Little did the apostles imagine that 2000 years later, 8000 miles from Jerusalem, in a land they had never even heard of, the Church would still be carrying out their apostolic work. On the Second Sunday after Pentecost, the Sunday after All Saints, many Orthodox jurisdictions commemorate their national and regional saints. I wish we all did, for our holy ones should be remembered. Although by Orthodox standards the Church in North America is still very young and Orthodoxy here is very small, we have produced a number of saints.
The accounts that follow here are obviously very abbreviated. You can find more at https://orthodoxwiki.org/ and at websites of the various Archdioceses. (Just Google them.) I have not listed the days when they are commemorated. These vary somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and new calendar/old calendar makes it even more confusing. You can look up the dates on the appropriate Archdiocese’s website.
The Orthodox Saints of North America
The first Orthodox mission to North America came from Russia. In September 1794 after a journey of 7,327 miles, ten monks from Valaam Monastery in western Russia arrived on Kodiak Island in Russian Alaska. Among them was Saint Herman of Alaska. He left Kodiak and settled on little Spruce Island off the south coast and became “appa” (grandpa) to the natives and brought most of them to Christ. There are many stories of his wonderworking, which continue to this day. One of my favorites was told to us at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, by Father Chad Hatfield, who was then dean of Saint Herman’s Seminary on Kodiak island, and is now President of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary in New York: Some years ago a fishing boat off Kodiak island got caught overnight in a storm, they lost their bearings, were taking on water and were prepared to go down when they saw an old man across the water carrying a lantern, beckoning to them. They thought they must be near an island. As they got near him the water was calm, and they assumed they were safe in a harbor. In the morning they woke up and looked out. They were still far out at sea, but in the distance they could see Spruce Island. Saint Herman’s most famous words, often seen on his icons, were spoken to some Russian merchants one evening: “From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us strive to love God above all and fulfill his holy will.” He died in peace on December 13 (though some say November 15 or other dates) in 1836.
Saint Innocent, first Bishop of Alaska, was a bright young man of Irkutsk in southern Siberia, who went to seminary and was on the “bishop track”, as they say, but that ended when he unexpectedly fell in love and married Catherine, the daughter of a local priest. He was ordained and served a church, but soon he again impetuously volunteered to go to Russian Alaska – without asking his wife who burst into tears when he told her. She probably wanted to kill him. But she agreed. It took over a year to travel east through Siberia and across the Bering Straits. They reached Alaska in 1824. Father John (his name before he became bishop) ministered not just to Russian traders but even more to native Alaskans. He worked long hours, built a church with his own hands, traveled all over by canoe and dogsled to preach to the natives and baptize. He learned Aleut and Tlingit and other native languages, wrote the first Aleut grammar book and translated Church services into Aleut. * Father John’s wife died, and he was then made bishop for Alaska, taking the name Innocent. He directed mission work, ordained native clergy, built churches and was responsible for many of those Orthodox churches that still dot the landscape, despite 19th century efforts by the US government to destroy Alaskan Orthodoxy and, believe it or not, make the territory Protestant. He sent missionaries to the west coast of the United States, recommending that services here be done in English – this was in about the year 1865! In 1867 Bishop Innocent was elected Metropolitan of Moscow. He was nearly 70, his health failing due to overwork, he was nearly blind, and he felt utterly inadequate – but he returned to Moscow. As Metropolitan for 12 years he built homes for widows and orphans, and established the Orthodox Missionary Society. He died on March 31 (old calendar), 1879, at age 82. He directed “no eulogies are to be said at my funeral: rather let them preach an instructive sermon.” An amazing man, and a true apostle to America. The Russian Orthodox Church formally glorified him in 1977, and gave him the title “Enlightener of the Aleuts, Apostle to America”. Even the American Episcopal Church honors him annually on March 30.
* This is the usual Orthodox missionary style. We do not try to turn converts into little Russians or Scots or whatever. Instead we learn their culture and language. It was Orthodox missionaries Cyril and Methodius who developed the Cyrillic alphabet which is used to this day in Slavic lands. (Our frequent failure to do this in Western countries is because Orthodox usually came not as missionaries but as refugees.) We try to take what is good in a culture and redeem it, use it. Today Orthodox crosses sit atop old Alaskan spirit houses where the natives honored their ancestors, but now native Alaskan Orthodox pray there for their ancestors and honor the saints. Orthodox rarely ride in on conquering armies like Crusaders or Muslims or colonialists. We are not fly-by-night evangelists. We are not high pressure. We have what is sometimes called a ministry of presence. We settle in, learn the culture, build institutions, churches and schools, celebrate the services, preach the Faith as we can, and let God to give the growth.
We have had, thank God, only 2 North American Orthodox martyrs. The first, the Russian missionary Juvenal, was killed in Alaska by native pagans in 1799. The second was the convert Peter the Aleut. In 1815 he was in a group of Aleut seal and otter hunters who were captured off the California coast by Spanish sailors and taken to San Francisco for interrogation. Some Spanish Jesuit priests insisted they must convert to Roman Catholicism. When the Aleuts refused, the priests began to torture them. Peter had a toe severed from each of his feet. When he still wouldn’t give in, the Spaniards ordered a group of California native Americans to cut off each finger of Peter’s hands one joint at a time, finally removing both his hands – until he died. They were about to torture the next Aleut when orders were received to release them, so Peter was the only martyr.
The Orthodox Church in America (formerly Russian) lists Alexis Toth of Saint Mary’s Church, Minneapolis, on their calendar. In 1891 he led 361 of his Roman Catholic Uniate parishioners into the Orthodox Church. This was the beginning of the return of many thousands of American Uniates to Orthodoxy, under his direction.
Saint Tikhon came to America in 1898 as bishop of the Diocese of Alaska. As the only Orthodox bishop on the continent, he traveled throughout North America to minister to his scattered and diverse flock. He realized that the Church in America should not be just a permanent extension of the Russian Church, so he focused his efforts on giving the Church here a multi-cultural diocesan and parish structure which would help it mature and grow. Bishop Tikhon returned to Russia in 1907 and was elected Patriarch of Moscow in 1917, just as Communist persecution of the Church began. When he valiantly resisted, he was placed under house arrest, his health failed, and he died in 1925 when the doctor gave him an overdose of morphine – probably on government orders, so he was likely a martyr. He was buried in secret, his grave not rediscovered till 1992.
Saint Raphael of Brooklyn was from Beirut, Lebanon, and the Patriarchate of Antioch. Extensively educated in the Middle East and then in Russia, Father Raphael was sent to New York City in 1895 to help minister under Bishop Tikhon to the local Orthodox community, then composed mostly of Russian and Middle Eastern immigrants. In those days before the Russian revolution confused the situation, most Orthodox in North America were united. In 1904 Raphael became the first Orthodox bishop ordained in North America, consecrated in New York City by Archbishop Tikhon of Moscow and Bishop Innocent. Imagine – 2 saints ordaining a 3rd saint! Raphael became Bishop of Brooklyn. He traveled extensively across North America ministering especially to Arab immigrants. He founded 29 churches. This was the origin of the present day Antiochian Archdiocese. Bishop Raphael died on February 27, 1915, and was buried in New York. In 1989 when his body was transferred to Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania, it was found to be incorrupt. Saint Raphael’s relics may be venerated there today.
John Kochurov and Alexander Hotovitsky both served the Church in North America before returning to Russia where they were martyred by the Communists. Father John was the first priest ever martyred in Russia – in 1917, after over 9 centuries of Russian Orthodoxy.
Saint John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco (what a title!) was born in 1896 in Ukraine, served as priest there till in 1934, then was ordained bishop for the Diocese of Shanghai in China. He found the cathedral half built and Orthodox people divided. He united the community, finished the cathedral, involved himself extensively in charitable works and founded an orphanage. Though he tried to hide it, his miracle working ability became known. One evening at the orphanage they had no food and no money and had no idea what to do. They could hear Bishop John all night in his upstairs room prostrating and praying. Next morning trucks arrived with food. Under the Japanese occupation he ignored the curfew as he went about his pastoral duties. When the Communists took over in 1949, Bishop John went first to a refugee camp in the Philippines, then was made bishop for Russians in exile in Europe. In 1962 he became Bishop of San Francisco for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Again he healed a divided community and finished building the cathedral. He was a target of slander, since the Russian Orthodox abroad were deeply divided at that time due to their differing views of their Mother Church under the Communists. (There are still three Russian or formerly Russian Orthodox jurisdictions in America – now happily all in communion with each other.) Bishop John died on July 2, 1966, while on a pastoral visit to Seattle. He had predicted the date and place of his death. His incorrupt relics lie beneath the altar of Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco where there have been many miracles.
At their regular session in 2015, the Holy Assembly of Hierarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church announced the glorification of two clerics who served in North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—Bishop Mardarije [Uskokovic] and Archimandrite Sebastian [Dabovich]. Both are recognized as “preachers of the Gospel, God-pleasing servants of the holy life, and inspirers of many missionaries” because of their pastoral labors in America and their homeland.
There are more North American saints, some known to us, most unknown, of course. I wonder: where are the Greek American saints? Surely there have been some – Greeks certainly have had many in the old country – but none are listed on their calendar.
We have a glorious heritage. What the future holds for Orthodoxy in North America only God knows. We are (believe it or not) one of the fastest growing religious groups in America. While main-line Protestants decline, and Roman Catholics and most Evangelicals are holding even, the number of America’s Eastern Orthodox parishes grew 16 percent between 2000 and 2010 – according to Alexei Krindatch, research consultant for the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas.
Our growth has been partly because of immigration. (How will today’s attitude toward immigrants affect us?) But in recent years there are also many converts to Orthodoxy in North America. We’re still small here – only about one half of one percent of the population. But Anthony, our Antiochian Bishop of the Midwest, says this: As American Christianity loses its bearings and as, at least in the United States, our culture splinters, Orthodoxy alone has the stability and the answers and, God willing, is the future.
But growth is far less important than holiness. Who does God value more? 10 people who are holy or 100 on the Church roles who are lackadaisical? Indeed, what will give us the kind of growth we need? God grant us more saints!
Holy Saints of North America, pray for your Church and for the people of North America, for the salvation of our culture and of our souls!
Next Week: Fathers’ Day – The Role of Christian Fathers
Week after Next: Orthodoxy and LGBTQ