I love the background stories of strong women making a difference. Lately, I have discovered more and more of them and thought I would share a few of their lives with you over the next couple of weeks. Enjoy the series.
Matushka Olga Michael
Matushka Olga Michael lived in Alaska in the early 1900s.
This WOW woman was an indigenous Alaskan of Yupik origin and born in1916. Her given name in Yup’ik is Arrsamquq, and Olga is her “church name”. She was one of the first in her tribe to be baptized as an infant.
Her husband, Nikolai Michael, was the village postmaster and manager of the general store, who later was ordained a priest and subsequently was elevated to Archpriest. Their marriage was arranged and as the wife of the priest, she was frequently by herself to raise their eight children.
On top of being a busy mother, Olga became known for her compassion for women who suffered abuse, especially sexual abuse – a taboo most people denied and never discussed. A woman ahead of her time!
Stories abound about how other women would ask to take a steam bath with her. An Alaskan steam bath was like a sauna in a special building made just for that purpose. This bath serves as a private space so women could freely talk with Olga with openness. I am sure many received compassion and direction from her in that space.
Olga also served as the village midwife and skilled baker and knitter. Weekly she prepared the bread for communion. She knitted mittens for the neighborhood and made her husband’s vestments.
Though they had little money to spare, Olga was generous with the poor often giving their children’s clothes away before they outgrew them.
I read this quote:
“Olga’s Orthodox faith inspired her life. Someone who knew her wrote: She didn’t talk a lot. She just would go ahead and do what was needed… in order to help anyone with just about anything… She used to make traditional fur boots and parkas as donations to… other communities… which were trying to raise money. It was said that she was a living icon of healing care for those on the margins.”
When she died in the winter of 1979, the cold weather looked like an obstacle to attending the funeral. On the day of her burial, the wind suddenly turned warmer making travel possible in almost spring-like weather. The ground softened so the burial took place. To complete the scene as the people exited the church, a flock of birds, normally south for the winter, accompanied them to the gravesite. Once done, the harsh wind turned again and cold descended onto the village.
Even in death, Olga continued to touch others. One story tells about a woman who had suffered severe sexual abuse in childhood and was visited by a vision from Olga years after her death.
While in prayer the woman felt Olga leading her through a forest to a clearing with a barabara (a traditional communal dwelling of Olga’s people). Inside, St. Olga assisted her through a process of healing and gave her some fragrant tea to drink. Afterward, they went outside and looking up at the northern lights, St. Olga said, “the moving curtain of light was to be for us a promise that God can create great beauty from complete desolation and nothingness.”
Wow Woman Lesson
I never heard of Olga before, but she is revered in the Orthodox Church and by Alaskans and is remembered for her humility, charitable works, and for helping victims of abuse.
Her story reminds me that we don’t have to be miracle workers or celebrities or have the spotlight focused on what we do, say or accomplish. Our everyday, ordinary interactions with others can be moments filled with God’s transformational love. We can help others uncover God’s beauty in the midst of gloom.
Who is right next to us who needs their story to be shared? Burdens released? Hunger filled?
Heart warmed? Who needs to be companioned through a dark time?
How can we be like Olga offering space in our lives, no matter our busyness or lack of credentials or skills help bring healing to the broken-hearted?
Olga lived basically invisibly to most of the world, but very present and compassionate to those around her. For women to come to her for help with secrets accompanied by shame and fear, Olga displayed power, grace and God’s presence. Quiet strength coming from God.
We too can reflect God’s love to others.
We too can listen and hold other’s stories.
We too can give compassionately.
May we all be present tin the place God planted us, always showing his love.
What lessons do you hear in Olga’s story?