Orthodox Church makes Kwethluk woman its first North American female and Yup’ik saint

Olinka Arrsamquq Michael, known as Matushka Olga, has been revered by Orthodox believers in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region and beyond for decades, known as a healer to abused women, a midwife and a humble and loving presence.

A Western Alaska woman who died in 1979 has been named the first female Orthodox Church saint from North America.

Born in 1916, Olinka Arrsamquq Michael, known as “Matushka Olga,” was known in life as a humble and gentle priest’s wife who quietly cared for people in her community. After her death, she was venerated first by people in the deeply Orthodox Yukon-Kuskokwim region and then beyond, and became known as a healer to abused women.

Devotional icons of Matushka Olga, often depicted clad in a kuspuk against a simple log home or the northern lights, can be found from Moscow to Greece and in villages across rural Alaska.

Alaskans connected with the church, including the late Rev. Michael Oleksa, have been pushing for decades for Matushka Olga to be canonized as a saint, said the Right Rev. Alexei, bishop of the Sitka and Alaska Diocese, in an interview last week. In October, the bishop formally asked for Matushka Olga to be named a saint in a letter to the church’s national leader, Archbishop Tikhon, saying her “her humility, her generosity, her piety, her patience and her selfless love for God and neighbor were well known in the Kuskokwim during her earthly life.”

In early November, the Orthodox Church’s national leadership voted to make Matushka Olga a saint, a process known as “glorification.”

Alaska has America’s highest percentage of residents who identify as Orthodox Christians — about 5% of the population, according to the Pew Research Center. The last time a glorification took place on Alaska soil was in 1970 with the canonization of St. Herman of Kodiak. Matushka Olga will be the seventh person from Alaska canonized as a saint in the Orthodox Church, according to the Diocese of Sitka and Alaska, the first Yup’ik person to be sainted. The significance is profound, the bishop said.

“It’s a time of great joy and great hope for the diocese,” he said.

In the Orthodox Church, sainthood is bestowed in a process that starts “from the ground up,” said the bishop. First, the people of the Kuskokwim region recognized Olga’s life and example as saintly, and the practice of veneration grew from there, he said.


The next step will be planning a service in Kwethluk at which high-level church officials will gather, according to the bishop. Her remains, now considered a holy relic by the church, may be exhumed. In his letter to church officials, the bishop asked that Yup’ik elders be consulted about the plans.

For some of her many descendants in Alaska, Matushka Olga is both a revered figure in the Orthodox faith but also a mother and grandmother.

Seeing her become a saint has been a long time coming, said Matushka Helen Larson, Olga’s youngest living daughter. Larson lives in the Kuskokwim River village of Napaskiak, where she is a pre-kindergarten teacher and married to the Orthodox priest, Father Alexander Larson.

“I’m getting used to the idea,” Helen Larson said in a phone interview last week.

Olga was born Olinka Arrsamquq Michael in Kwethluk in 1916 and grew up in a family that participated in reindeer herding, according to a history of her life written by granddaughter Olga Skinner, now an assistant professor of education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Skinner wrote the history of her grandmother in 2009 when she was studying for a master’s degree at UAF. In her early memories, Olga was “just my grandma in the house,” Skinner said. She died of a recurrence of cancer when Skinner was 3. The thesis was an opportunity to learn more about her life and influence. In interviews Skinner conducted, her subjects came back to the same themes: “People describe her as a quiet and caring person,” said Skinner.

Olga married Nicholai Michael, a postmaster who became the village priest. They had 13 children, but during years of epidemics only eight survived to adulthood, according to Skinner’s biography.

As an adult, she was known as “Matushka Olga,” or “Mother Olga,” the honorary term for a priest’s wife. In a time of unrelenting change in Alaska villages, she was known for quiet service to her neighbors, according to published accounts of her life. Though the family lived modestly, she baked traditional communion bread and harvested subsistence food to share with hungrier people. She made things from baby booties to ulus, Skinner’s history recalls. Her generosity was legendary: Her daughter remembers going to school and seeing children wearing her dresses and other clothing.

“I’d go home and ask her, ‘Why did you give my clothes away?’” Larson said. “And she’d say ‘They need it more than we do.’”

Olga was also a traditional midwife in a time before women received hospital care for childbirth outside the village. Larson remembers sleeping by her mother’s side and awakening to her mother being called to attend to a laboring woman.

Kuskokwim River residents still remember the unusual natural events surrounding Matushka Olga’s death and funeral in 1979, Larson said: It was early November, a time when the river was frozen. But on the day when people were to be traveling to Matushka Olga’s funeral, a warm spell suddenly broke up the river ice, according to Larson. People could travel by boat. The frozen ground thawed, Larson said, allowing her to be buried. Some accounts describe birds that should have long since flown south appearing over the burial proceedings.

After her death, Matushka Olga became known as a comforter to women who had suffered all kinds of abuse, including sexual abuse, according to the bishop. She was said to have appeared in the dream of a non-Orthodox woman in New York, reassuring her that her life could still be beautiful despite the trauma she had endured, he said. Some of the icons painted of Olga feature the saying she was said to have spoken in that dream: “God can create beauty out of complete desolation.”


In Alaska and beyond, women like Marie Sakar have taken that message to heart. Sakar, a teacher in Nome originally from Chuathbaluk, turned to Matushka Olga in her own time of suffering. Sexually abused as a child and adult, she found herself at a low point in life on a visit to Kwethluk. Her sister suggested she go to pray at Matushka Olga’s gravesite.

“She was talking to me about the miracles Matushka Olga performs on people who have been abused or traumatized,” Sakar said. “I kind of didn’t really believe that somebody would help me like that.”

But she went anyway, and sat at the gravesite with its Orthodox cross and peeling white paint. She prayed and felt a sense of peace. Later, she gave two of her daughters Matushka Olga’s Yup’ik name, Arrsamquq.

In the years since, Sakar has moved frequently around Alaska. In every home she lives in, she makes sure to keep an icon of Matushka Olga.

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.