Since I began authoring this column, every January, I write about anniversaries of upcoming historic events in that particular calendar year; however, I limit the categories to 150, 100, and 50 year marks. Thus, commemorative celebrations that fall in between get left out, including the 125th anniversary of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Jackson. While I had planned to write the last chapter in the saga of the proposed consolidation of three Amador powerhouse companies, I chose to push the final chapter of that story forward and share with readers the back story behind the founding of the first Serbian Orthodox Church in America and the building of the beloved chapel that has stood on north side of North Main Street in Jackson since 1894. The community will be celebrating the anniversary this weekend and thus it is appropriate that this saga accompany those revelries. Most Amador history buffs and members of the St. Sava congregation know about the history of the church - when it was established and the devout man behind its founding, Archimandrite Sebastian Dabovich; however, there is much more to the story. It includes the chronicle of how the Orthodox Church came to the west coast of America, how Serbians found a home in Amador County, and how Sebastian Dabovich, as head of the Serbian Mission, met the spiritual needs of the Slavic people. The story is as colorful as the frescos that adorn the interior of Saint Sava.

Our saga begins in 1725 when the first Russian expedition to the North Pacific, led by Vitus Jonassen Bering, explored the region for Emperor Peter the Great. Although his venture was hampered by weather and ice, the Russians were not discouraged. In 1732, Ivan Fedorov sailed to the North Pacific and was the first to spot land near where Cape Prince of Wales is now located on the eastern boundary of the Bering Strait. Bering, accompanied by fellow navigator Aleksei Chirikov, again sailed to region in 1741. His second mission was declared a success when they beheld the coast of the North American mainland. It was on board that ship that the first practice of Eastern Orthodoxy in North America took place with a celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Over the next two decades, Russian settlement grew in the region as they developed a maritime fur trade. The first Russian colony in Alaska was founded in 1784 by seafaring merchant and fur trader Grigory Shelikhov. His voyages to the Alaska Region began in 1775 when he sent fur trading ships to the Kuril and Aleutian Islands. In 1784, upon his arrival at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island with two ships, he and his men were met with the resistance of the native Koniaga Alutiiq people and a battle ensued. The result, known as the Awa’up Massacre, was devastating for the Koniaga. Hundreds of them were killed and many more taken hostage by the Russians. Having won the battle, Shelekhov, in partnership with Ivan Golikov, established the first permanent Russian trading base. Although Unalaska, on the Aleutian Islands, had long been a fur-trading outpost, it was not considered a permanent Russian settlement until later. It would be another ten years before the church established a foothold in the region and not until 1799 that the Russian-American Fur Trading Company was established and monopolized the fur trade. 


The history of St. Sava extends well beyond the boundaries of Amador County. It is the story of how the Orthodox Church came to the west coast of America, how Serbians found a home in Amador County, and how Sebastian Dabovich, as head of the Serbian Mission, met the spiritual needs of the Slavic people, and is as colorful as the frescos that adorn the interior of this iconic church. 


In 1794 Eastern Orthodox missionaries arrived at Kodiak Island in response to a plea sent to the Most Holy Synod of the church to send a cleric to convert the native population. Shelikhov had insinuated in his plea that relations with the natives was amiable and that conditions for the establishing the church were favorable. He claimed that the settlement was well built and three years of supplies were on hand. Catherine the Great in reply sent a contingent of missionaries consisting of four hieromonks, one hierodeacon, a monk, and four novices. Their voyage took almost a year, arriving at Kodiak on September 24, 1794. When the clerics arrived, they found that Shelikhov’s claims were far from the truth. The settlement was a conglomeration of run down haphazardly built structures, the relations with the Indians were anything but amiable, and supplies were far short of what had been reported to the Empress.

The group was led by Archimandrite Joasaph Bolotov. He was born Ivan Ilyich Bolotov in 1761, the son of the local village priest at Strazhkov. He received his religious education at the monastery in Kashin, and the seminaries in Tyver and Yaroslavl. After teaching for four years at the Uglich school he was tonsured in 1786 and joined the Tolga Monastery where he was given the name of Joasaph. After moving from the monastery at Tolga to Uglich and then to Valamm he became a deacon and then a priest. In 1783 he was elevated to an archimandrite. Tensions between the village leader, Alexander Baranov, and Father Joasaph began to escalate when the missionaries found that the conditions presented to Catherine by Shelikov were false. They were met with primitive conditions and witnessed natives being abused by the Russians. Joasaph reported the conditions to the authorities in Russia. The Holy Synod responded by creating an auxiliary seen in Alaska and Joasaph was elected as Bishop of Kodiak; however, it was two years before he received news of the assignment. His consecration at Irkutsk in April 1899 was an unusual situation in that it is the only occurrence in the history of the church where a consecration was conducted by a single bishop, Benjamin of Irkutsk. Alas, the newly consecrated Bishop Joasaph would not serve in that position as planned. The ship Phoenix on which he set out to return to Kodiak met with a serious storm and sank near the coast sometime between May 21st and May 24th, 1799. Also on board were two other members of the missionary party, Hieromonk Makary and Hierodecon Stephan, who also perished.

Grieving the loss of their fellow clerics and with numbers reduced, the remaining members of the 1794 missionary contingent continued their evangelizing of the natives despite the dangers they faced. Among the group was Juvenaly of Alaska. His birth name was Yakov Feodorov Govorukhin. In 1791 he left his job working at the Voskresenskii mines to become a novice at the Valaam Monastery. After he was selected to join the mission to Russian America, he was tonsured a monk, became an ordained priest, and named after the 5th century Patriarch of Jerusalem, Juvenaly. Initially, Juvenaly and Makary spread their teachings on Kodiak island and within two months had baptized 6,000-7,000 Sugpiaq Eskimos. Then, the following year, Juvenaly went to work among the Chugach and Dena’ina natives at Kenai on the mainland. From there he proceeded to the northwest of Lake Iliamna. Here, he and his party were met by natives who had not yet traded or developed genial relations with the Russians. Father Juvenaly was killed by the natives at the village of Kuinerrak at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River as were three fur trade frontiersmen and several Kenia natives who had been converted to Christianity. Father Juvenaly, known as the Protomartyr of America, was martyred for his work among the Yupik Eskimos in 1796. July 2nd has been set aside as his annual feast day.


This iconographic image depicts St. Juvenaly of Alaksa. Juvenaly was one of ten Orthodox clerics sent to Kodiak Island in 1794 to minister to the native Alaskans. After working with the Sugpiaq Eskimos, he ventured to the mainland to spread Christianity. He was killed by unfriendly Indians at the village of Kuinerra. Juvenaly was martyred for his work in 1796 and is known as the Protomartyr of North America. 


Saint Herman of Alaska was another cleric among those who travelled to Alaska. He was not yet a saint but Russian historians are unsure of his name prior to his becoming a monk. Historic records show that a young man named Egor Ivanovich Popov received the name of ‘Herman’ at Valamm in 1782 but it is not verified that this was Saint Herman. Upon his arrival in Alaska, Herman was assigned to work in the bakery and act as steward for the missionaries. Historic accounts of his work on Kodiak note that he possessed a zeal for protecting the native Alaskans from the fur traders. Native men being forced to work long hours in inclement weather catching sea otters, the women were taken advantage of by Russian men, and both native women and children were being beaten by the settlers. He made it his personal mission to serve towards their protection. Alexander Baranov, Shelikhov’s manager of the settlement, was so irritated by Herman’s perseverance that he wrote that the cleric was a “hack writer and chatterer” but Herman persevered. By 1807, after ten years on the island, and not yet having been ordained as a priest, he became head of the mission. His duties included teaching at the mission school and teaching agriculture across the strait on Spruce Island. Craving the life of a hermit, Herman moved to Spruce Island and named his hermitage New Valaam. Despite his want of a solitary life, he gained a strong following and often had visitors, many of who eventually set up housekeeping on the island to be near him. Herman remained on the island until his death on November 15, 1836 and was buried near his hermitage and Monk’s Lagoon. In 1898, the Chapel of Saints Serigus and Herman of Valaam was built over the site of his burial to commemorate his devotion and service to the native population. On August 9, 1970, Herman was canonized by the Orthodox Church in America at the Holy Resurrection Cathedral on Kodiak Island while the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia held a canonization ceremony at the same time at the Hold Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco. He was recognized as a “sublime example of the Holy Life.” He is known in the church as Herman the Venerable Wonderworker. Several annual feast days have been designated to commemorate Herman’s contributions to the church and his work with native Alaskans.

After the death of Bishop Joasaph, the Holy Synod did not replace him. In 1811, The Kodiak Episcopal See was closed for thirty years before another hierarch was assigned to Alaska. During that time, the Russian Fur Trade increased. The company formed by Shelikhov and Golikov became the Russian-American Company in 1799 when their first charter was drawn up. Paul I became Tsar of Russia granted the Russian-American Company control over the fur trade in the Aleutian Islands and the mainland. This control extended south to 55° north latitude which reached into today’s southern Canada. However, it wouldn’t take the Russians long to extend their reach south to the modern-day California coast. That step would also bring the Eastern Orthodox Church into California, and eventually to Amador County.

To be continued…