Note: Each section of St. Herman’s life story is preceded by an item (in parenthesis) that you could use to help you tell the story of his life to your Sunday Church School students. If you choose to tell his story in this way, we suggest that you line the items up ahead of class and work your way down the line, or pull each out of a box or basket as you tell his story. The items will help you to remember which part of his life to talk about next. They will also help the students to pay attention, as they will be curious about each item!
(small treasure chest with coins) Even though he was born into a merchant family in the diocese of Moscow, Herman was not interested in things of this world. He became a monk when he was still a teenager, first entering the Holy Trinity Sergius Hermitage near Petersburg.
(towel) While he was at the St Sergius Hermitage this happened to Fr. Herman: On the right side of his throat under his chin there appeared an abscess. It swelled quickly and disfigured his face. It became difficult for him to swallow, and the odor was unbearable. Father Herman expected to die. Instead of asking a doctor for help, he locked himself in his cell and began to pray before the icon of the Theotokos. With fervent tears he prayed, asking that he might be healed. He prayed the whole night. Then he took a wet towel and with it wiped the face of the Most Holy Mother, and with this towel he covered the swelling. He continued to pray with tears until he fell into an exhausted sleep on the floor. In a dream he saw the Theotokos healing him. When Herman awoke in the morning, he found to his great surprise that he was fully healed. The swelling had disappeared, even though the abscess had not broken through, and it only left behind a small mark as a reminder of the miracle. Doctors could not believe the miracle had happened. They said that the abscess must have either broken through of its own accord or have been cut open. But it was not: It was a miracle.
(picture of Valaam) Later, he moved to Valaam Monastery. The saint grew to love Valaam so much; monks there remembered him singing in his clear tenor voice while tears streamed from his eyes. For the rest of his life, St. Herman considered Valaam his spiritual home. (In fact, later he named his hermitage on Spruce Island “New Valaam.”) In the second half of the 1700s, explorers were expanding the boundaries of Russia, and Metropolitan Gabriel asked Valaam’s Elder Nazarius to choose ten men to evangelize the Aleutians. Herman was one of the men chosen. Sadly, after five successful years of founding schools and churches in the new world, the head of the mission Archimandrite Ioasaph and his entire entourage drowned. Then, one after another, others who were working on the mission left, until St. Herman remained alone.
(picture of Spruce Island) Spruce Island is not large, and is almost completely covered by a forest. In the middle of the island, a small brook flows to the sea. Herman selected this place for the location of his hermitage. He dug a cave out of the ground with his own hands, and he lived in it for a full summer. Before winter, a cell was built for him near the cave. He lived in that cell until his death. (And before he died, he converted the cave into a place for his burial.) A wooden chapel, and a wooden house to be used as a schoolhouse and a guest house were built not too distant from his cell. A garden was laid out in front of his cell. For more than forty years Father Herman lived here.
(angel ornament) One time, St. Herman was asked, “How do you, Fr. Herman, manage to live alone in the forest, don’t you get bored?” He answered “No, I’m not alone there! There is God, and God is everywhere! There are holy angels! How can one be bored with them? With whom is it more pleasant and better to converse, angels or people? Angels, of course!”
(spade) In addition to conversing with the angels throughout his hours of prayer and worship, St. Herman worked tirelessly. Father Herman himself spaded the garden, planted potatoes and cabbage and various vegetables in it. For winter, he preserved mushrooms, salting or drying them. The salt was obtained by him from ocean water.
(wicker basket) A wicker basket in which the Elder carried seaweed from the shore, was so large that it was difficult for one person to carry. The seaweed was used for fertilizing the soil. But to the astonishment of all, Father Herman carried a basket filled with seaweed for a long distance without any help at all.
(log) One winter night, his disciple, Gerasim, saw him carrying a large log which normally would be carried by four men; and he was bare footed. This is how hard Fr. Herman worked. Everything that he acquired as a result of his immeasurable labors was used for the feeding and clothing of orphans and also for books for his students, not to buy things for himself.
(“deer skin shirt” or piece of soft leather) His clothes were the same for winter as for summer. He did not wear a cloth shirt; instead he wore a shirt made of deer skin, which he did not take off for several years at a time. By that time, the fur in the deerskin shirt was completely worn away, and the leather became glossy. He also wore boots or shoes, an ancient and faded out cassock full of patchwork, and his headdress. He went everywhere in these clothes, and at all times; in the rain, in snowstorms, and during the coldest freezing weather. In this, Father Herman, like many other great saints, showed the most concern for the welfare/needs of others. Like those saints, he chose to wear old clothes to show his humility before God, and that he did not care about worldly things.
(two bricks and a board) A small bench covered with a deerskin served as Father Herman’s bed. He used two bricks for a pillow; these were hidden from visitors by a skin or a shirt. There was no blanket. Instead, he covered himself with a wooden board which he leaned against the stove to store it each day. This board Father Herman called his blanket, and he willed that it be used to cover his remains. It was as long as he was tall. He ate and slept very little.
(cookies) Even though he was busy with tending his own garden and observing his monastic rule, St. Herman still had time to reach out with great love and concern to his Aleutian neighbors. On feast days and Sundays, he would gather them in the chapel next to his cell, and lead them in holy services. The people loved to listen to his spiritual teaching, and would visit him at all hours of the day and night, staying until early morning to hear him teach. Saint Herman especially loved the Aleutian children, for whom he would bake cookies, and he watched over those who were weak and powerless. He started a school for orphans and defended the native Aleuts before the Russian fur traders who were exploiting them.
(stuffed bear) Herman dedicated himself fully for the Lord’s service; he worked hard to the glory of God. And God blessed him with many supernatural gifts. The people began to tell each other of miracles they’d seen: sometimes Father Herman would tell someone of a future event and it would come to pass. Others told about how animals, even bears, would eat from his hands.
(icon of the Theotokos) At one time on the island, the terrified inhabitants came to St. Herman seeking help from an oncoming tidal wave. The Elder then took an icon of the Mother of God and placed it on the sandy beach. After praying he promised the people that the tidal wave would not go past this holy icon. St. Herman promised as well that they would have the same protection in the future event of a tidal wave. Miraculously the waters flowed up to the icon of the Mother of God and stopped there. This icon is still venerated today in a small chapel on Spruce Island.
(box of tissues) A ship from the United States brought with its sailors a contagious disease that was fatal. It began with a fever, a heavy cold, and difficult respiration, and it ended with chills. Its victims died in only three days. On the island there was neither a doctor nor medicine. The illness spread rapidly through the village, and then throughout the nearby areas. The disease affected all, even infants. During this terrible sickness which lasted a whole month, Father Herman visited the sick, never tiring. He encouraged them when they were scared, and he prayed for them, brought them to penance, or prepared them for death. He never spared himself.
(yardstick or moss) Once the forest on Spruce Island caught fire. The Elder and his disciple Ignaty dug a belt about a yard wide in the moss in the middle of the forest. They extended the belt to the foot of the hill. The Elder said, “Rest assured, the fire will not pass this line.” The next day Ignaty was sure that there was no chance that they would escape the fire, and the fire, pushed by a strong wind, reached the place where the moss had been turned over by the Elder. The fire ran over the moss and halted, leaving untouched the thick forest which was beyond the line.
(star) People flocked to the elder for counsel and help. The Aleuts began to affectionately call him their “North Star,” referring to how his teaching guided and grounded them, or the even more intimate “Apa,” which meant grandfather. Couples with troubled marriages would seek his advice. With meekness, he would reproach people for their lack of sobriety or their cruelty. He himself for years refused any titles of elevation within the church, preferring the simplest designation, “monk.” His letters reflect his simplicity and tender disposition. The Elder often said that there would be a bishop for America; this at a time when no one even thought of it, and there was no hope that there would be a bishop for America;this was related by the Bishop Peter and his prophecy was fulfilled in time.
(flashlight) As the time of St. Herman’s repose drew closer, he began to tell his disciples to prepare, giving them specific instructions about his burial and services. Everything he prophesied related to his death came to pass, exactly as he had foretold, and so it was that on December 13, 1837, he leaned his head on the chest of his disciple Gerasim and reposed. “Glory to Thee, O Lord,” he pronounced with shining face, just before taking his last breath. Several Aleutian townspeople in another place reported seeing a pillar of light that reached from Spruce Island to the heavens. “St. Herman has left us,” one villager said. This same pillar was seen in various places by others. The night of his death in another settlement nearby, someone had a vision; it seemed as though a man was rising from Spruce Island into the clouds. The distance from the Harbor to Spruce Island is not great – about a two hour journey – but no one was willing to go to sea in such weather. The weather was bad for a full month and although the body of Fr. Herman lay in state for that whole month in the warm house of his students, his face did not undergo any change at all, and not the slightest odor emanated from his body.
(sailboat picture or toy/model) In 1842, five years after the passing away of the Elder, Innocent, Archbishop of Kamchatka and the Aleutians, was near Kodiak on a sailing vessel which was in great distress. He looked to Spruce Island, and said to himself, “if you, Father Herman, have found favor in God’s presence then may the wind change!” It seems as though not more than fifteen minutes had passed, said the Bishop, when the wind became favorable, and he successfully reached the shore. In thanksgiving for his salvation, Archbishop Innocent himself conducted a Memorial Service over the grave of the Blessed Elder Herman.
(map of AK) Fortunately for the Aleuts and all Alaskans, St. Herman hasn’t ever left them. Miracles attributed to his intercessions have happened since his repose and are still happening today. Most Native Alaskans today are still Orthodox, and they honor his memory with prayers and pilgrimages. His relics rest in the Resurrection Church on Kodiak, and Orthodox faithful from all over the world come to venerate them and ask for his prayers.
(picture of Mt Denali) But he doesn’t just help those who ask for his prayers. In the 1990’s, both Leo and Kathleen were people who loved mountaineering and rock climbing, and so for their honeymoon trip they decided to go to Alaska to bag the highest peak of North America, mount Denali (aka McKinley), 20,320 feet. While living at the camp at the foot of the mountain, they thoroughly prepared their expedition: talking to guides, studying the maps, checking the equipment, and waiting for a long stretch of good weather.
When they finally started their exciting, but extremely difficult, ascent, everything went just fine for a few days. But at the end of one day, on a narrow path, they met an old, strange-looking man in a long dark robe. He was walking in the opposite direction, down the mountain. In a friendly manner he greeted them and advised them to turn around and return to the base camp as quickly as possible because the weather was changing into a severe storm. Soon, he said, it would be very dangerous in that area. And, as if in answer to their unasked question of how could he know such a thing, he explained that he was local and knew the climate very well. Leaving them surprised and uneasy, he continued on his way.
A few minutes later, after Leo and Kathleen made the wise decision to turn back, they were thinking about that old man. They tried to remember what he looked like, and as they did, they realized that they hadn’t seen a backpack or any other hiking gear with him. How could he have made it up so high in the bare, rocky mountain in sub-zero temps, without any food or protection?!
A few days later, almost at the bottom of the mountain, they were caught by a severe storm. They survived it, constantly in their minds thanking the old man who had warned them of the danger so that they could turn back when they did. A week later, when they were staying at the base camp, they learned that some other climbers who happened to be at higher elevations than they were during the storm, never made it back after the storm.
Then Leo and Kathleen noticed something at the camp cafeteria. It was a picture of their rescuer, pinned to a bulletin board between some miscellaneous ads and photos of the mountain. They recognized him at a glance. When they asked the waiter who that was, he told them, ” It’s an Orthodox saint who lived in Alaska. His name is St. Herman.” And the photo showed the icon of St. Herman from the Orthodox church nearby. So, the Saint had told them the truth. He was indeed a local guy!
Blessed ascetic of the northern wilds
And gracious intercessor for the whole world,
Teacher of the Orthodox Faith
And good instructor of piety,
Adornment of Alaska and joy of all America,
Holy Father Herman
Pray to Christ God that He save our souls.
Besides the storytelling suggestion above, here are additional ideas of ways to teach your students about St. Herman:
Younger students would enjoy this book about St. Herman’s life: http://www.svspress.com/north-star-st-herman-of-alaska-hardcover/
Older children would enjoy reading this book about St. Herman: http://www.holytrinitypublications.com/Book/272/Herman_A_Wilderness_Saint.html
Read more about the saint’s life, and see photos of his grave and spring here: http://www.antiochian.org/stherman
We do not have pictures of St. Herman, since he departed this life when the camera was still in the process of being invented (daguerreotypes were invented two years after he passed away). We do, however, have icons of him, and we can see pictures of Spruce Island where he lived. See Spruce Island and watch some videos about St. Herman’s life at this site: https://orthodoxword.wordpress.com/2009/12/13/st-herman-of-alaska-and-spurce-island/
These videos would make great discussion starters for classes with older students!
This blog is written by a mom for use with her children, but Sunday Church School students would enjoy learning about St. Herman in this way, as well! http://www.illumination-learning.com/blog/2012/12/teaching-my-children-about-st-herman-through-a-story-prayers-and-cookies/
And this one offers a different recipe for cookies as well as suggestions for interacting with his story through art: http://www.carriedonthewind.com/2011/12/saint-herman-of-alaska-and-spiced.html
Need an idea for a retreat day theme? Here’s how one parish presented the life of St. Herman of Alaska during a lenten retreat: https://kellylardin.com/activities/tag/st-herman-of-alaska/
Present your Sunday Church School students with this printable, colorable quote from St. Herman of Alaska:
Use the quote as a discussion starter. How did St. Herman show that he was striving to love God above all, and fulfilling His holy will? How can we do that as well? List ideas on the board, then pray and ask God’s help to successfully live in this manner. Send a copy of the quote with them so that they can be encouraged to work towards this life goal.