St. Herman of Alaska
Ascetic and Wonderworker
Our Blessed Father Herman was one of a group of Orthodox missionaries sent from Valaam monastery near the Russian-Finnish border on Lake Ladoga. He was born into a family of merchants in the city of Serpukhov. His name before his monastic tonsure ( a monk is given a new name when he takes his vows), as well as his family name, are unknown. We do know that he had a great zeal for Christ, pious from his youth, and enetered the monastery at the age of 16. This was probably in 1772. First he entered the Trinity-Sergius Hermitage which was located near the Gulf of Finland on the Peterghof Road, about 10 miles form St. Petersburg.
While at Sergius Hermitage, the young monk Herman developed an abscess on the right side of his throat under his chin. The swelling grew rapidly, disfiguring his face, and was very painful. Even swallowing became difficult as the swelling continued, and there was a terrible odor. In this critical condition, the young Herman awaited death. He did not appeal to a physician of this world, but locking his cell, he fell down before an icon of the Queen of Heaven. With fervent tears he prayed, asking of Her that he might be healed. He prayed this way the whole night. He then took a wet towel and wiped the face of the icon of the Holy Theotokos, and with this towel he covered the swelling. He continued his prayer until he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion on the floor.
In a dream he saw the Blessed Virgin Mary touching him on his throat, healing him. when he awoke in the morning, he found to his great surpise that he was fully healed. The swelling had disappeared, even thoughthe abscess had not broken through, leaving behind a small mark, as though a reminder of the miracle.
For five or six years the young monk Herman continued to live in the Sergius Hermitage, and then he was transfered to the Valaam Monastery, which was widely scattered on the large islands of the great Lake Ladoga. He came to love the Valaam haven, as well as its unforgettable superior, Elder Nazarius, with whom he continued to write to the Elder, and his successors even 30 years into his life here in Alaska.
In the second half of the 18th century Russian merchants discovered the Aleutian Islands which formed a chain in the Pacific Ocean from the eastern shores of Kamchatka to the western shores of North America. With the blessing of the Holy Synod, Metropolitan Gabriel gave the Elder Nazarius the task of selecting capable persons from the Brethren of Valaam for this hoy endeavor. Ten were selected, and the young Father Herman was among them. The missionary party left Valaam in 1793. It was the longest missionary journey in Christian History, taking a year to traverse over 7,900 miles, by land and sea, to arrive at their destination – Kodiak Island.
As a result of the holy zeal of the preachers, the light of Christ poured forth and several thousand former pagans were baptized into the Christian Faith. A school for the education of the newly-baptized children was organized, and a church was built at the place were the missionaries lived. After period of intense missionary labor bearing remarkable fruits of success, the other missionaries died out (Archimandrite Joasaph on the ship Phoenix lost at sea, Hieromonk Juvenaly maryred) leaving Father Herman, the only surviving member of hte original missionary team, the task of enlightening the people of the Aleutian Islands.
In America, Father Herman chose as his place of habitation Spruce Island, which he called New Valaam. This Island is separated by a strait of about a mile and a quarter wide from kodiak Island on which had been built a wooden monastery for the residence of the members of the mission, and a wooden church dedicated to the Resurrection of the Savior (Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, where St.Herman’s relics lie to this day!). Spruce Island is not large, and is almost completely covered by forest. Almost through its middle is a small brook which flows into the sea. Father Herman selected this sight for the location of his hermitage. He dug a cave our of the ground with his own hands, and in it he lived his first full sumer. For winter, there was built for him a cell near the cave in which he lived until his death. The cave was converted by him into a place for his burial. A wooden Chapel, and a wooden house to be used as a schoolhouse and a guesthouse were built not too far distant from his cell. He laid out a garden in front of his cell, and for more than forty years this was his home.
Father Herman spaded the garden himself, planted potatoes, cabbage, and various vegetables in it. For winter, he preserved mushrooms, salting or drying them. The salt was obtained from the ocean water. Father Herman used a wicker basket to carry seaweed from the shore (the seaweed was used for fertilizing the soil), which was so large that it was difficult for one person to carry it. Father Herman, however, carried it for long distances with no help at all. He worked and walked about, even in the snow, barefooted. His clothes were the same, regardless of the season. He did not wear a shirt; instead, he wore a smock of deer skin, which he did not take off for several years at a time, nor did he change it, so that the fur it in was completely worn away, and the leather became glossy. Then there were his cassock, the ancient and faded rhiasa full of patchwork, and his klobuk (monastic headcovering). He went everywhere in these clothes, and at all times. He used a bench for his bed, a wooden board for his blanket, and bricks for a pillow. He followed the example of the many Eastern Ascetic Fathers who showed the greatest concern for the welfare and needs of others, yet who regard themselves of little significance.
The creole (a person of Native/Russian descent) Constantine Larionov wrote about St. Herman, “During my stay in the cell of Father Herman, I, a sinner, sat on his ‘blanket’- and I consider this the acme of my fortune!”
Father Herman ate very little. As a guest, he scarcely tasted his food, and remained without dinner. in his cell, his dinner consisted of a very small portion of a small fish or some vegetables. His body emaciated as a result of his labors, his vigil, and fasting. His body was crushed by the 16 pounds of chains which he wore under his deer-skin smock, so that no one, until his death, knew about them. These chains are kept to this day, on his reliquary.
“Yes,” said the Aleut Ignaty Aligyaga,”Apa lived a very hard life, and no one can imitate his life!” Apa is a term of endearment used by the Aleuts for a beloved elder or grandfather, showing the high esteem and great affection they had for him.
O Blessed Father Herman of Alaska, pray unto God for us!