August 9 – Herman of Alaska; Franz Jägerstätter

Herman of Alaska (ca. 1750–1836) was born near Moscow, became a novice at the Trinity-St. Sergius Hermitage near Petersburg, and was subsequently monkified at Valaam. Unless he was born near Voronezh and monkified at Sarov. If the former, his birth name is unknown; if the latter, he was a military clerk (or soldier) born Egor Ivanovich Popov. At Valaam he apprenticed under Nazarius, a hesychast of the Velichovsky school (and you’ve never met a hesychast until you’ve met a hesychast of the Velichovsky school). But what Herman really wanted to be was a hermit. (That joke writes itself.) Nazarius gave him permission, and he started hermiting.

Herman turned down missionary work in China, but when a letter came to the seminary asking for a priest for Alaska, he answered the call. It seems the Russian America Company, which was raking in rubles selling pelts harvested by native Alaskans, had asked for a priest or two to convert the uppity natives. Catherine the Great, who was a real empress and didn’t just play one on TV, sent a whole raft of ’em. Once in Alaska, they discovered the natives were basically being treated as slaves, and the Russians were keeping native mistresses and spending inordinate amounts of time drunk[1]. The missionaries wrote home describing the whole ugly situation, thereby unendearing themselves with the slavemasters, who unrurpsisingly wrote their own letters home telling a different tale.

In ten years’ time Herman, though not a priest, became head of the mission. He ran the mission school, teaching the two R’s (arithmetic, alas!, was not invited) as well as singing, catechism, and agriculture. He ultimately built and retired to a hermitage (which he called “New Valaam”) on Spruce Island (just a hop, skip, and a swim from Kodiak), but couldn’t not serve the people—he was the only Russian to minister to the dying when a deadly epidemic hit the area, for example. As a result the locals loved him in life and praised his memory. He was glorified in 1970 by the Orthodox Church in America. He is also celebrated on November 15/28 (the day of his repose (“death” for the euphemism-averse)). He is the patron saint of the Americas.

Blessed Franz Jägerstätter (1907–1943) was born in Sankt Radegund, Austria, to a farmer and a chambermaid who couldn’t afford to get married. (I confess to not understanding this—what costed so much?) He became a farmer like his father before him. When the Nazis invaded in 1938, Franz was the only citizen in town to vote against the Anschluss, saying, in place of the expected famous salutation, “Pfui Hitler!” Is this guy awesome or what? The town ignored his vote and reported unanimous approval to the Nazis.

In 1940 he joined the Franciscan Third Order*, later becoming sacristan at the local God shack. He worked hard to stay out of the Wehrmacht, offering at one point to serve as a paramedic, but the army countered by sending a priest to try to talk some sense into him. When that failed (nonsense masquerading as sense makes no sense to the sensible[2]), he was imprisoned, tried, and guillotined (and people say German culture was untouched by the French).

After the war, Franz was criticized by Catholic ex-Nazi collaborators, and Sankt Radegund refused to add his name to their war memorial. His wife Franziska didn’t even get a widow’s pension until 1950. Franz was forgotten until a 1964 biography and 1971 film, which led to a 1997 exoneration and 2007 beatification. And 2013 Onion Domification.

[1] Inordinate for 19th century Russians. That’s a lot o’ drunk, if tales be even half true.
[2] Wise and pithy sayings provided at no additional charge.