11 May 2011

Saint Innocent of Alaska

Saint Innocent of Alaska (August 26, 1797 - March 31, 1879), also known as Saint Innocent of Moscow (Russian Митрополит Инноке́нтий) was a Russian Orthodox priest, bishop, archbishop and Metropolitan of Moscow and all Russia. He is known for his missionary work, scholarship and leadership in Alaska and the Russian Far East during the 19th century. He is known for his great zeal for his work as well as his abilities as a scholar, linguist, and administrator. He was a missionary and later a bishop and archbishop in Alaska and the Russian Far East. He learned several native languages and was the author of many of the earliest scholarly works about the native peoples and their languages, as well as dictionaries and religious works in their languages. He also translated parts of the Bible into several native languages.

Saint Innocent was born Ivan Evseyevich Popov (Иван Евсеевич Попов) on August 26, 1797 into the family of a church server in the village of Anginskoye, Verkholensk District, Irkutsk Province, in Russia. His father, Evsey Popov, died when Ivan was six.

In 1807 Ivan entered the Irkutsk Theological Seminary, where the rector renamed him Veniaminov in honor of the recently deceased Bishop Veniamin of Irkutsk. In 1817 he married a local priest's daughter named Catherine, and on May 18, 1817 he was ordained a deacon of the Church of the Annunciation in Irkutsk. After he completed his studies in 1818, he was appointed a teacher in a parish school; and on May 18, 1821 he was ordained a priest to serve in the Church of the Annunciation. In Russian he was known as Father Ioann, the religious version of Ivan.

At the beginning of 1823, Bishop Michael of Irkutsk received instructions to send a priest to the island of Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Father Ioann Veniaminov volunteered to go and on May 7, 1823 he departed from Irkutsk, accompanied by his aging mother, his wife, his infant son Innocent, and his brother Stefan. After a difficult one-year journey, they arrived at Unalaska on July 29, 1824.

After Fr. Ioann and his family built and moved into an earthen hut, he undertook the construction of a church on the island and set about studying the local languages and dialects. He trained some of his parishioners in construction techniques and with them undertook the construction of a church, which was finished the following July.

Father Ioann's parish included the island of Unalaska and the neighboring Fox Islands and Pribilof Islands, whose inhabitants had been converted to Christianity before his arrival, but retained many of their own religious beliefs and customs. Father Ioann often traveled between the islands in a canoe, battling the stormy ocean of the Gulf of Alaska.

His travels over the islands greatly enhanced Father Ioann Veniaminov's familiarity with the local dialects. In a short time he mastered six of the dialects. He devised an alphabet of Cyrillic letters for the most widespread dialect, the Unagan dialect of Aleut and, in 1828, translated portions of the Bible and other church material into that dialect. In 1829 he journeyed to the Bering Sea coast of the Alaskan mainland and preached to the people there.

In 1834, Father Ioann was transferred to Sitka Island, to the town of Novoarkhangelsk, later called Sitka. He devoted himself to the Tlingit people and studied their language and customs. His studies there produced the scholarly works Notes on the Kolushchan and Kodiak Tongues and Other Dialects of the Russo-American Territories, with a Russian-Kolushchan Glossary.

In 1838, Father Ioann journeyed to St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev to report on his activities and request an expansion of the Church's activities in Russian America. While he was there, he received notice that his wife had died. He requested permission to return to Sitka. Instead, it was suggested that he take vows as a monk. Father Ioann at first ignored these suggestions, but, on November 29, 1840 he was tonsured a monk. He chose the name Innocent in honor of Saint Innocent, the first bishop of Irkutsk (†1731, commemorated on November 26), and was elevated to the rank of Archimandrite.

On December 15, 1840, Archimandrite Innocent was consecrated Bishop of Kamchatka and Kuril Islands in Russia and the Aleutian Islands in Russian America. His see was located in Novoarkhangelsk, to which he returned in September 1841. He spent the next nine years in the administration of his diocese as well as on several long missionary journeys to its remote areas. On April 21, 1850, Bishop Innocent was elevated to Archbishop. In 1852 the Yakut area was admitted to the Kamchatka Diocese, and in September 1853 Archbishop Innocent took up permanent residence in the town of Yakutsk. Innocent took frequent trips throughout his enlarged diocese. He devoted much energy to the translation of the scriptures and service books into the Yakut (Sakha) language.

In April 1865 Archbishop Innocent was appointed a member of the Holy Governing Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.

On November 19, 1867, he was appointed the Metropolitan of Moscow, replacing his friend and mentor, Saint Filaret, who had died. As metropolitan, he undertook revisions of many church texts that contained errors, raised funds to improve the living conditions of impoverished priests and established a retirement home for clergy.

Innocent died on March 31, 1879. He was buried on April 5, 1879 at Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, outside of Moscow.

On October 6, 1977, the Russian Orthodox Church, acting on the official request of the Orthodox Church in America, made Innocent a saint. His feast day is celebrated twice a year — on October 6 (for those churches which follow the Julian Calendar, this date falls on October 19 of the Gregorian Calendar) in commemoration of his glorification (canonization) as a saint, and March 31 (April 13), in commemoration of his repose. He is widely venerated as Equal-to-apostles.

Innocent is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on March 30.

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