NATIVE AMERICANS MET ORTHODOXY
Saint Matushka Olga Michael of Alaska (+1979)
Archpriest Nicolai O Michael (1912-1984) and Saint Matushka Olga Michael of Alaska (1916-1979)
Notes about the lives of the Archpriest Nicolai O Michael and his wife, Matushka Olga (Arrsamquq) Michael, are presented in the context of Canadian Orthodox biographies, even though neither of them had any direct personal contact with Canada. Nevertheless, details of their lives parallel those of many of the Orthodox Canadian clergy of the earlier part of the 20th century. More importantly, the presenting of their lives can help us to understand how the Lord works in different ways with two Christ-loving and Christ-serving people, in order to help, encourage and console others. In this case, the Lord seems to have extended Matushka Olga’s loving service and care for others far beyond her own village, in ways which convince many people that she is truly holy, truly a saint. The “Canadian connexion” in this regard concerns the many Canadians who are certain that “Mother Olga” is praying for them, and that as a result, help and healing have come from the Lord.
Nicolai O Michael
Nicolai O Michael was born in the village of Kwethluk in Alaska, USA, on 24 August, 1912. The available details of his life were written by his grand-daughter, Olga (Michael) McGill. Kwethluk is located at the confluence of the Kuskokwim and Kwethluk rivers in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The constantly changing channel of the river gives the village its name. “Kwethluk” is derived from the Yup’ik words “kuik”, meaning “river”, and “-rrluk”, meaning “bad, unnatural”. “Nicolai”, writes his grand-daughter, “was a very caring person, and well known throughout the delta. He loved to fish and hunt. He also herded reindeer, which were used both as pack animals and as food for the community”.
Marriage ; seminary ; parish service
Nicolai married his wife, Olga (Arrsamquq), who was often called “Olinka”, an affectionate Russian form of her name. This marriage was an arranged marriage ; and at the beginning, communication between the two was difficult. Nicolai was not yet a particularly “churchly” man. Together, they received from the Lord 13 children, of whom only 8 survived to adulthood. His grand-daughter wrote that he was a strict father. Earlier in his life, Nicolai started the first US Post Office and General Store in Kwethluk, where he was the manager. All along, Olga was praying for her husband. After a time, he began to attend church, and he and 6 other village men became church readers. They then attended Saint Herman’s Seminary in Kodiak, and all but one were then ordained to the Holy Priesthood. Very many of the former Russian and American clergy had by this time left their parishes, and the parish-circuits remained vacant for a long time. It is useful to understand that it was the pressing and particular local need that caused the establishment of Saint Herman’s Seminary in 1972. This process of depletion had begun with the sale of Alaska to the USA, and it was increased by pressures from the strongly-Protestant-minded government which followed. It was just after the transfer of Bishop Theodosius (Lazor) from the diocese that the Archpriest Joseph Kreta made the proposal to establish the seminary, and that this proposal was blessed by the Holy Synod of Bishops of The Orthodox Church in America.
Father Nicolai was the very first priest in the village of Kwethluk, and when he returned to serve Kwethluk, he became greatly beloved by the people. It is important to understand that before she became a matushka, Olga was continuously praying for a long time for her husband and for her village. During her lifetime, 85 percent of the students (7 of 8) who went to Saint Herman’s Seminary came from Blessed Olga’s tiny village, Kwethluk, which had a population of nearly 250 souls. This percentage far exceeds that of any other village or city in Alaska, regardless of size. Before this time, there would have been only services led by the readers (who were usually set apart for this from amongst the respected elders). Father Nicolai spent his whole life living in Kwethluk, and serving the areas in and around Kwethluk (12 villages), including Napaskiak. Besides serving on a regular basis in the villages on Sundays, Father Nicolai would return upon request to serve for baptisms, marriages, funerals and other needs. These villages are not at all close to each other.
In due course, after many years of service, Father Nicolai was elevated to the dignity of archpriest. His grand-daughter supposes that the most exciting thing that happened to him was the trip he once took to New York. His grand-daughter also wrote that he would advise the younger people with words such as these:
“Always love your neighbor no matter who and what they are. Learn the Holy Bible ; go to church ; don’t pay others back when they do something bad for you, and you, always be good”.
These wise words summarise the words of our Saviour. Moreover, it could be said in a positive way, too, that we ought not to repay those who have done good for us. In his life, Father Nicolai had certainly come to give glory to God for and in everything.
Repose of Father Nicolai
Father Nicolai O. Michael of blessed memory reposed in Christ on 15 May, 1984 in Kewethluk, where he had spent his life of service.
Olga (Arrsamquq) Michael
Olga, a Native Alaskan of Yupik origin, was born in Kwethluk on 3 February, 1916. Her given name in Yup’ik is Arrsamquq, and Olga is her “Church name”. She was amongst the first people to be baptised as an infant.
Marriage ; family life ; midwifery
When she was old enough, she married Nicolai Michael, who was an able hunter, and an able entrepreneur. Although Olga came to serve the village and its surroundings as a midwife, many of her children to whom she gave birth were without the aid of a midwife of her own. The 8 who survived to adulthood were raised by Olga.
It is written by the Archpriest Michael Oleksa that Olga (Arrsamquq, Olinka) Michael was not a physically impressive or imposing figure. In being raised by her, her sons and daughters cannot recall that she ever raised her voice to them. “Real People” (the meaning of “Yup’ik”) do not shout.
Wife of a priest
After his ordination, her husband was often away from home as he travelled to serve in the villages entrusted to his pastoral care. Therefore, Matushka Olga was always busy, and not only with her own household chores. She was always mindful and aware of others. She would often go to the homes of others, to clean and cook for them. When her children were old enough (7 and 8 years old), she brought them along to help also. Her children thus learned to carry on her work wherever she sent them.
In the early years of his pastoral service, Matushka Olga sewed Father Nicolai’s vestments. She created beautiful parkas, boots and mittens for her children. She was constantly knitting socks or preparing and sewing fur outerwear for others. Hardly a friend or neighbour was without something that Matushka had made for their use. Parishes hundreds of miles away received unsolicited gifts from her (traditional Eskimo winter boots, “mukluks”), to be sold or raffled for their building funds. All the clergy of the deanery wore gloves or woollen socks that Matushka Olga had made for them. Of course, we will recall Saint Tabitha (Dorcas) (Acts 9:36 ff) because of her needle-work and offerings.
As her children grew up and married, Matushka Olga came to have more than 24 grand-children upon whom to lavish her handwork, but she never restricted her generosity to her own relatives. Week after week, she prepared the prosphora (eucharistic bread), which served as the principle agent by which the created universe was transformed into an offering to God at the village Divine Liturgy. Her knowledge of the services was exceptional. She had committed to memory the entire services for the major feasts. She also knew the hymns of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Pascha by heart in Yup’ik. Whenever a visiting priest entered her house, she quickly put on her scarf, and approached to request a blessing, just as would other Orthodox anywhere in the world.
Matushka Olga was known for her empathy and care for those who had suffered abuse of all sorts (and especially sexual abuse). Although her family was poor, she gave generously to those who were poorer. Often, she gave away her children’s clothes to the needy while the clothes still fit ; and she told them not to mention it, if they saw their clothes on other people. She was also known for her ability to tell when a woman was pregnant, even before the woman herself had missed her period. Olinka would often ask women in the village to take a steam-bath with her. It is the only truly private space in a village. Women who had been sexually abused had to stay in their tiny village with their oppressors to be reminded of what was done to them every day. Since steam baths are taken in the nude, the visible abuse scars and recent injuries could not be hidden on the women she invited. One can assume that much counselling was done in the “banya” (steam-bath). It seems quite logical that Olinka would talk about God and forgiveness with them because of her position and relationship with them (indeed, this behaviour is characteristic of the Finnish sauna also).
Matushka Olga was increasingly freed from domestic chores as her remaining daughters became old enough to assume more of the work-load. Thus, she was able to travel with her husband to regional conferences, and to share her experience and wisdom with another generation of younger priests’ wives. She enjoyed visiting other parishes for feasts and meetings, but she was always glad to return home to Kwethluk. Regarding her example, Bishop Gregory (Afonsky) would later say that “she was a humble woman who, when a priest was visiting, would hardly know she was there”. Such behaviour reflects the words of the Forerunner John, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Throughout her lifetime, the village underwent radical changes. As it “modernised”, it changed from consisting of a circle of small, semi-subterranean sod dwellings and log houses, to become a typical town with a diesel generator, an elementary school and later a high school, a community centre, a “Head Start program” and a clinic and several stores. Public radio and television from Bethel (27 km farther down the river) brought news and images of the world into every Yup’ik home. Wood stoves gave way to oil, and dog-sleds to snowmobiles. This modernisation is the reason why the icon of Matushka Olga shows her dressed in traditional Yup’ik clothes. The mondernisation has caused deep problems in cultural preservation. The icon upholds the Yup’ik culture as something good and godly. The icon affirms their way of life as hunter-gatherers. The icon affirms traditional Yu’pik values of caring for each other, sharing, keeping their cultural expressions in dance and storytelling alive. Their thousand years of subsistence-living and berry-picking and bartering is good. Matushka Olga brings to the world her simple life of caring for people, sharing and prayer. As we read about such things in the New Testament, so her ways were like those of the early Church. This affirmation of the goodness of “Eskimo” life has brought many more people to see themselves through “Eskimo” eyes. Soon, the education-system came to develop and to use immersion language programmes in the schools before the languages could pass out of daily use and become extinct. The pressure of mass-media often has such a negative effect as the extinction of languages.
Some years before her death, Matushka began to feel weak and ill, but she refused to concern any family members about her condition. Her health did not improve, and her daughters noticed that she was losing weight. Finally, she was persuaded to visit the Bethel hospital, from where she was sent to Anchorage. The specialists there diagnosed terminal cancer, and they said that it was beyond treatment. Matushka Olga received the news without bitterness or emotion, and returned home to prepare for what would inevitably come. Her family resolved that medical science would not have the final word. Two of her daughters left their bedridden mother and travelled to Kodiak, where they offered prayers both at Monk’s Lagoon and at the reliquary of Saint Herman. Upon their return to Kwethluk, they found their mother’s bed empty. She was outside, hauling buckets of water from the village well. No doubt she was preparing to do laundry, or to scrub the kitchen floor.
For nearly a year, her condition returned to “normal”. However, by the time of the conference in the following August, Matushka was too weak to walk or to stand unassisted in church. At this conference, Archbishop Gregory awarded her the highest distinction bestowed on laity in the diocese, the Cross of Saint Herman. He draped this award around her neck (the award has a red, white and blue ribbon from which an enamelled Cross is suspended, and which bears in its centre the icon of Alaska’s first saint) at the end of the Feast-day’s Divine Liturgy.
Matushka’s physical condition continued to deteriorate over the next several months. She began to prepare for death. She instructed her family how to do the things that she had always done for them, and how to distribute her few material possessions amongst themselves, and amongst her neighbours and friends. She had her wedding-gown cleaned, and she asked to be buried in it. She told her sons and daughters not to grieve for her, and she expressed regret that she had taken a grand-daughter into her home (not because she loved her less, but because she feared that the grand-daughter might mourn her too deeply). As the end drew near, the grand-children who were attending the very far-distant Mount Edgecombe boarding school were summoned home. An early winter storm delayed them. By the time they arrived she had already reposed.
On the day of her death, 8 November, 1979, the village priest brought her Holy Communion. She sat up in bed, crossed her arms across her breast and received the Holy Mysteries. She then made the sign of the Cross on herself, folded her arms again, lay down, and fell asleep in the Lord.
News of her repose spread rapidly across western Alaska. Planeloads of mourners began to arrive as the evening panikhida (memorial service) was sung at the house, in the presence of her body. That night, a strong southerly wind blew forcefully and continuously. It melted the November snow and the river ice. Yup’ik neighbours from nearby villages were able to travel to Kwethluk by boat, something which is impossible at that time of year under ordinary circumstances. Very large numbers of friends arrived from as far away as Lake Iliamna (in southwest Alaska) and the Nushagak (by Bristol Bay) as well as from the villages of the Yukon and upper Kuskokwim rivers, and they filled the newly-constructed Temple in Kwethluk on the extraordinary spring-like day of the funeral. As the procession proceeded out from the Temple, it was joined by a flock of birds (although by that time of year, all the birds have long since flown south). The birds circled overhead, and they accompanied the coffin to the gravesite. The usually frozen soil had been easy to dig because of the unprecedented thaw. That night, after the memorial meal, the wind began to blow again. The ground re-froze, ice covered the river and winter returned. As Father Oleksa commented : “It was as if the earth itself had opened to receive this woman. The cosmos still cooperates and participates in the worship that the Real People offer to God”.
Matushka Olga, an “unofficial” saint
Matushka Olga Michael lived her life filled with Christian humility and charity. She is venerated as being holy in the area in which she lived her earthly life. She also receives personal veneration from many Orthodox women (and men also) who are touched by her life story. It is said that she has appeared in the dreams of many of the faithful, sometimes alongside the Mother of God. People have been helped and healed and guided through her intercession.
As Father John Shimchick reported in his article about Matushka Olga :
“One woman, originally from Kwethluk but now living in Arizona, had a dream in which Matushka Olga appeared, assuring her that her mother would be alright because she was coming to join her in a bright and joyful place. This woman did not know her mother was sick at the time, that she had been rushed to Anchorage, and that she would soon die. But the next day she received news of her mother’s emergency evacuation and rushed from Arizona to Alaska, comforting her mother with the news Matushka Olga had brought her about her eternal destiny. The woman died in peace, and with her daughter, without the shock and grief that would have certainly ensued if the dream had not reassured her”.
In another article about Matushka Olga, the Archpriest John Shimchick wrote :
“Another woman, after viewing a picture of Matushka Olga, experienced a ‘compassionate, loving, gentle, and very real – very accessible presence.’ The most detailed account comes from an Orthodox woman who, as in the previous example, had suffered for many years from the consequences of severe sexual abuse experienced as a child. This is her testimony of meeting
One day I was deeply at prayer and awake. I had remembered an event that was very scary. My prayer began with my asking the Holy Theotokos for help and mercy. Gradually I was aware of standing in the woods feeling still a little scared. Soon a gentle wave of tenderness began to sweep through the woods followed by a fresh garden scent. I saw the Virgin Mary, dressed as she is in an icon, but more natural looking and brighter, walking toward me. As she came
closer I was aware of someone walking behind her. She stepped aside and gestured to a short, wise looking woman. I asked her, ‘Who are you?’ And the Virgin Mary answered, ‘St. Olga.’
St. Olga gestured for me to follow her. We walked a long way until there weren’t many trees. We came to a little hill that had a door cut into the side. She gestured for me to sit and she went inside. After a little while some smoke came out of the top of the hill. St. Olga came out with some herbal tea. We both sat in silence drinking our tea and feeling the warmthof the sun on our faces. I began to get a pain in my belly and she led me inside. The door
was so low I had to duck like bowing in prayer.
Inside, the hill was dry and warm and very quiet. The light was very soft coming from a shallow bowl and from the open hole on the top of the hill. Everything around me felt gentle, especially Mother Olga. The little hill house smelled like wild thyme and white pine in the sun with roses and violets mixed in. Mother Olga helped me up on a kind of platform bed like a driftwood box filled with moss and grasses. It was soft and smelled like the earth and the sea. I was exhausted and lay back. St. Olga went over to the lamp and warmed up something which she rubbed on my belly. I looked five months pregnant. (I was not pregnant for real at that time.) I started to labor. I was a little scared. Mother Olga climbed up beside me and gently holding my arm, she pretended to labor with me, showing me what to do and how to breathe. She still hadn’t said anything. She helped me push out some stuff like afterbirth
which kind of soaked into dried moss on the box bed. I was very tired and crying a little from relief when it was over.
Up until this she hadn’t spoken, but her eyes spoke with great tenderness and understanding. We both got up and had some tea. As we were drinking it, Holy Mother Olga gradually became the light in the room. Her face looked like there was a strong light bulb or the sun shining under her skin. But I think the whole of her glowed. I was just so connected to her loving gaze that I didn’t pay much attention to anything else. It was the kind of loving gaze from a mother to an infant that connects and welcomes a baby to life. She seemed to pour tenderness into me through her eyes. This wasn’t scary even though, at that time, I didn’t know about people who literally shone with the love of God. (It made more sense after I read about St. Seraphim.) I know now that some very deep wounds were being healed at that time. She gave me back my own life which had been stolen, a life that is now defined by the beauty and love of God for me, the restored work of His Hands.
After some time I felt like I was filled with wellness and a sense of quiet entered my soul, as if my soul had been crying like a grief-stricken abandoned infant and now had finally been comforted. Even now as I write … the miracle of the peacefulness, and also the zest for life which wellness has brought, causes me to cry with joy and awe.
Only after this did Holy Mother Olga speak. She spoke about God and people who choose to do evil things. She said the people who hurt me thought they could make me carry their evil inside of me by rape. She was very firm when she said, ‘That’s a lie. Only God can carry evil away. The only thing they could put inside you was the seed of life which is a creation of God and cannot pollute anyone.’ I was never polluted. It just felt that way because of the evil intentions of the people near me. What I had held inside me was the pain, terror, shame, and helplessness I felt. We had labored together and that was all out of me now. She burned some grass over the little flame and the smoke went straight up to God who is both the judge and the forgiver. I understood by the ‘incense’ that it wasn’t my job to carry the sins of people against me either. It was God’s, and what an ever-unfolding richness this taste of salvation is. At the end of this healing time we went outside together. It was not dark in the visioning prayer. There were so many stars stretching to infinity. The sky was all shimmer with a moving veil of light. (I had seen photos of the northern lights but didn’t know that they move.) Either Matushka Olga said, or we both heard in our hearts – I can’t remember which – that the moving curtain of light was to be for us a promise that God can create great beauty from complete desolation and nothingness. For me it was like proof of the healing – great beauty where there had been nothing before but despair hidden by shame and great effort”.
From these words, we can understand and accept the special place that Matushka Olga has in the lives of certain indigenous people, and of a growing number of contemporary women in many places. It is thought (but not said or written) that Matushka Olga may have known from personal experience the traumas of being abused earlier in her life (or not). Regardless, it seems to be clear that the Lord has given her the service of being an advocate for those who have been abused (and particularly sexually). It has been given to her to continue what she began as a wife, midwife, Matushka and mother. Father John and Matushka Lyn Breck, who taught in Alaska, helped Father Shimchick in his writing by contributing some information.
As Father Michael Oleksa writes :
“The life and death of Matushka Olga Michael, wife of Archpriest Nicolai O. Michael, characterizes in many ways the traditional ideals of her people and faith, including a cosmic dimension unknown in most of the outside world”.