25 September 2017

Neomartyr Peter (Čungagnaq) the Aleut

Holy New Martyr Peter the Aleut

This past Sunday was the feast day of the New Martyrs Yuvenaly and Peter of Alaska, who died in defence of the Orthodox faith in North America. The Orthodox Church in America has the following hagiography of Neomartyr Peter the Aleut:
Saint Peter the Aleut is mentioned in the Life of Saint Herman of Alaska (December 13). Simeon Yanovsky (who ended his life as the schemamonk Sergius in the Saint Tikhon of Kaluga Monastery), has left the following account:
“On another occasion I was relating to him how the Spanish in California had imprisoned fourteen Aleuts, and how the Jesuits (actually Franciscans) were forcing all of them to accept the Catholic Faith. But the Aleuts would not agree under any circumstances, saying, ‘We are Christians.’ The Jesuits argued, ‘That’s not true, you are heretics and schismatics. If you do not agree to accept our faith then we will torture all of you to death.’ Then the Aleuts were placed in prisons two to a cell. That evening, the Jesuits came to the prison with lanterns and lighted candles. Again they tried to persuade two Aleuts in the cell to accept the Catholic Faith. ‘We are Christians,’ the Aleuts replied, ‘and we will not change our Faith.’ Then the Jesuits began to torture them, at first the one while his companion was a witness. They cut off one of the joints of his feet, and then the other joint. Then they cut the first joint on the fingers of his hands, and then the other joint. Then they cut off his feet, and his hands. The blood flowed, but the martyr endured all and firmly repeated one thing: “I am a Christian.’ He died in such suffering, due to a loss of blood. The Jesuit also promised to torture his comrade to death the next day.

But that night an order was received from Monterey stating that the imprisoned Aleuts were to be released immediately, and sent there under escort. Therefore, in the morning all were sent to Monterey with the exception of the dead Aleut. This was related to me by a witness, the same Aleut who had escaped torture, and who was the friend of the martyred Aleut. I reported this incident to the authorities in Saint Petersburg. When I finished my story, Father Herman asked, ‘What was the name of the martyred Aleut?’ I answered, ‘Peter. I do not remember his family name.’ The Elder stood reverently before an icon, made the Sign of the Cross and said, “Holy New Martyr Peter, pray to God for us!”
We know very little about Saint Peter, except that he was from Kodiak, and was arrested and put to death by the Spaniards in California because he refused to convert to Catholicism. The circumstances of his martyrdom recall the torture of Saint James the Persian (November 27).

Both in his sufferings and in his steadfast confession of the Faith, Saint Peter is the equal of the martyrs of old, and also of the New Martyrs who have shone forth in more recent times. Now he rejoices with them in the heavenly Kingdom, glorifying God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, throughout all ages.
There do appear to be some doubts about the authenticity of the martyrdom of Saint Peter. Long story short, these largely revolve around the question of whether one accepts the word of Peter’s Aleut compatriot who came back from there, or that of the Franciscans (there were no Jesuit missions in California at the time) who appear to have killed him. What it really boils down to is that white scholars are more likely to trust the written word of a Spaniard over the spoken word of an Indian. The tortures he is described as suffering at the hands of the Franciscans are not out of line with other contemporary accounts of the Spanish missionaries’ treatment of Indians in California – torture and mutilation were common punishments inflicted upon Indians who committed a crime under Spanish law. And fatal ‘misunderstandings’ between Orthodox and Catholic Christians were still, at this time, sadly common – and would continue to be so throughout the nineteenth century.

In the end, the question of Peter’s martyrdom was decided on by the Church based on the accounts that were offered to it, and Father Saint Herman, whose spiritual insight, personal comportment and care for the people are unimpeachable, accepted Peter as a martyr for the faith directly upon hearing his story. Even if some elements of Holy Martyr Peter’s story have been embellished in retrospect (with even saints’ memories being, at times, fallible), Saint Peter’s status as a martyr for the faith is unquestionable.

Holy Martyr Peter (Čungagnaq), pray to God for us!
Today Alaska rejoices and America celebrates
For the New World has been sanctified by martyrdom.
Kodiak echoes with songs of thanksgiving,
Iliamna and Kenai observe the Festival of Faith.
The apostle and martyr Juvenaly is glorified
and Peter the Aleut is exalted by his voluntary sacrifice.
In their devotion and love for the Lord
they willingly endured persecution and death for the Truth.
Now in the Kingdom of Heaven they intercede for our souls.

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