Olga of Alaska, A Saint?

Olga Arrsamquq Michael 1916-1979

Alaska is one of the best places in the United States to view a spectacular, dazzling natural phenomenon known as the northern lights or aurora borealis. For Orthodox Christians, Alaska has produced spectacular spiritual lights of our Faith including St. Herman of Alaska, St. Innocent, St. Jacob Netsevetov, St. Peter the Aleut and St. Juvenaly. A new light has shone forth from the remote villages of Alaska, a native Alaskan and the wife of a priest: Olga Arrsamquq. Although not yet canonized by her Orthodox Church, she is widely venerated as Blessed Olga of Alaska, icons of her have been painted and people have reported seeing her in dreams or visions.

Early Years

On February 3, 1916 a girl was born into a family of the Yupik tribe in the village of Kwethluk and was named Arrsamquq, later given the Christian name Olga at baptism. Her family, like most of the people of the Yupik tribe, were Orthodox, her ancestors received the faith from the missionary work of the priest St. Jacob Netsvetov (1802-1864). Her early years were typical for members of this native Alaskan tribe living in a remote region of Alaska. Her family lived a life of subsistence: living off the land, fishing, hunting, gathering food. The village Orthodox Church was the center of their lives and by her teen years, Olga knew many of the church prayers and hymns from memory in both Church Slavonic and Yupik.


As was the village practice, she entered into an arranged marriage with a village man – Nicolai Michael who later established a general store in the village and became its postmaster. He was not a particularly pious man and their early years of their marriage were marked by arguments and strife. Olga prayed continually for his conversion and eventually he began to return to the practice of his Orthodox Faith. Nicholai eventually became a church reader under the direction of their Bishop Amvrossy. In 1963 Nicholai was ordained as a priest for their village and the marriage of Olga and Nicolai changed dramatically. As a priest, Father Nicolai had to travel to twelve surrounding villages to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and other services. In the summer he traveled by boat and in the winter either by snowmobile or dog sled. Matushka Olga (the name for a priest’s wife) worked as a midwife and often accompanied her husband to help women in childbirth. She is remembered as having an unusual sense to know when a woman was pregnant, especially important in a remote region with no medical facility.She herself bore thirteen children without a midwife, five of whom did not survive to adulthood.


Matushka Olga Michael worked keeping house, raising her eight children, sewing priest’s vestments and baking prosfora for the Divine Liturgy. Though she and her family were poor, they shared what they had with the villagers who were worse off. Despite the demands of her own large family she would often go to the homes of others to cook and clean for them. She sewed her own parkas, socks, mittens to distribute among the villagers. She is remembered today as “Tabitha of the North” a reference to the story of Tabitha of Joppa in Acts 9:36, an early Christian known for her works of charity. Matushka Olga worked alongside her husband, not so much in preaching and teaching the faith but living it and teaching it by her example. She knew by heart the hymns of many feast days, including Palm Sunday,Holy Week and Pascha in Yupik.

According to the stories of those who know her, she showed special care for native women who suffered physical and sexual abuse. She would invite them into the privacy of the traditional Yupik steam bath and there, with the women’s bruises and scars apparent, she extended her gentle kindness and empathy. As she grew older, her adult daughters assumed more of her household chores which freed her to spend more time traveling with her husband to churches in the nearby villages. Eventually, Olga began to experience weight loss and fatigue and was diagnosed with terminal cancer. While her family were devasted, Olga experienced a period of respite, returned home and continued her chores including hauling water from the village well. As the cancer began making its presence known, Olga gave final instructions to her family and asked to be buried in her wedding dress. On November 8, 1979 she received Holy Communion, made the Sign of the Cross and peacefully fell asleep in the Lord.

Unusual funeral

November in Alaska is at the height of the harsh winter season: the rivers are frozen preventing travel by boat but not yet solid enough to cross. While dozens of people from the surrounding parishes wanted to be with her one last time and say farewell at her funeral, travel at that time of year was dangerous if not impossible. Yet on the day of her funeral, the ice on the river melted enabling many to travel by boat to Kwethluk. As her coffin was taken in procession to the cemetery, a flock of summer birds hovered in the air, a type of bird that is not found in Alaska in the winter. Even the dirt in the cemetery softened to enable a grave to be dug. The next day, the cold weather returned, and ice covered the river. It was as if nature opened to receive the body of the righteous woman.


The story of a simple, village woman with little education from a remote village in Alaska has somehow spread around the world. There is a growing veneration of her memory not only in the United States but a monastery in the country of Belarus produces and sells icons of her. Numerous stories have been recorded of her appearing in dreams to people in need of healing, especially women who have experienced physical and sexual abuse. A woman from Ossining, New York wrote a letter to a priest in Alaska sharing her story. The woman was struggling with memories of childhood sexual abuse and prayed to Mary the Theotokos to help her. In a dream, the woman was in a birch forest, the Theotokos walked past the woman and gestured for her to follow another woman into a meadow and a house built into a small hill. Inside the house, lit by stone bowl lamps, the woman lay down on a bed of moss, and the mystery woman began to gently touch her as if she were about to give birth, though she wasn’t pregnant. The woman said she felt the darkness and years of physical and emotional abuse leave her body. In the dream, the two women then went outside and drank “tundra” tea under a night sky illuminated by the Northern Lights. That’s when the mystery woman spoke, pointing to the heavens and saying, “This is a sign from God of his ability to create great beauty where there had been only darkness and desolation.” “Who are you?” the woman shouted — to which she muttered somethingindecipherable and “Olga.”

The woman from New York wasn’t Orthodox at the time and didn’t recognize the Native woman but told her Greek Orthodox therapist about the vision. The therapist found an icon of St. Olga, the princess of Kyiv, before realizing that she must be referring to Blessed Olga of Alaska. The therapist had recently read the book “Orthodox Alaska.” The woman who had the vision then wrote a letter to Blessed Olga’s family asking for a photograph of Olga to identify her. They sent back a family photo with several other Yupik elders, and the woman identified Olga immediately.

One woman, originally from Kwethluk but now living in Arizona, had a dream in which Matushka Olga appeared, assuring her that her mother would be alright because she was coming to join her in a bright and joyful place. This woman did not know her mother was sick at the time, that she had been rushed to Anchorage, and that she would soon die. But the next day she received news of her mother’s emergency evacuation and rushed from Arizona to Alaska. The woman died in peace and with her daughter at her side.

Another story is from an Orthodox parish in Victoria, Canada. Ten women from the same parish all experienced miscarriages one summer. After their priest told them about Matushka Olga, they prayed daily asking for her intercession. The following year all the women gave birth to healthy babies. Father Michael Oleksa, a priest originally from Pennsylvania who has ministered in Alaska for more than forty years and married into a Yupik family, knew Matushka Olga while she was alive. He said: “I’ve always thought if there is anyone I’ve known in my lifetime who would be glorified a saint, it would be Matushka Olga,”

The God who makes the moving curtain of the northern lights made you as a living light,
shining in the far north and lighting up the desolate with His great beauty.
Beholding this radiance, we your children lift up our voices and sing:
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Akathist to Blessed Olga of Alaska

Father Edward Pehanich