Posts tagged Historiography
In my recent lecture on Orthodoxy in Chicago, given at Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Westchester, Illinois, I cautiously addressed the still-controversial issue of the 1897 split in Chicago’s Greek Orthodox community. Let me go over the basic details very briefly, before moving onto the broader question of what constitutes a parish.
In 1892, Fr. Panagiotis Phiambolis came to Chicago and founded the city’s first Greek Orthodox church, Annunciation. This community met in a rented space and existed for at least five years. Of that, there is no dispute. In 1897, for various reasons which I won’t get into right now, the parish divided. The Archbishop of Athens had sent Fr. Theodore Papaconstantine to replace Fr. Phiambolis as priest of Annunciation. Fr. Phiambolis refused to step down, and Fr. Papaconstantine led part of the Annunciation community away to start a separate parish, Holy Trinity. Fr. Phiambolis remained in Chicago for a couple of years, until about 1899, after which he moved to Boston.
This is where things get complicated. Some contend that Annunciation closed when Fr. Phiambolis left in 1899 (or even earlier — some date its closure to 1897). These folks say that there was no Annunciation Church in Chicago from then until 1907, when the current parish of Annunciation (now a cathedral) was established. Thus, according to this narrative, there were two Annunciation parishes — we’ll call them Annunciation 1892 and Annunciation 1907.
Others have a different story. They say that while Annunciation did lack a priest from 1899 (or whatever) until 1907, it continued to exist, serviced by visiting priests. At my lecture, a woman in the audience even said that she had a photo from her grandparents’ wedding, taken on the steps of Annunciation’s building in 1902 or thereabouts. A parish can still exist without a resident priest, and the argument here is that the present Annunciation Cathedral is identical to the original Annunciation Church from 1892.
I should also mention a third, related argument, brought up to me by a gentleman after my talk. This man suggested that, actually, Holy Trinity itself, while technically founded in 1897, may reasonably be dated to 1892. After all, the founders of Holy Trinity were all previously members of Annunciation. Holy Trinity could, according to this interpretation, be considered merely a continuation of Annunciation 1892, under a different name.
All of this caused me to take a step back and ask, “What is a parish?” We can say what is definitely a parish — a cohesive community of Orthodox Christians with a permanent place of worship, a resident priest, and regular church services. But beyond that, there’s a huge gray area. I’ve come up with several factors and sub-factors to help define a parish. The list isn’t exhaustive, and you could have a parish with only a couple of these elements.
An Orthodox community. This is the most essential element. On the OCA website, many former Greek Catholic parishes which converted to Orthodoxy date their foundings to the year they were established as Greek Catholic communities. I don’t do that; I would date their foundings as Orthodox parishes to the year when they converted to Orthodoxy. Before that, they may have been parishes, but they weren’t Orthodox.
A cohesive community. In other words, the Orthodox people must think of themselves as being part of a community. You could have 100 Orthodox in a city, and a priest could occasionally visit them, but if they don’t think of themselves as being a community, it’s hard to argue that a parish is present.
A priest. Most normatively, an Orthodox parish has a resident Orthodox priest. However, this element can be satisfied with something less than that. Many missions are serviced by priests who care for multiple churches, or by priests assigned to other parishes. Throughout history, some communities have relied, at times, on the services of itinerant clergy.
Worship space. Again, the norm here would be a permanent Orthodox temple, owned by the parish. Alternatively, a parish might rent its building. This could be broken down further — the parish could rent the building every day of the week, or only on certain days (e.g. Sundays).
Regular church services. The basic standard is a Sunday liturgy each week, but of course many parishes do a lot more than that. However, you could have a parish that meets less often (only once or twice per month). And while priest-led services are the norm, in theory, regular meetings of the laity for prayers might suffice.
Incorporation. Most parishes are incorporated as legal entities with the state. However, it’s also true that parishes usually predate their incorporation. After all, until you have at least some of the basic elements of a parish, how could you take the steps to incorporate? Incorporation helps us identify a parish, but lack of incorporation doesn’t mean there isn’t a parish.
A parish council or board of trustees. This isn’t absolutely essential, but it’s the norm for Orthodox parishes in America.
Hierarchical oversight. Today, to be an Orthodox parish in America, you pretty much have to be under a bishop. That wasn’t always necessarily the case. I mean, I guess you could argue that some of the early American Orthodox parishes weren’t really Orthodox, because they were established in an ecclesiologically irregular manner, but I don’t take that approach myself. At the very least, there usually was some minimal tie to a bishop or “mother church.”
A common name: Having a common name doesn’t mean a community is a parish, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a parish that didn’t have a name along the lines of “Annunciation,” “Holy Trinity,” or “St. Nicholas.” I’ve heard of fledgling missions called, “Orthodox Mission of [City],” but they usually get a name pretty soon after their establishment.
Self-identity as a parish. This is actually kind of a big one. In Chicago, prior to the 1892 founding of Greek and Russian parishes, the city had a cohesive community of Orthodox Christians. These people had organized themselves into a “society” for the purpose of starting a parish. They elected officers. They seem to have had a name (St. Nicholas), may have rented worship space, and may have had something resembling regular services. Yet, they clearly didn’t consider themselves a parish. In 1888, they met to decide whether to start a parish, and as late as 1892, there was still talk of starting a multiethnic parish. They obviously didn’t consider themselves to be a parish, even though they had a lot of the fundamental elements. In some cases, we might look back with hindsight and say, “That was a parish,” even if the community didn’t say so at the time. But the burden of proof is higher, I think.
In sum, then, we can say for certain that an Orthodox parish exists if there is a cohesive Orthodox community with a common name, self-identifying as a parish, under the jurisdiction of a bishop, incorporated with the state, with a board of trustees, and holding regular church services with a resident priest in a permanent worship space. But lots and lots of parishes don’t have one or more of those elements, and they’re still indisputably parishes.
I think the mimimum to call something a parish has to be a cohesive Orthodox community, but even that may not be enough. Consider: I was once a part of a cohesive Orthodox community which held regular services in a permanent worship space, led by a resident and full-time Orthodox priest. We had a name, a patron saint. We didn’t self-identify as a parish, and while our priest was under an Orthodox bishop, our community was technically an OCF (Orthodox Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry) not under any one hierarch. We didn’t self-identify as a parish; we called ourselves an OCF, even though we had many regular worshippers who weren’t actually OCF members. Later, our priest left his jurisdiction for another, and our community was converted into a mission parish under a specific bishop. At that point, we incorporated ourselves and elected a parish council. Were we a parish at the beginning, when we self-identified as merely an OCF? I don’t think we were, but looking back, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for someone to say, “Hey, that’s a parish, whether you say it is or not.”
Another interesting question, this one from history, concerns the original Orthodox community in Portland, Oregon. In the 1890s, an Orthodox chapel called Holy Trinity was established in Portland, under the oversight of the Russian Diocese. The community had a permanent building and was served by priests who visited from the larger Orthodox parish in Seattle. The Russian Diocese, and perhaps the local community, referred to it as a “chapel.” Was this a “parish,” or was it something else — to steal a term from others, a “proto-parish”? Later, the Greeks formed their own parish, which was also called “Holy Trinity” and, at the outset, rented the original Holy Trinity chapel building. This raises another question: was Holy Trinity Greek parish a continuation of Holy Trinity Russian chapel? After all, at least some (and perhaps most) of the Holy Trinity Greek founders had previously attended Holy Trinity Russian chapel. It’s a gray area.
Returning to the original issue: did Annunciation parish of Chicago persist during the early 1900s, or did it close? Put another way, was the present Annunciation founded in 1892, or 1907? There is, I’m afraid, no single answer. Let’s do the analysis:
- An Orthodox community: The key question here is whether there were Greek Orthodox people in Chicago who weren’t members of Holy Trinity. I think the answer is yes.
- A cohesive community: Again, I think the non-Holy Trinity Greeks continued to exist as a cohesive community, as evidenced by the existence (or founding) of Annunciation in 1907.
- A priest: No, there was not a resident Greek priest in Chicago apart from Holy Trinity in the gap period.
- Worship space: I think the original Annunciation worship space continued to be maintained. I haven’t verified this, but if true, it is a key argument in favor of Annunciation’s claim.
- Regular church services: I don’t think there were regular services. I’ve heard that visiting priests occasionally held services for the Annunciation survivors.
- Incorporation: I’m not sure, but I don’t think the community was incorporated prior to 1907. I hope readers will correct me if I’m wrong.
- Board of trustees: I don’t know about this. I strongly suspect that there continued to be officers, but I don’t know for sure. This would be another good argument that there was a parish.
- Hierarchical oversight: Bishops had little practical oversight of Greek parishes in America at the turn of the last century, and without a resident priest, I can’t imagine the Annunciation survivors had much contact with a hierarch.
- A common name: The argument here depends a lot on this element. The claim is that Annunciation’s survivors continued to refer to themselves as “Annunciation” during the gap period.
- Self-identity as a parish: This is another critical element, and Annunciation partisans would certainly argue that this self-identity existed.
This leaves us with some basic questions, and perhaps someone in Chicago could look into them:
- Did Annunciation’s building continue to be maintained and used by a Greek Orthodox community?
- Were the members of that community not members of another Orthodox parish (i.e. Holy Trinity)?
- Did that community have a board of trustees?
- How often did the community meet for services? How often did a priest visit them? (One place to start looking would be state marriage records.)
- Did the parishioners in 1907 understand themselves to be (re-)founding the parish, or did they think that the parish had continued to exist during the gap?
We’ll continue to explore the issues of parish identity in the future, but the whole Chicago debate reminds me that we must always ensure that we define our terms. We can’t take for granted that we all know what a “parish” is, because, as I think I’ve demonstrated, there’s a lot more gray area than we might initially assume.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
On March 15, I published a short article entitled, “Bishop Joseph Zuk: A brief biographical overview.” I opened the article with this paragraph:
Joseph A. Zuk was the first Ukrainian Orthodox bishop in America, but little has been written about his life. I don’t know a lot, but from the sources I’ve collected, we can piece together a brief biographical sketch. This isn’t much, but I thought it might be worthwhile to get the very basics out there, so we can begin filling in the gaps.
For sources, I relied on several contemporary secular newspapers, Fr. Serafim Surrency’s generally reliable The Quest for Orthodox Church Unity in America, and the history on the official website of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the USA. I knew at the outset that I had produced an extremely limited and flawed article, but since Bishop Joseph Zuk is virtually unknown to most American Orthodox Christians, I thought I might at least introduce him and perhaps inspire others to do further research into his life. I must say, I have been rather shocked at the response I’ve received.
One commenter, “Jake,” offered the following:
Why invent the wheel. Get in touch with some scholars and get the real information before you put something up here. If I remember from my history class, he was born in Pidkamin or a village near Pidkamin and was influenced by trips across the border to Pochaijiv. Also he reacted against the campaign of the Polish monastery in Pidkamin that was in competition for local people’s souls. Right out of Ivan Franko!
I confess that I was not aware of earlier scholarship on Bishop Joseph Zuk. Jake, and others, went on to list various scholars for me to contact, archives for me to visit, and works for me to consult. I’m afraid I haven’t the time to engage in a full-blown scholarly study of Bishop Joseph; my aim, as I said, was merely to present the sources I had and let others dig deeper if they were interested.
On our Facebook page, a reader named Petro Melnyk offered numerous critiques, correcting certain details regarding Bishop Joseph’s educational background and commenting:
You could have checked other contemporary newspapers of Zuk’s day to verify the facts you presented, especially the church newspapers which would have his obituary. That is what a good researcher does. Also consult secondary sources such as history books to confirm facts and check bibliographies to look for more pirmary sources and other secondary sources.
A common thread in these various criticisms seems to be that I should either go all-in in researching Bishop Joseph, or ignore him altogether. What I did — publishing a brief biographical overview based on some initial sources and opening the floor to others — is, apparently, not acceptable. It’s what I do all the time, though. My writing, on this website, tends to represent a work in progress. I like to share the process of learning and discovery with all of our readers. I am not an expert who purports to teach everyone else; I’m merely a student of history trying to learn more, and excited to share my findings — however incomplete — with my readers. When I write peer-reviewed papers and so forth, of course I have to be more thorough and confident in my conclusions. But here, I wasn’t offering conclusions — merely sharing the material I’d found.
Most recently, on our Facebook page, Linda Marie Labelle gave me this advice:
I am a grad student in sociology, not history but even in my area of study we have to use proper research methods. In this case you didn’t. I think it speaks to the credibility of the web site as a whole. What is the aim? if you want to attrack other scholars to post their material then you have to set a good example of using reasonable methodology not just an article from a secular newspaper. Consult a good secondary source first as was suggested.
At this point, I’m at a loss. As I said earlier, at the beginning of my disputed article, I wrote, “I don’t know a lot, but from the sources I’ve collected, we can piece together a brief biographical sketch. This isn’t much, but I thought it might be worthwhile to get the very basics out there, so we can begin filling in the gaps.” From all the criticism I’ve received, it sounds like the information I presented was off in a couple of areas, was missing some important stories, and wasn’t based on the very best Ukrainian sources. I actually figured that that would be the result. I mean, I knew that there had to be good Ukrainian sources out there, but I didn’t have them. I knew that there must be great stories (for instance, the story of Bishop Joseph’s conversion to Orthodoxy), but I didn’t know them. And I suspected that at least something in the materials I had might have included some errors.
Does it make me an irresponsible historian for posting an article (with a disclaimer) that featured so many inherent weaknesses? I don’t know. I’m not a great historian, I don’t know everything about everything, and even what I know is imperfect and incomplete. I would submit that any historian worth his or her salt would say the same thing. If a historian doesn’t admit that he’s not all-knowing, you’re best off running in the other direction. There’s no place for know-it-alls in Orthodoxy. And when we do history, all we can do is try to be as accurate and complete as possible, while acknowleding that we will never, ever, ever be perfectly accurate or perfectly complete.
And if anyone out there actually does know a thing or two about Ukrainian Orthodox history in America, and would like to educate the rest of us, please submit an article. My email address is mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com. I look forward to hearing from you.
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.
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.