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Every year pilgrims from around the world together with the natives of Alaska come to commemorate America’s first saint, Fr. Herman - the Wonderworker of Alaska. They visit Spruce Island, the place he sanctified by his holy Christian life, and go to venerate his relics on the Island of Kodiak. This year His Grace Maxim, Bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America and Fr. Blasko Paraklis came on their third pilgrimage. On Thursday, the 7th of August they departed from Los Angeles to Anchorage and then flew on to Kodiak Island. Their journey continued by boat as they headed to the Skete of St. Michael on Spruce Island and to St. Nilus Skete. The weather was fine and allowed for some spectacular views of surrounding islands with lush forests and busy puffins fishing alongside seagulls and other birds on the calm waters. The pilgrims already enchanted with the natural beauty of the region were able to find additional delight in their sighting of the majestic and gray humpback whales just a short distance from their boats. The skippers stopped the motors so that they could listen to the noises these big mammals made when resurfacing for air with water gushing out like huge fountains before they disappeared into the depths once again but not before showing off their grand tails. Spruce Island with Mount St. Herman rising above the towering spruce, is located southeast of the Alaskan mainland and in some places is less than a mile from Kodiak Island. From Mount St. Herman one can overlook the Monk’s Lagoon, the place where St. Herman lived from 1808 to 1818, and which later became known by this name in remembrance of this holy monk. Besides a life of prayer and strict asceticism, St. Herman was also known for his great love for the natives, especially the orphans whom he took care of. Years later a local native woman by the name of Sophia Vlasova who had been converted by St. Herman, carried on his legacy and continued to oversee the orphanage thirty years after his death. St. Herman sustained himself on the produce of his garden and the coho salmon. He had called this island “New Valaam” as a reminder of his Russian monastery, and since conditions here were similar to Valaam, he grew potatoes, cabbage, carrots, turnips and garlic. Nowadays, horticulturists regard him as the first gardener in Alaska to use kelp as a fertilizer. Bishop Maxim and fr Blasko spent the night at St. Michael Skete, a small Orthodox Christian monastery founded in 1983 with three monks living here currently, Fr. Martirius, Fr Adrian and Hierodeacon Andrew. In addition to their daily cycle of prayers, gardening and fishing during summer, woodcarving, dome building and carpentry, the pilgrims are ferried to and from the islands by Fr. Martirius.St. Nilus Skete lies just off Spruce Island and is dedicated to St. Nilus of Sora. A small community of Orthodox nuns, Mothers Nina and Neila, and Sister Julia, live on this unsullied island of 55 acres of pristine beauty, with rugged cliffs where puffins nest during the summer season, and a dense spruce forest with its moss dangling from the branches and covering the floor like a carpet. It does not take long before one senses a deep peace underlying the physical beauty of the surroundings, interrupted only by the chirping of birds and occasional bells calling to prayer at the St. Nilus Chapel. The nuns like the monks try to follow St. Herman’s example of living off the land, which involves catching enough salmon in summer and preserving it, gardening, gathering berries, mushrooms and other edible plants. The buildings on the island are simple log houses. The sisters are known for their hospitality and can house a limited number of guests at their log house on the west end of the island.
Later that afternoon all the pilgrims were ferried back to Kodiak where they spent the night. On Sunday morning, the 8th of August, Bishop Benjamin and Bishop Maxim served the Divine Liturgy at the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Kodiak, in the presence of Metropolitan Jonah, Head of the Orthodox Church of America, concelebrated by the visiting Orthodox priests. The pilgrims are able to venerate the relics of St. Herman in this Cathedral, along with his monastic hat and the fifteen-pound chains he wore. A banquet was held at St. Mary’s Gym not far from the Church. The parishioners of the Cathedral hosted more than 200 pilgrims for the feast that lasted three days. Their warmth and generosity will be remembered!
On Sunday, August 8, 2010, the pilgrims participated in the festal Divine Liturgy at Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Kodiak led by His Eminence, OCA Metropolitan Jonah, on the Feast of St Jacob Netsvetov, the Enlightener of the Peoples of Alaska. The Divine Liturgy was concelebrated by Archbishop Justinian of Naro-Fominsk and Administrator of the Patriarchal Parishes in the USA; Bishop Maxim of Western America of the Serbian Orthodox Church; and Bishop Benjamin of San Francisco and the West and Locum Tenens of the Diocese of Alaska. The priestly rank included clergy from the Russian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Church in America. His Grace, Bishop Benjamin of San Francisco and the West in his capacity as Locum Tenens of the Diocese of Alaska warmly welcomed all the pilgrims.
The traditional Saint Yakov Tea followed the Liturgy at the Kodiak Harbor Convention Center.On Sunday evening, Metropolitan Jonah and the visiting hierarchs celebrated the All-Night Vigil in Holy Resurrection Cathedral, with Bishop Benjamin presiding at the Litiya and Archbishop Justinian presiding at the Matins Polyeleos
On Monday morning the pilgrims were ferried to Spruce Island for the hierarchical Liturgy, which was served in the Sts. Sergius and Herman Church by Metropolitan Jonah, Archbishop Justinian and Bishop Maxim with many priests of different Orthodox parishes from all over the country. On Monday, August 9, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah, presided at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in Saints Sergius and Herman of Valaam Chapel on Spruce Island, which marks the original burial site of Saint Herman of Alaska.
The Church is built on the grave of St. Herman and pilgrims can go beneath the Church to venerate the site. Many healings have taken place at his grave. At the Liturgy Bishop Maxim ordained hierodeacon Andrew into priesthood. The Divine Liturgy was followed by a Pannikhida, which was served at the graves of Archimandrite Gerasim and Archpriest Peter. Not from their graves is the cell of Fr. Gerasim, a simple log house, which was restored in the 1990s. Fr. Gerasim (Schmalz), a Russian priest-monk, came to the Island in 1935 and spent three decades as a hermit there. The prophesy of St. Herman who had said that even though much time would pass after his death, his memory would not be forgotten and that a monk similar to him would come and live on Spruce Island one day, was thus fulfilled.
It was at this very site that Saint Herman was glorified exactly 40 years earlier. One of eight missionaries who arrived in Kodiak from Russia in 1794, Saint Herman was widely known and long remembered for the sanctity of his life, his monastic witness, and his defense of the local population, who at that time had faced severe difficulties at the hands of traders in the region.
The hierarchs and clergy were accompanied by hundreds of pilgrims from across North America, who traveled to Spruce Island by boat. A group of pilgrims from Russia, led by Archbishop Justinian and Archimandrite Zacchaeus, OCA Representative to the Moscow Patriarchate and Dean of the OCA’s Representation Church of the Great Martyr Catherine, Moscow, also were present, thereby testifying to the universal reverence accorded Saint Herman as "the North Star of Christ’s Holy Church."
Pilgrims enjoyed a "banquet on the beach" before returning by boat to Kodiak, where they engaged in fellowship at a festival in Sargent Park.
The faithful from North America and Russia enjoyed and were very grateful for the kind hospitality displayed by the faithful of Holy Resurrection Cathedral and the community of Saint Herman’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.
After the memorial service the pilgrims gathered at the beach for a picnic. There was enough time to relax and to gather strength to explore the island a little bit more. Many pilgrims went to St. Herman’s Spring to fetch water. This spring is where St. Herman drew drinking water and it became a source of miraculous healing for many diverse ailments after his death.
In the early afternoon Fr. Martirius and Hieromonk Andrew ferried Bishop Maxim and fr Blasko back to the islands, and took those who had the inclination and desire to go fishing on his skiff. On this occasion His Grace caught a sea bass. The fathers held vespers at St. Michael’s Skete and the following morning His Grace celebrated the Divine Liturgy at St Nilus Skete. Sisters, brothers and pilgrims from America, Russia, Georgia and Romania chanted during the Divine Liturgy. Sisters managed to prepare a wonderful lunch with the help of some local Orthodox people who also live on Spruce Island. There is a village, Ouzinkie, which is located at the west end of Spruce Island; a community established in the mid-nineteenth century. Some of the families that had lived with St. Herman near Monk’s Lagoon later moved to this village, which is presently comprised of mainly Sugpiaq natives.
The afternoon was spent in fishing and kayaking, in relaxing and enjoying the natural surrounding beauty. Some of the pilgrims went in search of salmonberries, elderberries, blueberries and mushrooms. During the summer months there is daylight even until 10 in the evening, so there is much one can do.
The sisters of St. Nilus Skete prepared a beach dinner. Some of the halibut and salmon caught by the pilgrims were cooked over the beach fire with potatoes wrapped in foils. Dinner was delicious and some pilgrims managed to find sticks with which to heat their marshmallows. The sisters entertained with many beautiful songs and were joined by Fr. Blasko and His Grace who introduced some Serbian songs. It was an unforgettable evening of tasty food, song and dance and so much fun.
The weather is of utmost importance when living on these islands for almost every aspect of life here is dictated by the weather conditions. A little bit of wind and rain can make traveling with the small boats very dangerous.
On Friday evening bishop Maxim and fr Blasko were warmly greeted and welcomed by Fr. Paisius De Lucia and his students of the St. Innocent Academy. The Saint Innocent Academy is both a live-in boarding school and a day school for troubled youth at-risk, founded by Fr. Paisius and his wife. They have over thirty young men and ladies that live in the Academy full-time. The Church or benevolent organizations do not fund this Orthodox Academy, however donations are welcome. Both students and staff make their living as a team, painting, sheet rocking and working construction, and, proceeds are held in common. All staff are volunteers. Our hosts picked us up with their blue painted bus. It had scenes of St. Herman’s life on Spruce Island and a pair of a moose’s antlers on top of the front of the bus. One of a kind! The pilgrims were later informed that the whole Academy had crossed the entire United States in one of their travels in this old bus! At the Academy, the guests were served a delicious brunch prepared by the students and Fr. Paisius’ wife who is an excellent cook. The Academy has its own chapel and their daily life is tightly interwoven with prayer, study, work and creative recreation. The students almost every day offer performances of song and dance! It is hard to believe that these are not professionals but merely young people who have an incredible talent for music: classic, folklore and religious. All sorts of instruments: violins, guitars, clarinets, banjoes, cellos and a piano re-appear and disappear as they sing different tunes in different languages. Everyone was just mesmerized by the beauty, spontaneity and the sheer joy of these youths as they sang one composition after the other. One could have easily mistaken them for professionals. They share their experiences of performing at various celebrations and schools and other public venues. One such performance involved staging the theatrical play of Cyrano de Bergerac, which was highly successful and which the Academy later recorded in a DVD presentation of all five acts.
The pilgrims landed in Anchorage late Wednesday evening. There are approximately 50 Serbian Orthodox parishioners who make up the Serbian Orthodox Parish of St. Petar of Korish, which was founded in the 1990s by Bishop Chrysostom, the current Bishop of Zicha. The Serbian parishioners own a piece of property close to downtown Anchorage. There is a common agreement with regard to building a church in the future on this site. However, a lot of help is needed from Serbs living across the country who should take into consideration that there are not that many Serbs who live in Alaska and that the majority of these people are newly re- settled refugees of Krajina from ex-Yugoslavia. For more information, please contact: The Venerable Peter of Korish Serbian Orthodox Mission, Fr. Blasko Paraklis, Administrator, Tel: (949) 830 5480, 24236 Olivera Dr., Mission Viejo, CA 92691.
On the 14th of August, His Grace celebrated Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral of St. Innocent, which belongs to the Orthodox Church of America. Fr. Blasko and several local priests concelebrated. The rest of the day was spent with the Serbian hosts enjoying each other’s company over supper and conversation.
As the pilgrimage came to its end for this year, His Grace, Bishop Maxim blessed the hosts, and departed for Portland while fr Blasko returned to Los Angeles. On Sunday, the 15th of August, His Grace visits the St Stephen’s Serbian Orthodox Parish.
MONK’S LAGOON, Spruce Island — They say the sun has a way of shining on the celebration of St. Herman, patron saint of the Americas.
The sunlight came out dramatically for the 40th anniversary of Herman’s canonization on Spruce Island Monday.
The light broke through the fog and spruce trees a few minutes before an international group of Orthodox Christian leaders in green vestments began preparing for communion. About 250 pilgrims stood in line to receive the communion, overflowing a wooden deck built around a small wooden chapel.
Among the visiting clergy was Metropolitan Jonah, head of the Orthodox Church in America and Canada, who led the celebration of the Divine Liturgy for the second year in a row.
Earlier in the service the metropolitan spoke about one of the lessons that can be learned from St. Herman’s time living as a hermit on Spruce Island.
“Few places like this exist on earth,” he said. “Very quickly in silence a person learns that you are not your thoughts, and this is one of the most incredible freeing things you can learn.”
Saint Herman came to Kodiak in 1793 as part of the first Orthodox mission sent by the Russian empire to Alaska.
The church hagiography praises his ascetic life, his kindness to the Alutiiq people, and his miracles — like a wildfire he stopped behind a piece of moss and a tsunami he halted by placing an icon of the Virgin Mary on the beach.
He died on Spruce Island in 1843 and was canonized in 1970. His relics are kept at the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Kodiak.
The celebration of Saint Herman’s canonization is one of only a few Orthodox pilgrimages in America and might be the hardest to access.
Many pilgrims from the Railbelt arrived in Kodiak Saturday on the ferry Kennicott, where they gathered together on the top deck. Other pilgrims came from the Lower 48 and Russia. Among Russian guests was Alexander P. Torshin, a senator in Russia.
Also among the pilgrims were Archbishop Justinian, the Russian Orthodox church’s leader in the U.S., acting Bishop of Alaska Benjamin and Bishop Maxim, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the Western U.S.
Monday did not begin with sunlight.
During the morning a fleet of skiff captains carrying pilgrims between Fort Abercrombie and Spruce Island called out to each other over radios in the pea soup fog.
Victoria Nielson, a Wasilla resident taking a break between college terms, called the entire day “ethereal.” She had not expected such a big crowd.
“I was amazed by how helpful and happy everyone was,” she said. “Everyone would be complaining if this was anything else except for a pilgrimage.
“It’s funny, you get up at 6 a.m. and you wait at the beach for three hours, but you’re happy.”
Nielson has wanted to attend the pilgrimage since seeing St. Innocent’s Academy perform in Homer. She said she hopes to teach the academy Irish dancing.
Father Deacon Samuel Woolums came from Santa Rosa, Calif. He said he was affected by both the presence of St. Herman and the isolation of the setting.
“It’s incredibly easier to pray here,” he said. “There’s not as many people with evil thoughts polluting the airwaves.”
Kera Dalton of Boston came to Spruce Island with her husband, three children and a friend of one of her children.
“One of the things I learned is how Father Herman treated the people,” she said. “You hear terrible things about missionaries, but here is a man who cared for the Native people and stood up for them against the Russian American Company.”
The trip was special, but she will probably not make the pilgrimage again because it was so expensive to travel from Boston.
After arriving at the beach on Spruce Island, pilgrims walked up a shallow hill to the chapel past mossy trees and icons of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
On the return trip the pilgrims stopped at the beach to eat a meal organized by the Holy Resurrection Church and the Nativity of Our Lord Church in Ouzinkie. Many had been fasting since the night before.
Most of the group left Spruce Island after the liturgy and lunch, but Spruce Island remains home to a group of monks who live in another part of the island. A group of nuns lives on nearby Nelson Island.
Footage from this year’s pilgrimage may reach Russian-speaking audiences around the world through New York-based Russian Television International. A crew from the station filmed the service and interviewed church leaders.
“We loved it,” said producer Sergey Shesthaov. “We hope to create a nice special and continue covering the pilgrimages.”