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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Community Life  >  Religion
Ivan Veniaminov
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In the Russian Alaska of the early 1800s, the Native people and their cultures were suffering at the hands of foreign fur traders and hunters, known by the Russian term promyshlenniki. Many Natives had been abused or killed, either by violence or disease, while a new culture, religion, and language were thrust upon them. Many Russian hunters and traders and even some missionaries viewed Alaska's Natives as "bloodthirsty," "irrational," or "savage." However, one man stood out among them -- a Russian Orthodox priest named Ivan Veniaminov, who found the Native Alaskans honest and hardworking, and offered friendship, tolerance, and consideration toward all around him, regardless of race or color. Veniaminov's zeal for his work, respect for the people, and abilities as a scholar, linguist, and administrator left a positive mark on some of Alaska's darkest history.

Ivan Veniaminov was born on August 26, 1797, in the village of Anginskoe, in the Irkutsk province of Russia. His father, who died when Ivan was six, was a church server. The boy grew into a sturdily built man, a muscular six feet, three inches tall. Veniaminov entered the Irkutsk Theological Seminary in 1807, where he studied mechanics and became a skilled clockmaker. He married Catherine Sharina in 1817 and soon was ordained Deacon of the Church of the Annunciation. After completing his seminary studies in 1818, Veniaminov became a teacher at the parish. Three years later, he was ordained  as a priest to serve in the Church of the Annunciation.

Meanwhile, the Russian government had encouraged the church to send missionaries to the American colony to convert its aboriginal people. As early as 1805, an employee of the Russian-American Company, Nikolai Resanov, had created a dictionary incorporating six Native Alaskan languages, a useful tool for traders in a foreign land. While the churchmen met some success in their mission, by the early 1820s, many of the priests and monks were growing old and replacements were needed. Veniaminov was called to serve in Unalaska, an island on the Aleutian chain, and in 1823, he sailed east with his wife, mother, brother, and infant son, Innocent.

The Veniaminov family first arrived in the Russian America capital of New Archangel (present-day Sitka) on October 20 with plans to stay through the winter and sail to Unalaska in the spring. The priest had three goals for his ministry to the Aleuts: to visit all of his parishioners, to establish a building where they could gather to hear the Word of God and, finally, to become fluent in the Aleut language. To prepare for his work in Unalaska, Veniaminov devoted himself to learning the language and customs of the Aleut people, relying on Aleuts whom the Russian-American Company had transplanted to New Archangel. During his winter there, Veniaminov learned more than 200 Aleut words by intently listening and observing the pronunciation and intonation of the speakers.

Veniaminov and his family landed on the treeless island of Unalaska on July 29, 1824. Immediately he was impressed by the Aleuts' incredible ability to survive without the use of wood from trees. The Native people would compensate by building their boats and houses out of driftwood, trunks from the rose willow and skins and furs of the fur-bearing mammals that the Russians were now overhunting. Veniaminov later wrote: "Nature failed to [give the Aleuts] the material necessary for boats, that is wood, but . . . in compensation, she gave them greater ingenuity for the perfection of a special new kind of [boat]." He also would note that they were devout, intelligent and industrious, a far cry from view held by many traders. Veniaminov taught the people carpentry, stonemasonry, and brick-making, preparing them to build a church and a school with their new trades. He learned the Aleut language and in turn created the first written alphabet. Assisted by an Aleut chief named Ivan Pan'kov, the priest published the first book written in an Alaska Native language, an Aleut catechism. He also translated portions of the Bible into Aleut, and later perfected six Native dialects.

For 10 years Veniaminov traveled in his canoe between Unalaska, Fox Island, and the Pribilof Islands as he taught and practiced the tenets of his faith while respecting the traditional ways of the Alaskans. Many Natives had converted prior to his arrival; however, to the chagrin of Veniaminov's predecessors, the people had continued to practice certain customs that the church viewed as pagan. Unlike other missionaries, Veniaminov used encouragement rather than condemnation to help his parishioners grow in their newfound faith.

In 1834, the Russian Orthodox church transferred Veniaminov to New Archangel, where he next devoted himself to learning the language and culture of the Tlingit people. He was eager to learn quickly so he could minister, as well as teach the same trades he had taught the Aleuts. In time, Veniaminov and his parishioners built an architectural beauty: St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral. The spacious and splendidly decorated wooden structure towered over Sitka until it was destroyed by fire in January 1966. In its place stands another St. Michael's, a reconstruction of the original design by Veniaminov. While in New Archangel, the priest also used his clock-making skills to design and build a clock for the cathedral tower and later built a residence, school, and private chapel that is today known as the Russian Bishop's House.

In 1838, Veniaminov traveled back to Russia to report on the activities of his newly founded church. While he was away, he received word that his wife had died, and he immediately requested a return to Sitka. His request was denied; instead, he was asked to take vows as a monk. Several of his adult children were back in New Archangel, and the priest doubted he could be as effective as a monk. After several days of prayer, he ultimately decided to take the calling offered to him. In 1840, Veniaminov was ordained Bishop and took the name Innokentii, or Innocent. His See was located in New Archangel, where he returned in 1841. Over the next nine years, Bishop Innocent's diocese grew larger, as well as his prominence within the church. By 1865, Bishop Innocent had returned to Russia, where he was ordained Archbishop and appointed a member of the Holy Governing Synod of the Church.

Archbishop Innocent showed no prejudice or preference to any member of his flock, whether Alaska Native or Russian Orthodox priests. He saw them simply as people in need. In 1867, he was elevated to Metropolitan of Moscow, the highest office in the church, and used his outstanding literary skills to revise many of the church texts that had contained errors. He also worked to improve the meager living conditions of retired priests by raising funds for a retirement home.

Metropolitan Innocent died on March 31, 1879, at the age of 82. At his funeral sermon on April 5, Bishop Ambrose summarized the great man's life: "The make-up of Metropolitan Innocent's spiritual personality transcended the conditions and terms of life in our society: his heart was pure, his intentions always good; neither pride nor conceit could master him. He had no use for seeking praise from people, no reason or object for pretense from others. He appeared outwardly exactly what he was within -- a direct, and honest, and sincere, and loving, and well-wishing pastor. . . . "

Innocent was recognized for his great deeds and humanitarian nature on October 6, 1977, when the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia canonized him Saint Innocent of Alaska. These words are inscribed over his simple tomb: "May the Lord God remember your episcopacy in his kingdom, now and forever, and unto ages of ages. Through the prayers of Bp. Innocent, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen."

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John (Ioann) Veniaminov
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"Sitka. Russian mission. Bishop's residence, office & chapel."
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Saint Innocent, Enlightener and Apostle of America

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