There was a time when the Zyrians, a tribe west of the Ural mountains, would gladly have killed St. Stephen. However, when he died on this day, April 26, 1396, they wept. "...Had we lost but gold and silver, these we could regain. But we shall never find another like you..." wrote a monk in a prose epic that eulogized St. Stephen's life.
Stephen had been born near the Zyrians and often met this pagan people in the marketplace of his home town. Reared in the Orthodox faith, he decided to become a monk and entered a monastery at Rostov. A dutiful young man, he not only carried out his required work but went beyond it to study the Scriptures and Greek.
His heart was stirred to share the gospel with the Zyrians. Learning their language, he translated portions of the Bible and other religious texts into their tongue, devising a special alphabet for it since the language had never been written down. To make the alphabet as easy as possible for the people to learn, Stephen borrowed symbols from Zyrian money and handicrafts.
Obtaining the blessing of his bishop and a letter of protection from the tsar, the zealous young man set off to evangelize the heathen. Wherever Zyrians gathered, Stephen showed up to preach the gospel. At first the heathen would gladly have killed him, but they feared reprisal from the tsar and contented themselves with verbal opposition.
However, a few hearts softened. Here and there a person turned to Christ and was baptized. This infuriated an old pagan priest named Pamoi. He used every tactic in his power to keep people from conversion and to drag back those who had made the break to Christianity. Finally he challenged Stephen to a test of fire and water. He thought Stephen would refuse. He was really on the spot when Stephen accepted!
Stephen ordered a hut set on fire. Acknowledging that he had no power in himself to pass through the blazing hut, he said he trusted God. Taking Pamoi's hand, he urged the evil old man to walk through the flames with him. Pamoi refused. He also refused a test which required them to swim from hole to hole under ice. The Zyrians, who had been under his spell, would have killed him on the spot, but Stephen saved his enemy's life, saying he should only be exiled.
Stephen's faithfulness led to the conversion of the Zyrians. Becoming a holy arsonist, he led them in burning down their idol temple and taught them the ways of God. He was elevated to bishop of Perm, the chief city of that region and poured himself out to protect and assist his converts. Deeply moved by the liturgy himself, he opposed reformers who wanted to simplify and clarify church teachings along lines similar to those embraced by John Wycliffe in England.
His death came while he was on business to Russia. He was buried in the Kremlin, which caused resentment among the Zyrians. Russia had saints enough of their own, they lamented, but the Zyrian's had only one--and his body had been taken from them.
- "Holy Hierarch Stephen, Bishop of Perm." http://www.fatheralexander.org/ booklets/english/saints/stephen_perm.htm
- "Saint Stephen of Perm." Orthodox America. http://www.roca.org/OA/80/80h.htm
- Staley, Tony. "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." http://www.thecompassnews.org/ compass/2001-04-20/01cn0420f2.htm
Last updated June, 2007