March 30: Innocent of Alaska, Bishop, 1879

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Innocent, whose secular name was John Veniaminov, was born in 1797 in the village of Anginskoye, Verkholensk District, in the Irkutsk province of Russia.

In 1823, Michael, the Bishop of Irkutsk, was instructed by the Holy Synod to send a priest to the island of Unalaska in the Aleutians. Following only two years of service as a parish priest, John Veniaminov volunteered for the mission to the Aleutian islands. In May of 1823, John, his wife, his infant son, and his brother Stefan set forth on their long and arduous journey, which took more than a year.

He immediately began the work of evangelism and conversion that would last nearly fifty years and would lead to his being called “The Apostle of North America.” He taught the islanders to be carpenters, blacksmiths, and bricklayers, and with their help, he built a church for the local people.

John Veniaminov’s parish included not only the island of Unalaska, but also the Fox Islands and Pribilof Islands, whose inhabitants had been converted to Christianity before his arrival. He became familiar with the language and dialects of the people he served, traveling the icy waters between the islands in a canoe. Choosing the most widespread of these dialects, the Aleut language of the Fox Islands, he devised a Cyrillic alphabet for it, and translated into it the Gospel of Matthew and many of the most used hymns and prayers.

In 1829, with the blessing of the Bishop of Irkutsk, he traveled to Nushagak on the American mainland, where he preached the Gospel to the peoples of the Bering seacoast. In 1834 he was transferred to Sitka Island where he began his mission work with the Tlingit people. Despite their faithful adherence to their own customs and traditions, he learned their language and converted many of them to Christ.

Innocent of Alaska, as he came to be known, was loved and respected by the peoples he served, and his work laid the foundation for a continuing mission to the people of the Aleutian Islands.


I     Holy Immortal One, who didst bless thy people by calling Innocent from leading thy Church in Russia to be an apostle and light to the people of Alaska, and to proclaim the dispensation and grace of God: Guide our steps, that as he did labor humbly in danger and hardship, we may witness to the Gospel of Christ wherever we are led, and serve thee as gladly in privation as in power; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, to the ages of ages.  Amen.

II     Holy Immortal One, you blessed your people by calling Innocent from leading your Church in Russia to be an apostle and light to the people of Alaska, and to proclaim the dispensation and grace of God: Guide our steps, that as he labored humbly in danger and hardship, we may witness to the Gospel of Christ wherever we are led, and serve you as gladly in privation as in power; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, to the ages of ages.  Amen.


Isaiah 41: 17-20

Philippians 1:3-11

Mark 3: 7-15

Psalm 148: 7-13

Preface of Pentecost


From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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13 thoughts on “March 30: Innocent of Alaska, Bishop, 1879

  1. I like “in privation as in power”. I also appreciate the Orthodox echoes of “Holy Immortal One” and “to the ages of ages”

  2. This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

    Collect: Hallelujah (even though it is Lent), finally the collect reads and prays nicely.

    Psalm: Why not include verse 14, or for that matter all 14 verses of the Psalm? Verses 7-13 is just too awkward.

    • He definitely needs a “Why he is important” statement in the first paragraph.

      Regarding the Collect: I take some of my ‘Hallelujah’ back (after using it today at the Eucharist).
      ‘…from leading your Church in Russia’ seems a bit grandiose for a priest from Irkutsk.
      ‘ … light to the people of Alaska …’ seems a bit of a stretch as his ministry was primarily along the Aleutian Islands Yes, the bio says that he did travel to ‘the American mainland’ (I assume that is the continent of North America.) but that doesn’t seem to warrant the inclusion of the whole region we now know as Alaska.
      ‘… the dispensation and grace of God.’ What is that about?

      Bio: 4th paragraph.
      ‘… and translated into it the Gospel of Matthew …’ Into it? He devised a Cyrillic alphabet and translated the Gospel of Matthew into it? Would it not be better to say: He desivsed a Cyrillic alphabet for the Aleut language and translated the Gospel of Matthew … ?

  3. Regarding the collect:

    What exactly is meant by “to proclaim the dispensation of God”? Is it a sly reference to dispensationalist philosophy or something more Orthodox?

    I have to disagree with Mr. Arnold: I’m not a big fan of the faux-Orthodox sound of this collect at the beginning and the end: it seems weird to me to translate the standard “in saecula saeculorum” differently here than in every other collect particularly when English speaking Orthodox (in my experience) use Cranmer’s standard “world without end” or “throughout all ages world without end” if more syllables are needed to fit a chant. (I know it’s not actually a translation here because this was composed in English, but you know what I mean)

    The middle of the collect, however, is one of the best new collects in HWHM to my ear.

  4. Grace, according to a website called, John became a monk in 1840 and, like many monastics (Eastern and Western) took on a new name, Innocent. in honor of Innocent, first bishop of Irkutsk, the province of Russia where John/Innocent was born.

  5. The subtitle should be changed to (say): “Missionary & Evangelist”. That he was a bishop isn’t the point.

    Line 1, first paragraph: substitute “on August 26,” for “in” after “born”.

  6. The Orthodox Church in America website provides a biography of Fr. John Evseyevich Popov-Veniaminov, later Bishop Innocent, which fills in many of the missing gaps from the one in HWHM. The biography which appears in HWHM seems to paraphrase and even copy the language of the OCA biography. The OCA biography has the “why he is important” statement–“Father John Veniaminov’s contemporaries record that the natives loved their teacher and illuminator like a real father, since he was indeed both benefactor and father, teacher and patron to his spiritual children that he had saved for Christ. ”

    When the biography mentions the work of Fr. John among the Tlingit, it might be interesting to note that Father Veniaminov won the confidence of the Tlingit chiefs by introducing smallpox vaccine to them in 1836 and saving many lives when a smallpox epidemic reached the New Archangel/Sitka area.

    It would be helpful to know that Bishop and later Archbishop Innocent had his diocese expanded to include much of Asian artic Russia by 1850.

    The bio does not tell us the Innocent died March 31, 1879 in Moscow.

  7. Having used this commemoration at our Weds evening Eucharist, I heartily second John LaVoe’s call for pronunciation help. Since this was a new commemoration, I read the bio as pary of my homily, and it was very awkward to mess up the names of people, places, even though I thought I had prepared.

  8. I echo the comment about “dispensation of God”; it sounds like a technical theological term. A pronounciation guideline is crucial–I also used this commemoration for a Wednesday Eucharist, and it was very difficult to present. I also supplimented the information–if we’re going to have him in the calendar, we need more detail about why he is significant, why he is called Innocent, etc.

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