St. Herman Seminary’s identity is joined with that of its patron, St. Herman, the first recognized Saint of North America. Father Herman was a monk from Valaam Monastery in northwestern Russia and original member of the first missionary team to North America. He devoted his life and work to the propagation of the Faith in the Kodiak Archipelago. Father Herman’s ministry included beginning a school for orphaned children on Spruce Island. Not only did Father Herman devote hours instilling the basic principles of the Orthodox Christian Faith, he taught agricultural techniques, carpentry skills, and other practical craftsmanship. Father Herman was canonized at Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Kodiak on August 9, 1970.
In 1804, Hieromonk Gideon started the first bilingual program in Alaska. In 1826, the famous missionary and teacher, Father John Veniaminov, founded a parochial school at Unalaska where students were taught in Russian and Unangan (Fox Aleut). Father Jacob Netsvetov, of Russian and Unangan descent, followed the same pattern when he began classes on Atka in 1828. Fr. John’s ministry continued when he took monastic vows, receiving the name Innocent. He was elected bishop of Alaska in 1840. Bishop Innocent established the “All Colonial School” in Sitka, where natives were educated not only as clergy for the diocese, but also as accountants, storekeepers, sailors, artists, cartographers, and medical personnel. Later a similar school opened at Unalaska. At the time of the sale of Alaska, the Orthodox Christian Church was operating schools at Atka, Unalaska, Sitka, Belkovsky, and Kodiak. Nearly thirty schools—financed by the Russian Missionary Society, which Metropolitan Innocent founded in 1868—staffed with Aleut teachers and clergy, were engaged in educating Alaskans. Upon the Russian Revolution in 1917, with the Bolshevik seizure of political power, funding for this missionary and educational effort suddenly ended.
For approximately half a century, no Orthodox schools functioned in Alaska. Some church leaders in a few scattered villages continued the tradition of what they called “Aleut School,” gathering the local children in the church for classes in reading and writing in both Slavonic and their native language. Some teachers were invited to Sitka for private tutorial lessons focusing on Scripture and the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. Many were ordained, while others served determinedly, without outside financial support or formal training; nevertheless, those pioneers of the faith founded and maintained churches and chapels. Difficult as these decades were, the Orthodox Mission actually expanded during the first half of the twentieth century.
Meeting at Kodiak in 1972, the Diocesan Assembly voted unanimously to establish a pastoral school for the training of Alaskan clergy. Without funds, buildings, faculty, or even a bishop, the newly arrived administrator of the diocese at the time, Archpriest Joseph Kreta, rented property at Wildwood Station, a former military facility near Kenai. St. Herman Pastoral School opened in February of 1973. Metropolitan Vladimir of Berkeley blessed the facilities. In May, Metropolitan Ireney attended the conclusion of the school’s first term. The Diocese was sent a new hierarch, Bishop Gregory (Afonsky) later that same year. In 1974 the school moved from Kenai to Kodiak. Under the new bishop’s guidance, the seminary constructed a dormitory and classroom building on its campus in Kodiak (1974). It was at that time that the Seminary was accredited as a post-secondary institution and was able to award diplomas from the State of Alaska Department of Education in September of 1973. In 1975 the Holy Synod recognized St. Herman’s as a theological school of the Orthodox Church in America.
The Pastoral School matured rapidly under the academic and spiritual care of Bishop Gregory, and in March 1977 the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America renamed the institution St. Herman Theological Seminary. The Alaska Department of Education also authorized the seminary to grant the degree of Bachelor of Sacred Theology, and in 1989 the Associate of Arts in Orthodox Theology Degree. Early in the seminary’s history, a substance abuse program was offered. An alcohol counseling training program received grant support in 1985.
With the retirement of the seminary’s first dean, Protopresbyter Joseph Kreta, in 1995 the Board of Trustees of the Seminary organized a search committee to recruit and engage a new dean. On March 7, 1996, Archpriest Michael Oleksa accepted that position. The late 1990s were difficult years for the seminary. Accreditation as an institution of higher education was replaced by state authorization under an exemption to operate as a religious institution, enrollment dwindled, and the physical plant of the seminary also was neglected. In 1999 Igumen Benjamin (Peterson) was transferred from the Diocese of the West and assigned as Administrative Dean of St. Herman Seminary. However, he was elevated to Archimandrite and in 2004 returned to the Diocese of the West, where he served as chancellor, elected auxiliary bishop of Berkeley, and elected ruling bishop of the Diocese of the West upon the retirement of Bishop Tikhon and eventually appointed locum tenens of the Diocese of Alaska.
With the departure of Archimandrite Benjamin, Archpriest Chad Hatfield was appointed the fourth dean serving the community of St. Herman Theological Seminary. When Archpriest Chad was selected as Chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 2007, Archpriest John Dunlop became Dean, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the seminary. The physical transformation of the seminary campus and the steady improvement of the academic quality of learning continue to progress. Eventually, St. Herman Seminary garnered international recognition as a theological institution of pastoral formation.
In 2019 His Eminence Archbishop DAVID set a course for the Seminary that leverages the history of the Church in Alaska and directly addresses the new challenges facing the Church in Alaska and North America. The history that is being leveraged is missions, evangelism, and spiritual and practical discipleship in Orthodox Tradition. The new challenges being faced are: the aging and shrinking of Orthodox parishes, the prevalence of substance abuse and domestic abuses, the difficulty in building cross-cultural communities, and the ability to defend the faith delivered to the saints while being infected by 21st century culture, society, and economics... and doing all that in the most geographically dispersed population and within the harshest climate in North America. Put simply, there is no more challenging place in North America to be Orthodox than in Alaska.
With that in mind, in 2019 His Eminence introduced The Reader-Excellence Challenge, followed by the Deacon-Excellence Challenge and the Priest-Excellence Challenge in 2021 and 2022 respectively. In addition to including all of the features of typical seminary curricula, these challenges shift the emphasis from 80-90% academic and 10-20% practical, to 50% academic and 50% practical. Also, these challenges focus on the parish as much as they focus on the Candidate; indeed, the Candidate is sponsored by his/her parish and is prepared to immediately enhance the vitality of the parish to which he or she will return.