St. Olga of Kwethluk to become first-ever Yup’ik saint

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A rendition of St. Olga (Courtesy Diocese Of Sitka And Alaska)

Olinka Arrsamquq Michael of Kwethluk, known as “Matushka Olga,” died more than four decades ago, but she may soon become a household name among Orthodox Christians across the world. In a recent meeting of the Orthodox Church in America, she was selected to be the first female saint in North America, and the first-ever Yup’ik saint.

The late Orthodox missionary and scholar Fr. Michael Oleksa played a key role in compiling the accounts of holiness essential to the official process of Olga’s glorification. Oleksa spoke to KYUK shortly before his unexpected death in late November 2023.

“She’s the first saint who didn’t go on a great missionary journey, didn’t publish any theological books, had not become a nun or a monastic, had not been martyred for the faith,” Oleksa said. “She’s proof that as long as you’re true to your Christian calling, living a good Christian life even in the humblest circumstances, as we could certainly say hers were, that’s good enough.”

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Matushka Olga and Fr. Nikolai Michael (Courtesy Fr. Michael Oleksa)

Fr. Oleksa was born in 1947 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He said that he first met Olga and her husband, Fr. Nikolai Michael, when he served as deacon in the Kuskokwim River village of Kwethluk in 1972.

“I was welcomed to the village at the home of Uliggaq and Arrsamquq, their Yup’ik names,” Oleksa said. “And I had my first akutaq there, what’s called Eskimo ice cream in English.”

Olga is known to have lived a humble life as a midwife and the wife of a priest, denoted by the honorific “matushka,” literally meaning “little mother.” Born in 1916 in Kwethluk, Olga gained a reputation throughout her life for compassion when it came to women who had suffered abuse. Upon her death in 1979, this reputation continued to spread.

An extraordinary account

About a decade after publishing an account of Olga in his 1993 book “Orthodox Alaska,” Oleksa said that a stranger reached out to him to share an extraordinary account.

“I got a letter from a woman who wasn’t Christian, wasn’t Orthodox for sure, married to a Hindu from upstate New York,” Oleksa said. “And she said, ‘I’ve had this vision, this dream of a woman who came out of a birch forest and signaled for me to follow her.’”

The woman went on to describe being led into a house that looked like a hill, illuminated within by stone oil lamps. She was told to lay down on a bed of moss where, despite not being pregnant, she was treated as if giving birth. She said that the pain of sexual abuse suffered as a child left her body. She was led outside, where the northern lights danced in the sky, and was given a hot drink that fit the description of tundra tea, known more commonly as Labrador tea.

“And then she started to walk back into the forest. And this woman called after her, ‘Who are you? What’s your name?’ And she said something she didn’t understand, something indistinguishable: ‘Olga,’” Oleska said. “And that was the end of her vision, and she wrote to me about this.”

Oleksa said that he was shocked by the depiction of traditional Yup’ik ways of living by someone claiming to have no prior knowledge of Alaska. He also said that the woman from upstate New York ultimately converted to the Orthodox faith.

“Now this woman has come to Alaska, she herself has painted some of the first icons of Matushka Olga,” Oleksa said. “But the miracles then began multiplying.”

The glorification of St. Olga

Michael Oleksa
Fr. Michael James Oleksa is seen while giving an interview at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral on July 5, 2021. (Simon Scionka/Sacred Alaska Film)

Over the years, Oleksa said that he compiled dozens of testimonies of healing associated with Olga from around the country, which he eventually sent to Bishop Alexei, head of the Orthodox Church of Alaska.

“There are more stories than what I’ve heard, of course, but I compiled a dossier, you could say,” Oleksa said.

Oleksa said that Alexei then presented the accounts to the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, and that the decision to canonize Olga was immediate and unanimous.

St. Olga is expected to be added to the official canon of Orthodox saints as early as November 2024.

“The news of her miracles and appearances has actually become global by now. And when she’s formally added to the canon, there will be people coming from all over the world wanting to participate in those services,” Oleksa said.

With no hotels and limited access to Olga’s remote home village, Oleksa emphasized that Kwethluk is not the most ideal pilgrimage site for masses of Orthodox followers. When Olga is officially glorified, services will likely be held in both Kwethluk and Anchorage.

Oleksa was laid to rest on Dec. 5 after two days of services at St. Innocent’s Cathedral in Anchorage, where Alaskans from across the state came to say their goodbyes. Among his numerous accomplishments in the Orthodox clergy and as a cross-cultural communicator, one of his last acts was playing a direct role in the canonization of St. Olga.

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