The Enlightener of Alaska: St. Jacob Netsvetov 1802-1864

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”    (Matthew 28:19-20)

If you examine a map of Alaska, from the southwest corner of the state there seems to be a tail attached composed of a string of islands known as the Aleutian Islands.   Here, on the remote island of Atka was born Jacob Netsvetov, who was to become a successor of the apostles as he fulfilled the Lord’s final command:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….”

St. Jacob Netsvetov, the Enlightener of Alaska, was born of a Russian father – Yegor and a mother – Maria who was a native Alaskan, member of the Aleut tribe.  Despite their limited resources and the remote location of their home, his parents raised their four children in a pious Orthodox home and ensured that each was well educated.  While Jacob’s brother became successful as a Russian naval officer and another a ship builder, he desired a greater kind of success:  For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  (Matthew 16:26)   Jacob entered the Irkutsk Theological Seminary in Siberia, Russia to prepare for the Holy Priesthood.  He married a woman named Anna Simeonovna and was ordained deacon in 1826 and then priest in 1828, the first native Alaskan ordained to the holy priesthood.  He was ordained by the same bishop – Archbishop Michael – who earlier ordained St. Innocent Veniaminov – the Apostle of America.  While Father Jacob with his Matushka could have remained in Russia and lived a comfortable life as a parish priest, his heart desired to return to his own people on Atka Island and Alaska.  Archbishop Michael blessed him on his missionary journey and provided him with two antimensia (embroided cloth containing the relic of a martyr needed for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy):  one for the church of St. Nicholas in Atka and one to be used in his missionary journeys. 

Back to Alaska

After a Moleben for safe travel, Father Jacob, Matushka Anna and his father Yegor, now a tonsured reader, set off for Atka, arriving on June 15, 1829 after a journey of an entire year.  Father Jacob’s new parish consisted of a 2,000 mile region consisting of several Aleutian Islands.  Even today this region is remote and difficult to reach:   a 1970s article in the New York Times warned “Atka is about as remote as you can get”.  Father Jacob threw himself into ministry, having the benefit of being able to communicate in both Russian and in the native Aleut language and with a knowledge and comfort in both cultures.  When he arrived on Atka, there was an unfinished church building so Father Jacob constructed a tent in which to hold services, like a new St. Paul who himself was a tent maker.  Later the priest would take this tent with him on his missionary journeys throughout the region, like a new Moses who fashioned a tent for the Lord’s Tabernacle as the Hebrews journeyed to the Promised Land.

Once the new St. Nicholas Church was completed, Father Jacob opened a school for the island’s children and along with the cycle of liturgical services, worked on translating the Holy Scriptures and other works into the native Unangan-Aleut language.  Father Jacob would travel throughout his “parish” to teach the Gospel and minister to his flock, going from island to island paddling in a baidarka (native kayak) or aboard on of the ships owned by the Russian-American Company.  Father Jacob kept detailed journals of his life and ministry.  In one entry, he described the harsh conditions he endured on his pastoral journeys:

The wind grew stronger…and we were forced to go ashore and spend the night, though I had nothing with me which could provide us with shelter:  I had hoped to reach my destination this very same day and did not take along the tent, nor even necessary provisions, except some bread and tea.  It was imperative, though, to find shelter, as the wind blew ferociously and was accompanied by a thick snowfall.  In such an extreme, left to myself, I would have been totally helpless, but the Aleuts, experienced in facing such hardship…found the means to construct a lean-to out of the baidarka mats.  We covered this lean-to with grass, which it was very difficult to locate underneath the snow, and we piled up on top the snow  Here we sheltered, myself and my companions  8 persons in all…It was impossible to make the cooking fire in the open so we made it inside the same lean-to, and though we had to sit amidst the smoke, we drank our fill of tea and bread.  Toward the evening, the wind began to slacken, but the snow continued.  However, I was not able to bear my confinement any longer, and emerged to walk along the shore. 


Father Jacob endured multiple personal tragedies in 1836:  his Matushka Anna died of cancer in March, then in July his house burned to the ground and his beloved father Yegor died in 1837.  Overwhelmed by grief, Father Jacob petitioned his bishop in Irkutsk to retire from his parish and to take up the monastic life at a monastery in Russia.   The bishop’s reply was positive:  permission granted upon the arrival of a replacement.  Father Jacob continued his ministry, paddling from island to island as he waited patiently for a priest to arrive to replace him.  A replacement to the remote region never arrived! 

A New Mission

Around 1841, the first bishop consecrated for Alaska – Bishop Innocent Veniaminov -  stopped at Atka and spent three days with Father Jacob.   (see:  St. Innocent, Apostle to America:  see “Orthodox Reading Room”  “Lives of the Saints)   While the details of their conversation is unknown, it seems that the bishop encouraged the priest not to depart to a monastery but to continue his apostolic work. Shortly after the visit with his new bishop, Father Jacob announced that he would be leaving Atka Island for a new missionary venture on the mainland of Alaska.  In 1844, Father Jacob arrived in the Yupik Eskimo village of Ikogmiute on the Yukon River, today known as “Russian Mission”.   As on Atka, Father Jacob’s new parish consisted of hundreds of miles up and down the Yukon River.  Here he learned a new language – Yupik and invented an alphabet for the Yupik people and began the work of translating the Holy Scriptures and the liturgical services.

Much like his missionary work in the Aleutian Island, his missionary work continued here on the Alaskan mainland.  In his journals, he describes his apostolic work:

July 14, 1845:

“The Missionary preached the Word of God, both to those who had been baptized in the past (in the years 1843 and 1844) and to the heathen.  As a consequence 13 Malemiut, 14 Chniagmiut and 9 Kvikhpagmiut, a total of 36 souls of both sexes, having accepted the Word of God and belief in Jesus Christ, and having stated their desire, received Holy Baptism.

November 30, 1845:

We started early in the morning, and about 9:00 arrived at the next village – Ukhagmiut.  After we settled here for the time being, all inhabitants assembled and the Missionary preached the Word of God until midday.  As a result, the people accepted the Word and came to believe in the Savior Jesus Christ.  Afterwards, about one o’clock we went on our way.  We came to the next village, Kalikagmiut where we stopped for the night….the Missionary preached the Word of God, but here the preaching encountered more resistance and opposing views, because the local toion was also the chief shaman.  Answering for all, he contradicted and at first resisted with exceptional strength, but later on, through the clear, logical arguments and disproof of his false opinions, he became convinced.  He fell silent, then agreed in all things, accepted the Word and came to believe.  After him, many expressed their faith without doubt.  Thus, my lengthy preaching ended about midnight.

Father Jacob’s ministry took place under the most difficult conditions as he himself described in another journal entry: 

January 18, 1848: 

It is very difficult, almost impossible, to stay in the local chapel while such cold as is occurring now lasts, because the chapel lacks either a stove or fireplace.  Therefore, all other activities, even the baptism, instruction and other church services, I conduct in the house where I am living.  Only the Liturgy I performed in the chapel, which on the previous day is heated by hot stones, that is the stones are heated red-hot outside, then carried into the chapel and placed in the corner on a special platform…This makes the cold somewhat bearable enabling me to act the necessary span of time. 

Father Jacob cared for not only for the spiritual welfare of his people but also for their daily needs.

March 2, 1848:

Today, while I myself was severely ill, we received the unpleasant news from Nukhliuagmiut that it had been struck by an alleged epidemic, that several people are so ill that they cannot even stand.  …I decided to dispatch my sacristan, collected all the medicines I had for treatment of illnesses, instructed him in the curing of sickness and what to say and sent him off in the afternoon.  I myself being in bear of my own illness and besides not knowing what else will transpire, I remained hoping and relying not so much on medicines and cures as on faith, even if it is not their faith.  I prayed to God that He should grant them according to the faith, healing.

March 6, 1848:

Today the sacristan dispatched by me returned in the evening.  He reported that the medicines I sent almost all had beneficial effect.  Almost every person given medicine in according with prescription was better…Having received this news upon his return, I thanked God. Only my illness remains.


Father Jacob’s health continued to decline over the years, his journals are full of reports of his increasing debility:

April 17, 1850:

Continued to hold church services, but with great effort due to illness.  The heavy cough  and pain interfered with my effort to stand properly, even though I held services in the house.  These days the wind freshened even more and the cold increased to below 10 degrees.  It is yet impossible to put up the church tent. As the Lord predicted,  all who seek to serve Him, will be attacked by the devil.

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.  Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. (John 15:18-20)

And so the evil one took aim at the holy priest.  In 1863 one of Father Jacob’s assistants brought serious moral charges against the him.  Father Jacob was summoned to the Diocesan headquarters in Sitka to answer these charges in front of his bishop.  While he was quickly cleared of any impropriety, his health continued to deteriorate and he remained in Sitka serving as the priest in a chapel for the Tlingit natives.  He fell asleep in the Lord on July 26, 1864 and was buried near the front entry of the chapel. 

St. Innocent Veniaminov, the Apostle of America, in 1853 issued a set of instructions to new missionaries.  His opening words describe completely the life and ministry of St. Jacob Netsvetov, Enlightener of Alaska:

To leave one’s native country and seek places remote, wild, devoid of many of the comforts of life, for the sake of turning to the path of truth men who are still wandering in the darkness of ignorance, and of illumining with the light of the Gospel them that have not yet beheld  this saving light – this is an act truly holy and apostolic. Blessed he whom the Lord selects and appoints to such a ministry!

- Father Edward Pehanich