Stephen of Perm
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Our father among the saints Stephen of Perm was a fourteenth-century Russian missionary who is known as the Enlightener of Perm and Apostle to the Zyrians for bringing Orthodox Christianity to the Zyriane (Komi) people. To facilitate his missionary activities, he developed an alphabet for the Komi (Permic) language. St. Stephen’s feast day is April 26.
Stephen is believed to have been born in the town of Ustiug about 1340 into the family of Simeon, who was among the clergy of the Ustiug cathedral. According to church tradition his mother was a Komi woman. From childhood, Stephen showed great abilities and a zeal for the services of the Church. He learned to read the Holy Scriptures within a year and also served as a canonarch and reader.
At a young age Stephen entered the monastery of St Gregory the Theologian in Rostov, where he used its extensive library to increase his knowledge of Christianity, particularly in studying the Holy Scriptures and the Greek language. He learned Greek language so that he could read the Scriptures in their original language. He soon received monastic tonsure. Having grown up with the pagan Zyrian people, he became inspired to bring them to Christ. To do so, Stephen formulated a Zyrian (Permic) alphabet using Slavonic and Greek letters, since he wanted to bring Christ to them in their own language. He then translated a number of liturgical books using this Permic alphabet. At this time he was ordained to the rank of hierodeacon by Bp. Arsenius of Rostov.
In 1379, Hierodeacon Stephen traveled to Moscow to see Bp. Gerasimus of Kolomna to receive his permission to teach the Holy Faith to the people of Perm. The bishop agreed, ordained Stephen as a hieromonk, and provided him with an antimension, holy chrism, and service books. Thus prepared, Stephen began his mission among the Zariane, along the Vyahegda and Vym rivers.
For the next seventeen years as a missionary Stephen worked with humility and kindness among the Zariane, bringing enlightenment to them. Slowly he was able to convert many of the Zyrians, but not without adversity. One pagan priest, Pam, was greatly influential in keeping many from baptism. In their debates, the pagan priest finally challenged Stephen to walk through fire and water as a test of whose faith was better. Not expecting Stephen to agree, Pam was taken aback when Stephen immediately directed the people to burn a building and offered his hand to Pam so that they could walk together through the fire. But Pam refused, even with urging by the Zyrians. The upset people were ready to kill Pam. Stephen intervened and insisted only that Pam be exiled forever. The result was that many Zyrians became Christians.
With the growing success of his mission Stephen was called in 1383 by Pimen, Metropolitan of all Russia, who consecrated him the first bishop of Perm. Stephen continued his mission, and as the number of converts grew he built churches and encouraged the opening of schools next to the churches. The schools taught the Holy Scriptures in the Permian language. Stephen supervised the curriculum, which prepared the students with what they needed to know to become deacons and priests. They were taught to use Stephen’s alphabet to both read and write. Many of these Zyrians became the clergy in the expanding network of churches. Stephen encouraged the Zyrians to establish a number of monasteries, including the Savior Ulianov Monastery in the wilderness and the Stephanov Monastery near Ust-Sysolsk, as well as the Ust-Vym and Yareng Archangel monasteries.
The success of Stephen’s mission in Vychegda Perm raised concern in Novgorod, which exercised control of tribute over the region. In 1385, a Novgorodian armed force sent to control the new civilization was fended off. The following year, 1386, Stephen visited the Archbishop of Novgorod, at which point Novgorod acknowledged the new missionary situation. These events were the forerunner to the shift of influence in northern Russia, in which control of the north and its wealth were to pass from Novgorod to Moscow.
A kinship developed between Stephen and Sergius of Radonezh. The intensity of this friendship is illustrated by an event in 1390, when Stephen traveled to Moscow and was not able to visit the Radonezh ascetic for lack of time. As Stephen was passing some distance from the monastery of St. Sergius, he faced in the direction of the monastery and bowing said quietly, “Peace to you, my spiritual brother.” Eating a meal with the brothers of the monastery, Sergius stood, said a prayer, and then bowed in the direction where Stephen was passing and responded, “Hail also to you, pastor of the flock of Christ, may the peace of God be with you.”
The interests of his flock remained in the forefront of his activities. In 1396, Stephen again traveled to Moscow concerning the affairs of the Zyrainians. There he became ill and died on April 26, 1396. Although deeply lamented by his flock, his body was kept in Moscow and buried in the Kremlin. The place of his burial has been noted as either in the Church of the Transfiguration or the Spass na Boru Church of the Saviour at the Forest.
The process of glorification of Stephen began shortly after his death. By the early fifteenth century a Life of Stephen had been written. A service for him was written by the Hieromonk Pachomius the Serb. The Hieromonk Epiphanius the Wise, who was a disciple of St Sergius of Radonezh, wrote a Panegyric to Saint Stephen of Perm which praises Stephen for his evangelical activities.
Troparion (Tone 4)
Aflame with divine desire from childhood, thou didst take Christ’s yoke, O wise Stephen. Thou didst sow the seed in a hardened people grown old in unbelief and give birth to them in the Gospel. Venerating thee, we pray: Entreat Him Whom thou didst proclaim, that our souls may be saved.
Kontakion (Tone 8)
Thou wast found to be a hierarch to those who sought thee not. Thou didst free thy people from idols and bring them to the Faith of Christ. Thou didst shame the sorcerer Pansotnik and become first bishop and teacher of Perm. Wherefore thy people hymn thee with thanksgiving: Rejoice, wise teacher Stephen.