St. Jacob, Enlightener of the Native Peoples of Alaska, was born on Atka Island, Alaska in 1802 to a Russian father and a native Aleutian mother. He studied history and theology at Irkutsk Theological Seminary in Eastern Russia and was ordained into the priesthood at the age of 25. He had a strong desire to return to Alaska to preach the gospel to the natives there.
This wish was granted and he was sent by Archbishop Michael back to Alaska, where he was assigned to the church there dedicated to St. Nicholas. When he arrived in Atka, the church building had not yet been built, so he built a tent himself to hold the divine services in until it was complete. Even after the building was completed, this wasn’t a typical parish where all the people came to one place to pray and worship, the parish extended for around 2,000 miles and encompassed many of the small islands of Alaska that extend into the Pacific Ocean.
St. Jacob traveled by boat to all of the islands, sometimes visiting a village just once a year when he would perform all of the baptisms and weddings at once. He kept a journal in which he recorded the thousands of baptisms and other rites he performed during his ministry. He also brought medicine with him and help the people care for their sick.
While in Atka, he also started a school to educate the children there, this school is still serving the people of Atka today.
At the end of 1844, John Veniaminov (now known as St. Innocent of Alaska) appointed him to move to the Yup’ik Eskimo village, which is presently and appropriately called Russian Mission, Alaska, where he was to serve the people along the Yukon River, where he continued traveling to small native villages to bring the light of Christ to them.
During his work with the native people in Alaska, he learned many of their languages and translated many texts, including portions of Scripture and the liturgical services, into their native tongues. Sometimes he even created alphabets for languages that were only spoken so that he could leave them written copies of these text while he was not there.
St. Jacob can also be credited for bringing peace to warring tribes, this is a quote from his journal:
Beginning in the morning, upon my invitation, all the Kol’chane and Ingalit from the Yukon and the local ones gathered at my place and I preached the word of God, concluding at noon. Everyone listened to the preaching with attention and without discussion or dissent, and in the end they all expressed faith and their wish to accept Holy Baptism, both the Kol’chane and the Ingalit (formerly traditional enemies). I made a count by families and in groups, and then in the afternoon began the baptismal service. First I baptized 50 Kol’chane and Ingalit men, the latter from the Yukon and Innoko. It was already evening when I completed the service. March 21, 1853.
St. Jacob reposed July 26, 1864, and was canonized by the OCA October 15-16, 1994. He is commemorated on July 26.
This is a quite condensed version of the life of this saint compiled from several sources:
- The Life of Saint Jacob Netsvetov from Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral
- Jacob Netsvetov at OrthodoxWiki
- The Life of Saint Jacob of Alaska from St. Jacob of Alaska Orthodox Church in Northfield Falls, VT
- A Tradition of Linguistic Diversity in Orthodox Alaska, an interview with Reader Mikhail Ivanovich that includes some information about his research into the linguistic work of St. Jacob and others.