Saint Herman of Alaska, America’s Most Glorious Doer of Wonders!
Our Holy and God-Bearing Father Herman of Alaska, the Wonderworker
Troparion (Tone 4):
Blessed ascetic of the northern wilds
Kontakion (Tone 8):
Monk of Valaam and beloved of the Mother of God,
The Elder was invited aboard a frigate which came from St. Petersburg. There were more than twenty-five officers with the Captain, and they also were educated men. Father Herman gave them all one general question, ‘Gentlemen, what do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?’ Various answers were offered.
“He then continued… Should we not then love God above every thing, desire Him more than anything, and search Him out?’”
“All said, ‘Why, yes! That’s self-evident!’ Then the Elder asked, ‘But do you love God?’ They all answered, “Certainly we love God. How can we not love God?’ ‘And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, but I cannot say that I love Him completely,’ Father Herman protested to them.
He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. ‘If we love someone,’ he said, ‘we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God?
Without any doubt this conversation was imprinted in the hearts of the listeners for the rest of their lives…
On the cover of the book below is the most accurate image of what St. Herman actually looked like.
(from a portrait of Father Herman of Alaska, by Valerian Gribayedoff)
The most complete and accurate account of St Herman’s life in English is this book:
Herman – A Wilderness Saint –
The Life of Saint Herman
originally published in 1894 by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church
Father Herman’s Life Before Valaam
A spiritual mission was organized in 1793 from the monks of the Valaam Monastery to preach the Word of God to the native inhabitants of northwestern America, who ten years before had begun to come under the sovereignty of Russia. The Monk Herman was among the members of this Mission.
Father Herman came from a family of merchants of Serpukhov, a city of the Moscow Diocese. He had a great zeal for piety in his youth, and at sixteen he entered monastic life. First he entered the Trinity-Sergius Hermitage which was located near the Gulf of Finland, about about 10 miles from St. Petersburg.
Miraculous Healing of Father Herman
At the Sergius Hermitage, among others there occurred to Father Herman the following incident. On the right side of his throat under his chin appeared an abscess. The swelling grew rapidly, disfiguring his face. It became difficult for him to swallow, and the odor was unbearable. In this critical condition Father Herman awaited death. He did not appeal to a physician of this world, but locking his cell he fell before an icon of the Theotokos. With fervent tears he prayed, asking of her that he might be healed. He prayed the whole night. Then he took a wet towel and with it wiped the face of her icon, and with this towel he covered the swelling. He continued to pray until he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion on the floor. In a dream he saw the Virgin Mary healing him.
When Herman awoke in the morning, he found to his great surprise that he was fully healed. The swelling had disappeared, even though the abscess had not broken through, leaving behind but a small mark as though a reminder of the miracle. Physicians to whom this healing was described did not believe it, arguing that it was necessary for the abscess to have either broken through of its own accord or to have been cut open. But the words of the physicians were the words of human experience, for where the grace of God operates there the order of nature is overcome. Such occurrences humble human reason under the strong hand of God’s Mercy.
Father Herman’s Life at Valaam
For five or six years Father Herman continued to live in the Sergius Hermitage, and then he transferred to the Valaam Monastery, which was widely scattered on the islands in the waters of the great Lake Ladoga. He came to love the Valaam haven with all his soul, as he came to love its unforgettable Superior, the pious elder Nazary, and all the brethren. He wrote to Father Nazary later from America:
“Your fatherly goodness to me, humble one, will be erased out of my heart neither by the terrible, unpassable Siberian lands, nor by the dark forests. Nor will it be wiped out by the swift flow of the great rivers; nor will the awful ocean quench these feelings. In my mind I imagine my beloved Valaam, looking to it beyond the great ocean.”
He praised the Elder Nazary in his letters as “the most reverend, and my beloved father” (“batyushka” in Russian) and the brethren of Valaam he called, “my beloved and dearest.” The place where he lived in America, deserted Spruce Island, he called “New Valaam.” And, as we can see, he always remained in spiritual contact with his spiritual homeland; for as late as 1823, that is after thirty years of life within the borders of America, he wrote letters to the successor of Father Nazary, the abbot Innocent.
Father Varlaam, later abbot of Valaam, and a contemporary of Father Herman, who accepted his tonsure from Father Nazary, wrote thus of the life of Father Herman:
“Father Herman went through the various obediences here, and being ‘well disposed toward everything’ was in the course of events sent to Serdobol to oversee there the work of quarrying marble. The brothers loved Father Herman, and awaited impatiently his return to the cloisters from Serdobol. Recognizing the zeal of the young hermit, the wise elder, Father Nazary, released him to take abode in the wilderness. This wilderness was in the deep forest, about a mile from the cloister: to this day this place has retained the name ‘Herman’s’. On holy days Father Herman returned to the monastery from the wilderness. Then it was that at the Little Vespers he would stand in the choir and sing in his pleasant tenor the responses with the brethren from the Canon, ‘O Sweetest Jesus, save us sinners. Most Holy Theotokos, save us,’ and tears would fall like hail from his eyes.”
The First Mission to America
In the second half of the 18th century, the borders of Russia expanded to the north. In those years Russian merchants discovered the Aleutian Islands, which formed in the Pacific Ocean a chain from the eastern shores of Kamchatka to the western shores of North America. With the opening of these islands there was revealed the sacred necessity to illumine with the light of the Gospel the native inhabitants. With the blessing of the Holy Synod, Metropolitan Gabriel gave to the Elder Nazary the task of selecting capable persons from the brethren of Valaam for this holy endeavor. Ten men were selected, and among them was Father Herman.
The chosen men left Valaam for the place of their great appointment in 1793. The members of this historical mission were Archimandrite Joseph Bolotoff, Hieromonk Juvenaly, Hieromonk Makary, Hieromonk Athanasy, Hierodeacon Nektary, Hierodeacon Stephan, Monk Joseph, Monk Herman.
As a result of the holy zeal of the preachers, the light of the evangelic sermon quickly poured out among the sons of Russia, and several thousand pagans accepted Christianity. A school for the education of newly-baptized children was organized, and a church was built at the place where the missionaries lived.
But, by the inscrutable providence of God, the general progress of the mission was unsatisfactory. After five years of very productive labor, Archimandrite Joseph, who had just been elevated to the rank of bishop, was drowned with his party. This occurred on the Pacific Ocean between Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands. The ship, Phoenix, one of the first seagoing ships built in Alaska, sailed from Okhotsk carrying the first Bishop for the American Mission and his party. The Phoenix was caught in one of the many storms which periodically sweep the northern Pacific, and the shop and all hands perished together with Bishop Joseph and his party.
Before this the zealous Hieromonk Juvenaly was granted the martyr’s crown. The others died one after another until only Father Herman remained. The Lord permitted him to labor longer than any of his brethren in the apostolic task of enlightening the Aleutians.
The New Valaam — Spruce Island
In America Father Herman chose as his place of habitation Spruce Island, which he called New Valaam. This island is separated by a strait of about a mile and a quarter wide from Kodiak Island, on which had been built a wooden monastery for the residence of the members of the mission, and a wooden church dedicated to the Resurrection of the Savior. (New Valaam was named for Valaam on Lake Ladoga, the monastery from which Father Herman came to America. It is interesting to note that Valaam is also located on an island, although that island was in a fresh water lake, whereas Spruce Island is on the Pacific Ocean, although near other islands and the Alaskan mainland.)
Spruce Island is not large, and is almost completely covered by a forest. Almost through its middle a small brook flows into the sea. Herman selected this picturesque island for the location of his hermitage. He dug a cave out of the ground with his own hands, and in it he lived his first full summer. For winter there was built for him a cell near the cave in which he lived until his death. The cave was converted by him into a place for his burial. A wooden chapel, and a wooden house to be used as a schoolhouse and a guest house, were built not too distant from his cell. A garden was laid out in front of his cell. For more than forty years Father Herman lived there.
Father Herman’s Way of Life
Father Herman himself spaded the garden, planted potatoes and cabbage, and various vegetables in it. For winter he preserved mushrooms, salting or drying them. The salt he obtained from ocean water. It is said that a wicker basket in which the Elder carried seaweed from the shore was so large that it was difficult for one person to carry. The seaweed was used for fertilizing the soil. But to the astonishment of all, Father Herman carried a basket filled with seaweed for a long distance without any help at all. By chance his disciple, Gerasim, saw him one winter night carrying a large log which normally would have been carried by four men; and he was bare footed. Thus worked the Elder, and everything he acquired as a result of his immeasurable labors was used for the feeding and clothing of orphans and also for books for his students.
His clothes were the same for winter as for summer. He did not wear a shirt; instead of it he wore a smock of deer skin, which he did not take off for several years at a time, nor did he change it, so that the fur on it was completely worn away, and the leather became glossy. Then there were his boots or shoes, cassock (podrasnik), an ancient and faded outer cassock (rasa) full of patchwork, and his head covering (klobuk). He went everywhere in these clothes, and at all times; in the rain, in snowstorms, and during the coldest freezing weather. In this Father Herman followed the example of many eastern ascetic fathers and monks, who showed the greatest concern for the welfare and needs of others, yet themselves wore the oldest possible clothes out of their great humility before God and their contempt for worldly things.
A small bench covered with a time-worn deerskin served as Father Herman’s bed. He used two bricks for a pillow; these were hidden from visitors by a skin or a shirt. There was no blanket. Instead, he covered himself with a wooden board which lay on the stove. This board Father Herman himself called his blanket, and he willed that it be used to cover his remains. It was as long as he was tall.
“During my stay in the cell of Father Herman,” writes Constantine Larionov, “I, a sinner, sat on his ‘blanket’ — and I consider this the acme of my fortune!”
On the occasions when Father Herman was the guest of the administrators of the American Company and in the course of their soul-saving talks, he sat up with them until midnight. He never spent the night with them, but regardless of the weather always returned to his hermitage. If, for some extraordinary reason, it was necessary for him to spend the night away from his cell, in the morning the bed which had been prepared for him would be found untouched; the Elder not having slept at all. The same was true in his hermitage, where having spent the night in talks, he never rested.
The Elder ate very little. As a guest, he scarcely tasted the food, and remained without dinner. In his cell his dinner consisted of a very small portion of a small fish or some vegetables.
His body, emaciated as a result of his labors, vigils and fasting, was weighed down by chains which weighed about sixteen pounds. These chains were hidden under his cassock and never seen until after his repose; they are kept to this day in the chapel.
Telling of these deeds of Father Herman, his disciple, the Aleut Ignaty Aligyaga, added, “Yes, Apa led a very hard life, and no one can imitate his life!” (Apa — This Aleutian word means elder or grandfather, and is a name indicative of the great affection in which he was held.)
Our writing of the incidents in the life of the Elder deal, so to speak, with the external aspects of his labor. “His most important works,” says Bishop Peter, “were his exercises in spiritual endeavor in his isolated cell, where no one saw him, but outside the cell they heard him singing and celebrating services to God according to the monastic rule.”
Such witness of the Bishop is supported by the following answers of Father Herman himself:
“How do you manage to live alone in the forest, Father Herman? Don’t you ever become lonesome?”
He answered, “No, I am not there alone! God is there, as God is everywhere. The Holy Angels are there. With whom is it better to talk, with people, or with angels? Most certainly with angels.”
Father Herman and the Natives
The way in which Father Herman looked upon the natives of America, how he understood his own relation to them, and how he was concerned for their needs, he expressed in one of his letters to the former administrator of the colony, Simeon Janovsky. He wrote:
“Our Creator granted to our beloved homeland this land, which like a newborn babe does not yet have the strength for knowledge or understanding. It requires not only protection, because of its infantile weakness and impotence, but also its sustenance. Even for this it does not yet have the ability to make an appeal on its own behalf. And, since the welfare of this nation by the Providence of God (it is not known for how long) is dependent on and has been entrusted into the hands of the Russian government, which has now given it into your own power — therefore I, the most humble servant of these people, and their nurse (nyanka) stand before you on their behalf and write this petition with tears of blood. Be our Father and Protector.
Certainly we do not know how to be eloquent, so with an inarticulate infant’s tongue we say: Wipe away the tears of the defenseless orphans, cool the hearts melting away in the fire of sorrow. Help us to know what consolation means.”
The Elder acted the way he felt. He always interceded before the governors on behalf of those who had transgressed. He defended those who had been offended. He helped those who were in need with whatever means he had available. The Aleuts, men, women and children, often visited him. Some asked for advice, others complained of oppression, others sought out defense, and still others desired help. Each one received the greatest possible satisfaction from the Elder. He discussed their mutual difficulties, and he tried to settle them peacefully. He was especially concerned about reestablishing understanding in families.
Father Herman especially loved children. He made large quantities of biscuits for them, and he baked cookies for them; and the children were fond of the Elder. Father Herman’s love for the Aleuts reached the point of self denial.
An Epidemic Strikes
A ship from the United States brought to Sitka Island, and from there to Kodiak Island, a contagious disease, a fatal illness. It began with fever, a heavy cold, and difficult respiration, and ended with chills; in three days the victim died. On the island there was neither a doctor nor medicine. The illness spread rapidly through the village, and then it spread throughout the nearby areas. The disease affected all, even infants. The fatalities were so great that for three days there was no one to dig graves, and the bodies remained unburied. An eyewitness said:
“I cannot imagine anything more tragic and horrible than the sight which struck me when I visited an Aleutian ‘Kazhim’. This was a large building, or barracks, with divided sections, in which the Aleuts lived with their families; in each of which there lived about 100 people. Here some had died; their cold bodies lay near the living. Others were dying. There were groans and weeping which tore at one’s soul.”
“I saw mothers over whose bodies, cold in death, crawled a hungry child, crying and searching in vain for its food… My heart was bursting with compassion! It seemed that, if anyone could paint with a worthy brush the full horror of this tragic scene, he would have successfully aroused the fear of death in the most embittered heart.”
Father Herman, during this terrible sickness which lasted the whole month, visited the sick, never tiring. He admonished them in their fear, prayed, brought them to penitence, or prepared them for death. He never spared himself.
Father Herman as a Spiritual Teacher
The Elder was concerned in particular for the moral growth of the Aleuts. With this end in mind, a school was built for the children — the orphans of the Aleuts. He himself taught them the law of God and church music. For this same purpose he gathered the Aleuts on Sundays and Holy Days for prayer in the chapel near his cell. Here his disciple read the Hours and the various prayers while the Elder himself read the Epistle and Gospel. He also preached to them. His students sang, and they sang very well. The Aleuts loved to hear his sermons, gathering around him in large numbers. The Elder’s talks were captivating, and his listeners were moved by their wondrous power. He himself writes of one example of the beneficial results of his words:
“Glory to the holy destinies of the Merciful God! He has shown me now through his unfathomable Providence a new occurrence which I, who have lived here for twenty years, had never seen before on Kodiak. Recently, after Easter, a young girl about twenty years in age who knows Russian well came to me. Having heard of the Incarnation of the Son of God and of eternal life, she became so inflamed with love for Jesus Christ that she does not wish to leave me. She pleaded eloquently with me. Contrary to my personal inclination and love for solitude, and despite all hindrances and difficulties which I put forward before accepting her, she has now been living near the school for a month and is not lonesome.”
“I, looking on this with great wonder, remembered the words of the Savior: that which is hidden from the wise and learned is revealed to babes. (Matthew 6:25)”
This woman lived at the school until the death of the Elder. She watched for the good conduct of the children who studied in his school. Father Herman willed that, after his death, she was to continue to live on Spruce Island. Her name was Sophia Vlasova.
Janovsky writes this about the character and eloquence of the talks of the Elder:
“When I met Father Herman, I was thirty years old. I must say I was educated in the Naval Corps school; that I knew many sciences, having read extensively. But, to my regret, of the Science of sciences, that is the Law of God, I barely remembered the externals — and these only theoretically, not applying them to life. I was a Christian in name only, but in my soul and in reality I was a freethinker. Furthermore, I did not admit the divinity and holiness of our religion, for I had read many atheistic works. Father Herman recognized this immediately and desired to reconvert me. ”
“To my great surprise he spoke so convincingly, wisely — and he argued with such conviction — that it seemed to me that no learning or worldly wisdom could stand its ground before his words. We conversed with him daily until midnight, and even later, of God’s love, of eternity, of the salvation of souls, and of Christian living. From his lips flowed a ceaseless stream of sweet words! By these continual talks and by the prayers of the holy Elder, the Lord returned me completely to the way of Truth, and I became a real Christian. I am indebted for all this to Father Herman — he is my true benefactor.”
“Several years ago, Father Herman converted a certain naval Captain, G., to Orthodoxy from the Lutheran faith. This captain was well educated. Besides many sciences, he was well versed in languages. He knew Russian, English, German, French, Italian, and also some Spanish. But, for all this, he could not resist the convictions and proofs of Father Herman. He changed his faith and was united to the Orthodox Church through chrismation.”
“When he was leaving America, the Elder said to him while they were parting, ‘Be on guard, if the Lord should take your wife from you, then do not marry a German woman under any circumstances. If you do marry a German woman, undoubtedly she will damage your Orthodoxy.’ The Captain gave his word, but he failed to keep it. Indeed, after several years, the Captain’s wife did die, and he married a German woman. There is no doubt that his faith weakened, or that he left it; for he died suddenly without confession.”
Further on, Jankovsky writes:
“Once the Elder was invited aboard a frigate which came from St. Petersburg. The Captain of the frigate was a highly educated man, who had been sent to America by order of the Emperor to make an inspection of all the colonies. There were more than twenty-five officers with the Captain, and they also were educated men. In the company of this group sat a monk of a hermitage, small in stature and wearing very old clothes. All these educated conversationalists were placed in such a position by his wise talks that they did not know how to answer him. The Captain himself used to say, ‘We are lost for an answer before him.’”
“Father Herman gave them all one general question, ‘Gentlemen, what do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?’ Various answers were offered. Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. ‘Is it not true,’ Father Herman said to them concerning this, ‘that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion — that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?’ They all answered, ‘Yes, that is so!’”
“He then continued, ‘Would you not all say, is not that which is best, above all, and surpassing all, and that which by preference is most worthy of love, the Very Lord, our Jesus Christ, who created us, adorned us with such ideals, gave life to all, sustains everything, nurtures and loves all, who is Himself Love and most beautiful of all men? Should we not then love God above every thing, desire Him more than anything, and search Him out?’”
“All said, ‘Why, yes! That’s self-evident!’ Then the Elder asked, ‘But do you love God?’ They all answered, “Certainly we love God. How can we not love God?’ ‘And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, but I cannot say that I love Him completely,’ Father Herman protested to them. He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. ‘If we love someone,’ he said, ‘we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?’ They had to admit that they had not! ‘For our own good, and for our own fortune,’ concluded the Elder, ‘let us at least promise ourselves that, from this very minute, we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His holy will!’ Without any doubt this conversation was imprinted in the hearts of the listeners for the rest of their lives.”
Constantine Larionov gives this testimony about Father Herman:
“In general Father Herman liked to talk of eternity, of salvation, of the future life, of our destinies under God. He often talked on the lives of the Saints, on the Prologue, but he never spoke about anything frivolous. It was so pleasant to hear him that those who conversed with him, the Aleuts and their wives, were so captivated by his talks that often they did not leave him until dawn, and then they left him with reluctance.”
A Description of Father Herman
Janovsky writes a detailed description of Father Herman:
“I have a vivid memory of all the features of the Elder’s face reflecting goodness; his pleasant smile, his meek and attractive mien, his humble and quiet behavior, and his gracious word. He was short of stature. His face was pale and covered with wrinkles. His eyes were greyish-blue, full of sparkle, and on his head there were a few grey hairs. His voice as not powerful, but it was very pleasant.”
Janovsky relates two incidents from his conversations with the Elder:
“Once I read to Father Herman the ode, ‘God’, by Derzhavin. The Elder was surprised, and entranced. He asked me to read it again. I read it once more. ‘Is it possible that a simple, educated man wrote this?’, he asked. ‘Yes, a learned poet,’ I answered. ‘This has been written under God’s inspiration,’ said the Elder.
**SEE BELOW “ODE TO GOD” translation Sir John Bowring
The Spirit of Father Herman’s Teaching
In order to express the spirit of Father Herman’s teaching, we present here a quotation from a letter that was written by his own hand.
“The empty years of these desires separate us from our heavenly homeland, and our love for these desires and our habits clothe us, as it were, in an odious dress; it is called by the Apostle ‘the external (earthly) man.’ (1 Cor. 15:47). We who are wanderers in the journey of this life call to God for aid. We must divest ourselves of this repulsiveness, and put on new desires, and a new love for the coming age. Thus, through this we will know either an attraction or a repulsion for the heavenly homeland. It is possible to do this quickly, but we must follow the example of the sick who, wishing for health, do not stop searching for a means of curing themselves. But I am not speaking clearly.”
Not desiring anything for himself in life; long ago when he first came to America having refused, because of his humility, the dignity of hieromonk and archimandrite; and deciding to remain forever a common monk, without the least fear before the powerful, Father Herman strove with all sincerity for God. With gentle love, and disregarding the person, he criticized many for intemperate living, for unworthy behavior, and for oppressing the Aleuts. Evil armed itself against him and gave him all sorts of trouble and sorrow. But God protected the Elder. The administrator of the Colony, Janovsky, not having yet seen Father Herman, after receiving one of those complaints, had already written to St. Petersburg of the necessity of his removal. He explained that it seemed that he was arousing the Aleuts against the administration. But this accusation turned out to be unjust, and in the end Janovsky was numbered among the admirers of Father Herman.
Once an inspector came to Spruce Island with the Administrator of the Colony and with company employees to search through Father Herman’s cell. This party expected to find property of great value in Father Herman’s cell. But when they found nothing of value, an employee of the American Company, named Ponomarkhov, began to tear up the floor with an axe, undoubtedly with the consent of his superiors. Then Father Herman said to him, “My friend, you have lifted the axe in vain; this weapon shall deprive you of your life.” Some time later people were needed at Fort Nicholas, and for that reason several Russian employees were sent there from Kodiak; among them was Ponomarkhov. There the natives of Kenai cut off his head while he slept.
The Temptations of Father Herman
Many great sorrows were borne by Father Herman from evil spirits. He himself revealed this to his disciple, Gerasim. Once, when he entered Father Herman’s cell without the usual prayer, he received no answer from Father Herman to any of his questions. The next day, Gerasim asked him the reason for his silence. On that occasion Father Herman said to him:
“When I came to this island and settled in this hermitage, the evil spirits approached me, ostensibly to be helpful. They came in the form of a man, and in the form of animals. I suffered much from them; from various afflictions and temptations. And this is why I do not speak now to anyone who enters into my presence without a prayer”. (It is customary among devout laymen, as well as clergy, to say out loud a prayer, and upon hearing a response ending with, “Amen”, to enter and go to the icon in a room and venerate it, and to say a prayer before greeting the host.)
Supernatural Gifts from God
Father Herman dedicated himself fully to the Lord’s service; he strove with zeal solely for the glorification of His Most Holy Name. Far from his homeland, in the midst of a variety of afflictions and privations, Father Herman spent several decades performing the noblest deeds of self-sacrifice. He was privileged to receive many supernatural gifts from God.
In the midst of Spruce Island, down the hill flows a little stream into the sea. The mouth of this stream was always swept by surf. In the spring when the brook fish appeared, the Elder raked away some of the sand at its mouth so the fish could enter, and at their first appearance they rushed up the stream. His disciple, Aligyaga, said, “It was so that if ‘Apa’ would tell me, I would go and get fish in the stream!” Father Herman would feed the birds with dried fish, and they would gather in great numbers around his cell. Underneath his cell there lived an ermine. This little animal cannot be approached when it has had its young, but the Elder fed it from his own hand. “Was this not a miracle that we had seen?”, said his disciple Ignaty.
They also saw Father Herman feeding bears. But, when Father Herman died, the birds and animals left; even the garden would not give any sort of crops even through someone had willingly taken care of it, Ignaty insisted. On Spruce Island there once occurred a flood. The inhabitants came to the Elder in great fear. Father Herman then took an icon of the Mother of God from the house where his students lived and placed it on a laida (a sandy bank) and began to pray. After his prayer, he turned to those present and said, “Have no fear — the water will go no higher than the place where this holy icon stands.” The words of the Elder were fulfilled.
After this he promised the same aid from this holy icon in the future, through the intercessions of the Most Immaculate Queen. He entrusted the icon to his disciple Sophia; in case of future floods the icon was to be placed on the laida. This icon is preserved on Spruce Island to this day.
At the request of the Elder, Baron F. P. Wrangel wrote a letter to a Metropolitan — his name is not known — which was dictated by Father Herman. When the letter was finished and read, the Elder congratulated the Baron upon his attaining the rank of admiral. The Baron was taken aback. This was news to him. It was confirmed, but only after an elapse of some time and just before he departed for St. Petersburg.
Father Herman said to the administrator Kashevarov, from whom he accepted his son from the font (during the sacrament of baptism), “I am sorry for you, my dear ‘kum’. It’s a shame; the change will be unpleasant for you!” In two years, during a change of administration, Kashevarov was sent to Sitka in chains.
Once the forest on Spruce Island caught fire. The Elder and his disciple Ignaty made a belt about a yard wide in a thicket in the forest, in which they turned over the moss. They extended it to the foot of the hill. The Elder said, “Rest assured, the fire will not pass this line.” On the next day, according to Ignaty’s testimony, there was no hope for salvation (from the fire), and the fire, pushed by a strong wind, reached the place where the moss had been turned over by the Elder. The fire ran over the moss and halted, leaving untouched the thick forest beyond the line.
The Elder often said that there would be a bishop for America; this at a time when no one even thought of it, and there was no hope that there would be a bishop for America (this was related by the Bishop Peter), and his prophecy was fulfilled in time.
“After my death,” said Father Herman, “there will be an epidemic and many people shall die during it, and the Russians shall unite the Aleuts.” And so it happened; it seems that, about a half year after his passing there was a smallpox epidemic. The death rate in America during the epidemic was tremendous. In some villages only a few inhabitants remained alive. This led the administration of the colony to unite the Aleuts; the twelve settlements were consolidated into seven.
“Although a long time shall elapse after my death, I will not be forgotten,” said Father Herman to his disciples. “My place of habitation will not remain empty. A monk like myself, who will be escaping from the glory of men, will come and he will live on Spruce Island, and Spruce Island will not be without people.” (This prophecy has now been fulfilled in its entirety. Just such a monk as Father Herman described lived on Spruce Island for many years. His name was the Archimandrite Gerasim, and he died on October 13, 1969. This monk took on himself the responsibility of taking care of the chapel under which Father Herman was first buried.)
Father Herman’s Prophecies for the Future
Constantine Larionov, when he was not more than twelve years old, was asked by Father Herman, “My beloved one, what do you think; this chapel which they are now building — will it ever stand empty?” The youngster answered, “I do not know, Apa.” “And indeed,” said Constantine (later), “I did not understand his question at that time, even though the whole conversation with the Elder remains vivid in my memory.” The Elder remained silent for a short time, and then said, “My child, remember — in time in this place there will be a monastery.”
Father Herman said to his disciple, the Aleut Ignaty Aligyaga:
“Thirty years shall pass after my death, and all those living on Spruce Island will have died, but you alone will remain alive. You will be old and poor when I will be remembered.”
And, indeed, after the death of Father Herman thirty years had passed when they were reminded of him, and they began to gather information and facts about him; on the basis of which was written his life. “It is amazing,” exclaimed Ignaty, “how a man like us could know all this so long before it happened! However, no, he was no ordinary man! He knew our thoughts, and involuntarily he led us to the point where we revealed them to him, and we received counsel from him!”
“When I die,” said the elder to his disciple, “you will bury me alongside Father Joasaph. You will bury me by yourself, for you will not wait for the priest! Do not wash my body. Lay it on a board, clasp my hands over my chest, wrap me in my mantia (the monk’s outer cloak), and with its wings cover my face, and place the klobuk on my head. (The klobuk is the monastic headdress.) If anyone wishes to bid farewell to me, let them kiss the Cross. Do not show my face to anyone….”
The Death of Father Herman
The time of the Elder’s passing had come. One day he ordered his disciple Gerasim to light a candle before the icons, and to read the Acts of the Holy Apostles. After some time his face glowed brightly and he said in a loud voice, “Glory to Thee, O Lord!” He then ordered the reading to be halted, and he announced that the Lord had willed that his life be spared for another week. A week later, again by his orders the candles were lit and the Acts of the Holy Apostles were read. Quietly the Elder bowed his head on the chest of Gerasim; the cell was filled with a pleasant smelling odor, and his face glowed — and Father Herman was no more. Thus in blessedness he died. He passed away in the sleep of a righteous man in the eighty-first year of his life of great labor, the 25th of December, 1837. (According to the Julian Calendar, the 13th of December 1837, although there are some records which state that he died on the 28th of November, and was buried on the 26th of December.)
Those sent with the sad news to the harbor returned to announce that the administrator of the colony, Kashevarov, had forbidden the burial of the Elder until his own arrival. He also ordered that a finer coffin be made for Father Herman, and said that he would come as soon as possible and would bring a priest with him. But then a great wind came up, rain fell, and a terrible storm broke. The distance from the harbor to Spruce Island is not great — about a two hour journey — but no one would agree to go to sea in such weather.
Thus it continued for a full month, and although the body lay in state for a full month in the warm house of his students, his face did not undergo any change at all, and not the slightest odor emanated from his body. Finally, through the efforts of Kuzma Uchilischev, a coffin was obtained. No one arrived from the harbor, and the inhabitants of Spruce Island alone buried in the ground the remains of the Elder. Thus the words which Father Herman uttered before his death were fulfilled. After this the wind quieted down, and the surface of the sea became as smooth as a mirror.
One evening, from the village of Katani (on Afognak) was seen above Spruce Island an unusual pillar of light which reached up to heaven. Astonished by the miraculous appearance, experienced elders and the Creole Gerasim Vologdin and his wife Anna said, “It seems that Father Herman has left us,” and they began to pray. After a time, they were informed that the Elder had indeed passed away that very night. This same pillar was seen in various places by others. The night of his death, in another of the settlements on Afognak was seen a vision; it seemed as though a man was rising from Spruce Island into the clouds.
The disciples buried their father, and placed above his grave a wooden memorial marker. The priest on Kodiak, Peter Kashevarov, says, “I saw it myself, and I can say that today it seems as though it had never been touched by time; as though it had been cut this day.”
Having witnessed the life of Father Herman glorified by his zealous labors, having seen his miracles, and the fulfillment of his predictions, finally having observed his blessed falling asleep, “in general, all the local inhabitants,” witnesses Bishop Peter, “have the highest esteem for him, as though he was a holy ascetic, and are fully convinced that he has found favor in the presence of God.”
In 1842, five years after the Elder’s passing, Innocent, Archbishop of Kamchatka and the Aleutians, was near Kodiak on a sailing vessel which was in great distress. He looked to Spruce Island, and said to himself, “Father Herman, if you have found favor in God’s presence, then may the wind change!” It seems as though not more than fifteen minutes had passed, said the Bishop, when the wind became favorable and he successfully reached the shore. In thanksgiving for his salvation, Archbishop Innocent himself conducted a memorial service (panikhida) over the grave of the Blessed Elder Herman.
In 1970, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad glorified the monk Herman as the Saint Herman of Alaska.
For a compilation of Saint Herman’s teachings on spiritual life, drawn from his letters and conversations, go to: http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/herman.htm#n2
THE MIRACULOUS INTERCESSION OF ST. HERMAN OF ALASKA
Some time ago, in the 1990s, our parish invited a local “tree surgeon,” Leo M., to cut down a couple of dead trees in the back of the church property. He came and worked with his wife, Kathleen, doing the job quickly and with kindness to the rest of the surroundings. But they strongly resisted being paid, insisting on offering their work gratis to our church. They were non-Orthodox, and we wondered about the reason for such generosity. The reason, as we learned from them later, was to be found in something that happened a few years before, just after they had been married.
Both Leo and Kathleen were serious enthusiasts of mountaineering and rock climbing, and so for their honeymoon trip they decided to go to Alaska to bag the highest peak of North America, mount Denali (aka McKinley), 20,320 feet. While living at the camp at the foot of the mountain, they thoroughly prepared their expedition: talking to guides, studying the maps, checking the equipment, and waiting for a long stretch of good weather.
When they finally started their exciting, but extremely difficult, ascent, everything went just fine for a few days. But at the end of one day, on a narrow path, they met an old, strange-looking man in a long dark robe. He was walking in the opposite direction, down the mountain. In a friendly manner he greeted them and advised them to turn around and return to the base camp as quickly as possible because the weather was changing into a severe storm. Soon, he said, it will be very dangerous around here. And, as if in answer to their unasked question of how could he know such a thing, he explained that he was local and knew the climate very well. Leaving them surprised and uneasy, he continued on his way.
Some minutes later, after Leo and Kathleen made the wise decision to turn back, and then tried to recall the appearance of the old man, they realized that they hadn’t seen a backpack or any other hiking gear with him. How could he have made it up so high in the bare, rocky mountain in sub-zero temps, without any food or protection?!
A few days later, almost at the bottom of the mountain, they were indeed caught by a severe storm. They survived it, constantly in their minds thanking the old man who had warned them of the danger. A week later, still staying at the base camp, they learned that some other climbers, who happened to be at higher elevations than they were during the storm, never came back.
Then, as if in answer to their curiosity, Leo and Kathleen noticed something at the camp cafeteria. It was a picture of their rescuer, pinned on a bulletin board between some miscellaneous ads and photos of the mountain. They recognized him at a glance. When they asked the waiter for his name, he told them, ” It’s an Orthodox saint who lived in Alaska. His name is St. Herman.” And the photo showed the icon of St. Herman from the Orthodox church nearby.
The Saint had told them the truth. He was indeed a local guy…
/”By enduring the trials of nature, the storms’ cold and wind together with hunger, thou didst kindle spiritual peace, warmth and satiety, and become unaffected by the elements, truly a heavenly man and earthly angel, O wondrous Herman; so wishing to honor thee as is meet we cry out: Rejoice, conqueror of nature’s hardships! Rejoice, thou who wast arrayed in the virtues! … Rejoice, O venerable Father Herman, adornment of Alaska and joy of all America! ” (From Akathist to St Herman)
ODE TO GOD
(Translated by Sir John Bowring)
Thou Eternal One! whose presence bright
In its sublime search, philosophy
Thou from primeval nothingness didst call
Thy chains the unmeasured universe surround,
Yes! as a drop of water in the sea,
Nought! yet the effluence of Thy light divine,
Thou art! directing, guiding all, Thou art!
The chain of being is complete in me:
Creator! yes! Thy wisdom and Thy word
Oh! thoughts ineffable! Oh! visions blest!
O HOLY FATHER HERMAN PRAY TO GOD FOR US!