Pilgrims travel to Spruce Island

Posted: Tuesday, August 12, 2003

KODIAK (AP) About 150 people from as far away as New York and Africa traveled to Kodiak last week for the Orthodox Church's veneration of St. Herman, the father of Orthodoxy in America.

Pilgrims lit candles and sang hymns. They donned lifejackets and packed onto vessels. They traveled by skiff to Spruce Island and hiked inland to visit Herman's chapel and other sacred sites.

They collected bottles of holy water and drank from the natural spring St. Herman himself once drank from. They walked in his footsteps. By the pilgrimage's end, they said, they'd experienced powerful sensations of rejuvenation.

''I feel like I've changed forever,'' said Mary Haile from the St. Andrews Parish in Baltimore. ''It makes you realize how relatively unimportant the everyday things in life you worry about are. It forces you to reprioritize.''

The peaceful island with towering spruce trees, soft carpets of moss, and few scattered houses, graves and churches, is the religious destination of a lifetime for some such as Haile.

Karen Phinney of St. Marks Church in Bethesda, Md., journeyed to Spruce Island more than nine years ago. On that trip, she said, the weather was not nearly so nice.

People from Kodiak, even those who recall St. Herman's canonization in 1969, said sunny weather, calm seas and the visiting Spirit of Orthodoxy choir contributed to make the pilgrimage this year, the 33rd annual, one of the best.

''It is a great, great blessing,'' said Elias Uganda Mukasa of Uganda, who likened the pilgrimage to gardening.

''St. Herman planted the seeds of Orthodoxy in your country,'' Mukasa said. ''He brought faith to the slaves of America by God's grace. Today, we pray to him even in our country. We pray that Orthodoxy and freedom can flower worldwide.''

Elizabeth Bock said the experience was much like walking in Jerusalem, in the footsteps of Christ.

''It is just so peaceful. If you haven't walked the same paths as St. Herman there is no way to truly explain it.''

Georgia Vlagos, a schoolteacher from Chicago who was part of a visiting mission team that also traveled to Ouzinkie and Port Lions, compared the journey to another pilgrimage she took to the Greek Island of Zakynthos.

''There is something about the traveling over water, the hiking, the reverence of the occasion,'' Vlagos said. ''It is deeply spiritual.''

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