April 26 – Stephen of Perm

Stephen of Perm (ca. 1340– 1396) was the son of a father from somewhere, and a mother from the Komi or Permic or Zyrian people, who were so ethno-linguistic that they needed three names. Born in Ustiug, Stephen served as a canonarch and reader as soon as they let him, and soon went to the seminary in Rostov, where he immersed himself in Greek so he could read the scriptures in the original Hebrew[1]. While at seminary he decided to evangelize his mother’s people.

At the time Permic, a member of the Uralic language family (which includes Hungarian, Finnish, and Nganasan (me neither)), had no written form. Rather than just try to shoehorn the Permic pronunciations into the Cyrillic alphabet, Stephen, like Cyril and Methodius centuries before, created a brand new alphabet using recycled letters—in his case from Greek and Slavonic, adding in a few “Komi tribal signs” (something like runes) to give it that authentic Zyrian flavor. (Sadly his beautiful script was replaced in the seventeenth century with a barely-augmented Cyrillic.) Having created an alphabet, he set about translating the scriptures and services. He is referred to as the founding father of Permian literature, as well as the Enlightener of Perm and Apostle to the Permians. His mom just called him Fasha. Probably. Maybe not.

That done, he sought permission to use his new alphabet, which he secured from Bishop Gerasimus of Kolomna (whom we haven’t met). He (Stephen) was made a hierodeacon as well as apostle-with-portfolio to Perm. He labored among the Zyrians (or Zariane) for seventeen years, making many converts and many enemies, as is not uncommon in such scenarios.

At one point the pagan priest Pam of Perm (you can’t make this stuff up), seeking to shame him, said, “Okay, if your god is so great, let’s see you walk through fire.” To Pam’s dismay, Stephen had the bystanders torch an old house, whereupon he grabbed Pam’s hand and said, “You’re on. Let’s do it together and see whose god is the real God.” At that moment Pam remembered that he had left something on the stove, and excused himself hastily. The crowd turned on him and was going to kill him, but Stephen intervened, and he was instead given life in exile with no chance of parole. Many Permians converted to Christianity on the spot, and in the resulting commotion nobody noticed that Stephen never actually walked through the fire. Word of all of this got back to Metropolitan Pimen, who called Stephen to Moscow and consecrated him Bishop of Perm. The new bishop immediately began founding churches, and also schools in which to train new priests and deacons. As the diocese grew, monasteries also sprang up in, as is their wont, inconvenient places.

Word of all this got back to Novgorod, which had in some official sense or other been (or fancied itself) in charge of the whole region. They sent a military invasion force comprised of investigators (or vice versa), but these were seen off at the border by Permian irregulars. The next year, Stephen went to Novgorod and had a word with the bishop, and everything was ironed out. Stephen also became good buds with (St.) Sergius of Radonezh (cf. Aug 24), a much-loved Russian monk. Their friendship was so close that one time when Stephen was in the neighborhood but could not drop in, he bowed toward Sergius’ monastery and said, “Peace to you, brother.” Sergius, who was at table at the time, immediately stood up and, bowing in Stephen’s direction, said, “Hail, good shepherd. God’s peace to you.”

At last, on a trip to Moscow, Stephen took ill and died. He is interred at one of two monasteries in Moscow; my sources can’t remember which. His cult sprang up almost immediately, and he has been a beloved saint of the Permic people, and non-Zyrian Orthodox and Catholics too, ever since.

[1] As you will see, this whole story is chock full of comparative linguistics.