Bicentennial Pilgrimage to Alaska 16 - 23 September, 1993

Bishop Seraphim : Report
Bicentennial Pilgrimage to Alaska
16-23 September, 1993


[Published in the "Canadian Orthodox Messenger", Winter/Hiver 1993/94]


[[His Grace Seraphim, Bishop of Ottawa and Canada, was amongst those who accompanied the Patriarch of Moscow, Aleksy II, and the OCA’s Metropolitan Theodosius on the Bicentennial Pilgrimage to Alaska, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. This took place from September 16-23, under joint sponsorship of the Russian Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Church in America. He has written the following account of the journey, along with some reflections upon it.]

This year begins our celebration of 200 years of active and continuous Orthodox missionary activity in North America. In 1793, a band of eight monks and novices from the Valaam and Koniev (Konevits) monasteries left Saint Petersburg to travel by foot, horse and boat across Siberia, and then by ship across the North Pacific Ocean. They arrived at Kodiak in Alaska in September of 1794, and they began the evangelising of the “new world”.

This September, His Holiness Aleksy II, Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, began to follow the same route (only by air). First from Valaam Monastery on Lake Ladoga and then from the nearby Saint Petersburg, he and his entourage flew across Siberia. This week-long journey included stops in Irkutsk and five newly-recreated dioceses. The last and most poignant of these was Magadan – poignant in part because this was the site of Stalinist communist death camps which operated until recently. Not surprisingly, the Church had been completely suppressed there. In its current financial straits, the Russian Church must reconstruct almost everything from nothing (especially in Siberia, where almost everything was wiped out). Magadan and other similar places are poignant also because, as the Church tries to re-gather her scattered sheep, a heterodox mission from Alaska is at the same time introducing a sort of competition and very different understanding, under the cloak of “help”.

Arrival in Alaska

After a week of travel, the patriarch’s band of pilgrims (which included Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk in Russia and Bishop Sergei of Ternopil in Ukraine) arrived in Alaska. This began Patriarch Aleksy II’s first visit to North America. In Alaska, the members of his entourage began to glimpse what might have been in Siberia, had the Church survived there intact. It is not a complete “might-have-been”, because of strong pressure by the US government and by Protestants against Orthodox Christianity in Alaska for the last 150 years. Nevertheless, it is a significant witness, and it much moved the Patriarch and the rest of us in the entourage of Metropolitan Theodosius, who had just arrived to greet the patriarch. (Our delegation also included Archbishop Kyrill, Bishop Herman, Bishop Paul of Zaraisk, Archpriest Rodion Kondratick, Archpriest Daniel Hubiak, Protodeacon Eric Wheeler, Deacon John Hopko, Paul Hunchak and Martin Pawluk. Other bishops met us at various points on the pilgrimage.)

The village of Eklutna (just north of Anchorage) has two small churches, which are surrounded by graves topped by “spirit houses”. These graves are very much like those one would find in cemeteries in Karelia of Finland and Russia. The people of Eklutna are Athabascans, part of what is known correctly as Alaska’s multinational cultural composition. In nearby contrast is the very large Eagle River church of the Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission. This latter is clearly American. The former struggles with the “rightness” of letting tourists visit and walk around the graves of their families. Everywhere is the tension between the native (therefore Orthodox) harmony with the environment, and the invasive disharmony of the modern technologies and insistently secular lifestyle. These are driven, of course, by philosophies which exist without God. Seldom is one more aware of this than in the fragility of the north.

Anchorage is the largest example of this. It is a city just as any other, and a real contrast to its surroundings. Within the city are many of “our people”, the “real people”, as they know themselves to be. Alaska had its Diocesan Assembly at this time, so all the villages of the Orthodox parts of Alaska were represented at the Divine Liturgy in Saint Innocent’s Cathedral. There were about 1300 in attendance on the Lord at the Vigil, along with the patriarch and our own beloved metropolitan (who had come “home”) and Bishop Gregory with the sheep in his care. The Vigil and the Divine Liturgy (with even more attending) were served in English, Slavonic, Yupik, Aleut and Tklinkit. To my ears (even without my knowing the language), I found that Yupik was especially well-knit with the melodies. I asked the choir director if he knew who had done so well in setting the melody and words. He replied that they had always sung this way, and that the people had simply written down what was always done. They were first taught by Bishop Aleksy, and the rest was from the heart, being the result of living prayer. The multinational congregation was dominated by the local nationals – Yupik, Aleut, Athabascan, Tklinkit – and the warmth of their prayer made the visitors feel very much at home.

Kodiak and Sitka

The town, Kodiak, the site where the missionary monks first landed in 1794, is an hour’s flight from Anchorage. The island, Kodiak, is home to several notable Orthodox villages, but the town, Kodiak, has the main church and also Saint Herman’s Seminary. Here also are the relics of Saint Herman. Praying the Akathist with him present there was most moving. Off the east coast of Kodiak is Spruce Island, Saint Herman’s home at Monks’ Lagoon. Because of rough seas, only the patriarch, our metropolitan and three others could fly over by helicopter. By Saint Herman’s prayers, they were able to land on the beach at Monks’ Lagoon and they were met there by the faithful who had walked the 14 km from Ouzinki. Saint Herman permits only certain ones to approach his gravesite, those ready and in need. Father Peter Kreta, pastor of Ouzinki, knows well the fruits of Saint Herman’s intercession (shrinking tumours in his own case), as well as do many in Canada !

Sitka is a town on an island near British Columbia, about two hours’ flight from Kodiak. From here, Saint Innocent made many missionary journeys. In Sitka, he did significant translation work, and it was here that he built the bishop’s home (now a museum) and also Saint Michael’s Cathedral (the present one is only a replica because of a fire). The Saint Michael’s congregation is 80% Tklinkit people, and it also includes students of other native nations who travel to school in Sitka from other parts of Alaska. It is important to understand that most of Alaska’s priests are now native Alaskans, thanks to Saint Herman’s Seminary. The hospitality is warm, and the berries the best tasting outside Finland ! Everywhere, the faithful sang and danced for Patriarch Aleksy and Metropolitan Theodosius, and they presented the bishops gifts as well as offering the hospitality of food. Everywhere we went, our leaders expressed their joy at the prayer they experienced in the holy places in Alaska amongst these modest, quiet, fiercely faithful people. It is very significant that most of our North American saints served in Alaska : Saint Innocent, Saint Herman, Saint Juvenaly, Saint Peter (Chunagnac) the Aleut, Saint Iakov Netsvetov. It is important, too, that we remember that our Canadian Church is also the product of their original mission, and she bears the mark of the mission’s saints and pioneers. Indeed, as a Canadian, I felt quite at home in Alaska ; for there are many similarities between the life of the native Alaskan Orthodox people and the best of our Canadian rural communities (one clear link, for example, is the custom of “starring” during the Christmas carolling season). We in Canada have much in common with the Alaskan Church, and we can learn and be encouraged by this common bond.

San Francisco, Chicago and New York

Historically, the second headquarters of our Church, after Sitka, was San Francisco. Our journey from Alaska to San Francisco was rapid, but marred by the stress of hearing news of political troubles in Russia. Upon arrival and being greeted by Bishops Tikhon, Boris, Basil, and Anthony, Patriarch Aleksy spoke with the media. His appeal for compromise and avoidance of bloodshed was instantly quoted by both sides in the Russian political conflict, and for a time it was heeded. A moleben was served in the historic Fort Ross, two hours’ drive north of San Francisco (the southern-most outpost of the Russian American Company until 1840). Here, there was a picnic with the youth. In San Francisco itself, the pilgrims served the Divine Liturgy in Holy Trinity Cathedral, and then a moleben was served at the Russian Patriarchal Sobor of Saint Nicholas.

The pilgrimage journey continued on to Chicago, where there was an address given by the patriarch to the Diocesan Assembly. At a pan-Orthodox Divine Liturgy at McCormick Place attended by about 2,000 faithful, Patriarch Aleksy gave a homily. Vespers was served at Saints Peter and Paul Church (the home church of Bishop Job of the Diocese of the Midwest, who grew up in this parish) and the Divine Liturgy was served at Holy Trinity Cathedral. This cathedral was consecrated by Saint Tikhon, and built by the Priest-Martyr John Kochurov (whose glorification we are expecting soon).

We then flew to New York, where His Holiness received the award of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation upon his arrival (he would miss the public presentation because of his early departure). After the Divine Liturgy was served at the church of Saints Peter and Paul in Passaic, New Jersey, the departure of the delegation of His Holiness began. We have all heard by now of the troubles that met him on his return, and about his importance in current Russian society. It is often said that the Church is the only real glue holding things together at this time. It is for a good cause that in his liturgical patriarchal title is the word “father”, a rôle and responsibility of the patriarch that he has truly been able to recover. In some respects, we are now seeing events of old Rus’ relived, and it should be no surprise to anyone that under these circumstances there are many attempts to undermine and destroy the Orthodox Church. Let us pray for our brothers and sisters in all the eastern European countries, as well as in the Caucasus, that God will protect them, that they will be ready to hear the truth of the Gospel of Christ, and try to live by it. Now, more than ever, they need not just the intercessions of all their saints and martyrs, but our prayers and support as well.

Further Reflection on the Church in Alaska

In the Archdiocese of Canada, we are trying to rebuild our crumbled foundations. Each year, all over this country, we are beginning to recover some remote community here, or an almost forgotten community there, or a cemetery long neglected. Little by little, as we try our best to take care of our inheritance, the Lord provides the renewal – usually unexpected, often surprising, and sometimes amazing. We are not large numerically, and we are certainly not rich. However, God provides for us ! In the perspective of the long time during which we merely tried to survive because of our limited resources, we are often aware only of the barest minimum of Orthodox Christian life. We perceive ourselves as scattered. Some of our communities are scarcely communities at all because of the disconnection and rare communication. Yet, here and there across the country, there have remained pockets of faithful people, faithful families, and faithful groups of persons, who are determined to remain faithful Orthodox Christians even in an apparent vacuum. We are now just beginning to recover the fundamentals of organised Church life – council meetings, assemblies, deaneries, a newspaper, a basic diocesan centre and house for a bishop. We are also just arriving at the minimum clergy coverage (meaning a minimum number available to serve).

Alaska has been through this, and more. In the majestic beauty of its topography lie also the main obstacles to Church life – mountains, lakes, oceans, islands, rivers. Distances are very great and roads are not abundant. Travel is expensive when it is undertaken by air, although it is the most practical means these days. Travel is very slow when by land or by water, and it is not necessarily any cheaper. The daily cost of living is very high. This is because if they are living by the standards set by the American “lower 48”, the citizens of Alaska must import almost everything. Does this seem familiar ? Where are people who live by subsistence supposed to find money to pay for all this ?

Over the past thirty years, first under Metropolitan Theodosius (then bishop) and now under Bishop Gregory, there has been a lot of reconstruction in the Diocese of Alaska. Increased visitations by bishops to the local and often remote communities by land, sea and air were followed by attempts to increase the number of priests. In many places, readers and local leaders/elders kept services going for more than a generation. Old parishes from the time of Saint Herman and Saint Innocent were reconsolidated. New missions were undertaken. Saint Herman’s Seminary was established, and now a great many of the local clergy are native people. Included in the preparation of the clergy are courses in helping to cope with the serious social problems that often result from isolation. The phenomenon of clergy supported by their parishes is rare. Much of the priest’s income has to come from work in activities like fishing, for example. Alaska is in a new stage of development. True, there are still vacancies to be filled. In addition to this continuing need is the expansion of new missions amongst natives, because by far, not all Alaska has yet heard the Gospel of Christ and learned the Orthodox way. There is also the need for mission to the “Americans” from the south who continue to emigrate into Alaska.

Canada and Alaska have a lot in common, besides the geographical fact of our connectedness. Our northern challenges are the same. Our inheritance as Orthodox Christians is the same. Our inherited understanding of harmony with God’s creation is the same. Many of our greater and smaller customs are the same. Even the general direction for our future Church life is about the same. Our brothers and sisters in the Church in Alaska have been suggesting that we increase communication between us, and that we strengthen contacts. I plan to do my best to help this happen.

I would add this : many of us have already visited Alaska, but on tours. Tours do not allow for our meeting the Church, meeting our brothers and sisters. Tours pass one quickly around the scenery, allowing one to taste a little food and “culture” and then to depart. Rather, from here in Canada, let us begin making pilgrimages instead of doing tourism. Let us go to the holy places in Alaska, and let us there meet our spiritual kinsfolk. By this meeting let us not only encourage them in faithfulness, but also allow them to strengthen us as well. We need the help !