One of the joys of visiting an ancient, foreign land is the knowledge that saints have walked the streets there in ages past, that great events in the life of the Church have occurred there, or – as is true of the Holy Land – our Lord himself hallowed this ground by his earthly presence.
Americans can be thankful that the Church has recognized the sanctity of missionaries and converts who gave their lives in the effort to establish the Orthodox faith in our land. We now have nearly a dozen North American saints who have blessed our land by their presence and witness. We celebrate the feast day of two of these holy ones – St. Juvenaly and St. Peter the Aleut – on September 24.
Juvenaly (who had been named Jacob by his parents at his birth in 1761) left his home in the Ural Mountains of Russia first to serve in the army and then to enter a monastery. Taking the name Juvenaly at his tonsure, the young monk was eventually ordained priest and transferred to a monastery in Russian Finland.
It was from this monastery that plans were made which would have immense impact in the future of America. A missionary endeavor was begun to provide for the spiritual welfare of Russians who worked for the North America Trading Company in Kodiak, Alaska, and for the evangelization of the native Alaskans.
Hieromonk Juvenaly and eight other monks (including St. Herman) spent 9 months on their 8,000 mile journey, arriving on Kodiak Island on September 24, 1794. The plan was for the North America Trading Company to support the mission with provisions and contacts with the natives, many of whom were employed by the company.
There was great success initially, with thousands of Alaskans baptized in the first two years. The missionaries learned the language of the natives and found that they needed to provide care for them in their illnesses and to advocate for them with their often unjust employers. The monks began to expand their territory and Fr. Juvenaly journeyed toward the mainland, baptizing more new Christians along the way. After he came to the mountains near Lake Iliamna, no word was ever received from him again.
Through the years, stories were frequently told by the Alaskan people about the missionary and his Indian companion, a tonsured Reader who was serving as a guide and interpreter. Other reports were sent to Russia from the managers of the Trading Company, cruel men who, as it turned out, resented the presence of the missionaries and considered their work among the natives to be an interference with their treatment of the workmen. These reports were very unflattering of Fr. Juvenaly.
It took many years for the truth to be known. Fr. Juvenaly and his companion evidently arrived at a settlement of Yupiat Indians who were frightened by the sudden appearance of strangers. The priest first made the sign of the cross, blessing the people as he approached. The shaman, recognizing a foreign holy man, was wary and ordered the people to kill the intruders. St. Juvenaly’s martyrdom was immediate, but his guide dove into the water and swam “like a seal”. The Yupiats were impressed with his skill but caught up with him and killed him also. They buried the bodies in the nearby mountains, first taking the cross from Fr. Juvenaly’s neck.
The shaman decided to wear the priest’s “ornament” and soon discovered that none of his usual rituals and magic formulas worked. In fear, he removed the cross and warned the people to do no harm to any others who might wear this emblem.
Stories of Fr. Juvenaly’s martyrdom continued to be told among the Alaskans. When later missionaries arrived, they found surviving evidence of earlier Christian contact – crosses being worn by the Indians, some knowledge of Orthodox rites, and these persistent stories of the Russian priest who had been murdered by their ancestors.
Finally, in 1977, the Orthodox Church in America glorified St. Juvenaly, counting him as one of the first saints of North America.
In the next several years after Fr. Juvenaly’s death, the North America Trading Company (now known as the Russian-American Co.) established Ft. Ross, an extension of the company, only 80 miles north of San Francisco. This was Spanish territory. Complaints were lodged against the Russians out of fear that they planned to attack and capture San Francisco. The Spanish forbade Russian ships from approaching Spanish territory and would not allow foreign trade in California.
But the Russians working in Alaska needed food and other supplies which could not be found there, and they did not take seriously the Spanish threats regarding trade.
In 1815, a Russian official of the company led a group of 14 Aleut employees who were seal and otter hunters toward the coast of California. They were stopped by the Spanish authorities, their ship was looted, and the hunters were taken captive.
A mock “trial” took place in San Francisco and the guilty prisoners were then taken for punishment to a Spanish priest who expected to exact acceptance of Roman Catholic authority in exchange for leniency. The penalty for non-cooperation was to be torture and death.
The first to be “questioned” was a young Aleut named Cungagnaq, who had taken the name Peter when he was baptized and chrismated by the Russian missionaries as a child.
Peter tried to explain to the priest that he, too, was a Christian but that he could not renounce the Orthodox Church in favor of Roman Catholicism. He showed him the cross which he had worn since his baptism, but the priest called him a heretic and ordered that a toe be cut off at the first joint.
Each time Peter was asked and refused to deny the Orthodox faith, another part of his body was cut off – his fingers, toes, and feet. By the time the Spanish received an order from a higher official to stop the torture of the prisoners, Peter had died from his wounds. He was quickly buried in a mass grave for Indians, probably at Mission Dolores. The other captives were eventually released and they gave their eye-witness reports of Peter’s martyrdom. St. Peter was glorified in 1980.
Today, our land still experiences conflicts due to differing religious, political, social, and moral understandings. But our land has been blessed by the presence and witness of saints. Through the example and intercessions of St. Juvenaly and St. Peter, may we stand firm in the Orthodox faith. Holy Juvenaly, holy Peter the Aleut, and all the saints of North America, pray for us.