Saint of the Day|
To get the Word of God to mission territory, you need a good alphabet
St. Stephen of Perm believed language is a gift from God
By Tony Staley
Over the course of human history, people have come up with
Some - such as the wheel - have numerous applications and alter
and affect history forever. Others, such as the Hula Hoop,
despite its similarities to the wheel, are transient and do
little or nothing to leave their mark.
But imagine inventing an alphabet. Now that's something that
would stay around, that would have a daily influence on the life
Inventing an alphabet is but one reason why we remember St.
Stephen of Perm.
Stephen, a Russian, became a monk at Rostov, Russia. Later, he
was assigned to work among the Zyriane, a Finno-Ugric people
living in the southwest portion of the Urals, a 1,500-mile range
of mountains that runs south in Russia from near the Arctic Ocean
to about the Kazakhstan border.
The Russians had long sent missionaries to work among
non-Christian peoples such as the Mongols and Finns, beginning
with the conversion of the country to Christianity under Vladimir
I in about 988. Stephen reignited that missionary interest.
He ardently believed that languages are a gift of God and
everyone should be able to worship and pray to God in their own
So, a priority for his work among the Zyriane - he had been born
in this area, although he was Russian - was to translate the
liturgy and part of the Bible into their language.
But first, he needed an alphabet in which to write. So he
invented one, not based on the Russian alphabet, but derived from
patterns the people used in their carving and embroideries as a
way of making the alphabet and written language their own. He
also started several schools, where he taught this newly devised
Stephen, like other missionaries, used the beauty and solemnity
of the liturgy to attract non-Christians to Christianity.
Besides his work as a missionary, Stephen also looked after the
poor and oppressed.
In 1383, Stephen was named the first Bishop of Perm, a sign of
his success among the Zyriane. He also opposed the heretical
teachings of the Strigolniks, a group of Russian religious
dissenters similar to the Lollards - followers of John Wycliffe -
who rejected the Mass - a primary means of conversion for Stephen
- and most of the sacraments.
He died in Moscow in 1396. We celebrate his feast on April 26.
(Sources: Butler's Lives of the Saints; Dictionary of Saints and World Book Encyclopedia)