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THE HISTORY OF ORTHODOXY IN AMERICA

In the 18th Century, the great Orthodox Christian missionary work which began with Pentecost in Jerusalem, so many centuries before, finally crossed from the continent of Euro-Asia into North America. The first missionaries traveled with the explorers Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov, who formally claimed Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in 1741. For the next fifty years, together with the exploration and economic development of this new outpost of the Russian Empire, the first attempts were made to bring the Orthodox Faith to the natives of that region (the Aleuts, the Athabascan Indians, the Tlingits, and the Eskimos).

The first formal Orthodox Christian Mission to America arrived on September 24, 1794, in Kodiak. This Mission consisted of eight Monks and two Novices, together with ten Alaskan natives who had been taken to Russia by Gregory Shelikov in 1786. This Mission discovered on Kodiak Island hundreds of natives who had been taught the rudiments of the Orthodox Faith, and had been baptized by laymen. Gregory Shelikov, one of the founders of what was to become later the Russian-American Company, had himself baptized about two hundred Aleuts on Kodiak Island.

The American Mission, headed by Archimandrite Joasaph, immediately began the work of establishing the Church in Kodiak and the Islands and later on the mainland of Alaska. Despite great difficulties, this Mission was very successful, for virtually all the remaining natives of Kodiak Island were baptized in just three years. During this period, one of the missionaries, Hieromonk Juvenaly, was martyred at Lake Iliamna by natives.

In 1798, Archimandrite Joasaph returned to Irkutsk in Siberia and was consecrated on April 10, 1899, Bishop of Kodiak, the first Bishop for America, but he and his entourage, including Hieromonk Makary and Hierodeacon Stephen of the original Mission, drowned somewhere between Unalaska and Kodiak Island. Though the American Mission was now reduced to half of its original number, it continued its work. Notable was the great spiritual and missionary work of the Monks Herman and Joasaph. Not only did they instruct the natives in spiritual and religious matters, but they also taught them practical, secular subjects, such as mathematics, carpentry, agriculture, as well as animal husbandry.

In 1824, with the arrival of the Missionary Priest John Veniaminov in Unalaska, a new impetus was added to the missionary work already done. The original missionaries had been replaced by others, so that by the time of the arrival of Father John, only the Monk Herman, now retired to Spruce Island, was left of the original American Mission. He died on December 13, 1837, and on August 9, 1970, he was canonized as the first Saint of the Orthodox Church in America.

The Orthodox Church in Alaska is a Native institution - the first in America to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through the efforts of our Russian missionaries (St. Herman of Alaska, St. Innocent, St. Yakov, St. Juvenaly, and Peter the Aleut) beginning in 1794, the faithful of Alaska possess a uniquely Orthodox heritage resulting in deep commitment to and love for the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Up until the time of the Russian Revolution and civil War, the Alaska Mission was financially and spiritually supported by Russia. The church in the New World was suddenly left without financial support or administrative guidance. All jurisdictions of Orthodox Christians (Antiochian, Greek, Serbian, Russian) were under the Patriarchate of Moscow. Orthodox Patriarchates from other areas of the world responded to the floundering Orthodox in America by sending priests into the U.S. to provide guidance and support to their various ethnic communities. However, there was no one to send into Alaska since the Native church was of the Russian Mission. The growth and survival of the Orthodox Church in Alaska depended almost exclusively on local commitment and initiative. Left without any well-funded, centralized administration, without any coordinated plan for maintenance or expansion, the church not only continued but also increased. Regional conferences and lay preachers worked with Native clergy to propagate the faith - village by village.

However, over the decades, incredible hardships have fallen upon the Orthodox Christians in this great and Holy Land. Following America's purchase of Alaska in 1867, the U.S. Government attempted to obliterate the native Alaskan culture through severe, aggressive assimilation policies. Since the late 19th century, confident they knew what was best for Native Alaskans, federal officials removed adolescent children from their homes and communities, transporting them to district boarding schools for instruction in the ways of modern America - "the Anglo Saxon frame of mind" and "These Natives have embraced the wrong kind of Christianity" - an Ethnic Cleansing, denying them all traditions of the Orthodox faith inclusive of burial.

Following the Japanese bombing and invasion of the Aleutian Islands, June 1942,the Aleut Natives - Orthodox Christians - became the first Americans since 1812 to know the fear of foreign invasion on their own land. World War II brought relocation, internment and a scorched earth policy by the U.S. Government to native communities of the Aleutian and Pribolof Islands. The American relocation and Japanese prison camps resulted in 60% of the natives dying from disease and malnutrition. American troops garrisoned the islands for nearly 2 years - using Orthodox Churches for target practice, decimating holy objects, vandalizing and looting native homes, churches and community property. The work of reconstruction was mammoth, particularly when it was thrust upon people who had been impoverished by the war.

What enabled Alaska Native peoples to endure and survive was their essential spirituality. Tragically, this inner strength was undermined in the 1960's when the Great Society discovered that rural Alaska was, per capita, the most impoverished region of the country. Although the Natives had successfully managed to survive in the Arctic for centuries, they were suddenly and unexpectedly inundated with non-reciprocal institutional assistance - welfare checks, food stamps, and an entire bureaucracy to sustain and perpetuate these programs. Then the government decided they must educate the Native Alaskan peoples. The ultimate goal of dominant culture, but at the lowest level. The "educated" person was caught between two worlds, fitting comfortably into neither.

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