RUSSIAN THEOLOGICAL SCHOOLS IN ALASKA

by Dr. Vladislav Arzhanukhin
Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia
St. Petersburg, Russia

 

"Symposium at Oxford University / Edinburgh University"

 

"St Innocent Veniaminov, Symposium, Oxford University, Pembroke College, University of Edinburgh, Arctic, Orthodox Faith, Alaska, Yakutia,Russia, Moscow, Alaskan Native Culture"

 

"Papers presented at symposia held at Oxford University and at the University of Edinburgh in April 1997 on the work of St Innocent Veniaminov in the Russian Far East and Alaska."

 

Symposium: Christian Identities in the Arctic

Papers presented for the Bicentennial of the Birth of St Innokentii Veniaminov

 

As early as a century and a half ago the first Orthodox theological school, Novo‑Arkhangelsk Theological School, was founded in Alaska. The school and its activity became one of the brightest episodes in the history of Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska. Scholars know very little, if anything, about the history of theological education in Russian America, mainly because of the inaccessibility of archive documents. These studies could help us to understand Metropolitan Innokentii's (Veniaminov) evolution in church outlook. It was Innokentii who initiated the establishing of theological schools as well as other phenomena in the Orthodox life of Alaska in the 1820s‑1850s. His practical work was the reflection of his ideas about the Church's role in social life.

Metropolitan Innokentii's activities in Alaska followed the Synod's ideas about the development of Russian Church tradition. The main state responsibility of the Church according to this idea, the latter having already emerged in the 1720s, was the education of common people. Metropolitan Innokentii took up the idea and fulfilled it in America. We can declare that for him the development of education represented not only a general cultural background, but also became the main point in the programme of Alaska's adaptation to Christianity.

The general outlook in this programme can be found in the letter to Chief‑Procurator of the Russian Orthodox Church Synod Count N.A. Protasov. Innokentii wrote: "I think that we, being the pastors, the teachers, the successors of the apostles, must feel the responsibility and correspond to our position; I mean that we must teach … We must teach from the very beginning, from the very early age, maybe children of two years old; I mean that we must teach children of common people; this idea has been my chief interest for a long time." Innokentii, who was at those times priest Ioann Veniaminov, began to fulfill this programme as soon as he arrived in Novo‑Arkhangelsk in 1823. There, in the capital of Russian America, where he would spend a few months waiting for the possibility to get to his future work place on the island of Unalaska, he immediately engaged himself in the work of the local school, which belonged to the Russian‑American Company.

Veniaminov's pedagogical plans were fully realised in Unalashka, where he worked as a parish priest for ten years. In 1825, in one of his first reports to the eparchy authorities in Irkutsk, he informed them: "On March 12, in the year 1825, the people's school was opened. Twenty‑two pupils are studying there now: Aleuts, Creoles, Russians. The position of the teacher and the head of the school is occupied by priest Ioann Veniaminov." Interesting is the fact that the school was opened even before the foundation of the first church.

Ioann's undertaking was very successful. To a large extent, it was the social orientation of the school syllabus that made for the success. The syllabus combined the fulfillment of the state aims in the educational sphere with actual church social service. Ten years from the day the Unalaska school was founded, the head of the Russian‑American Company F.P. Wrangel reported with satisfaction to St.‑Petersburg about the progress and successes of the pupils and teachers, stressing out that the main purposes of the school remained: "1. To give shelter, food and clothing to orphans and children from poor families. 2. To educate boys for work. 3. To train them as future scribes, clerks, seamen, and deacons." During the 1830s‑1840s according to the pattern of this school, seven similar ones were established in the Unalaska district. The first school, however, remained the largest one. There were one hundred pupils in the school by the time Alaska was sold.

As the head of the Kamchatka eparchy (1840‑1858), Veniaminov was absolutely convinced that service to the Church in Russian‑America meant, for the most part, activities in the educational field. These years were marked by the dramatic rise in the number of schools and pupils in Alaska. Naturally in these schools, work was focused on catechization. Innokentii wrote to Metropolitan of Moscow Filaret: "Since the middle of 1842 in all American churches as well as in the Kamchatskii Cathedral, the senior priests have been gathering the children of both sexes and teaching them both Catechism and their general duties once or twice a week … Besides those who attend schools and colleges, the total number of children attending churches for study throughout the eparchy comprises 400." According to archive documents, by 1847 catechism schools existed in six Orthodox parishes of the Russian‑American Company. It was Veniaminov himself who set an example. "Since January 11, 1844, I have begun to gather children of both sexes, those who do not attend schools, to teach them Catechism in my house church … About 150 children come to my classes." An interesting fact is that Alaska's church schools used text‑books written by Innokentii.

All facts mentioned above indicate that Innokentii's educational activity in Alaska was the most consistent and principal form in his pastoral work in Alaska. Hence, Veniaminov's aspiration to establish the first theological school in Alaska was natural.

The first steps of putting the idea into practice were taken in 1840, when Bishop Innokentii was appointed the head of the newly formed eparchy of Russian‑American churches. It is assumed that the possibility of a theological school being opened in Alaska was first mentioned by Veniaminov to the Synod when he visited St. Petersburg in 1840. At any rate, by the autumn of 1841 a decree from the Synod was received in Novo‑Arkhangelsk; it stated: "1. A newly opened school for those who preparing themselves for ecclesiastical service should be named the Novoarkhangelskii Theological School. 2. Father Mikhail should execute the general supervision of the school. 3. The same Father Mikhail and Deacon Mikhail Maslukov are appointed teachers; psalm‑reader Blagovidov is appointed assistant to the teachers."

The opening of the school occurred on December 17, 1841. Twenty‑three pupils aged 7‑17 were enrolled. Eleven pupils were the children of the native people. The school offered a four‑year course inlcuding the following subjects: Russian and Slavic Grammar, the Aleut language, Arithmetic, Geography, History, Rhetoric, Catechism, and Holy Scripture.

Already during the first year of the school's functioning, Innokentii felt the necessity to transform the theological school into a seminary. This intention once again proves Veniaminov's vast plans for church development in Alaska. At the time of the opening of the Novo‑Arkhangelsk school, there were only four churches and seven priests in the Russian‑American colonies. By 1843 Innokentii had applied to the Synod with the suggestion of establishing a theological seminary on the basis of the existing school and to join to it the Kamchatskii Seminary in Petropavlovsk. To substantiate his project Veniaminov wrote to the Chief‑Procurator of the Synod: "My intention is that the future pastors should be pious as in a newly consecrated country." In December 1845, the suggestion of the Kamchatskii bishop was accepted and the school was transformed into the seminary.

The Synod's decision proclaimed: "A new seminary is to be opened in Novo‑Arkhangelsk. In its structure the seminary should correspond to the already existing theological seminaries of Russia, but it should meet the special circumstances and particular demands of the Kamchatskii congregation." By the phrase "special circumstances and particular demands", they meant the following. Firstly, the staff of the future seminary should be at a minimum. The administration of the Russian‑American Company insisted on this. The head of the colonies M.D. Tebenkov warned the Synod that if Innokentii's plan had been fully fulfilled, the number of people belonging to the Church Department could have increased up to 100 people in Novo‑Arkhangelsk. That would inevitably lead to difficulties in supplying the town with the necessary quantity of foodstuff. Consequently, there were only seven teachers in the staff of the seminary. They were the graduates from the seminaries of Irkutsk, Vladimir and Petersburg, as well as from the Petersburg Main Pedagogical Institute and Medical‑Surgical Academy. In 1849, however, by the decision of the Synod, the number of the teachers in the seminary was reduced to six. Subsequently, although the seminary in Novo‑Arkhangelsk was founded to educate Orthodox pastors, it had to concentrate on general educational tasks much more than any other theological schools, as the most part of its pupils were the native people of Alaska. Besides that, the administration of the Russian‑American Company regarded the seminary as being not only a theological school but also the only educational establishment of Russian America where pupils were able to receive a complete and systematic secondary education. This secular orientation opened the doors of the seminary not only to Orthodox pupils but also to Lutheran children, from Lutheran families whose parents worked in the Russian‑American Company. The Lutherans comprised the second in number among confessions in Russian America. This can be explained by the fact that at the beginning of the 1840s every third clerk of the Russian‑American Company arrived from Germany, Sweden or Finland.

There were to be four types of courses in the new seminary, and in 1845 pupils were enrolled in three of them. Two types offered a two‑year course, which corresponded to a theological school course; two other types provided a three‑year course, i.e. the seminary course. The syllabus was comprised of Sacred History, Catechism, Church Regulations, Theology, Russian Church History, Russian and Slavic Grammar, Russian History, Rhetoric, Poetry, Singing, Arithmetic, Geography, Physics, Anatomy and Psychology. In 1847, Innokenty initiated the teaching of crafts and medicine in the seminary. In 1853 they began to teach Latin and Greek, and in 1854 a class in icon painting was added, the instructor being a graduate of the seminary, Gregory Petukhov.

Archpriest Peter Litvinstev was appointed the rector of the seminary. In 1838 he had graduated from the Irkutsk seminary and applied for an appointment to Alaska. From 1840 his life became closely connected with Russian‑America. In 1851 he became the Rural Dean of all American Churches and Missions; and when in 1858 the office of the Kamchatka churches and seminary was moved to the Asian mainland, he was appointed the vicar and bishop of Novo‑Arkhangelsk. Being the rector of the seminary, Rev. Peter fulfilled Innokentiis plans and projects. Innokentii showed a keen interest in everything connected with this educational establishment: from the construction of the seminary building, the sketches and plans for which were worked out by Innokentii himself, to the students' examinations.

In a short period of time, the seminary obtained a certain authority among Alaska's people; so that by the middle of the 1850s, there were more than seventy pupils in it. In 1853, the first six pupils, who had completed a full course, graduated from the seminary.

Innokentii was disappointed rather than pleased with the first years of the seminary's work. By the spring of 1848, he had become convinced that it was too early to have opened such schools in the American North. In May 1848, Innokentii wrote to Count N.A.Protasov in St. Petersburg: "As to the pupils of the seminary, I can definitely say that except for the children of the Kamchatka eparch's clergy, the local natives and Creoles are not yet ready for this school." The same idea was repeated in Veniaminov's letters to A.S. Norov and A.N. Muraviev. We may assume that the assertion derived from a contradiction between Innokentii's understanding of Russian Orthodoxy, as Orthodoxy in general, on the one hand; and on the other hand, a development of Orthodoxy that had only just started among native people of Alaska and that naturally had its own ethnic‑cultural and social background different from the Russian. Trying to overcome this contradiction, Innokentii came to the conclusion that priests and church officers for the American churches ought be trained in Russia. He wrote to A.N. Protasov: "Among the natives and the Creoles only every fiftieth could probably become a missionary, and then only under strict control … The only solution for us is to find missionaries for America and Asia in Russia or Siberia." We think that these statements indicate a crisis in the understanding of confessional development, which was regarded as a process independent from its ethnic‑cultural and social basis. The statements also indicate that the confessional lag could hardly be overcome by taking energetic measures in the sphere of education and up‑bringing.

The conditions that had developed in and around the seminary by the end of the 1840s, that Innokenty took so hard, were not evidence of a crisis in the missionary activities of Russian Church in America, however. Quite to the contrary, the further development of Orthodoxy in Alaska testified that during those years (half a century after the Russian Church had begun to serve in the American colonies), a gradual transition of the Orthodoxy brought by Russian missionaries was occuring into the ethnic and cultural base of the people inhabiting North of America. Russian Orthodoxy was being transformed into an American Orthodoxy. It appears to us that this transformation, obviously connected with a vulgarization of prototypes, caused Innokentii's worry.

The final decision on Novo‑Arkhangelsk Theological Seminary was taken in 1858, when the Russian‑American eparchy was being reorganized. Since 1840, the borders of the eparchy had been occasionally moved to the westward. In 1852, the Yakutian parishes belonging to Irktusk eparchy were passed over to the Novo‑Arkhangelsk church office. By 1855, the territory of the Russian‑American eparchy had reached the Amur River. Thus as it occurred, the eparchy was located in two parts of the world, separated by the Pacific Ocean. The difficulties in running such an enormous eparchy made Innokentii apply to the Synod for it to be divided. His opinion was: "The Kamchatskii eparchy should be divided into two parts; I mean, it should be returned within the borders of the territory within which it had been originally organized, with the addition of Amur province; and the Church Office should be established on the Amur River … In due time the seminary also should be moved there to train people for missionary work … In Novo‑Arkhangelsk one higher school should be organized, where children both of clergy and of the Company clerks would study." Innokentii's suggestion became the basis of the Synod's decree of January 15, 1858, according to which the Novo‑Arkhangelsk seminary was temporarily moved to Yakutsk and united there with the local theological school. From thirty pupils studying in the seminary in Alaska, seventeen left for Yakutsk; all of them were the children of the Russian clergy.

The changes inspired the seminary with new life; Innokentii was encouraged and looked optimistically to its future. Innokentii wrote to Bishop Dionysii (Khitrov): "Thanks be to the Most High God! The condition of our seminary is quite satisfactory now. Unfortunately, not many people have graduated from it yet (only twelve students for the last two years), but it is not that important. Take for example the Irkutsk seminary: it was founded long ago, but still sometimes no more than six people graduate from it at once. Now I wish only one thing, that the seminary be moved to the Amur as soon as possible; it's place is obviously there; and there, by the way, it could represent our seminaries to foreigners." Innokentii's wish began to be put into practice already in 1859, when the first pupils moved to a new place, Blagoveshchensk. After being transferred, the seminary received a new name. Mentioning the Synod's decree Innokenty wrote: "In the decree our seminary is called Kamchatskaya, and this is correct, because now the Kamchatskaya eparchy has obtained all the necessary departments, the same as all the other eparchies have. So, the seminary should be called Kamchatskaya as well. And I have begun to refer to it in this way, while I only add `Novo‑Arkhangelskaya'."

Thirteen pupils who remained in Alaska after the seminary had been moved to Yakutsk became the first pupils of the future higher school of the Russian‑American Company. However, the organization of this school was delayed for several years. It was opened only in 1864. The syllabus of the regular Russian provincial secondary schools was taken as a prototype for the newly formed Alaskan school, with two original modes of training introduced here. Within the framework of the first of these modes, the children of the Russian‑American Company clerks were trained for their future work in the Company; so they studied book‑keeping, navigation, astronomy, German and English. Meanwhile, the children of the Alaskan Orthodox clergy were trained to enter the seminary; and thus their additional, though compulsory, subjects included church singing, Church Slavonic language, and a more proficient study of the Catechism.

The period of the two Russian‑American theological schools in Alaska, which had ended by 1858, displays the initial actual effort to organize Orthodox theological education in North America. Although this effort did not succeed in every way, and did not adequately respond to every challenge posed by the local ethnic and cultural character, these schools had been the centres of education in the American North for seventeen years; and therefore we may conclude that the history of the Novo‑Arkhangelsk theological schools is one of the brightest periods both in the life of Innokentii Veniaminov and in the history of Russian America in general.

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