Monday, February 20, 2017

Assignment: oldest Russian Orthodox Church in the US

Spruce Island is a small rock near Kodiak, Alaska, and I was dispatched there to write about an annual pilgrimage to the longest-running Russian Orthodox community in the United States. Sadly, I've lost track of the video and audio and the other interactive bits :(

Forest cathedral: Pilgrimage to Spruce Island

     Stepping off the bow of the skiff, the icy water is shockingly cold. For the last hour, rough Alaskan Pacific seas have sent sheets of spray over crew and cargo, dampening clothes but not spirits. Wading on stiff legs to the black sand beach, they congratulate each other on their arrival at one of the most isolated and spiritual Orthodox Christian sites in the West, the Shrine of St. Herman on Spruce Island, Alaska.
     It’s the morning of August 8, the overcast skies are still gray after an hour’s journey from Kodiak by fishing boat, and a small group of pilgrims are standing ankle-deep in Monk’s Lagoon. While a second skiff tenders to the beach with more people and supplies from the 50-foot salmon seiner anchored offshore, those on the shoreline are portering boxes of food above the tide. As the incoming skiff grinds to a halt some ten feet from the beach, the four parishioners in the small boat peer down at the cold water, then look to the others on shore quizzically.
     “Over here!” echoes a faint cry from the far side of the lagoon, after the splashing and groaning is complete and the new load of pilgrims and supplies are safely landed. The skiff is pushed off, and the disembodied voice again drifts around the lagoon. “Over HERE!” A hundred yards away, a black-robed figure beckons to a portal through the trees.
     The voice belongs to Rev. Dr. Michael Oleksa, Dean of the St. Herman Seminary on Kodiak Island and one of the organizers of the pilgrimage. “We can’t have people wandering off around here,” he says, as several start down the wrong trail. Calling again, he gathers the group together at the trailhead to the small chapel and erstwhile home of St. Herman, the island’s dominant historical figure and spiritual heart of the pilgrimage.

The Faith

     Orthodox Christianity, deeply rooted in Alaska since the founding of Russian America in the mid-eighteenth century, has found a sacred cornerstone in the raw natural setting of Spruce Island. A powerful blend of spirituality, history and adventure annually draws Orthodox Christians from all over the world to nearby Kodiak on August 7th, 8th, and 9th, for a series of church services culminating in the symbolic day trip to the shrine on the island. This year, some 50 pilgrims are seeking to sip water from the holy spring, anoint themselves with sacred soil, and take in the rustic sanctity of the forest chapel.
     For some, like Jane Szepesi of Ottowa, the journey is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “The whole thing has been an adventure for me.” she says of her month long journey, driving and camping alone from her home in Ontario to Alaska. “I didn’t even know if my car would make it to Winnipeg.
     Others living in closer proximity, like Anchorage resident Lucinda Wolkoff --whose husband owns the fishing boat that brought the group to the island-- return to the island annually and simply can’t stay away. “Every day I want to come back,” she says. “It’s so pretty here, I just want to cry.”
     Spruce Island, roughly 10 miles long and 3 miles wide, is a richly forested member of the Kodiak Archipelago in the Gulf of Alaska. With only one small community of 50 inhabitants, Ouzinkie, and no scheduled boat or air service, the island has a feeling of profound isolation despite being only 10 miles from the town of Kodiak.
     The rugged topography of the region reflects that a mere 10,000 years ago the islands were still covered by glaciers from the last ice age. Situated near the foot of Alaska’s Aleutian Chain –home of more than 50 active volcanoes— the archipelago is also parked in one of the most active geologic neighborhoods on the planet. The residents have been repeatedly reminded of this, most notably on March 27, 1964 when the town of Kodiak was swept by a 35-foot tsunami caused by a massive earthquake carrying twice the force of that which destroyed San Francisco in 1906.
     On calmer days, the Alaska current flows peacefully around the islands, fostering a rich marine ecosystem tied tightly to the fishing communities in the area. Salmon, halibut and crab, the most commercially important species, are in rich abundance, as well as the harbor seals and otters that originally attracted the Russian merchants and fur traders in the early eighteenth century.

Herman’s legacy

     Russian explorers lost little time establishing a beachhead in the Aleutians, much to the detriment of the indigenous Altiiquts, who were exploited as hunters and manual laborers in the fur trade. Brutal treatment, along with tragic losses due to the induction of European diseases, severely strained the Russians’ relationship with the natives that they regarded as a valuable labor resource. In the hope that a church presence would help pacify the situation, the trading company invited several rugged Orthodox clergymen from a monastery on the Russian/Finnish border in 1794.
     It was not an easy assignment. “They were selected because they were used to the northern climate,” says Dr. Lydia Black, a retired anthropology professor from the University of Fairbanks, who is volunteering her time to sort through the Russian-American archives in the basement of the seminary in Kodiak, “and they were used to very hard work.”
     But things didn’t go as planned, as the clergy quickly sympathized with the Altiiqut. The eldest of the group, Brother Herman, was particularly outspoken in their defense. After running afoul of the company, Herman relocated from the church in Kodiak (where the modern successor to the Russian American company still operates today) to Spruce Island, where he constructed a barabara, a crude subterranean dwelling.
     His departure to an ascetic lifestyle did nothing to lower his profile. Over the next three decades, his indefatigable benevolence –teaching and caring for the infirm and orphaned Altiiqut-- raised his reputation to mythical proportions: local traditions arose in which he conversed with animals, halted a tsunami, stopped a forest fire, and prayed into existence a sacred spring where there was no fresh water. He also had considerable influence in Russian society. “Captain Galavnin, a very famous naval commander, was very impressed,” says Black. “He checked every piece of information he got from the administration with Herman.”
     Herman remained on the island for the rest of his life, a venerated healer, educator and intellectual known throughout Russian America. His passing in 1836 also did not stem the tide of his popularity: shortly after his death natives built the shrine over his home that still stands today, and number of visitors to the site hasn’t waned since. On August 9, 1970, Herman was canonized as the first Orthodox saint in Alaska, and the Holy Resurrection Church in Kodiak has since organized the yearly pilgrimage to commemorate that day.

The forest

     “Coming to Spruce Island is like coming to the Holy Land,” says Father Oleksa. The pilgrims, conversing eagerly about the boat trip once they landed on the beach, have grown quiet and introspective upon entering the forest. What conversation remains is now spare, and long silences are broken only by whispers and low tones. Walking slowly and stopping often, the group tapers out. “As you walk through this forest, it’s as if one has entered the most sacred, ancient cathedral. But it’s a cathedral made of forest… of trees of moss, of vines and berry bushes, of devil’s club leaves and a thick soft carpet underfoot. Quiet… peaceful… and most of all, holy.”
     In the shadowless, diffused light of the old growth timber, the moss-covered path weaves its way gently through the hundred-foot columns of Sitka spruce which give the island its name. A hushed breeze gently lifts the broad leaves of devils club, only hinting of the flattening gales that siege the island in winter. Salmon berries, a sweet, watery cousin of the blackberry, swing heavily on bent stems. Thick shags of moss hang from the towering spruces, many of which house tiny shrines, simple eaves holding a candlelit icons of Alaskan saints.\
      A ten minute walk from the beach, the small white chapel of St. Herman sits nestled in the edge of a clearing barely large enough to contain it. Gathering around the chapel, a sturdy  structure with the characteristic three-barred cross on its peak, the group waits for the Bishop to arrive (he had the combination to the lock. When it was discovered that the wait would be considerable, one pilgrim, in authentic Alaskan mien, brandished a Leatherman tool and quickly un-hinged the door).

The Liturgy:

     Stepping inside the chapel during Divine Liturgy is an immersion of sight, smell, and sound: no senses are left in poverty. Elaborately robed and belted clergy fill the room with hymns and lyrical prayers, with frequent rejoinders from the parishioners. Potent layers of incense, swung from golden censers, fill the room with a  bouquet. Spanning the walls and podiums are arrays of richly hued icons, their gilded frames reflecting the light thrown from intricate candelabras. The thirty or so parishioners who could fit in the chapel are anointed with oil, kiss the icons, and sip sacramental wine. After the walk through the pristine forest, the experience is nearly overwhelming.
     The rich sensory nature of Orthodox services, from the onion-domed architecture to ornate system of icons, is not merely for aesthetic purposes. Rather, the church’s dogma itself is carried almost entirely in artistic vehicles: The hymns, icons and orations convey every tenet of the faith. “There are no books or lessons to carry. The hymns are a capella --no organs or other instruments—so you have everything you need with you,” says Father John Peck, a priest in St. Herman’s Chapel in Fairbanks. In the rural Alaskan villages, where daily struggle with nature is a reality of life, the lack of accouterments has played a role in the church’s proliferation.
     Indeed, nature itself is embraced by the Orthodoxy, a marked departure from many other western faiths. Everything material is capable of becoming sacred,” says Father Peck.
     A noble life, like that of St. Herman, “reverberates in the natural world… it affects the earth the trees, the air, the sky,“ says Father Oleksa. “It makes this place where a holy person has lived …a sacred place.” A deep-seated inseparability between the saint, the spirituality and the island has developed, and nobody seems capable of, or particularly concerned about, distinguishing between the three.
     Six hours after arriving, the pilgrims are gathered back on the black sand beach of Monk’s Lagoon for the trip home. The atmosphere is quiet and contemplative, and many stay just within the treeline as if reluctant to leave.
     Spruce Island has a “kind of a timelessness about it,” observes Ms. Szepesi, reflecting on the morning she spent at the chapel. As the skiffs buzz in from the fishing boat, the quiet group stands, gathers their gear, and takes in one last memory of the saint, his home, and the nature that surrounded them in the forest shrine. “I feel like I could just stay here forever.” 

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