Given the recent discussion about St. Peter the Aleut, I thought it might be worthwhile to publish some of the primary sources we have for his story. As I explained on Monday, there are four main sources:
- The 1819 transcript from the deposition of Keglii Ivan, the only known eyewitness to St. Peter’s martyrdom.
- The 1820 report of Russian official Simeon Yanovsky to his superiors in St. Petersburg.
- The 1820 report of the head of the Russian-American Company to the Tsar.
- The 1865 letter of Yanovsky to the abbot of Valaam Monastery.
We don’t yet have a copy of the 1819 deposition. The 1865 Yanovsky letter has been widely circulated, but is almost certainly the least reliable of the four sources. That leaves the two 1820 accounts, which I will reprint here. I have taken them from a paper by Jesuit priest Raymond A. Bucko.
First, the February 15, 1820 Yanovsky report:
Here is an example of the inhumanity and ignorance of the Spanish clergy: In June 1815, on the coast of California near the Mission San Pedro, they seized 15 baidarkas of Kadiak men under Tarasov, of whom two Kadiaks fled to Il’men Island (possibly a Russian name for San Nicolas Island – Ed.) where one of them died, and the other, Keglii Ivan, lived with the natives of this island until by chance the Russian-American Company brig Il’men came in March, 1819, when he appeared before the commander of the vessel, Mr. Banzeman, and was taken to Fort Ross. I enclose the original testimony of this Aleut taken by Mr. Kuskov. He has now been sent here on the brig Il’men and tells me the same thing. He is not a type who could think up things. The Spanish tortured his unfortunate comrade, who until the very end replied to his torturer that he was a Christian and wanted no other faith, and with these words he died. One must note that this victim though baptized like the others was not taught Christianity, probably did not even know the dogmas of the faith except God the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. I suggest that the Government intervene so that the Spanish do not do the same with the rest. But we have to keep in mind that the colonies cannot get along without grain from California.
Here is the report from the main administrator of the Russian-American Company, sent to Tsar Alexander I “sometime before December 20, 1820″:
A Company promyshlennick, a native of the island of Kodiak by the name of Kykhklai, who had been taken prisoner by the Spaniards in 1815 and returned to our settlement at Ross and then to the headquarters of the colony on Sitka Island in 1819, gave the following account of inhuman treatment by the Spaniards of one of the Company promyshlenniks.
In 1815 a Company servitor named (Boris) Tarasov was on Ilmen Island, which did not belong to any nation. He was the leader of a group of promyshlenniks who were there to hunt. Since they were unsuccessful there they decided to set out with fifteen dependent islanders from our Kodiak colony to go to the other islands, Santa Rosa and Ekaterina (Catalina?). During the voyage his baidarka began to leak, and he had to proceed to the coast of California. They stopped at the bay on Cabo San Pedro, where bad weather detained them until the next day. While they were there a Spanish soldier came to them from the mission of San Pedro and informed Tarasov that in exchange for some gifts, he would bring to him two of our Kodiak men who had previously run off from another such hunting party and were presently in the mission.
When the soldier left, although the weather was calmer and they could proceed on their projected route, the desire to see and to free their fellow islanders persuaded them to remain there longer. On the fourth day of their stay they were suddenly attacked by some 20 armed horsemen, who tied up all of our people and wounded many of them with their sabers. One of the Kodiak islanders named Chunagnak was wounded in the head. The attackers looted all their possessions and all the Company trade goods. The prisoners were then taken to the mission of San Pedro where they actually did find the two Kodiak islanders who had fled from the island of Clement from another party of partisans. When they reached the mission, a missionary who was head of the mission wanted them to accept the Catholic faith. The prisoners replied that they had already accepted the Greek Christian religion and did not wish to change. Some time later Tarasov and almost all the Kodiak people were taken to Santa Barbara. Only two of them, Kykhklai and the wounded Chunagnak, were thrown into prison with the Indians who were being held. They suffered for several days without food or drink.
One night the head of the mission sent the runaway Kodiak islanders with a second order for them to accept the Catholic faith, but again they remained steadfast in their own faith.
At dawn a cleric went to the prison, accompanied by Indians. When the prisoners were brought out, he ordered the Indians to encircle them. Then he ordered the Indians to cut off the fingers from both hands of the above mentioned Chunagnak, then to cut off both his hands; finally, not satisfied with this tyranny, he gave orders that Chunagnak be disemboweled.
Tortured in this manner, Chunagnak breathed his last after the final procedure. The same punishment would have awaited the other Kodiak, Kykhklai, had it not been for the fact that the cleric received a timely piece of paper. When he read it, he ordered that the man who had been killed be buried, and that Kykhklai be returned to prison; several days later they sent him to Santa Barbara. There was not one of his comrades there who had been taken prisoner with him. All of them had been sent off to Monterey. Kykhklai was assigned to the same work as other Company promyshlenniks who had been taken prisoner by the Spanish.
Wanting to escape from a life of such torture, Kykhklai and another man conceived the idea of breaking away. They stole a baidarka and went in to the bay on Cabo San Pedro, and from there to the island of Catalina, then to [Santa] Barbara [Island] and finally to Ilmen, where one of them died and where Kykhklai was taken aboard the Company brig Ilmen, which had come to the island and then went to the Ross settlement. The others who had been taken prisoner at the same time were freed on the insistence of our captains Hagemeister and Kotzebue.
This incident, just one of many, is a striking example of the inhuman way in which the Spanish treat Russian promyshlenniks. Many who had previously been in their captivity were so exhausted with labor and so abused from beatings that they will carry the results with them to the grave. The suffering inflicted on the poor Indians is impossible to conceive without shuddering. Not only do they not consider the Indians human beings, they consider them below animals. The Spanish take great pleasure in beating innocent Indians then bragging about it to other Spaniards.
Over on his blog, Fr. Oliver Herbel has decided to re-frame his presentation of the St. Peter the Aleut question. He’s taken down both of his earlier articles on the subject and replaced them with a new one, which you can read by clicking here.
Well, this has been interesting. Last week, I posted a link to an article Fr. Oliver Herbel wrote, entitled, “St. Peter the Aleut Did Not Exist.” As you can imagine, this sparked a very strong response from many readers, who challenged Fr. Oliver on several points. Some took issue with his historical arguments, while others were simply scandalized that an Orthodox priest would call into question the existence of a canonized saint. Personally, I have learned a great deal, on both sides of this debate, in the past few days.
I have to say, I have never been more indecisive about an American Orthodox historical matter than I have with St. Peter the Aleut. I honestly do not know whether he existed or not, and if he existed, whether his martyrdom story is true. The past few days have really forced me to reevaluate my view of St. Peter. When I first read Fr. Oliver’s article, my reaction was, “Gosh, that’s a little bit bold, but I tend to agree that St. Peter’s martyrdom story is a fiction.” Then I read all the reactions — and boy, were there reactions. A lot of people made a lot of compelling comments, on both sides. Some of those commenters are friends of mine.
And in the end, my mind was changed. No, I haven’t moved from “he probably didn’t exist” to “he definitely existed,” but I’ve come back to the middle. I am now an agnostic, as far as St. Peter the Aleut is concerned: I just do not know.
What to do, then? It might be worthwhile to revisit Fr. Oliver’s original six arguments against St. Peter’s existence, and discuss their weaknesses. I’ll summarize them, but I would highly recommend that you go read his original article if you haven’t already.
1. Unlike so many Alaskan Orthodox stories (e.g. St. Juvenaly), the St. Peter story has no supporting oral tradition.
At first blush, this seems like a big problem, given the centrality of oral tradition in Native Alaskan culture. Then again, St. Peter is a lot different than, say, St. Juvenaly, whose martyrdom was witnessed by a whole village and was considered a momentous event in their history. The communal memory was preserved through oral tradition, but in St. Peter’s case, there is no communal memory — just a single eyewitness. Even assuming word of his martyrdom eventually reached St. Peter’s village, it would have been at least five years (and probably more) after anyone had last seen him. And unless the eyewitness himself was from the same village, or visited it and told his story, it’s possible that the villagers never actually heard it. I don’t think the lack of oral history is damning, in this case.
2. Fr. Michael Oleksa virtually ignores St. Peter’s martyrdom in his published work on Alaskan Orthodox history.
It’s true — as far as I’m aware, Fr. Michael’s only published reference to St. Peter is a passing mention in Alaskan Missionary Spirituality. But it’s just as true that Fr. Michael has spoken at length about St. Peter in public lectures, and he has reportedly theorized that Spanish government officials, rather than Roman Catholic missionaries, were responsible for St. Peter’s death. This really doesn’t score any points against St. Peter’s story.
3. There are no corroborating accounts of Spanish-Russian violence in California around this time, or accounts of Spaniards torturing natives to convert them to Roman Catholicism.
Well… not exactly. One of the best articles on St. Peterwas written by a Jesuit priest, Raymond Bucko, who himself seriously questions the martyrdom story. But in Bucko’s article, he does point out that part of the St. Peter story is true — there was an 1815 Spanish raid on a Russian-American Company ship, and Native Alaskans on board were taken into Spanish captivity. Also, I think it’s premature to say that there are no corroborating accounts. Only a few researchers have paid even the most cursory attention to St. Peter’s story, and it seems to me that we need to do a thorough check of the Spanish records before we can say that no corroborating accounts exist. At this point, we can merely say that no corroborating accounts of the martyrdom are known to exist.
4. Roman Catholic evidence contradicts the martyrdom accounts.
In support of this claim, Fr. Oliver cites an 1816 letter from one Roman Catholic mission priest to another. This source, which also comes from the Bucko article, suggests that the Roman Catholic approach to Native Alaskan captives was one of relative tolerance and indifference, rather than persecution. It seems to contradict the idea that the missionaries would torture an Alaskan Orthodox prisoner in an effort to convert him to Catholicism.
The problem here is, this is but one piece of evidence. Someone needs to dig into the archives of both the Catholic missions and the secular Spanish authorities to determine how they treated Native Alaskan captives. If we can establish a pattern of tolerant behavior, it does undermine the idea that St. Peter was martyred by Catholic missionaries. But that gets to the bigger problem: we need to comb the Spanish archives for evidence. This 1816 letter, while helpful, is hardly definitive.
5. There is no evidence that St. Peter and his alleged persecutors could converse in the same language, undermining the accounts of an exchange between them.
Well, okay, but how much of an exchange was there, really? The two extant 1820 accounts (one by the Russian official Yanovsky and one by the administrator of the Russian-American Company) say nothing about a lengthy exchange between St. Peter and the Spaniards. They merely tell us that Peter was told to accept Roman Catholic baptism, and he refused. This would be easy enough to communicate, even if the two parties couldn’t understand each other’s words. But there’s more: in the most comprehensive of the 1820 accounts, we are told that the Spanish missionaries used runaway Kodiak Islanders as intermediaries when dealing with St. Peter and his companion. So St. Peter may very well have been able to understand his captors, and they him.
6. The accounts of St. Peter’s martyrdom are “highly suspect.”
There are four known accounts of the martyrdom, all stemming from the same eyewitness testimony:
- The transcript of the deposition of the purported eyewitness, taken by the Russian official Kuskov. I don’t know anyone who has ever seen this account, although I’ve heard that it was published in Russian a few years ago. See the postscript at the bottom of this article for the possible references.
- Yanovsky’s report dated 2/15/1820, which gave a very brief summary of the martyrdom story. The summary was brief because, according to the letter, Yanovsky also enclosed the deposition transcript. Yanovsky also notes that, after the eyewitness was deposed, he was sent to Yanovsky. Having interviewed the man himself, Yanovsky concluded, “He is not the type who could think up things.” Also — and this will be of interest to those who suspect that Yanovsky may have been trying to stir up anti-Spanish sentiments — Yanovsky wrote, “I suggest that the Government intervene so that the Spanish do not do the same with the rest. But we have to keep in mind that the colonies cannot get along without grain from California.”
- A report submitted by the main administrator of the Russian-American Company to Tsar Alexander I “sometime before December 20, 1820.” This account is much more detailed than Yanovsky’s earlier version, and it appears to draw on the original deposition transcript.
- Yanovsky’s 1865 letter to the abbot of Valaam Monastery.
While the 1820 accounts have the tone of official reports, the 1865 version reads like hagiography. Yanovsky didn’t have the old 1820 documents in front of him when he wrote that 1865 letter, either — we know this because Yanovsky can only remember Peter’s baptismal name, but not his Alaskan one. One might argue that Yanovsky’s inconsistencies are evidence that the original story was fabricated. I think it’s more likely that Yanovsky believed that what he was saying was true, but in the intervening 45 years, exaggerations and embellishments had crept into his memory. Is this really so unbelievable? A 32-year-old man hears a remarkable, memorable story, retains no written account of it, and when he’s 77, he tells the same basic story but with added drama and detail? Seems to me that this is the most likely scenario.
The bigger problem, as I see it, is that we are relying on the testimony of one man, about whose character we know nothing besides Yanovsky’s judgment, “He is not the type who could think up things.” Did the Russian officials Yanovsky and/or Kuskov fabricate the story? If so, why? I understand that there may have been tensions between Spain and Russia over fur trading and the like, but this isn’t the sort of story you just make up out of whole cloth. And the purported eyewitness seems to have even less of a motive to lie.
What do we know? Let’s try to break down the story, point-by-point. We’ll use as our main source the 1820 account by the main administrator of the Russian-American Company, which, in my opinion, is the best version (in the absence of the original deposition).
- In 1815, a party of Native Alaskan hunters, led by Boris Tarasov of the Russian-American Company, was raided and captured by the Spanish. According to Bucko, this essential fact is corroborated by Spanish records.
- One of the Alaskans, Chunagnak of Kodiak Island, was wounded in the head during the raid. Spanish records agree that some of the Alaskans were injured in the raid.
- The captives were taken to a Roman Catholic mission. There, they encountered two runaway Kodiak Islanders. The head of the mission wanted the new arrivals to become Catholic, but the Alaskans said that they were already Orthodox and did not want to change.
- Eventually, most of the prisoners were taken elsewhere, and only Chunagnak (Peter) and Kykhaklai (the eyewitness, called “Keglii Ivan” in the 1820 Yanovsky account) remained. They were imprisoned with other Indians (not Alaskans).
- The Spanish missionary sent a message to Peter and his companion by way of the runaway Kodiak Islanders (that is, in a language Peter could understand), again ordering them to become Roman Catholic. Peter and Keglii Ivan refused. Up to this point in the narrative, nothing particularly extraordinary has happened, and all this seems perfectly believable.
- The next morning, a Spanish cleric and a group of Indians came to the prison. The cleric ordered the Indians to encircle the two Alaskans, torture Peter (cutting off fingers and then hands), and then disembowel him. The Indians did all this, and then someone approached the cleric with a paper. After reading it, the Spaniard ordered the Indians to bury Peter and return Keglii Ivan to prison.
- Keglii Ivan was transferred and then enslaved by the Spanish before escaping. Several years later, he was picked up by a Russian brig and taken to Fort Ross. According to the 1820 Yanovsky account, he gave his testimony to Kuskov, who then sent him to meet with Yanovsky.
That’s it; basically, that is the original story of St. Peter, as best I can tell. What observations can we make about this story? Well, for one, the involvement of the Spanish clergy is not quite as clear-cut as it might initially seem. Communications between the Spanish clergy and the Alaskan prisoners seem to have been through intermediaries (the runaway Kodiak Islanders). The wicked acts done to Peter were actually carried out by Indians from California — they weren’t directly done by Roman Catholic clergymen. Yes, the eyewitness said that a cleric ordered the Indians to do these things, but that just tells us what the witness thought. Was the persecutor really a cleric, or was he perhaps a Spanish official or soldier? Isn’t it possible that Keglii Ivan was mistaken about the man’s office? And even if the man was a member of the clergy, what are we to make of the letter he received after Peter’s death? Someone — we don’t know who, but presumably a superior such as the head of the mission — ordered the persecution to be stopped. Doesn’t this suggest that the cleric — if he was a cleric — was not carrying out any kind of official Roman Catholic (or Spanish) policy, but rather acting of his own accord? And is it so hard to believe that there might have been an overzealous, sadistic Roman Catholic priest operating in California in 1815?
I know that nobody has yet identified any other instance of this sort of torture in Spanish California in the early 1800s. This is really the biggest weakness of the St. Peter story — it’s just so outlandish, so extreme, that it seems incredible. Had the story ended with Peter’s death as a result of, say, a beating, rather than a gruesome and elaborate torture, I don’t think the account would raise nearly so many eyebrows. But dismemberment and disembowelment — that’s singular, really.
But while some see this as a reason to disbelieve, you could argue that it paradoxically lends credibility to the story. I realize this may sound absurd to some, and maybe it is, but hear me out. Yanovsky — he had no motive to lie, and he was definitely not interested in causing problems that would upset the grain supply from California. If the other Russian official, Kuskov, was a liar, why would he have sent Keglii Ivan to Yanovsky to be interviewed? Why not just take down Keglii Ivan’s “testimony” at Fort Ross, send the witness on his way, and then forward the deposition transcript on to Yanovsky in Alaska? That Kuskov sent Keglii Ivan to Yanvosky suggests that Kuskov had nothing to hide, and even that he wanted Yanovsky’s opinion as to the veracity of Keglii Ivan’s testimony. Yanovsky felt the need to explicitly tell his superiors in Russia that Keglii Ivan was a credible witness — that is, Yanovsky realized how crazy this story was, but he believed Keglii Ivan and was willing to put his own judgment and reputation behind the testimony. As for Keglii Ivan himself, why on earth would he make up something like this? What could he possibly have to gain by fabricating something this bizarre? In the end, to those who think that the St. Peter martyrdom is a fiction, I would like to ask, how do you explain the lie? Who lied, and why did they do it? That is as much of a mystery as the question of who might have been behind St. Peter’s gruesome murder.
None of this is to say that St. Peter was definitely martyred. Also, I have said nothing thus far on the merits of his canonization (by both ROCOR and the OCA’s Diocese of Alaska in 1980). Personally, I think that his canonization, at that time, was ill-advised, simply because those who canonized him lacked sufficient historical evidence for his story. But saying that he was prematurely canonized is NOT to say that he didn’t exist, or that the substance of his story is not true. I remain undecided on those questions, but it seems to me that those who would confidently declare St. Peter’s story false may themselves be acting prematurely. Now that this debate has been opened, let us work together to learn as much as we possibly can in an effort to determine what, if anything, can be verified and/or disproven by the primary sources which might survive.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
Postscript: I understand that Yanovsky’s original 1820 report is published in The Russian Orthodox Religious Mission in America, 1794–1837, with Materials Concerning the Life and Works of the Monk German, and Ethnographic Notes by the Hieromonk Gedeon. This book was originally published in Russian in 1894, and was translated into English by Colin Bearne. The resulting text was edited by Richard A. Pierce and published by Limestone Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 1978). The report in question appears on pages 80-89.
Also, I’m told that Yanovsky’s 1820 report (and possibly the much-desired deposition transcript) appears in the Russian-language collection Russia in California: Russian Documents on Fort Ross and Russian-Californian Relations in 1803-1850, volume 1, published in 2005. I’ve just ordered a copy of this book to be sent to my own law school library (actually, one of the other libraries at my university has it, so it won’t take long). We’ll need to get it translated, but as soon as possible, we’ll publish it.
Oh, and two final notes:
- St. Peter was not an Aleut — according to the 1820 sources, he was a Kodiak Islander. Both the name “Peter” and the description of “Aleut” come from the more questionable 1865 Yanovsky letter.
- While St. Peter is often depicted and referred to as a child in icons and hymnography, the original accounts give no indication as to his age. I believe the Russian-American Company employed Native Alaskans beginning at age 18, so calling Peter a “child” is rather misleading.
UPDATE: Fr. Oliver has offered a response to my article. Click here to read it. [The original link was broken; this link should work.]
This morning on his Frontier Orthodoxy blog, Fr. Oliver Herbel offered a post with the provocative title, “St. Peter the Aleut Did Not Exist.” Fr. Oliver says that he intentionally did not publish the article here at OH.org so as to spare us the inevitable debate; however, I do think it’s appropriate that we link to the post and give people a chance to read it.
Fr. Oliver’s argument boils down to six main points:
- Unlike so many Alaskan Orthodox stories (e.g. St. Juvenaly), the St. Peter story has no supporting oral tradition.
- Fr. Michael Oleksa, the foremost scholar on Alaskan Orthodox history, has written next to nothing about St. Peter. In Orthodox Alaska, Fr. Michael makes not a single mention of Peter’s story. (I would add that Fr. Michael mentions St. Peter only in passing in Alaskan Missionary Spirituality.)
- No corroborating evidence exists — that is, there is no other evidence of Spanish-Russian violence in California in that era. The St. Peter incident sticks out as an anomaly.
- On the contrary, there is an internal Roman Catholic document from the period that actually contradicts the idea that the Spanish would torture Native Alaskans.
- There is no evidence that St. Peter and his alleged persecutors would have been able to converse in the same language, which makes the exchange between them unlikely.
- There is only one primary account of St. Peter’s martyrdom, and it is suspect for various reasons.
I’d encourage you to read the whole article, as I’ve just barely summarized Fr. Oliver’s observations. And, for the time being, I’m going to stay out of the public debate over whether St. Peter was real (and, if he was real, whether he was really martyred). I do think it is of paramount importance that the original account of St. Peter’s martyrdom be made public and translated into English. We don’t have that account, and I don’t know of anyone who has ever seen it, although in the comments to Fr. Oliver’s post, someone says that it was due to be published in a book.
At some future point, I’ll examine the pro-Peter arguments, and generally discuss the merits of his case.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
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.”