The American Martyrs

From the very beginning of the Church, Christians have honored their holy martyrs – those brave men and women who accepted death rather than deny their Lord Jesus.  One of the earliest examples of this veneration of martyrs is an ancient Christian document known as The Martyrdom of Polycarp which tells the story of a Christian bishop who was a direct disciple of the Apostle John the Evangelist and who was martyred in the year 165 A.D.  But for us in 21st century America martyrs are often distant figures from another generation and another place.  We honor the memory of St. George and St. Demetrios but they lived long ago and far away.  However our land of America has been blessed by several holy men who accepted martyrdom for their faith in Jesus Christ:  some who met death on our shores and some who ministered here and then met martyrdom when they returned to their native lands.  Others are honored as confessors:  that is those who suffered for their faith in Christ but had peaceful deaths. 

 Martyrs of Alaska

St. Juvenaly:   The first to bless the land of America by his death for Christ was the Priest/Monk Juvenaly of Alaska.  Father Juvenaly was part of the first group of Orthodox missionaries sent in 1794 to the Russian colony of Alaska to evangelize the natives.  (A group which included St. Herman of Alaska).  The missionaries quickly went to work teaching the Faith to the Alaskan natives and within two years more than 12,000 were brought to faith in Christ.  Father Juvenaly continued this missionary work in the interior of Alaska in 1796 and was never heard from again.  No physical evidence of his disappearance was ever found but an oral tradition among the natives peoples says he was killed by natives, thus becoming the Protomartyr of America. 

St. Peter the Aleut:   Little is known of the life of this young Alaskan native, member of the Aleut tribe.  He was a native of Kodiak Island and was baptized into the Orthodox Faith by the original Alaskan missionaries.  While traveling with Russian traders in California he was captured by Spanish soldiers near San Pedro and was tortured and killed in 1815 when he refused to renounce Orthodoxy and accept the Roman Catholic faith.  When St. Herman of Alaska was informed of this incident he prayed:  “Holy New Martyr Peter pray to God for us!”

Missionary Martyrs & Confessors

While St. Juvenaly and St. Peter are the only two martyrs to face death on the American continent, there are many other priests and bishops who labored in America among the Orthodox immigrants only to later return to their native lands and to suffer and sometimes die for Christ.

St. John of Chicago   Following his ordination as a priest in Russia in 1895 the young Father John Kochurov and his wife Alexandra arrived in Chicago to begin his ministry establishing parishes in several states.    In 1903 he began the construction of Holy Trinity Cathedral designed by the famed architect Louis Sullivan.  After over a decade of ministry in America he asked to return to his homeland where he continued serving as a priest in Estonia and later St. Petersburg, Russia.  On October 31, 1917 as the Communists took control of the city he was arrested, dragged to the outskirts of the city and brutally shot to death as his teenaged son helplessly looked on.  His cathedral was demolished and a statue of Lenin put in its place. 

St. Alexander of New York  Much like St. John Kochurov, Alexander Hotovitsky  began his life in his native Russia, arriving to serve the American mission in 1895.  He was ordained as a priest in 1896 in San Francisco following his marriage to Maria Scherbuhina.  Following ordination he became the pastor of the Orthodox congregation in New York City, overseeing the construction of St. Nicholas Cathedral on 97th Street.  Through his efforts Orthodox parishes were established in cities and town throughout the Northeast United States.  After eighteen years in America he returned to his homeland, serving first in Helsinki, Finland and then to Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.  With the start of the Communist Revolution in 1917 he was arrested and released several times.  He was finally arrested again in 1937 and died in a prison camp under unknown circumstances.

St. Patriarch Tikhon arrived in the United States as a newly ordained bishop to oversee the American Orthodox mission.  He spent the next 9 years crisscrossing the country as he visited parishes and missions and established the first Orthodox monastery and orphanage in South Canaan, Pennsylvania.  He organized the American mission as a multi-ethnic Orthodox diocese with a vicar bishop and priest overseeing ministry among Arabs and Serbs.  Returning to Russia in 1907, he was elected as the Patriarch of Russia in 1917 in the midst of the Russian Revolution.  He was arrested by the Communists and placed under house arrest and died under suspicious circumstances in 1925.    

St. Basil Martysz  was born in what is today part of Poland in 1874, was married and ordained a priest in 1900.  He and his wife immediately departed for the American mission serving first in Alaska then serving in Osceola Mills and Old Forge, Pennsylvania and later parishes in Connecticut and Canada.  He turned to his Polish homeland in 1912 continuing his priestly ministry and serving as a military chaplain.  During the final days of World War II robbers broke into his home, tortured the elderly priest and his pregnant daughter finally shooting him dead.  His only crime – he was an Orthodox priest. 

St. Barnabas Nastic was born in Gary, Indiana in 1914 to Serbian immigrant parents.  When he was a child his parents returned to their native land where he graduated seminary in 1937 and took monastic vows in 1940.  Father Barnabas was elected bishop in 1947 and was soon arrested by the Communists authorities, sentenced to 20 years in prison.  Because he spoke English, he was accused of being an American spy.  He was tortured, starved and kept in isolation in prison while there he was heard to be praying and singing hymns.  He was released from prison in 1960 and died under suspicious circumstances in 1964. 

St. Anatole Kamensky  Father Anatole was married and ordained a priest in Russia in 1888.  Following the death of his wife he was tonsured a monk in 1895 and arrived soon afterward to serve the mission in Alaska.  He was the dean of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka and later helped establish the first Orthodox seminary in Minneapolis in 1897.  He returned to Russia in 1903 and was consecrated as a bishop in 1906.  He was arrested by the Communists in 1922 and sentenced to be executed.  The sentenced was reduced to ten years imprisonment but was released in 1924.  He died peacefully in 1925 and was glorified as a confessor of the Faith by the Orthodox Church of Russia. 

St. Seraphim Samuelovich of Uglich  Like many of these martyrs and confessors, Father Seraphim began his life in Russia and following seminary he arrived in 1902 to serve the American mission.  He was ordained a priest in 1906 and began his ministry in Alaska.  With his health affected by the harsh Alaskan climate, he returned to Russia in 1908.  In 1920 he was consecrated bishop by the Holy Patriarch St. Tikhon.  He was arrested and released by the Communists several times beginning in 1922 including a sentence of five years at hard labor in a prison camp in 1929.  He died in exile in Siberia under unknown circumstances. 

Our Examples

Where did these men get the courage to willingly lay down their lives because of their devotion to Christ?  What inner power or strength did they possess?  A story that is passed down from the 3rd century A.D. gives us the answer.  The year was 203 and the place was the city of Carthage in north Africa.  A group of Christians faced martyrdom in the Roman arena.  Among them was a slave girl named Felicity who was pregnant.  She would not be fed to the wild animals until after the birth of her baby.  There is an ancient document in existence which records what happened. 

As Felicity suffered much in her labor, one of the prison guards said to her:  ‘You suffer so much now – what will you do when you are tossed to the wild beasts?
Felicity replied:  ‘What I am suffering now in childbirth I suffer for myself.  But then Another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for Him.
“Another will be inside me...” 

At some point in her life, Felicity, like all of these martyrs, surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus, it was He who was living in her. These courageous men and women believed the words of the Bible:

You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater
than he who is in the world.  
(1 John 4:4)

No Roman sword or wild animal, no Communist rifle could cause them to waver in their Faith, Christ was living in them and it was He who sustained them to the very end. 

And us?  Have we submitted our lives to Jesus as our Lord?  We are reminded to do this over and over in the Divine Litugy:  “...let us commend ourselves, each other, and all of our lives unto Christ our God.  Have we surrendered our very selves to Him or we content to be “church members”.  We may never have to face persecution and death for Jesus but whatever difficulty we do face in life there is power to face all things if we give our lives wholly to the Lord Jesus and He is living in us.  As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians:  “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength”.  (Philippians 4:13)

- Father Edward Pehanich