Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

On the Spiritual Significance of Fort Ross

Posted in History by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 26 February 2010

Russian: http://osergii.wordpress.com/

What we have, we protect not, and, losing it, we weep. 

A great deal has been written and said about the possible closing of Fort Ross on the Pacific Coast of California to the public, and about the cultural and historical significance of this southernmost Russian 19th-century settlement on the North American continent. Indeed, Fort Ross was and continues to be a symbol of the Russian presence on the West Coast of North America, and it played a key role in the history of the Russian exploration of Alaska and the Pacific coast of Oregon and northern California. But for an Orthodox Christian, the history of the Ross settlement is first of all tied to the history of the spreading of Orthodoxy in the United States, which for us has become a second home.

Fort Ross was settled by Russian Orthodox entrepreneurs and natives of Alaska who were illumined by the light of the faith of Christ through the efforts of Valaam missionaries.  One of those missionaries was St. Herman, whose memory we celebrate on December 25 (civil calendar). Today, some 90 Orthodox parishes in Alaska and nearly twenty thousand parishioners—almost all of them Alaskan Natives—attest to the efforts of the holy missionaries and to God’s blessings on their labors.

St. Herman never visited the Ross settlement, but his spiritual children, who endearingly called him apa or “grandfather,” did.  Kayakers and hunters departed from Alaska south along the Pacific coast of Canada, Oregon, and California. Martyr Peter the Aleut took one of these kayaks toward the Ross settlement in 1815. [1]  We have no direct evidence that St. Peter was at the Ross settlement, but it would be unlikely that a kayak expedition of the Russian-American Company did not stop at a settlement owned by the company, near which the expedition hunted, and not far from where the members of this expedition were seized by Spanish soldiers. [2]  In the iconography of St. Peter, there are even depictions of the saint with Fort Ross in the background. [3]  The site of the martyrdom and burial of St. Peter the Aleut is, by some accounts, Mission Dolores in San Francisco, [4] but one of his fellow hunters was able to escape, returned to the Ross settlement, and from there went back to Alaska, where he told what had happened. [5] 

The Ross settlement was at first just a supply depot for Russian-American merchants, but a few years after it was established, the colonists decided to build a chapel with their own funds.  The chapel was completed in 1825 and consecrated in the name of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker. [6]  There was never a permanent priest for the chapel, and readers’ services were performed by the colonists themselves.  Despite all the hardships they endured, they wished to pray together, and found the time to do so. With time, an Orthodox cemetery was formed near the settlement, where even today, prayers are made for the peaceful repose of the first Orthodox Christian Californians. 

In 1836, Fr. Ioann Veniaminov, the future Metropolitan Innokentii of Moscow, spent three months at the Ross settlement, observing the life of the colonists, and noting the spirit of true Christian love and mutual help among the Russians, Alaskan Natives, and local Kashaya Indians, some of whom had already converted to Orthodox Christianity. [7]  Fr. Ioann not only conducted divine services during his time at Ross, but also blessed the waters of the nearby stream. [8]

In 1841, the Russian-American Company abandoned the Ross settlement and sold its movable property. For a time, the connection between Ross and Russia was severed, but the living bond between Orthodoxy in America and the Russian Orthodox Church was not. Even our Russian Patriarch-Confessor Tikhon (Bellavin) was a citizen of the United States—he became a U.S. citizen when he served as the Archbishop of New York and North America in 1901-1907. Traveling between San Francisco and Alaska, the hierarch sailed past the Ross settlement more than once, and in 1905, the future Russian Patriarch visited Ross and served a memorial service for its founders. [9]  It was during Archbishop Tikhon’s rule on American soil in 1903, that the Ross settlement was purchased and given to the State of California as a historical monument. Although that very year an earthquake seriously damaged the structures, by 1916 the buildings were restored, and since 1925, the Divine Liturgy has been celebrated every year in the settlement’s chapel. [10] 

For the last several decades, Russian Orthodox hierarchs, clergymen, and laypersons living in the United States, as well as Americans who have converted to Orthodox Christianity have undertaken pilgrimages to the Ross settlement to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and pray on the graves of the first Russian Orthodox Californians. Among the hierarchs who prayed in the wooden chapel of this historic site were the blessed peace-makers, His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II and His Eminence Metropolitan Laurus.

One would hope that the national monument of Fort Ross will survive California’s budget crisis and will once again be renovated by the government, which has already done this more than once in the past, and will be open to visitors. But the Ross settlement is not only a monument of “their” history, but also of our own spiritual legacy. That is why we too must do what we can to preserve this monument, as well as the memories of our holy martyrs, saints, hierarchs and righteous Christians, by whose prayers and labors the holy Orthodox Faith established itself and spread throughout North America.  

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Notes:

[1] Actually, Peter was not an Aleut by birth, but he is known as such because the Russian traders, from whose reports we know about him, apparently made little distinction between the ethnic groups of Alaskan natives.

[2] For details, see the report to Emperor Alexander I in Dmytryshyn, Basil, et al. The Russian-American Colonies, To Siberia and Russian America: Three Centuries of Russian Eastward Expansion. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1989. 3:332-4.

[3] The icon of Martyr Peter the Aleut by Ina Hecker.

[4] See Tikhmenv, Petr. A History of the Russian-American Company. Trans. R. A. Pierce and A. S. Donnelly. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978, p. 138. Also Duncan, Alexis. “The Glorification of St. John of San Francisco.” The Orthodox Christian Page. 04 December 2009 <http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/news/St.John.3.html>.  According to other sources, St. Peter was martyred at the Jesuit Mission in San Pedro in Southern California—see the previously-cited report to Emperor Alexander I in Dmytryshyn, Basil, et al.The Russian-American Colonies, To Siberia and Russian America: Three Centuries of Russian Eastward Expansion. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1989, t. 3 p. 332-4.

[5] See the report by the Director of the Russian-American colonies, Semyon Ivanovich Ivanovsk dated February 15, 1820, in Pierce, Richard A., ed.  The Russian Orthodox Religious Mission in America, 1794-1837: with Materials Concerning the Life and Works of the Monk German, and Ethnographic Notes by the Hieromonk Gedeon. Kingston, Ontario: Limestone, 1978, p. 177.

[6] Watrous, Stephen. “Outpost of an Empire: Russian Expansion to America.” Fort Ross State Historic Park. Sonoma County Historical Society. 04 December 2009 <http://www.fortrossstatepark.org/Russian%20American%20Company.htm>. This chapel is now know in the Orthodox Church in America as the Holy Trinity Chapel.

[7] See Veniaminov, Protopriest Ioann, Sostojanije Pravoslavnoj Tserkvi v Rossijskoj Amerike [The State of the Orthodox Church in Russian America], Jurnal ministerstva narodnogo prosveshchenija [Journal of the Ministery of the People’s Education], St Petersburg: Imperatorskaja akademija nauk 5 [Imperial Academy of Sciences 5] (1840):17-44.

[8] Now known as the Fort Ross Creek.

[9] Petrov, Viktor. Fort Ross I ego kul’turnoje nasledije [Fort Ross and Its Cultural Legacy]. Los Angeles: Published by Obshchestvo Druzei Forta Ross [Society of the Friends of Fort Ross], 1977, p. 30.

[10] Due to a fire in 1970, the settlement was closed to the public until it was restored in 1974.

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The English translation was provided by http://www.russianorthodoxchurch.ws/

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