John Popov (later St. Innocent) was born on August 27, 1797, in Aginsk, a small village near Irkutsk, Siberia. He came from a pious family and at age six, young John was already reading at his parish. At age nine he entered the Irkutsk Theological Seminary, where he remained for eleven years, proving to be its most brilliant pupil during this time. Besides his Seminary classes, he read all of the books in the library dealing with history and the sciences, and while still a student he began to construct different types of clocks, acquiring the skills of carpentry, furniture making, blacksmithing, and the construction of musical instruments.
At the age of seventeen, in recognition of his outstanding achievements at the Seminary, his last name was changed to Veniaminov, in honor of the late Bishop Benjamin (or Veniamin) of Irkutsk. Not long after graduation from the Seminary, John married the daughter of a Priest and was ordained to the Deaconate. In 1821, he was ordained to the Priesthood.
While a young man, Fr. John had heard stories about the native settlements at Unalaska in the Aleutian Island chain, part of the Russian colony in America, and how they labored in the darkness of paganism. Thus, in 1823, having heard that the Bishop of Irkutsk had been requested to send a Priest to Alaska and that everyone else had refused, against the wishes of his family and friends, he volunteered to go. After fourteen months of difficult travel across the wilds of Siberia and the Bering Sea, he arrived in Unalaska with his family.
Upon arriving at Unalaska, Fr. John found that there was no house or chapel there, but he welcomed this as an opportunity to teach the natives. He first built a home for his family, using the opportunity to teach the natives carpentry. Constructing furniture for the new home, he taught the natives this skill as well, so that, with these newly-acquired skills, they were able to assist Fr. John in the construction of the Cathedral of the Ascension, which was completed in 1826.
At the same time, Fr. John's primary work was converting the natives to Orthodoxy and educating them. He learned the Aleut language, as well as the life style of the people. He and his wife organized a school for them (as well as for their own six children), and one of the required subjects was the Aleut language, for which Fr. John had devised an alphabet based on the Cyrillic. He translated services, as well as the Gospel of St. Matthew, and even wrote a small book, A Guide to the Way to the Heavenly Kingdom in the Aleut language.
Fr. John traveled throughout the Aleutian chain to teach and baptize the people, and while preaching he was always able to communicate effectively with his flock. One of these wrote, many years later: When he preached the Word of God, all the people listened, and they listened without moving until he stopped. Nobody thought of fishing or hunting while he spoke; nobody felt hungry or thirsty as long as he was speaking, not even little children.
In 1834, Fr. John and his family were transferred to Sitka, where the local Tlingit population was intensely antagonistic to their Russian overlords. He learned their language and culture, but they showed now real interest in his message until a smallpox epidemic hit the area. Father John convinced many of the Tlingits to be vaccinated, saving many of them from death. This served to be the means whereby he was to reach these natives and gradually he gained their love and respect.
In 1836, Fr. John decided to return to Russia to report to the Holy Synod on the needs of the Alaskan Mission. Leaving his family in Irkutsk, he went on to Moscow, where he met with the Synod, which approved his request for more Priests and funds for the Mission, as well as desiring to publish his translations. While in Moscow, he learned of the death of his wife. Hearing of this, Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow encouraged Fr. John to become a Monk, which he accepted, being tonsured with the name Innocent. Soon after, the Alaskan Mission was constituted part of a Diocese and Fr. Innocent was consecrated Bishop of Kamchatka and Alaska on December 15, 1840.
Returning to his new Diocese, Bishop Innocent traveled to the far reaches of his new domain, teaching the population and organizing churches. Everywhere he preached and served in the native languages. In Sitka, he organized a Seminary to train native Priests and built a new cathedral there dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel. Although preoccupied with the affairs of his large Diocese, the Bishop did find time to construct, with his own hands, the large clock on the front of the Cathedral.
In 1850, Bishop Innocent was elevated to the dignity of Archbishop and his new Archdiocese was enlarged to include more territory in Asiatic Russia, with its center at Yakutsk. Once more Innocent and his Priests set out to learn languages and cultures, teaching the new flock with gentleness and by personal example. In 1860, Archbishop Innocent met the future Bishop Nicholas of Japan (canonized in 1970), who was just beginning his lifetime missionary labors, and he gave Nicholas advice on missionary work.
Despite declining health and his request to retire, in 1868, Innocent was elevated to the rank of Metropolitan. He was especially loved by his new flock for his many works of charity, and he remembered his former missions by organizing the Imperial Mission Society, which he served as its first President. Almost blind and in constant pain, Metropolitan Innocent died on Holy Saturday, 1879, at the age of eighty-two, having served Christ and His Church throughout his entire life, distinguishing himself as a true missionary and apostle. In recognition of his great apostolic and missionary labors, the Russian Orthodox Church, on October 6, 1977, solemnly glorified this Man of God and entered him into the Church Calendar, styling him St. Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow, Enlightener of the Aleuts and Apostle to the America's.
In 1867, Bishop Peter (Lyaskov) of Sitka was succeeded by Bishop Paul (Popov) and in this year the first study of the life of the Elder Herman of Spruce Island was initiated. In 1870, Bishop John (Metropolsky) was appointed and he transferred the center of the American Church from Sitka to San Francisco, California, in 1872. In 1879, the American Church came under the supervision of the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg, and the long tie with the Diocese of Eastern Siberia was ended, with Bishop Nestor (Zakkis) being appointed Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska in that year. In 1882, however, he drowned at sea and was buried on the Island of Unalaska.
Excerpt taken from "These Truths We Hold - The Holy Orthodox Church: Her Life and Teachings". Compiled and Edited by A Monk of St. Tikhon's Monastery. Copyright 1986 by the St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, South Canaan, Pennsylvania 18459.
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