Top of page

Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

Order to the Citizen of Rylsk and Companion of the Northeastern American Company Mr. Shelekhov, from Her Imperial Majesty Catherine II, May 12, 1794. LC Manuscript Division After years of informal church instruction in the new Alaskan colony, Tsarina Catherine the Great responded to Grigorii Shelikhov's request that an official mission be sent to Russian America. The first monks and novices arrived from Valaam Monastery upon her instructions in September 1794.

Russian Orthodoxy came to Alaska in the footsteps of the earliest European explorers, following the routes of the North Pacific fur trade that began in the eighteenth century. Since church authorities did not send priests to Alaska in the early years, the promyshlenniki (frontiersmen) played the often conflicting role of trapper and lay proselytizer. With their typically renegade lifestyle and frequent mistreatment of the native people, however, these frontiersmen did not exemplify Christian virtues and frequently undermined the spiritual message of the church.

By the end of her reign, Catherine the Great concluded that action was needed to improve the religious situation in Russia's eastern colony. At her direction, in 1794, the Valaam monastery north of St. Petersburg sent ten monks and novices to Alaska to begin serious missionary work. The center of their efforts was Kodiak Island, the first capital of Russian America and the center of Grigorii Shelikhov's profitable fur-trading operations. The most famous of the Valaam missionaries, St. Herman, played an enormous role in establishing a presence for the church in both the local Russian and native societies.

In succeeding years, the Alaskan mission ebbed and flowed, frequently encountering the indifference or hostility of fur traders fixated on profit. Eventually, however, the Russian state mandated a larger and more permanent church presence. When Tsar Alexander I renewed the charter of monopoly for the Russian-American Company in 1821, he compelled the chief manager to grant specific financial support to the Orthodox Church in Alaska. More extensive mission work began shortly thereafter, symbolized by the subsequent arrival of Ivan Veniaminov on the Aleutian Islands. This missionary priest from Irkutsk went on to become the Russian Orthodox bishop in Alaska, an archbishop in Siberia, and eventually the Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna, the highest ecclesiastical position in Russia at the time. Veniaminov's thirty years of work in Alaska remain the foundation for the still-vibrant Orthodox community that exists today in America's forty-ninth state.

Father Ioann Veniaminov

O zhizni i podvigakh Innokentiia, arkhiepiskopa kamchats-kago, kuril'skago i aleutskago, 1893. Russian and Ukranian Pamphlet Collection.

Born in Siberia, Ioann [John] Veniaminov (1797-1879) was destined to become one of the great luminaries of Russian America. Possessing remarkable intellectual, linguistic, and practical skills, the young married priest volunteered in 1823 to go to Alaska as a missionary. Settling with his wife and family in Unalaska, he built a church and a school and began his lifelong task of studying the native languages of the region. With the help of the Aleut chief Ivan Pan'kov, Veniaminov invented an alphabet for the Unangan language and then used it to compose grammars and translate the Gospel of St. Matthew. Traveling throughout the Aleutian Islands, Veniaminov collected a great deal of ethnographic and scientific material which would result in further publications in the Aleut and Tlingit languages and his Notes on the Unalaska District. After his transfer to New Archangel (Sitka) in 1834, Father Ioann paid a pastoral visit to Fort Ross and was warmly received by the Franciscan fathers at their missions in northern California. While on a trip to St. Petersburg in 1839 to plead for support of the church in Alaska, he learned of his wife's death. At first reluctant to return to America, Veniaminov in 1840 was made bishop of the newly created diocese of Kamchatka, the Kuril Islands, and the Aleutians, which he administered from New Archangel, and given the monastic name Innokentii [Innocent]. Revered as a religious leader throughout Russia, Innokentii was elected metropolitan of Moscow in 1868. From here he supervised the Russian Imperial Missionary Society which continued its work in Alaska until the 1917 Revolution. In 1977 Innokentii was proclaimed a saint by the Orthodox Church in America.