Recently, our catalogue received an order for two hand-painted icons of Olga of Alaska. When we accepted the order, we did not know much about this 20th-century saint. We did our research, and are excited to share with you the details of her righteous life and the miracles attributed to her.
Orthodoxy has been around in Alaska since the 18th century. It was brought here by a mission of the Russian Orthodox Church. The mission’s monks preached among the local indigenous people and translated the Scripture and liturgical texts into the local languages, bringing many to Christ and educating the local clergy. Some prominent preachers of Christianity in Alaska were Holy Venerable Herman of Alaska and Bishop Innocent. At the end of the 19th century, Russia sold Alaska to the United States, and gradually, Protestant missions came to prevail in this land. However, Orthodox life has continued there to the present day, with around ninety active Orthodox parishes.
On 3 February 1916, a girl named Arrsamquq was born into an indigenous Alaskan family of Yupik origin. The presence of the Russian mission in her community helped spread the faith among the local people, and she was among the first to be baptised as an infant. At baptism, she accepted the name Olga. From a very young age, she lived with the love of God. She was hard-working and prayed a lot for her family and her fellow villagers. By her teenage years, she already knew multiple liturgical texts and hymns in the church Slavonic and Yupik languages.
She married a man from her village. It was an arranged marriage. Her husband was adept at fishing and hunting. He established a general store and opened the first post office in his village. However, he was not a particularly churchly man. During the first years of their marriage, they had a troubled relationship filled with strife and arguments. But Olga did not despair. Instead, she prayed vehemently for her husband and her non-believing neighbours. Through her prayers, After a time, her husband — baptised with the name Nicolay — began to attend church. He brought six other men from the village with him. They all became readers. Nicolay Michael went on to study at so called “Aleut School”, similar to those that were founded by Saint Innocent with the support of the Russian Missionary Society, in Sitka. He studied under the direction of Bishop Amvrossy (Merejko). After graduation, he was ordained into the priesthood. From 1963, he was a priest for Kwetluk. He was the second priest in his village Kwetluk and became greatly beloved by his people. Incidentally, throughout the lifetime of Saint Olga, the great majority of the students who went this School came from her tiny village.
The couple’s married life changed significantly after Nicolai’s ordination. As a priest, Nicolai Michael travelled extensively to twelve surrounding villages to conduct services and occasional offices. Travel between the villages was done on rivers, by boat in the summer or by snow machines or dog-driven sledges in the winter. Matushka Olga, who was the only able midwife around, accompanied her husband to assist the women in childbirth and ailments. Olga gave birth to thirteen of her children without a midwife. Five of them did not survive to adulthood because of illness and a harsh climate.
Matushka Olga Michael worked hard keeping house, raising children, making vestments and baking prosphoras. Despite her busy schedule, she would also go to the homes of others to cook and clean for them. With word and deed, Olga showed people the example of Christian life according to Lord’s commandments. Not only did she help others with their housekeeping, but she also made boots, parkas, socks and mittens to distribute among the parishioners. For her acts of charity, she was nicknamed the new righteous Tabitha. She was particularly mindful of the troubled women who suffered from domestic violence. She would often ask women in her village to take a steam bath with her, where they could not hide the physical and spiritual scars of the abuse done to them. She counselled the women and said words of reassurance to each. Her compassion and sensitivity struck many as if she had lived through the same situation in her life.
As she was growing older, her daughters were assuming more of her workload. The hard-working Matushka Olga had more time to travel with her husband, help the people from the surrounding villages and teach midwifery skills to younger women.
Eventually, however, Matushka Olga began to feel weak and ill and lose weight. Her concerned family persuaded her to go to hospital. The specialists there diagnosed terminal cancer which they said was beyond treatment. Her children received the news with much grief and prayed vehemently at the local holy places. As for the Matushka, was not resigned to her bed rest. While her daughters were away, she continued to go outside, hauling buckets of water from the village well.
In the last days of her life, she prayed a lot and left her last instructions to her family in preparation for her peaceful repose. On 8 November 1979, she partook of the Holy Sacraments, crossed herself and departed peacefully to God. She was buried in her wedding gown, which she had kept throughout her life.
Her death coincided with the feast day of Archangel Michael (the Old Calendar) whom she revered. The people from her village remembered her standing under the icon of Archangel Michael at church.
The first miracle attributed to her was reported on the day of the saint’s interment. In Alaska, the month of November is the height of the winter season. By the time of her death, the rivers had already frozen over to preclude travel by boat, but the ice was still not strong enough to support a snow machine. Many people lamented not being able to bid their last farewells to their beloved Matushka. The Lord heard their prayers. On the day of her funeral, there was a thaw. The ice on the river melted, enabling many people to come to Kwetluk by boat to attend her funeral. As her body was being carried to the grave, summer birds were hovering over the procession. Even the soil in the graveyard had softened. On the next day, the cold weather returned and ice covered the river. Winter was back.
She also continued to intercede for needy women. A woman from her village saw the Matushka in her dream. She told her that her mother had a terminal illness and reassured her that her mother was departing to heaven. The woman saw her mother before her death and helped her prepare for her peaceful repose.
A woman who suffered from the trauma of sexual abuse reported another miracle with Matushka Olga. One day as she was praying, she began to have an intense flashback of her sexual abuse as a child. She pleaded with the Mother of God for her help. Little by little, she went into a trance and saw herself walking in a forest. A gentle wave of tenderness began to sweep through the woods followed by a fresh garden scent. She saw the Virgin Mary, dressed as she was in an icon, but more natural-looking and brighter, walking toward her. As she came closer she was aware of someone walking behind her. She was one of the indigenous people of the North. The Mother of God said that it was Saint Olga. Saint Olga gestured for the woman to follow her to a little hill that had a door cut into the side. Mother Olga helped her up on a bed and rubbed something on her belly. It looked five months pregnant (although she was not pregnant in reality). Mother Olga pretended to labour with her. She pushed out something like an afterbirth, and she was filled with wellness and a sense of quiet entered her soul. As the woman recalled, Saint Olga’s eyes spoke with great tenderness and understanding. It was the kind of loving gaze from a mother to an infant that connects and welcomes a baby to life. Only after this did Holy Mother Olga speak. “The people who hurt you thought they could make me carry their evil inside of you by rape. That’s a lie. The only thing they could put inside you was the seed of life which is a creation of God and cannot pollute anyone.” At the end of this healing time, they went outside together. The sky was all shimmer with a moving veil of light. At that moment, the woman heard in her heart that this moving curtain of light was a promise that God can create great beauty from complete desolation and nothingness.
With this wondrous moving curtain of light, Saint Olga O Michael, a humble Matushka from Alaska has illuminated the lives of the people around her. In the first lines of her Akathist, we read: “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.” Although this locally revered saint still awaits her official canonisation, we still invoke her prayers for the healing and reassurance of every pious woman, midwife and everyone in need.