Inside the small Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Cathedral on a hillside overlooking the fishing town of Kodiak, Alaska, a wooden reliquary holds the remains of the Russian orthodox monk who came to the Island in 1794.
The legacy of St. Herman, now the patron saint of Alaska in the Russian Orthodox Church, lives on long after his death. To this day, pilgrim make the trip to Spruce Island, off the coast of Kodiak, each year in August to visit the hermitage where Herman lived from 1808-1819.
Herman was born in Russia around 1756, and came to the Alaskan territories as a missionary with other Russian Orthodox monks to establish an outpost of the faith. Together, they converted native Aleuts. Herman became known for his spirited defense of the native population against mistreatment by Russian fur traders as well as other missionaries.
Alaska in 1794 was very much a wild frontier of fur traders and native Aleut fishermen. Kodiak Island was the site of the first permanent Russian settlement, founded in 1784 at Three Saints Bay. By the time Herman and the other missionaries arrived ten years later, the Russian traders had a firm foothold in the area.
St. Herman is remembered primarily for two extraordinary events in his lifetime. The first story is that when faced with an approaching tsunami, he held aloft an icon of Mary, and the waters did not pass the point where he held it. The second, and most famous story is that of his death on Spruce Island. Before his death he predicted that no one would be there to bury him when he died, and that he would be forgotten for thirty years. Indeed, when died on November 15, 1837 on Spruce Island the area was consumed by a storm, and his body was not retrieved for a month. In the years after his death, his story was largely forgotten until Bishop Peter of Alaska investigated his life in 1867. Herman was canonized in March 1867, the first saint in the Russian orthodox Church to hail from Alaska.
Alaska was eventually purchased from Russia in 1867, but it was not until 1912 that an official United States Territory was formed.
Today, the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral is the oldest Orthodox parish in North America. The church building, however is the fourth generation, this most recent construction done in the 1940s following a fire which destroyed the previous church.
St. Herman’s reliquary is sits at the front of the church, topped by a large icon showing St. Herman, a glass case holding his monastic hat, and the large iron cross he wore in life. A lampada burns continuously above his reliquary. Oil from this lampada (oil lamp) is used to anoint pilgrims who visit from from all over the world.
A feast day in St. Herman’s honor is held annually on August 9.