History of the Seminary
St. Herman Seminary’s identity inherently is linked with that of its patron, the first recognized Saint of North America. From the first landing of Orthodox Christian missionaries on Kodiak Island in 1794, education has been a priority of the Church’s mission in Alaska. Father Herman, a monk from Valaam Monastery in northwestern Russia and original member of the missionary team, devoted his life and work to the propagation of the Faith in the Kodiak Archipelago. Remembered affectionately among the Alutiiq people, Father Herman later was canonized at Holy Resurrection Church in Kodiak on August 9, 1970. Father Herman’s ministry included beginning a school for orphaned children on Spruce Island. Not only did Father Herman devote hours instilling the basic principles of the Orthodox Christian Faith, he taught the Natives agricultural techniques, carpentry skills, and other practical craftsmanship. Yet this was not the first school in the territory. In 1804, Hieromonk Gideon established the first school in Alaska; Father Gideon also began the first bilingual program.
In 1826, the famous missionary teacher Father John Veniaminov founded a parochial school at Unalaska, where students were taught in Russian and Unangan (Fox Aleut). Father Jacob Netsvetov, of Russian and Unangan descent, followed the same pattern when he began classes on Atka in 1828. Fr. John’s ministry continued when he took monastic vows, receiving the name Innocent. He was elected bishop of Alaska in 1840. Bishop Innocent established the “All Colonial School” in Sitka, where natives were educated not only as clergy for the diocese, but also as accountants, storekeepers, sailors, artists, cartographers, and medical personnel. Later a similar school opened at Unalaska. At the time of the sale of Alaska, the Orthodox Christian Church was operating schools at Atka, Unalaska, Sitka, Belkovsky, and Kodiak. Nearly thirty schools—financed by the Russian Missionary Society, which Metropolitan Innocent founded in 1868—staffed with Aleut teachers and clergy, were engaged in educating Alaskans. Upon the Russian Revolution in 1917, with the Bolshevik seizure of political power, funding for this missionary and educational effort suddenly ended.
For approximately half a century, no Orthodox schools functioned in Alaska. Some church leaders in a few scattered villages continued the tradition of what they called “Aleut School,” gathering the local children in the church for classes in reading and writing in both Slavonic and their native language. Some teachers were invited to Sitka for private tutorial lessons focusing on Scripture and the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. Many were ordained, while others served determinedly, without outside financial support or formal training, founding and maintaining churches and chapels. Difficult as these decades were, the Orthodox Mission actually expanded during the first half of the twentieth century, thanks to the initiative and sacrifice of two generations of native Alaskan believers. In the 1950s a few young men traveled to St. Tikhon Theological Orthodox Seminary in Pennsylvania for theological training, but it was obvious that only a local Alaska school could meet the needs of a diocese that had grown to nearly 90 scattered parish communities.
Meeting at Kodiak in 1972, the Diocesan Assembly voted unanimously to found a pastoral school for the training of Alaskan clergy. Without funds, buildings, faculty, or even a bishop, the newly arrived administrator of the diocese at the time, Archpriest Joseph Kreta, rented property at Wildwood Station, a former military facility near Kenai; St. Herman Pastoral School opened in February of 1973. Metropolitan Vladimir of Berkeley blessed the facilities. In May, Metropolitan Ireney attended the conclusion of the school’s first term. The Diocese was sent a new hierarch, Bishop Gregory (Afonsky) later that same year. In 1974 the school moved from Kenai to Kodiak. Under the new bishop’s guidance, the seminary constructed a dormitory and classroom building on its campus in Kodiak (1974), after receiving authority as a post-secondary institution to award diplomas from the State of Alaska Department of Education in September of 1973. In 1975 the Holy Synod recognized St. Herman’s as a theological school of the Orthodox Church in America.
The Pastoral School matured rapidly under the academic and spiritual care of Bishop Gregory, and in March 1977 the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America renamed the institution St. Herman Theological Seminary. The Alaska Department of Education also authorized the seminary to grant the degree of Bachelor of Sacred Theology, and in 1989 the Associate of Arts in Orthodox Theology Degree.
Early in the seminary’s history, a substance abuse program was offered. An alcohol counseling training program received grant support in 1985. The seminary continues to give students the opportunity to take classes in substance abuse counseling toward possible state certification as counselors.
With the retirement of the seminary’s first dean, Protopresbyter Joseph Kreta, in 1995 the Board of Trustees of the Seminary organized a search committee to recruit and engage a new dean. On March 7, 1996, Archpriest Michael Oleksa accepted this position.
The late 1990s were difficult years for the seminary. Accreditation as an institution of higher education was replaced by state authorization under an exemption to operate as a religious institution, enrollment dwindled, and the physical plant of the seminary also was neglected. In 1999 Igumen Benjamin (Peterson) was transferred from the Diocese of the West and assigned as Administrative Dean of St. Herman Seminary. However, he was elevated to Archimandrite and in 2004 returned to the Diocese of the West, where he served as chancellor, elected auxiliary bishop of Berkeley, and elected ruling bishop of the Diocese of the West upon the retirement of Bishop Tikhon and eventually appointed locum tenens of the Diocese of Alaska.
With the departure of Archimandrite Benjamin, Archpriest Chad Hatfield was appointed the fourth dean serving the community of St. Herman Theological Seminary. When Archpriest Chad was selected as Chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 2007, Archpriest John Dunlop became Dean, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the seminary. The physical transformation of the seminary campus and the steady improvement of the academic quality of learning continue to progress. The efforts of recent years have garnered St. Herman Seminary international recognition as a theological institution of pastoral formation.