Commemorated on December 13
St Herman, for many the Patron
of North America, was born near Moscow around 1756 to a pious merchant family,
and entered monastic life at the age of sixteen, at the Trinity - St Sergius
Lavra near St Petersburg. While there he was attacked by a cancer of the face,
but the Mother of God appeared to him and healed him completely. He was tonsured
a monk in 1783 with the name of Herman (a form of Germanos), and was received
into Valaam Monastery on Lake Ladoga. After some time, he was allowed to
withdraw to the life of a hermit in the forest, and only came to the monastery
for feast days.
In 1793, in response to a request by the Russian-American Commercial Company
for missionaries to Alaska, Valaam Monastery was told to select a company of its
best monks to travel to America. Eight were chosen, of whom the hermit Herman
was one. The company crossed all of Siberia and , almost a year later, first saw
Kodiak Island in September 1794. The missionaries set about their work, and
found the native Aleut people so receptive to the Gospel of Christ that in the
first year about 7,000 were baptized and 1,500 marriages performed.
Despite severe hardships, the missionaries covered huge distances, on foot and
in small boats, to reach the scattered fishing settlements of the Aleuts. In
general they found a warm reception, but many of the pagan shamans opposed their
message and sometimes stirred up the people against them. It was thus that the
Priest-monk Juvenaly was killed in 1796, becoming
the First Martyr of North America.
Despite such opposition, the missionaries' major difficulty was with the
Russian traders and settlers, who were in the habit of exploiting the Aleuts as
they wished, and who had oppressed and disgusted the native people with their
immoral behavior. When the missionaries came to the defense of the natives, they
were repaid with the opposition of the Russian-American company, whose
leadership put countless obstacles in the path of their work. In time, several
of the company died at sea, and several more abandoned the mission in
discouragement, leaving the monk Herman alone.
He settled on Spruce Island near Kodiak, and once again took up the hermit's
life, dwelling in a small cabin in the forest. He spent his days in prayer and
mission work, and denied himself every fleshly comfort: he fasted often and
lived on a diet of blackberries, mushrooms and vegetables (in Alaska!!). Despite
these privations, he founded an orphanage and a school for the natives of the
island, cared for the sick in epidemics, and built a chapel where he conducted
divine services attended by many. (He was not a priest, but God made up the lack
in miraculous ways: at Theophany, Angels descended to bless the waters of the
bay, and the Saint would use the holy water to heal the sick). Asked if he was
ever lonely or dejected in his solitude, and replied: "I am not alone; God is
here as everywhere, and the Angels too. There is no better company."
Saint Herman reposed in peace on Spruce island, at the age of eighty-one, in
1836. At the moment of his departure, his face was radiant with light, and the
inhabitants nearby saw a pillar of light rising above his hermitage. His last
wish was to be buried on Spruce Island. When some of his well-intended disciples
attempted to take his relics back to Kodiak to be buried from the church there,
a storm rose up and continued unabated until they had abandoned the plan and
buried him as he desired. He was officially glorified in 1970, the first
canonized American Saint.
Saint Peter was a young Aleut convert to the
Orthodox faith. In 1812 the Russian- American Company set up a post in
California, where Russians and Aleuts farmed and traded to supply the needs of
the Alaskans; Peter was one of these. The Spanish, who at the time ruled
California, suspected the Russians of territorial ambitions, and in 1815
captured about twenty Orthodox Aleuts and took them to San Francisco. Fourteen
of these were put to torture in an effort to convert them to the Roman Catholic
faith. All refused to compromise their faith, and Peter and a companion were
singled out for especially vicious treatment: Peter's fingers, then hands and
feet, were severed, and he died from loss of blood, still firm in his
confession. The Latins were preparing the same fate for the others when word
came that they were to be transferred; eventually they returned to Alaska. When
he heard a first-hand account of Peter's martyrdom, Saint Herman crossed himself
and said "Holy New Martyr Peter, pray to God for us!" Saint Peter the Aleut is
the first recognized Saint of American birth.
St Herman appears several times on the Church's calendar. The Synaxis of St
Herman and the American Protomartyrs is celebrated today. St Herman is
commemorated on November 15, the day of his repose; but (partly because
pilgrimage to Alaska is so difficult in the winter) the day of his
glorification, July 27 / August 9 is kept there as his primary feast day.
Following is a fragment of a conversation between St Herman and some officers
of a Russian ship, recorded by his disciple Yanovsky; it includes perhaps the
most familiar quotation from St Herman.
"But do you love God?" asked the Elder. And all answered: "Of course we love
God. How can we not love God?" "And I, a sinner, have tried to love God for more
than forty years, and I cannot say that I perfectly love Him," answered Father
Herman, and began to explain how one must love God. "If we love someone," he
said, "then we always think of that one, we strive to please that one; day and
night our heart is preoccupied with that object. Is it in this way, gentlemen,
that you love God? Do you often turn to Him, do you always remember Him, do you
always pray to Him and fulfill His Holy commandments?" We had to admit that we
did not. "For our good, for our happiness," concluded the Elder, "at least let
us give a vow to ourselves, that from this day, from this hour, from this
minute, we shall strive above all else to love God and to do His Holy Will!"
Saint Herman is also commemorated on December 12.