Alma Moonin asked me to put together some information on Sts. Sergius and Herman of Valaam as well as the Nanwalek Russian Orthodox Church named after the two Saints. The feast day of the Church is celebrated on July 11th. In this post, I explore some of the history of the Sts. Sergius and Herman of Valaam Church.
Sts. Sergius and Herman of Valaam, Enlighteners of Karelia, are the founding fathers of the Valaam Monastery that is located on Lake Ladoga. St. Sergius, originally a Greek monk, was tasked with establishing Orthodoxy in Karelia. The exact dates of St. Sergius’s activities in Valaam are not known, but often placed somewhere between the late 900s and early 1300s. Even less information is available on St. Herman of Valaam, who was probably Karelian in origin. It is also questioned whether St. Herman was a contemporary of St. Sergius. Nevertheless, the two Saints together are credited with the establishment of the Transfiguration Monastery on Valaam Island that is currently under Russian authority.
Despite the geographical distance between Karelia and Alaska, as well as the over 500 years in difference, Sts. Sergius and Herman of Valaam were highly regarded and often remembered in Russian America. This was due to the fact that the first Russian Orthodox clergy came to Alaska from the Valaam Monastery. Upon request by Shelikov and Golikov, Empress Catharine II (the Great) and Metropolitan Gavriil selected ten men from the Valaam Monastery. The mission was headed by Archimandrite Ioasaf, and included priests Afanasii, Makarii, and Iuvenalii, hierodeacon Nektari, and lay monk Herman, among others (Black, Lydia 2004 Russians in Alaska 1732-1867, p. 231.).
It is important to recognize that the name “New Valaam” may refer to either a location in Finland or Alaska. During the Second World War, the monks of Valaam Monastery were evacuated from Lake Ladoga to Heinävesi in Finland, where they settled and established a new Monastery. New Valamo is under the jurisdiction of the Finnish Orthodox Church.
In Alaska, Spruce Island gained the name “New Valaam,” after St Herman’s, the above mentioned lay monk’s, hermitage who came to Russian America as part of the Valaam mission. St. Herman, perhaps Alaska’s most beloved Saint, lived on the Island as a hermit, and his feast day is commemorated by the annual pilgrimage.
One of the original members of the Valaam mission, Fr. Iuvenalii, who was on his way from Nuchek to Iliamna, where he was later martyred, is believed to have visited the lower Kenai Peninsula area, and quite possibly even the Aleksandrovskoe settlement that is today’s Nanwalek. Fort Aleksandrovsk was established in 1786 and was left in the care of one Vasilii Ivanovich Malakhov, an employee of the Shelikov Company and originally a citizen of Velikii-Ustiug of Russia (Pierce, Richard, 1990, Russian America: A Biographical Dictionary, pp. 338-339). As Fr. Iuvenalii was trained in chemistry, he might have decided to inspect the coal deposits on the Peninsula (Sister Victoria, 1974, The Russian Experience. In The Native, Russian and American Experiences of the Kenai Area of Alaska. p. 51). These coal deposits, across the bay from Nanwalek in Coalmine, were originally noted by Captain Portlock during his voyage in 1786.
My research with the microfilm copies of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America, Diocese of Alaska Records suggest that Coalmine, or by its Russian name, Gornaia Ekspeditsiia (Горная Експедиция), was the location of the first Russian Orthodox Church in the region. This church was the Sts. Sergius and Herman Chapel.
By the 1850’s, Gornaia Ekspeditsiia (Горная Експедиция), as the settlement of Coal Mine was called in Russian documents, was outfitted for production, and serviced by approximately 80 people (Pierce, Richard, 1975, Russian Coal Mine on the Kenai. Alaska Journal 5(2):104-108. P. 107). The reason for developing the mine was governed by the Russian American Company’s (RAC) desire to offset the company’s losses from the declining fur trade. The newly discovered gold in California and the increased demand for coal seemed like a good investment opportunity (Dmytryshyn, Basil, 1989, The Russian American Colonies 1798-1867. To Siberia and Russian America, Three Centuries of Russian Eastward Expansion, pp. 510-511), and Peter Doroshin, a mining engineer sent out by the RAC in 1853, reported favorable prospects on the coal deposits near Port Graham (Pierce 1975: 104). In 1855, Enoch Furuhjelm, a Finnish mining engineer in the service of the RAC, was dispatched to the current location of Coal Mine along with a 45 member crew of various origins (Furuhjelm in Pierce 1975: 196). Furuhjelm spent eight years at Coal Mine, creating not only a mining industry but also a settlement, in fact the third largest settlement of Russian America (Furuhjelm in Pierce 1975: 107), which received 409 workers brought over from Russia between 1857 and 1863 (Fedorova, Svetlana, 1975, Ethnic Processes in Russian America, p. 8).
“… the village contained a church, 20 various-sized dwellings, a large warehouse, two stables, an engine lathe, a sawmill, a blacksmith’s shop, the mine superstructure, a kitchen, a small foundry, and some sheds; the production of coal amounted to 5,000 tons, and the expedition had eleven head of cattle and two horses” (Furuhjelm in Pierce 1975: 107).
Although the Company invested considerable resources in Coal Village and the mine, the business was not profitable. The expenses of mining and delivering a lower grade coal to California outweighed the profit that could be earned; therefore the village was officially closed down in 1865.
Coal Mine, for the Sugpiaq of the region, did not completely cease to exist. Some of the buildings and properties were transferred to Aleksandrovskoe, including the church bell, and presumably other religious items as well, such as icons, crosses, service items, prayer and service books. Although the first Orthodox Church of the Lower Kenai Peninsula was the one erected in Coal Mine, and its existence was cut short by the changing RAC policies, it lived on in the neighboring settlement of Aleksandrovskoe. The local oral history dates the erection of the first church in Nanwalek to the 1860’s, but the exact location of this Church is unclear. Nanwalek Elder Natalie Kvasnikoff shared that she was told about the location of the church having been near the lagoon, in the area currently occupied by the store and the school. The first church of Nanwalek is believed to have burnt down in the 1890’s.
The Russian Orthodox Church Archives contain continuous yearly reports on the St Sergius and Herman parish and church starting from 1857 (Alaska Russian Church Archives M/F 139). The following description depicts the state of affairs in 1916:
Sts Sergius and Herman of Valaam
The structure of the wooden chapel was constructed diligently by the local people in 1872. In 1896 the chapel was encouraged to put up a cross and acquire a gospel. In 1897 the chapel got two large silver plated candlesticks. In 1898 the building was newly renovated the interior and exterior walls were trimmed [….] and repainted with oil paints of white color. The cupola was given a new tiling, the half of the floor was redone, and the other half was [……,], the ceiling similarly repainted with oil paints of light blue colors. The iconostas was separately renovated and they added on a new church porch. Around the structure of the church a fence was added/enclosed… The service items were sufficient” (translation by Alexandra Antohin).
During the 19th century, and for the most part of the 20th century, Nanwalek and the surrounding settlements were serviced by priests based out of Kenai. These priests included Hegumen Nikolai Militov, Hieromonk Nikita Marchenkov, Priest Nikolai Mitropol’skii, Priest Aleksandr Iaroshevich, Priest Ioann Bortnovskii, and Priest Pavel Shadura (Znamesnki, Andrei, 2003, Through Orthodox Eyes). The latter, Fr. Shadura is still remembered by some of the Elders as one of their priests.
The life of these priests and monks involved lengthy travels in harsh weather conditions, in order to fulfill the minimal yearly visits to all their parishes, and in many occasions, they failed to make it to all the villages. According to Port Graham Elder John Moonin, this was one of the reasons priests encouraged their parishioners to move closer to settlements where there was a church in place already, so that they could administer the sacraments to all their adherents. This practice led to further consolidations both in population and in church property in the region, and many locals moved from the outer Kenai coast closer to Fort Aleksandrovsk and Coal Mine.
Peter Macha, a Sugpiaq man from Yalik, a currently uninhabited settlement located on the Outer Coast, moved to Aleksandrovsk for this very reason in the 1860’s, and took on a job at the coal mine across the bay, where he worked “for very poor wages, under extremely hard working conditions” (English Bay Students 1980, Alexandrovsk: English Bay in its Traditional Way, p. 18). Later, he married a local Creole girl by the name of Kathleen Romanov, and they became the parents to Marfa Macha, who was married to the first Orthodox priest born in the region, Nicholas Moonin.
Priests, deacons, and readers were not only spiritual fathers but also fulfilled other obligations in Alaska Native villages. They were responsible making yearly reports of the settlements, churches, vital statistics of the parishioners, as well as organizing and teaching children. Below are photos pertaining to the first school of Nanwalek. The, then young, reader, Nicholas Moonin, planned to teach God’s Law, Russian, Arithmetic, and English in the school. The third picture shows some of the students enrolled in the classes who were Irina Macha, Agripina Malchova, Pavel Tanapi, the above mentioned Marfa Macha, Cibor Tubugin, and Grigori Anagunak.
While the original church building burnt down, it was described by Priest Nikolai Mitropol’skii, visiting from Kenai in 1888, as “well-maintained” and one that “even has an icon-screen.” He also noted “the Creole[…] Ivan Munin” as the reader (Znamesnki, Andrei, 2003, Through Orthodox Eyes, p. 131).
Currently, there are two church buildings standing in Nanwalek. The older one is on the National Register of Historic Places Inventory List and was described in the following manner on the nomination form.
Indeed, local people often cite the purchase of the old Alaska Commercial Company store in English Bay for the purposes of turning into the Church. In fact, it was bought for two sea otter pelts, which were fetching high prices in the early 1900 due to the rapid decline of the animal caused by overharvesting. Nanwalek Elder Kathy Brewster explained that a man by the name of Meganack donated the pelts for the purchase of the building. Looking through the ACC archival records pertaining to Nanwalek, I located a short correspondence between J.A. Herbert and A.C. Gross discussing the possible sell of the building to “two Natif [sic] from Inglish [sic] Bay” who were working for Herbert.
In the past, many Elders have shared their knowledge on the more recent history of the Sts. Sergius and Herman Church, but for the purposes of this post, I focused on the history as reflected in archival material and previous studies. The most recent history is best heard directly form Elders, who are always generous with sharing their knowledge and teaching the younger generations. Wishing the Sts. Sergius and Herman parish of Nanwalek a happy celebration!