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History and Future of the Seminary

The Beginning:

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.

19th Century:

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.

20th Century:

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.

21st Century:

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.

Mission of St. Herman Seminary

St. Herman Orthodox Theological Seminary is a school of theology of the Orthodox Church in America permanently located within the Diocese of Sitka and Alaska, under the canonical jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church in America. Its primary purpose is to provide adequate education for clergy candidates, lay church leaders, and educators in the Diocese. The program emphasizes particularly Orthodox theology, general education on the undergraduate level, and those particular skills (e.g., music, reading, etc.) that are necessary for Church work in the Diocese of Alaska.

The seminary fulfills its most basic purpose, remaining true to its historic missionary heritage. In particular, the seminary seeks to continue the heroic educational and evangelistic work begun by Ss. Herman, Innocent, Yakov, and the host of dedicated clergy and laity who struggled to increase the presence of Holy Orthodoxy in Alaska.

The primary objective of the seminary remains the education and, as God wills, the ordination of spiritually mature Orthodox Christian men to the Holy Diaconate and Priesthood. The seminary also provides the necessary theological, liturgical, and moral foundations nurturing various vocations. The Church in Alaska seeks to retain a full complement of indigenous clergy and laity to fulfill Her purpose. Therefore, the seminary curriculum is arranged to prepare readers, catechists, religious educators, and counselors, as well as deacons and priests.

These objectives are met through 2-year and 4-year diploma programs in which a theological education is provided in residence. Graduates will be equipped to enhance the quality of spiritual, moral, educational, and social values in their communities.

Objectives specific to St. Herman Seminary are outlined as follows:

  • To prepare worthy candidates for the Holy Priesthood and Diaconate within the Orthodox Christian Church.
  • To train students to assume responsibilities of a Church Reader, who can lead services in the absence of clergy.
  • To prepare worthy candidates for positions of leadership and as religious educators in their worship communities.
  • To prepare substance abuse counselors for service to their communities.

Formational Philosophy
Preparation for service to the Church, as clergy or laity, requires students to live as Orthodox Christians. The Church affirms mankind’s creation by God and therefore the fullness of humanity is achieved through communion with God. Knowledge of God is revealed in prayerful study of the Faith and a life of active virtue. Students must demonstrate godly attributes: love, patience, goodness, faithfulness, and self control. Seminary life provides ample opportunity to develop these virtues, so that the vision and values of Orthodox Christianity are not only the subject matter of coursework, but increasingly a way of life. The seminary trains its students in this practical theology.

St. Herman Seminary is committed to an understanding of theological education, which includes all aspects of the person. The person, according to the Orthodox Christian Faith, possesses infinite value, being created in the image and likeness of God. Worship is at the very heart of an Orthodox Christian’s being and life, especially those called to teach and preach. Active participation in daily worship is integral to the Orthodox Christian worldview. True education is fulfilled in worship. Worship is indeed instructive. Students should not only understand but delight in the liturgical life of the Church. Students preparing for service to the Church are held to the same ecclesiastical regulations, moral standards, and models of behavior as are expected of those ordained in the Church.

As a missionary institution of the Diocese of Alaska, the seminary is intensely interested and committed to enhancing and strengthening Native Alaskan languages and cultures, particularly as these have merged with the expression and propagation of Holy Orthodoxy. The seminary fulfills the commission of the Church to be incarnational, bearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people. The Seminary faculty encourages research projects and programs in the field of Alaskan Native culture embracing the Church.

The seminary is committed to combating the various social problems that plague society, and Alaskan communities in particular. Valuing personhood as a unity of soul and body, the Church is concerned with the health and eternal salvation of the whole person. Courses in counseling disciplines, together with discussion, lectures, and seminars relating to public health and social policy, constitute another element of the seminary curriculum.

Not only does the seminary provide an education in preparation for ministry, it also nurtures the students’ entire families in residence. While students receive their education, their families must be supported. By fostering the families’ wellness and wholeness, the Seminary improves the quality of student life and of the students’ future ministry. The seminary is aware of the place family holds. Familial themes pervade the letters of St. Paul; Christians are bound together as members of one Body. The seminary strives to fulfill this calling.