Bishop Alexei Visits St. Herman's with Wonderworking Sitka Icon - 03/31/24

On Sunday afternoon, March 31, 2024, the Miraculous Icon of Our Lady of Sitka visited St. Herman of Alaska Church in Glen Mills, PA Fulfilling a promise that the Mother of God of America would bless our parish as a culmination of the 50th Anniversary of our founding, dedicated to America's first Saint, Father Herman, "the North star of Christ's Holy Church".

The day began with the solemn Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great on the Second Sunday of Great Lent, dedicated to the memory of another great Saint of the Church, Gregory Palamas, the Archbishop of Thessalonika who lived in the 14th century.

Following the Liturgy, the parishioners began preparations for the arrival of the Icon arranging the many hand cut flowers and roping which would adorn her Holy Image.  The faithful prepared hundreds of individual packets with Icon cards and vials of Holy Oil from the Lampada which hangs before the Icon in the specially designated Shrine within the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel in Sitka. Initially before the great fire of January 1966, which destroyed the Cathedral, the icon rested within the iconostas itself.

As the time for the arrival of the Icon approached, we received a phone call from his Grace, that the Icon would arrive later than expected because of the traffic and logistical problems from Washington D.C. related to the Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore, MD. This did not discourage the faithful, the majority of which stood in prayer continuously singing hymns of praise to the Most Holy Theotokos.  Almost one hour later the caravan bringing the Icon arrived at the front portico of the Church being greeted with banners, clergy, acolytes, choirs and hundreds of faithful from numerous parishes throughout the region.

His Grace, Bishop Alexei of Sitka and Alaska, with the Blessing of His Eminence Archbishop Mark of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania, accompanied the Icon to St. Herman's.  His Grace Bishop Irenej of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Eastern America joined His Grace Bishop Alexei to begin the Akafist Service which was recently written by Bishop Alexei. There were priests and deacons from numerous jurisdictions participating in this most joyous Pan-Orthodox service of praise to Our Most Holy Lady. The choir sang the hymns, verses and responses under the direction of Reader Alex Hubiak, joined by singers from surrounding parishes. Hymns of praise were sung in various traditions including Russian, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian, Serbian, Antiochian and Greek besides those sung in our own English Language.

Following the conclusion of the service Archpriest John Perich, the host pastor welcomed the visiting hierarchs on behalf of our diocesan Archbishop Mark of Philadelphia and thanked His Grace Bishop Alexei for fulfilling our dream of having Our Lady of Sitka with us.

His Grace spoke about the arduous task of transporting this precious Icon to the East Coast and the various difficulties encountered by Deacon Thomas, the assistant to His Grace, in ensuring that the Icon would be allowed to travel in first class and not placed in baggage on all three flights, which initially proved taxing until the Bishop instructed his Deacon to uncover the Icon and show it to the airline authorities who wanted to place this sacred treasure along with baggage. Upon her unveiling all those objections were overcome and they immediately, almost miraculously, lifted their objections and escorted the Blessed Theotokos to her seat. Truly accomplished through her intercession!

Numerous miracles in Alaska and throughout the world have occurred through the intercession of Our Lady of Sitka.  In fact, the greatest miracle was that in the devastating fire of January 1966, most if not all the precious Holy and Sacred treasures of the Cathedral were saved not only by the native Tlingit parishioners but by the townspeople of Sitka themselves. Truly a miracle!

After the words of Bishop Alexei, Father John Perich, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of the Orthodox Church in America and guardian of many Ecclesiastical Treasures of the Church presented His Grace several gifts to be returned to the faithful of Alaska including the Panagia of the ever memorable Bishop Amphilokhy (Vakulsky), former Bishop of Alaska who fell asleep in the Lord in 1933, having been cared for by his "kelenik" the ever memorable Archimandrite Vasily (Philipov) before he was a monastic, having been previously the "kaznachei" (cashier) at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago and subsequently was brought to St. Tikhon's Monastery specifically to care for the elderly Bishop by the request of Metropolitan Platon.

Also presented were the original handwritten US Navy surveyors reports of Lieutenant Frederick Martin Symonds, denoting the correct boundaries, specifications of the Cathedral of St. Michael and the Russian Bishop's House and adjoining cemetery within the protected areas provided for the Church in the 1867 sale of Alaska by Imperial Russia to the United States. It was this same Lieutenant Symonds who for over twenty years thereafter continued to survey all of the areas of Juneau, Hoonah, Angoon and the inlet waterways with designations for all Church properties guaranteed to remain in the hands of the Church perpetually.  He later was elevated to Admiral and worked as adviser to several Secretaries of State under different presidential administrations.

Father John also presented the Icon and relics of St. Job of Pochaev, one of the most famous spiritual centers of monasticism in Holy Rus, whom His Grace has a special devotion.

Father John also presented the icon and relics of the Holy Martyr Vasili (Martysz), former pastor and missionary of Afognak AK, Osceola Mills PA, Waterbury CT, Troy NY and Old Forge PA. St. Vasili, eventually returning to his native Poland, was martyred and canonized by the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Poland.

His Grace was also presented with a precious Icon of "Christ Almighty", silver repousse Riza made in similar manner to the Sitka Madonna but with the wooden Kiot hand made by St. Innocent (Veniaminov) himself, which was originally located in the cell room in the old Russian Bishop's House which was given to Father John by then Bishop Theodosius (Lazor)  when he visited Alaska in 1967 and lived for a few months in the old house.

Finally, Father John also presented His Grace Bishop Irenej of the Serbian Church, the original Pectoral Cross of St. Sebastian (Dabovich), the first Serbian Orthodox priest in America and great uncle of Matushka Ella Pashkovky, late wife of the future Metropolitan Theophilus (Pashkovsky) whose son was the famed Colonel Boris T. Pash, who commanded the Alsos Mission during World War II, highlighted in the recent movie, "Oppenheimer" explaining this little known aspect of our history. His Grace, Bishop Irenej, while a student at St. Tikhon's Seminary, worked at St. Nicholas Church in Juneau Alaska along with Archimandrite Innocent (Fryntzko) during the summer months as an intern.

After the presentation of gifts everyone was invited to attend a special Lenten fare prepared by the Sisterhood of St. Herman's Parish, viewing the many historical and spiritual gifts given in remembrance of this historical visit of Our Lady of Sitka to St. Herman's Church and the Diocese of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania.

Throughout the night until the next morning, pilgrims came to venerate and pray before the Virgin of Sitka seeking her intercession before the throne of Almighty God. No one who gazed upon her blessed image went away with dry eyes, ever grateful that they had the opportunity in their lifetime to seek her protection, comfort, and solace during this Great Lenten season.

Most Holy Theotokos "Lady of Sitka" Save us!