Innocent of Alaska, Enlightener of North America and Apostle to Alaska, was a Russian Orthodox priest and bishop. He is known for his missionary zeal, his great abilities as a scholar and linguist, and his leadership and administration of the Church in Alaska and the Russian Far East in the nineteenth century. He was elevated to archbishop in Alaska and was later appointed Metropolitan of Moscow and all Russia, an office that he held until his death in 1879.
Innocent was born Ivan (John) Evseyevich Popov-Veniaminov in 1797, into the family of a church server in the village of Anginskoye in the Verkholensk District of Irkutsk, in the Far East of the Russian Empire. His father died when he was six years old. In 1807, John entered the Irkutsk Theological Seminary, completing his formal studies in 1818. He married in 1817, and later that year he was ordained to the diaconate. On the completion of his studies he was appointed a teacher in a parish school, and in 1821 he was ordained priest.
In 1823, Bishop Michael of Irkutsk received instructions to send a priest to the island of Unalaska, in the Aleutian archipelago. John volunteered for the mission and set off with his wife, his infant son, his aging mother, and his brother Stefan. After an arduous journey of a year’s duration, they arrived in Unalaska in 1824. He immediately set about his study study of local languages and dialects and began his work of evangelisation that would last for fifty years and would lead to his becoming known as “the Apostle to Alaska”. Living at first in an earthen hut, he trained the local people as carpenters, blacksmiths, and bricklayers, and with their help he built a church for them.
His parish included not only Unalaska, but the neighboring Fox Islands and Pribilof Islands, whose inhabitants had converted to Christianity before his arrival, but who had retained many of their pre-Christian practices. Father John traveled between the islands by canoe, braving the sometimes stormy waters of the Gulf of Alaska. His travels between the islands acquainted him with many of the local dialects. Choosing the most widespread of these, the Aleut dialect of the Fox Islands, John devised a Cyrillic alphabet for it and, using this alphabet, translated the Gospel of Matthew and many hymns and prayers, which were published in 1840 with the blessing of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 1829, with the blessing of the Bishop of Irkutsk, he traveled to the Bering Sea coast of the Alaskan mainland and preached to the people there. By 1836, his missionary journeys extended as far south as the (Russian) Ross Colony north of San Francisco, where he conducted services in its small, wooden chapel. In 1834, John was transferred to Sitka Island, where he devoted himself to the Tlingit people and studied their language and customs. Despite their adherence to their own customs and traditions, he converted many of them to Christ. His studies at Sitka produced his 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 John traveled to St Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev to report on his activities and to request an expansion of the Church’s activities in Russian America. While there, he received word that his wife had died, whereupon he requested permission to return to Sitka. Instead, church authorities suggested that he take vows as a monk. At first he ignored these suggestions, but in 1840 he made his vows, choosing the religious name Innocent in honor of Bishop Innocent of Irkutsk. On December 15, 1840, Archimandrite Innocent was consecrated Bishop of Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands (in Russia) and the Aleutian Islands, with his see located in Novoarkhangelsk. He spent the next nine years in the administration of his diocese as well as in missionary work, undertaking several long journeys to remote areas. In 1850 he was elevated to archbishop, and in 1852 the Yakut area was added to his diocese, leading to his taking up residence in the town of Yakutsk in 1853. Innocent traveled frequently throughout his much enlarged diocese and devoted himself to the translation of the Scriptures and liturgical materials into the Yakut (Sakha) language.
In 1865, Archbishop Innocent was appointed a member of the Holy Governing Synod of the Russian Church, and in 1867 he was appointed Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia, succeeding his friend and mentor, Filaret. As Metropolitan, he undertook revisions of the Church’s texts to remove errors, raised funds to improve the living of priests, and established a retirement home for priests.
He died on March 31, 1879, and was buried at Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra. In 1977, the Russian Orthodox Church, acting on the formal request of the Orthodox Church in America, declared Innocent a saint. His relics were discovered during at excavation of the cemetery near the Church of the Holy Ghost at Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra in 1994 and are now venerated by the Orthodox faithful both in Russia and in America.
In one troparion for his commemoration, the faithful proclaim
You evangelized the northern people of America and Asia,
Proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to the natives in their own tongues.
O holy hierarch Father Innocent,
Enlightener of Alaska and all America, whose ways were ordered by the Lord,
Pray to Him for the salvation of our souls in His Heavenly Kingdom!
prepared from various sources
Holy and immortal God and Father, you blessed your people by calling Innocent from leading your Church in Russia to be an apostle and light to the people of Alaska, and to proclaim the dispensation and grace of God: Guide our steps, that as he labored humbly in danger and hardship, we may witness to the Gospel of Christ wherever we are led, and serve you as gladly in privation as in power; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, to the ages of ages. Amen.