Two Visits to Alaska July 1995 ; September 1995

Bishop Seraphim : Report
Two Visits to Alaska :
Kuskokwim Deanery
Ordination of Bishop Innocent
July 1995 ; September 1995
[Published in the "Canadian Orthodox Messenger", Winter 1995/1996]

Deaneries and Saints

When we in Canada think of a deanery meeting (if indeed we think of one at all), “business” is probably the first thing that comes to mind. That is not bad. In fact, the deanery meetings that I have attended have been quite good, particularly in the west. However, I think we can still learn something.

When we think of saints, we may tend to imagine people who are somehow remote from us, both in time and in location. Most of the world’s saints are from far away, across the seas for the most part. It is true that there are now glorified (canonised) saints in North America ; but most of them are (for Canadians) also far away : either in the “lower 48” or in Alaska.

In North America, it is Alaska which definitely has the majority of saints. When I had the extraordinary blessing and pleasure to go to Alaska in late July of this year, I learned something by experience about both deanery meetings and saints. This learning was decidedly a fringe benefit of an unexpected official assignment to represent His Beatitude, Metropolitan Theodosius and the Holy Synod of Bishops because of the retirement of Archbishop Gregory of Sitka. However, I’m used to this : the Lord is always giving these unexpected lessons and blessings.

The first blessing was being able to go to Kodiak Island again, and to enter the serene peace of Holy Resurrection Church, where the holy relics of Saint Herman rest. There, on several occasions I have approached and venerated his holy relics, but on this visit I was able to serve the Divine Liturgy in their presence. This was a particular blessing in light of the fact that so many people in our Archdiocese of Canada have been helped in a multitude of ways through his intercessions. At least I could represent them, since most have not the means to travel so far.

The next great blessing was that of attending the Kuskokwim Conference in Southwest Alaska, close to the Bering Sea. This was something like a deanery meeting. To arrive at the conference site, we had first to fly for an hour from Anchorage to the city of Bethel, which is on the Kuskokwim River, in the Delta. From there we went by boat to Napaskiak, a voyage of about twenty minutes along the river. When Archimandrite Innocent (the Bishop-elect for Alaska) and I arrived at the edge of the river-bank, we were met there by many people carrying banners, and many people singing. As we landed – over the bow to land for there is no dock – my hands were taken by two little girls, who escorted us along the wooden path to the Temple of Saint James the Apostle. This path was strewn with fireweed which was blooming prolifically at the time, and of course we sang tropars in English, Slavonic and Yupik all the way.

In the Temple, several hundred people of all ages awaited us, and they continued to wait patiently while the baggage came. We then unpacked, and the opening moleben began. Over the following 3 days, we served 2 Hierarchical Divine Liturgies, 1 Memorial Divine Liturgy, and other services besides. All these took a long time because there were hundreds of communicants and very many confessions. The people, being patient, sang their hearts out in 3 languages. This is the inheritance of Saint Yakov (Jakob) Netsvetov, our newly glorified priest-missionary to the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta. The village of Napaskiak has a population of 400, of whom 395 are Orthodox believers. To encounter this on our continent is quite encouraging, to say the least. Their lives are Orthodox ; their ways are Orthodox ; their cemeteries are Orthodox, and their hospitality is truly Orthodox. Of course, they suffer in the way of the Orthodox everywhere (in this particular case from a hostile Protestant-secular environment). When we read of the life of Saint Yakov Netsvetov, and perceive his sufferings and struggle to bring faith to birth in the Aleut, Yupik and Athabascan people, it may seem almost unreal at a distance. However, in the face of so many of his spiritual descendants, everything comes into sharp focus : it is startlingly clear that the heritage of the saint’s holiness continues on in the ordinary, normal, faithful Orthodox daily lives of the people.

During my stay with these devoutly Orthodox men and women, I particularly enjoyed the tradition of the “banya” (like a sauna). What a blessing it was, after a long day of work to relax and sit in the heat with the clergy, to share true, deep spiritual fellowship in Christ, and then to take tea together before bed. This was such a total, all-embracing Orthodox Christian encounter that it was difficult to leave. One felt like the apostles on Mount Tabor. I certainly prayed that we could some day be able to have even a taste of that here in Canada. I am sure that in our earlier days in this country, there was a substantial amount of this integrated life, but somehow we have lost our way. Perhaps we are too satisfied with our comforts, and thus we forget what comes first.

The conference meetings were in 3 stages. On one afternoon, the clergy, readers, sisterhoods, brotherhoods, teachers &c., met in homogeneous groups to discuss the current particular concerns of each. It is useful to understand that in this society, the responsibility of serving as a reader (which includes taking a position of local leadership) is that of the local chief. Another afternoon, there was a general meeting of everyone, in which each group shared their concerns with all. It was a business meeting, but of a much more familial sort than we usually experience, and much more conciliar. Business got done, despite the absence of Robert’s Rules of Order. On another afternoon, there was talk about Confession. People asked questions, and they expressed their various concerns about maintaining a proper discipline, and about the real benefits that derive from this sacrament. Each of the clergy was expected to speak extemporaneously and from the heart on the subject. It was all very “real” and all very “integrated”. By the way, there were no hotels in Napaskiak. All the visitors from the neighbouring villages were accommodated in sleeping bags in the various homes. It was a true, integrated sharing by a people who all still live at the bare subsistence level.

Clearly, the missionaries of the Russian Church laid a good foundation with the Christ-loving Yupik people. Many of the customs familiar to Ukrainian Canadians will also be found there, since obviously some of the missionary influence was from Ukrainian clergy. Can we recover this sort of spirit ? Can we manage to keep our deanery meetings (and for that matter other meetings too) from being too formalised, and retain something of this spirit which is so clearly our natural Orthodox way ?

Here at home, we are perhaps not so very remote from real saints as we may sometimes let ourselves think. There were truly remarkable missionary labourers here in Canada in former days, dedicated builders of the Church of Christ. There have been outstanding men and women who have shone with the light of the love of Christ in our Canadian land. Perhaps we are simply too distracted to remember, or to see it in our midst. However, all that work of the past is still close to us in time, and the memory of many of these holy persons (and even martyrs) is still alive today. It is not yet too late. Let us strive to recover our awareness. In remembering them, in turning to them for prayerful support in our own labours in the vineyard of Christ, we can find help, strength, courage. Let us ask the Lord for a refreshment of our hearts, and a reopening of our eyes, and a heart willing to keep the Lord Jesus Christ in first place. Let us also ask Him to give us the heart to repent daily, so that turning away from selfishness, we may become transparent and reveal Christ clearly to others, as do the Yupik, our brothers and sisters in Alaska.

Ordination of the new Bishop

From 14 to 18 September, I had once again the blessing to go to Alaska, this time for the ordination of the Vicar-Bishop of Anchorage, Innocent (Gula). When I arrived, the annual Diocesan Assembly was well under way. The assembly took place in the presence of a relic of Saint Innocent (Veniaminov), the Apostle to America. Given the vastness of Alaska, and given the poverty of the people, it is very significant that they are able to meet annually, even though in very modest circumstances (in this case the sessions were held in the basement of the new Cathedral of Saint Innocent of lrkutsk in Anchorage). For me, the operation of the assembly itself was comforting because it tasted of the same sort of ordered informality which characterises our own meetings here in Canada. I felt “at home”.

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Theodosius, who was once the Bishop of Alaska, chaired the assembly sessions in his role as Locum Tenens and Administrator of the Diocese of Sitka and Alaska. There was a true spirit of consensus and conciliarity here : I saw it in the sense of joy and unity surrounding the election and ordination of the new bishop. I witnessed it in the love and good will which the people have both for their new hierarch, and for their retired Archbishop Gregory (to whom the assembly sent a letter warmly inviting him to return soon and to serve with the new Vicar).

On Friday evening, the official nomination of the Bishop-elect took place in the cathedral itself. The nomination was followed by the Bishop-elect’s very moving response. Standing with His Beatitude were Archbishops Kyrill and Herman, Bishop Job, and I. Already, the cathedral was quite full ; but on Saturday, the day of the ordination, there were about 900 people present. People had come from villages far and wide : from the Southeast (around Juneau and Sitka) as well as Kodiak, the Aleutian and Pribiloff Islands, the Iliamna district, and the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta area. Many of the faithful live very close to the subsistence level, and they had to sacrifice greatly to pay for the expensive air travel and accommodation in Anchorage (if they had no personal connexions there).

The Divine Liturgy was gloriously polyglot, sung in English, Slavonic, Aleut, Tklinkit, Yupik, Athabascan and Greek. On one side of the Temple, there was also a special Yupik choir, directed by Father Martin Nicolai, which sang especially wonderfully in the characteristic rhythm of the Yupik language. After his ordination, and after the Great Entrance, the new Bishop Innocent ordained to the Holy Priesthood a seminarian from Saint Herman’s Seminary, Deacon Stephen Epchook, a Yupik who is the 3rd generation in his family to serve as a priest.

Afterwards, there was the added blessing for me of a quick trip to the Portage Glacier, about an hour’s drive southeast of Anchorage. This trip was thanks to Father Paul Merculief, originally from Saint George Island in the Bering Sea. He has served many parishes in Alaska, and he is now the Interim Dean of Saint Herman’s Seminary in Kodiak (he was also a classmate of our Father Nicolas Boldireff at Saint Tikhon’s Seminary in Pennsylvania 25 years ago). Father Paul and his wife, Mother Elisabeth, have hosted me several times in Anchorage. (She tells me that on the Aleutian Islands, they have translated Matushka as “Mother,” which is much more immediate and personal in English, just as it is when Matushka is used for nuns or for a priest’s wife in Russia. In other countries, other terms and titles are used, such as : Dobrodika in Ukraine, Preoteasa in Romania, Popadia in Bulgaria, Presbytera in Greece, Khouria in the Middle-east. On the return, we stopped at a small stream to look at salmon at the end of their spawning. We returned to Anchorage in time for supper and then the Vigil, which was so well-attended that the anointing of the faithful at the canon took almost until the end of Matins. Large numbers went to Confession, as well as to Holy Communion the next day.

On Sunday, Bishop Innocent served his first Hierarchical Divine Liturgy. It was as well (if not better) attended than the Divine Liturgy of Episcopal Ordination. Large numbers of the elderly were there, together with the middle-aged, youths, and plenty of children. Once again, the singing was strong, and the atmosphere of worship intense as the flock gathered lovingly around their new shepherd. Before the “Our Father”, the new bishop ordained to the Holy Diaconate the seminarian George Bereskin, a Yupik. One of his ancestors was instrumental in developing church singing amongst the Aleuts and Yupiks.

It was a Grace-filled 4 days ! Much of the co-ordination of all that occurred was ably managed by the new diocesan Chancellor, Father Nicholas Molodyko-Harris, rector of the cathedral, and his wife, Matushka Anastasia. (Father Nicholas drove a school bus for 18 years in order to help build Saint Innocent’s.) Amongst the many significant presences on this occasion were Father Michael Oleksa and his wife, Mother Xenia, who are currently on sabbatical in Moscow. Father Michael serves in Juneau, and he hopes to help us find some of the reported Orthodox Inland Tklinkits in Northern B.C. and/or Yukon. He and Father Nicholas are also interested in strengthening ties with Canada. It was, therefore, proposed that we hold a conference in 1996 on the missionary life of our two dioceses, a proposal which I hope to help bring to life, God willing. The extra incentive for this is the presence just now of a seminarian from Saskatoon in Saint Herman’s Seminary in Kodiak, Bob Polson, with his wife Colleen and their children.

More than this, having seen the operation of the Alaskan deaneries in my earlier visit this summer, I am determined to follow their lead in developing our own interior organisation. We in the Archdiocese of Canada need both the “cementing together” and also the more efficient and effective use of resources which their organisational style helps to create. In addition, I think that we should try to organise a pilgrimage to Alaska for those of us who are able. Perhaps we could try to do this in 1997 ? I am interested in your thoughts on these matters. Please contact me.