The present State of Alaska within the United States of America was the site of the first Orthodox Christian liturgy held in the western hemisphere. The liturgy was conducted aboard the ship St. Peter, that was anchored in Alaskan coastal waters, on July 20, 1741, the Feast day of St. Elias. For the next one hundred years Alaska was the center of Orthodox evangelization among the indigenous population in Alaska, until the arrival in North America of the Orthodox immigration from the predominantly Orthodox lands of eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century.
During the sixteenth century Russian frontiersmen, called promyshlenniki, advanced eastward from European Russia in search of valuable fur bearing animals for the fur trade. The advance of these fur hunters was followed quickly by fur traders, merchants, and missionaries of the Orthodox Church. Sixty years after the Cossack Ermak crossed the Ural Mountains in 1579, the Cossack Dimitri Kopylov reached the Pacific Ocean, in 1639, at the sea now known as the Sea of Okhotsk. The promyshlenniki had traveled within a life time eastward about 5,800 miles, across the length of the Asian continent.
Over the following years, the Russians consolidated their possession of this Asian territory, now known as Siberia, and established trade relations with China, to the south. As the presence of Russians increased so did the Church. As the Russian frontier advanced eastward a fork southward occurred when the Albazin fortress on the Amur River was taken by the Chinese. This defeat in 1685 brought Orthodox Cossacks as prisoners to a settlement in Beijing that led to establishment of a China Mission. The Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed in 1589, formalized Russian trade and boundaries with China and provided an impetus to advance further to the east, on to the peninsula of Kamchatka.
In 1719, Tsar Peter I ordered an expedition to Kamchatka to settle the question of whether Asia and north America were joined or not. This expedition was unsuccessful. Peter was so obsessed to have a precise answer to this question before he died that he ordered a second, larger expedition. This one was to be led by the Dane Vitus Bering. Before the expedition could start Tsar Peter died. After Peter’s death in 1725, the order for the expedition was continued by his widow, Catherine I.
Following the route pioneered by Kopylov in 1639, the Vitus Bering led expedition that took a year and a half to reach Okhotsk, arriving in the fall of 1727. Bering moved on to Kamchatka the following spring. Here his expedition built a boat, named Saint Gabriel, that sailed north along the Siberian coast looking for evidence of the American continent. After searching for two months he convinced himself that the two continents were not joined, but he had not sighted the American coast. Returning to St Petersburg, Bering was criticized for not physically confirming the separation of the continents. A new expedition was formed that finally sailed in June 1741 from the base on the Kamchatka peninsula, named Petropavlovsk, in two small square rigged ships, the Saint Peter and Saint Paul, commanded by Bering and Captain-Lieutenant Alexis Chirikov respectively. Separated by the foggy gloom of the northern seas, the St Peter, with Bering on board, arrived on July 16, 1741 at the Alaskan coast with a view of the snow covered mountains that were to be named the Saint Elias Mountain Range. On the same day Chirikov on board the Saint Paul discovered Sitka Bay.
On July 20, 1741, which was the feast day of St Elias, hieromonk Illarion Trusov, assisted by priest Ignaty Kozirevsky, celebrated a liturgy in thanks for their success. This was the first Orthodox Liturgy held in the western hemisphere.
On the return to Petropavlovsk, the St Peter wrecked on an island where Vitus Bering died and which now bears his name. Over the next fifty years promyshlenniki continued to visit the Aleutian Islands and southern Alaska. Many brought their Orthodox Christian faith with them that influenced the indigenous natives with whom they worked. In 1784, the merchant Gregory Shelikov established a permanent colony at Three Saints Harbor (now known as Old Harbor) on Kodiak Island. On September 24, 1794, eight monks from Valaam Monastery arrived to evangelized the native population thus beginning the spread of Orthodox Christianity in the New World.
- C. J. Tarasar, Gen. Ed. Orthodox America 1794-1976 Development of the Orthodox Church in America. The Orthodox Church in America, Syosett, New York, 1975.
- Hector Chevigny. Russian America - The Great Alaskan Venture 1741-1867. The Viking Press, New York, 1965.
- Robert R. Rathburn. The Russian Orthodox Church as a Native Institution among the Koniag Eskimo of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Arctic Anthropology. Vol. 18, No. 1 (1981), pp. 12-22.