Saint of the Week: St. Juvenaly, First Martyr of America & Alaska

When I saw that the Rev. Edmund James Peck was “Apostle to the Inuit,” I thought this interesting, since there had been a Russian Orthodox presence among the Inuit of Alaska for a century before Peck made his way into the Canadian Arctic.

St. Juvenaly was the first missionary to the Arctic and Inuit of North America.  In 1793, he and seven other monastics organised a missionary trip to the Inuit from the Monastery of Valaam in northern Russian.  The group was led by Archimandrite Joseph with four priest-monks (aka “hieromonks”) in whose ranks Juvenaly was numbered, one “hierodeacon”, and two lay monks, including St. Herman.

Alaska was 8000 miles away.

These tough Russian monks set out and reached Kodiak Island on September 24, 1794.  There was a Russian settlement there, apparently primitive, full of violence, and lacking a church.  Archimandrite Joseph worked on helping this settlement in its leadership while the other monks engaged in missionary activity.

In 2 years, 12000 Alaskans came to faith in Christ.  Most of these Alaskans were not Inuit but of the other native peoples of North America.  In 1796, Juvenaly began work on the mainland of Alaska, baptising hundreds of converts, mainly of the Chugach Sugpiag and Athabascans.

St. Juvenaly’s work took him Northwest towards the Bering Sea.  Eventually, he disappeared.  No one has found evidence of his disappearance, but the native peoples say that as he moved, he encountered some Inuit.  The Inuit were disturbed and confused by his gestures, including the sign of the cross.  This oral tradition has it that the shaman of the Inuit he encountered declared that this new stranger be attacked, and St. Juvenaly was killed by spears and arrows.

I wonder about this unspectacular martyrdom.  The first thing that comes to mind is Alexander Mackenzie’s journey of exploration up the Mackenzie River (or, as he termed it, “River of Disappointment”) to the Arctic Ocean.  When they set out, this intrepid crew of French-Canadien Voyageurs and Scots was on good and friendly terms with the local Chippewa.*  As they went further North, they encountered the Inuit.  The Inuit were not on friendly terms with the Chippewa, and things were dangerous for the unsuspecting white men for a while.  The reminder that comes from both of these stories is the fact that North America is full of multiple peoples who are not identical to each other and sometimes even hostile with one another (before Pan-Indian movements such as that led by the Prophet).  Not being aware of different alliances and hostilities could get a white man into trouble back in the day.

The second is the hazards of mission.  Seven monks roving about evangelising for two years can do a lot of good.  However, if these men do not establish themselves in the communities, as Rev. Peck would do 100 years later, the commitment to Christ may only be skin-deep.  Yes, Christianity is the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of shamanism.  Yes, Christ is fuller and deeper and better than animist spirituality.  But if people only gain the veneer of Christianity and are not transformed into His likeness, what is the point?

Furthermore, sometimes white men do dumb stuff.  St. Juvenaly had already brought the Gospel to 100s of native people on both Kodiak Island and the mainland of Alaska.  Why not stay and train the new Christians in the faith, bringing them to fulness?  Why keep wandering into places where you do not even know the language and culture, into places where things you do simply because you are an Orthodox monk may get you killed?  Doing dumb stuff for the sake of the Gospel is still doing dumb stuff.

*Rumour has it they are the same people as the Ojibwe.  Is rumour correct?


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