. In 1817, Governor Sola delivered 15 prisoners to the Russians, and promised to get others who were being held at the southern missions. Those who had married California women and accepted Catholicism would be allowed to stay.
In March 1819, the Il’mena, under Benzeman, visited “Il’mena Island” (evidently one of the Santa Barbara Channel islands, probably named by the Russians after the vessel), and rescued a Kad’iak Island Aleut, Ivan Keglii (or Kykhliaia or Kychlai) and took him to Fort Ross, where the commandant, I.A. Kuskov, interrogated him. Said to be “not a type who could think up things,” Keglii said that he was among those captured by the Spanish in 1815. The Spanish priests, he claimed, had tried to persuade him and one of his comrades, named Petr (or Chungangnaq), to become converts to Catholicism. Keglii and his friend refused, so the priest returned the following morning accompanied by Indians, had the pair brought out and “then he commanded that Chungangnaq’s fingers should be cut off at the joints, and then his arms at both joints. Finally, not satisfied by this act of tyranny, he commanded that his intestines be opened up. At this last torture, Chungangnaq, thus a martyr, expired.” The same fate awaited Keglii, but was deferred and Keglii, who had watched his friend’s torture and death, later escaped with another Kad’iak man to “Il’mena Island” (perhaps Santa Cruz Island, the closest to Santa Barbara). His companion died, but Keglii lived with the Indians on the island until rescued in 1819.
On hearing of the “barbarous deed,” the Emperor Alexander I at once asked that his charge d’affaires in Madrid be instructed to make inquiries, which was done (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris, 29 August 1821:4254, Nesselrode to Pozzo di Borgo). Nesselrode, I.A. Kuskov, Chief Manager S.N. Ianovskii, the venerable Father German [St. Herman], Father Ioann Veniaminov [St. Innocent], and the company historian P.A. Tikhmenev all believed Keglii’s gruesome tale, and the martyred Chungangnaq became revered as St. Petr the Aleut. However since Keglii’s story is unconfirmed by other sources, features a degree of compulsion uncharacteristic of the mission fathers, and resembles no other case reported among Aleut hunters captured by the Spanish and later delivered to the Russians, it was probably a fabrication. The priests at Santa Barbara and most of the other California missions were Dominicans, but in later versions of the story the culprits are said to have been Jesuits. Since the extermination of Indians on “Il’mena Island” by Aleut hunters led by the Russian Iakov Babin, there with the RAC brig Il’mena, occurred at about the same time as the alleged martyrdom of Petr the Aleut, discovery of additional facts on the one may help explain the other.
Here are a few thoughts on the discussion about the historicity of the martyrdom account of St. Peter the Aleut kicked off by Fr. Oliver Herbel and continued by Matthew Namee on the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas’s OrthodoxHistory.org blog. These thoughts are borrowed (adapted and expanded) from comments to “Rebooted: Why I Currently Do Not Accept the Martyrdom Account for Peter the Aleut” on Fr. Oliver’s Frontier Orthodoxy blog.
We should understand more about how the cult of St. Peter the Aleut developed in the 1970s, i.e., in the lead up to his 1980 canonization by both ROCOR and the OCA’s Alaskan Diocese. It hasn’t been discussed, but there seem to be questions regarding the motives behind the canonizations. There have been whispers for years that “St. Peter the Aleut didn’t really exist” and about why he was canonized since “he didn’t exist” and ROCOR and the OCA were at each other’s throats in 1980. The process leading up to his local canonizations should be explored.
Specifically, was there perhaps a highly localized cult of St. Peter already that most are unaware of, e.g., in San Francisco, in Alaska, on Kodiak Island? Did The Orthodox Word [possibly Vol. III, No. 3 or Issue #14, June-July] or another publication simply stumble upon primary or secondary documents and unquestioningly publish them as true? Or, was an already established local tradition concerning St. Peter made public along with these supporting documents? If there was a local veneration of St. Peter why was it so unknown prior to the 1970s (and today)? Fr. Oliver says he knows “someone who went up [to Alaska] to document [the oral history surrounding St. Peter] and found none at all and was shocked.” Was the inclusion of Peter’s name in the service for St. Herman of Alaska (canonized in 1970) the primary introduction most Orthodox had to the story of Peter’s martyrdom? What sources were used to write this service? Were all of the primary sources assessed for reliability prior to his canonization (and the inclusion of Peter’s martyrdom story in St. Herman’s service) or were they taken simply, at face value? Was only the most ‘hagiographical’ account given credence to support an a priori decision to canonize? Did the RCC’s beatification of the “Mohawk Saint” Catherine Tekakwitha on June 22, 1980 play a part in St. Peter’s canonization on September 24, 1980? Were there political or ecumenical factors at play within the Alaskan Diocese, the OCA and/or ROCOR at the time that the canonization was meant to address? Were there cultural factors at play in Alaska between Natives and those from the lower 48? between Alaska and New York/Syosset?
I highly recommend looking at the various posts (and comments) on this topic available on Frontier Orthodoxy and at OrthodoxHistory.org:
- St. Peter the Aleut Did Not Exist
- Fr. Oliver Herbel on St. Peter the Aleut
- Monday Morning Priest: Continuing the Discussion Concerning the “Martyr-Peter”
- Fr. Oliver “reboots” the St. Peter discussion
- Rebooting the St. Peter the Aleut Discussion
- Rebooted: Why I Currently Do Not Accept the Martyrdom Account for Peter the Aleut
- Is the St. Peter the Aleut story true?
- Primary sources on St. Peter the Aleut
When thinking through these issues, I think it’s also worth noting a couple of things about historical inquiry and the canonization process in the Orthodox Church, in no particular order:
- The Orthodox Church should not canonize people she knows or legitimately suspects were either immoral or fictionalized.
- Prelest, ignorance and error must be guarded against through prayerful, sober, deliberative discernment and competent, reasonable due diligence
- Local veneration can be founded on error, the same is true of purported miracles, sweet scents, visions, etc. as many a story in the Paterika tell us.
- Conciliar discernment of sanctity by the Church is required, which includes the bishops in Synod, the clergy, monastics and people.
- ROCOR and the OCA were in canonically “irregular” positions in 1980 when St. Peter was canonized.
- As has been shown in the recent Act of Canonical Communion between the MP and the ROCOR, ROCOR was always only a part of the single local Church of Russia. ROCOR cannot and could not speak for the whole local Church of Russia, definitively. Similarly, it is only the OCA’s Diocese of Alaska that has canonized St. Peter the Aleut, and a single diocese alone cannot speak for the whole OCA, definitively.
- Questioning and assessing local veneration and canonization is part of the ‘reception’ process in Orthodox ecclesiology, cf. the 1848 Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs, A Reply to the Epistle of Pope Pius IX, ‘to the Easterns’.
- Questioning the wisdom of local canonizations is a very different thing than questioning the reality of a St. Christopher, for instance, as the Roman Catholics have done; questioning the canonization of St. Peter the Aleut is not like questioning the canonization of a modern, well-attested to saint such as St. Tikhon of Moscow or of an ancient, universally venerated saint such as St. George.
- A lack of historical documentation does not mean a person did not exist or that an event did not take place.
- It is possible that the Church knows, for a fact, that a person is a saint while not knowing anything for sure about his/her life.
- It is possible there are less than historically factual stories circulating about a saint. Whether the person is a saint or not is a different issue than whether stories about him are literally factual.
- Lack of documentary evidence from centuries ago, from illiterate peoples, from frontiers, from climates that poorly preserve documents, etc. are different than a lack of documentary evidence closer to our age, in places and times with a profusion of surviving documentation, from literate peoples, etc.
- While St. Peter’s world may have butted up against highly literate, documentary cultures (Russian, Spanish) in 19th century California, it can also be said that the Mission country of Alta California and its Channel Islands up through Russian Alaska should be treated more like a centuries-past, wild frontier when assessing available evidence.
- When assessing the canonization of a 19th-century, frontier saint such as St. Peter the Aleut, we should keep in mind the same criteria we use when assessing ancient hagiographical writings surrounding St. George and the dragon, St. Mary of Egypt, non-Biblical Marian Feasts, etc.
- Poetic license is a facet of Orthodox hymnography. For instance, there are innumerable hymns that tell us (“literally”) that Mary said X and the Gabriel said Y and then, etc. Literally speaking, these conversations did not happen; however, iconically and poetically, they tell us something important – especially from the perspective of the Eternal Now, “Today”. (See pp. vii, x-xii in The Life of the Virgin Mary, The Theotokos [Holy Apostles Convent, 2006].)
- We should not be too quick to dismiss such stories as untrue ‘legends’, ‘fables’ and ‘myths’. We must be careful not to assume that pre-modern ways of viewing the world, speaking of the world, etc. are inherently inferior and unreliable when compared to modern/post-modern, materialistic ways of thinking and speaking. There is a paucity of non-literal, non-scientific language in our day; this was not the case in centuries and millenia past in more aural and oral, less literate cultures.
- Hagiography is not simply myth and legend, neither is historical fact the most true portraiture of sanctity; similarly, icons show us not simply historical characters and events as they were on earth in the flesh, but as they are now, transformed by God’s glory – as they were then, too, spiritually. Spiritual time and space are in the eternal Present, the Now, the “Today” of iconography, hymnography, liturgy and prophecy; and this can truthfully elide historical events with events from intervening centuries (as well as ‘interpolated’ theology, e.g., Nicene, Chalcedonian or Palamite formulae), together with present and future events. We are told something more than bare , historical facts in hagiography, which is why less than literal historical events remain in Orthodox hagiography, hymnography, etc. unlike in the RCC post-Vatican II.
- All the historian can do in the case of a poorly attested to event or person is make a case for the likelihood (or not) of existence and veracity. That is, the historian assigns probability regarding the facts surrounding a person or event.
- Probability is not the proper, primary determiner in deciding whether to canonize or not.
- However, evidence and its lack must be given serious consideration prior to canonization due to the ever present danger in sinful humanity of prelest, ignorance, error and overreach.
- Matthew Namee identifies a number of different areas of research in the St. Peter story: the historical (what really happened?), the historiographical (how has he been viewed by people over time?) and the ecclesiastical (how do/should canonizations work?).
- I would underline the importance of the historical question (what really happened?) to the past-tense ecclesiastical question (how and why did this particular canonization take place when it did? in both OCA Alaska and ROCOR?)
What I appreciate about the historical investigation and assessment of both Archbishop Arseny (Chagovtsov) of Winnipeg and St. Peter the Aleut for universal veneration is the enunciation, enumeration and assessment of reasons we may want to consider not formally canonizing these candidates sainthood. We shouldn’t simply decide someone should be canonized and then develop a case for their canonization – especially if this includes ignoring evidence that contradicts their sanctity (or existence). While I think some have overstated the case to be made against St. Peter’s existence based on the evidence available, I expect historians to grant significant weight to the tools of their academic discipline. As stated above, probability is often the best historical inquiry can do, and academic probability alone must not be given precedent over established Tradition. Since Archbishop Arseny and St. Peter the Aleut have only been canonized or venerated locally, as stated above, it is the Church’s duty to conduct appropriate, competent and reasonable due diligence into whether two new saints should be put forward for universal veneration. The Church is in need of those who will play “devil’s advocate”; She is in need of those who will raise potential concerns that could come back to embarrass the Church. Concerns about St. Peter have been whispered for years, and a modest inquiry into Archbishop Arseny quickly raised questions that should have been addressed far earlier in the canonization process. The informal, almost ad hoc nature of the Orthodox canonization process with its lack of formal criteria and procedure is perhaps too easily prone to misuse and/or prelest – or the perception of such. If a friendly “devil’s advocate” doesn’t raise all of the questions that can be raised, I assure you other, less friendly critics will. “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither [any thing] hid, that shall not be known and come abroad.” (Luke 8:17)
“Sober, deliberative discernment is required” – which includes historical investigation and assessment – so the Orthodox Church does “not canonize people she knows or legitimately suspects were either immoral or fictionalized.” Our saints are canonized because they were and are living canons – literally “rules” – for us to live by. The Church should do all it can to ensure Her “canonized” measures are true.
A DECREE OF THE SYNOD OF BISHOPS OF ROCOR to the diocesan bishops and pastors of churches directly subject to the President of the Synod of Bishops
0n 15/28 October, 1980, the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia [ROCOR] heard the appeal of a number of the faithful for the canonization of the martyrs Peter the Aleut and Hieromonk Juvenalius.
Resolved: In as much as the martyrdom of Peter the Aleut and Hieromonk Juvenalius is not in doubt, and that in accordance with a resolution of the Higher Ecclesiastical Authority their names were listed in the service to St. Herman of Alaska as holy martyrs, a new decision on their canonization is not required. Their memory should be celebrated on the same day as that of the Venerable Herman of Alaska.
[Resolved also:] To send an encyclical ukase for information and guidance to all the diocesan bishops and to the pastors of churches subject directly to the President of the Synod of Bishops.†Metropolitan Philaret, President†Bishop Gregory, Secretary
31 0ct./13 Nov. 1980
(Source; emphasis mine)
This article was written by Christopher Orr.
Yesterday, Isa Almisry made a great comment full of fascinating links and references. One of the most intriguing is this one, on a Russian bell housed at the Mission of San Fernando el Rey de Espana, located 40 miles from San Pedro (where St. Peter the Aleut was reportedly captured):
A hundred-pound bell was unearthed in an orange grove near the Mission in 1920. It carried the following inscription (translated from Russian): “In the Year 1796, in the month of January, this bell was cast on the Island of Kodiak by the blessing of Archimandrite Joaseph, during the sojourn of Alexsandr Baranov.” It is not known how this Russian Orthodox artifact from Kodiak, Alaska made its way to a Catholic mission in Southern California.
Another reference presents a theory about how the bell made it to the Roman Catholic mission:
A bell hangs in the belfry of the church. Another bell, weighing 100 pounds and dated to 1796, bears inscriptions for both Mission San Fernando and a Russian Orthodox Church official of the island of Kodiak, Alaska. It is believed by some that the bell originated with Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov’s 1806 Russian trading expedition to Alta California.
I did some further digging, which turned up this note (and the accompanying photo) from the book Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana, by Jacqueline Ching: “A Russian count traded it for food in San Francisco, and from there it went to Mission San Fernando.” According to Ching, the bell went missing sometime before 1860, and wasn’t rediscovered until 1920. In addition to the Russian inscription, “DE Sn FERNO” was hammered into the surface.
So who was this “Russian count,” Nikolay Rezanov? According to his Wikipedia page, he lived quite a life. He was a statesman (serving as Russian ambassador to Japan), an explorer (circumnavigating the globe), and a scholar (member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences). But he is most famous for his role in founding the great Russian-American Company, the state-sponsored monopoly that ruled Alaska in the 19th century.
In 1806, he sailed from Sitka (then called New Archangel) to Spanish California. Apparently, the bell in question was on board his ship, although I can’t imagine why. Caught in a storm, he was forced to stop at San Francisco, where he fell in love with the daughter of a high-ranking Spanish official. In part because of this relationship, Rezanov negotiated a treaty between Russia and Spain regarding their claims in America, but on his way back to St. Petersburg to present it to the Tsar, Rezanov took ill and died in Siberia. Click here to see a website dedicated to preserving Rezanov’s memory.
None of this explains how a bell cast on Kodiak in 1796 made it onto a ship bound for California ten years later. The bell itself was probably the first Orthodox church bell made in the Western Hemisphere. For that matter, it may have been the first Orthodox bell in America, period, regardless of where it was originally made. It’s a rare artifact from the original Kodiak Mission, and it’s sitting in a Roman Catholic church in California, unknown (as far as I can tell) to virtually all Orthodox Christians despite its historical significance. I, for one, would love to visit that church and see the bell for myself. If anyone learns more about it, please let us know.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.