Following the Saints

By the time we approached Kodiak, the sun came out and added an emerald tint to the deep green of the Archipelago’s prehistoric rainforest. Kodiak, the second largest island in the United State, let us in through the narrow straight formed by the “mainland” and Spruce Island, where St. Herman lived. Through my binoculars I could see the village of Ouzinkie (from the Russian word “narrow”) and its Orthodox Church. We then passed Nelson Island, where I saw the buildings of St. Nilus Skete. Half an hour later, we passed under the Fred Zharoff Memorial Bridge and entered the harbor. I was almost there. Two plans competed in my head—should I stay in the harbor and try to hire a boat to bring me back to Nelson Island, or first go to the Russian Church? The pilgrim in me won and I was soon headed towards the Holy Resurrection Cathedral.

The Cathedral was open, though there was no one inside. It was quiet and smelled of beeswax. Sunbeams made the icons glow. In the right hand corner, by the altar, stood the reliquary. On its cover were the chains, the cross, and the kamilavka (monk’s cap/hat) of St. Herman. I suddenly realized that I did not know what to ask—all my earthly desires strangely subsided. I felt pacified and protected, and knew that somehow things would take care of themselves. There was a note on the front door, stating pilgrims should contact Father John from St. Herman’s Theological Seminary. Sensing that I was on the true path, I went further up Mission Road. And, turning the corner, I literally bumped into Father John Dunlop, Dean of the Seminary. He invited me into his office and patiently listened to the detailed account of my journey. The only remotely and possibly “holy” thing about me was my position at the Hilandar Research Library and I shamelessly used it to establish myself as a pilgrim of, at least, some worth. Five minutes later we were in the secured vault of the seminary library and Father John was showing me real treasures—the log-journal of Saint Innocent, Equal-to-the-Apostles and Enlightener of the North, and the diaries of the first Native Alaskan priests. I was overwhelmed to say the least! I could actually touch history here, Russian history, and my own history. I wanted to be part of this, and so . . . I volunteered to translate some of the entries. Father John agreed and I was immediately given a room at the seminary dorm and an access code to the library computer.

Moments later, I was immersed in the missionary world of the Russian priest engaged in the conversion and education of the native Alutiiq people, the translation of the Gospel into native languages, and the construction of the Church of the Ascension on Unalaska Island, where Saint Ioann and his family arrived from Irkutsk in 1821. They were to stay on Unalaska for another thirteen years, until Father Ioann was transferred to the new capital of Russian Alaska—Sitka (Novo-Archangelsk). During these years he managed to baptize and teach literacy to thousands of Native Alaskans, translate the Gospel and catechism into six local languages, write scholarly articles about the geography and ethnography of the Aleutian Chain, and also build many churches and schools. This giant of a man worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the local population.

The chapel bell rang. I forced myself to close the volume and joined Father John, Father Juvenalius, and a few seminarians for vespers. The chapel, a replica of the original Holy Resurrection Cathedral, similar to the log journal, was also frozen in time—icons of the first Eastern Orthodox American Saints—Saint Herman of Alaska St. Innocent, Protomartyrs Juvenal and Peter the Aleut were mounted in front of the altar. Icons of St. Savas, St. Andrew of Constantinople, and St. Xenia were placed along the trimmed log walls and connected all of the stations of my journey. Only five hours had passed since stepping on the shore of Kodiak. For the first time since my journey began, I had a bed to sleep on. The boat to St. Nilus Skete was to depart soon. I had work to do. I was welcomed and cared for. I remembered . . . how I had asked St. Herman to help me get to Kodiak. Miraculously, I had made it. I felt blessed.

My pilgrimage was not yet over—still ahead was a week at St. Nilus’ skete, two weeks teaching Russian in the St. Innocent Academy, translating letters of Fr. Ioann Veniaminov, meeting seminarians, an archivist, and several members of the Kodiak Island community. Still ahead was an expanding pilgrimage, with each turn of the path taking me to even more people, legends, and beauty. I knew I must leave, but I also knew I would come back, educated and fortified by the knowledge and opportunities to which I had access at Ohio State, where I would first continue that other pilgrimage upon which I had already started when I arrived from Russia.

This account of Daria’s pilgrimage to Kodiak is excerpted from “A Pilgrim’s Tale—A Pilgrim is a Wanderer with Purpose” printed in “Cyrillic Manuscript Heritage” (Vol. 28, December 2010), the newsletter of the Hilandar Research Library/Resource Center for Medieval Slavic Studies of Ohio State University.


Daria Safronova is a graduate associate of the Hilandar Research Library/Resource Center for Medieval Slavic Studies. She is a fourth year Ph.D. student at the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Ohio State University and a graduate of Hilandar’s Medieval Summer Slavic Institute (2008). Her background is in literature, linguistics, and cultural and religious studies. A graduate of St. Petersburg State University, she applied to OSU in pursuit of her interest in holy fools. She currently is interested in the discourse of Orthodox Christianity in southwestern Alaska, and, in particular, the first Orthodox mission to Alaska, baptism of Native Alaskans, the story of St. Herman of Alaska, and the integration of Orthodox converts into the existing Orthodox community on Kodiak Island. This past summer she spent translating some of the letters of St. Innocent at the archives at St. Herman Seminary and will be returning to Kodiak this summer to teach courses at Kodiak College and St. Herman Seminary. We express thanks to the Hilandar Research Library for their generous donation of several books to our seminary library, and we look forward to our continued relationship!