St. Herman of Alaska, whose repose we commemorate today, would be proud. In the seminary named after him in Kodiak, Alaska, native women from tribes throughout the state gather to gain the knowledge and experience they need to contribute to the spiritual health of their villages.
Orthodox Christianity took root in Alaska while it was part of the Russian Empire. St. Herman, the humble monk from Valaam, became the protector of native peoples in this northern state—both during his lifetime and after his blessed repose, which took place in the presence of his Aleutian orphans. Now the servants of St. Herman at the St. Herman Theological Seminary continue to nurture Christ’s flock in the northern wilds.
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In 2010, Mother Gabriella, an Alaska-based monastic with the Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America, was enrolled into St. Herman Seminary. Soon after, the Dean of the Seminary, Father John Dunlop, well aware of her extensive monastic experience, suggested that she started, just once a week, women’s Bible studies and women-led vespers. According to Mother Gabriella, the project was started simply as “a support group meant to provide information and camaraderie for women at the Seminary.” Now, five years later, the project has transformed itself into a well-established institution: every Tuesday evening, Matushkas (priest’s wives), seminary wives, and female seminarians put their housework or homework aside and join Mother Gabriella for vespers at the Seminary Chapel. After vespers, they check on kids at home, feed the hungry husbands, and then go to St. Matthew’s classroom, where they first pray, then socialize with other women over tea and cookies, then read the Bible together or, in teams (!), make presentations about female Orthodox Saints. At the end of the session, they always sing Akathist to the Mother of God.
Mother Gabriella admits that the project has expanded from “simply reading the Gospel together to learning to read and sing in church.” At first, the format of the meetings resembled more of a class setting; these days, however, women first have tea, discuss news, and share problems. Also, Mother Gabriella has recently started the study of the lives of female Orthodox Saints, specifically the patron saints of attending women. It is thanks to this decision that Matushka Teresa will celebrate her first Saint’s Day this year! Also, Mother Gabriella has introduced “themes.” This year’s theme, for example, is “Women Serving the Church.” Mother Gabriella strongly feels that the first step in this service is “to know the Gospel, know the life of Jesus Christ, and know what it means to be a Christian. Out of that, through readings or through learning about female Saints, a personal spiritual life can be deepened or developed.”
At first, Mother Gabriella did not have much feedback, and so she was not sure whether the women were interested or they felt forced to come. It was only later that she found out that most of them really enjoyed coming and having “the night for themselves.” Also, fathers of the families were stepping up and making it possible for their wives to be in church and in class. The transformation of village-shy Matushkas into knowledgeable church readers could not happen overnight, however: gaining the confidence to speak loudly was the first step. At the same time, according to Mother Gabriella, who plays the multiple (unofficial) roles of a tone tutor, choir director, liturgics, Old and New Testaments instructor, it does help to have only women around, so that everybody in the group can “feel free to make mistakes.”
Most of the attendees, like Matushka Teresa Isaac, who has now attended the meetings for more than four years, have not had any significant Bible reading experience before, and so reading whole chapters from the Gospel of Matthew was, in a way, new to her. To help the inexperienced, Mother Gabriella, through the Seminary, ordered dictionaries and encouraged the women to write down sentences or passages they did not understand, so that they could discuss them together in class. Even those coming from a long-standing Moravian tradition of women’s Bible studies, like Matushka Sophie Larson, found the meetings extremely useful, for she could keep “learning Orthodoxy” from Mother Gabriella.
Over the years, the dynamics in the group has changed: it is now the “seniors” of the group, Matushka Teresa and Matushka Sophie who are encouraging the “freshmen” Matushkas and female seminarians to learn. As Matushka Teresa puts it, “Once you leave here and go to your parish, they expect you to know everything, especially how the services are put together, how the tones are sung… Without this knowledge, I felt embarrassed… And that is why I try to tell other ladies at the Seminary how important it is to learn the order of services and the tones before they leave. I encourage them to take classes.”
For a couple of years now, the group has been doing an intercessory prayer for one another and for families by singing a portion of the Akathist to the Theotokos. At this point, most women know it and can sing it by themselves or let others in their new parish join them. As for having fun, “we laugh a lot,” says Mother Gabriella. “Also, we always have tea. Occasionally, we go by boat to St. Nilus Island. In fact, nuns from St. Nilus Skete and monks from St. Michael’s Skete pray every day and every week for every seminarian and all of their family members.”
Mother Gabriella also pointed out that the faculty of the seminary (Father John Dunlop, Matushka Bea Dunlop, Deacon Irenaios, Matushka Roseann Rucker) have been very supportive of Women’s Bible Studies. For many years, every spring, Mary Ann Khoury (Outreach Alaska) has provided a sumptuous lunch for seminary wives and female students. Also, experienced Matushkas from and outside Kodiak parish (Matushka Marilyn Kreta, Matushka Daria Trefon, Matushka Susan Philo) gave talks on the topics of raising children and having a balanced family life while serving the Church. As for Bishop David, during his November visit to Kodiak, he attended the almost two-hour long meeting of the Women’s Group, gave a talk, sang Akathist together with the women, and, in the end, said that he would like to come again! “The Bishop does feel,” says Mother Gabriella, “that it is important for mothers, grandmothers, and young women to be involved in the life of the Church.”
Excited about the growing number of female seminarians at St. Herman’s, Mother Gabriella ascribes this phenomenon to the positive role-modelling of the group participants when they go back home for the summer: “people see how much they’ve changed, how much they’ve learned, and how much they have to offer to their village and to their church. The priests themselves cannot do everything: we need catechists, we need singers, we need people who just know their faith and can uphold and pass on this faith for the next generation. And these ladies have so much to give back to their villages, their churches, and to the Diocese as a whole!”
Mother Gabriella encourages all Orthodox women in the villages to come to the seminary and explore their faith, learn how to be of service to others around them and how to embrace a sober, communal lifestyle. “It seems difficult because you have to give it all you’ve got—it is difficult but it is not impossible! Besides, you will be given incredible support.” She also wishes that women at the Seminary would not put on hold their own education till they have gone back home. “Ask your questions now! Utilize what is here now! Think about things! Reach out for knowledge, reach out for understanding!”