Anchorage’s oldest building, a Russian Orthodox church, gets new life in restoration project

Oct 28, 2023, 9:02 PM

EKLUTNA, Alaska (AP) — The Russian Orthodox church on the outskirts of Alaska’s biggest city is packed with treasures for the Christian faithful: religious icons gifted by Romanov czars, panels of oil paintings and jewel-studded incense burners. But outside the hand-hewn log sanctuary, dozens of miniature Alaska Native spirit houses sit by aging gravesites alongside Orthodox crosses poking from the cemetery grounds.

The narrow church with white-framed windows near Anchorage is a vestige of Russia’s nearly 150-year attempt to colonize Alaska and the Indigenous people who lived here. But over time, St. Nicholas Church became an important touchstone for Alaska Natives as well. The church lies within the Alaska Native village of Eklutna, and many are buried there.

Now, an extensive, three-year restoration project that began this month is bringing more attention to the tiny church that is a window into a complex, and often-forgotten, chapter of Alaska’s unique history.

The Dena’ina Athabascan tribe supports the restoration and some tribal members turned out on a recent October day to watch the removal of the bell tower and to reminisce.

“With the restoration of the church, we can now once again walk where our ancestors walked, pray where they prayed,” said Charlene Shaginaw, whose grandfather was the last traditional chief in Eklutna and who recalls wandering through the church and among the spirit houses as a young child. “With the rebirth of the old St. Nicholas Church, it will nourish our spirits and our souls.”

The project is paid for by a $350,000 grant from the National Park Service. Preservationists hope it will spur further work not only to inventory the church’s religious icons but also the spirit houses in partnership with the tribe.

“There’s a long history of the Dena’ina, in Eklutna in particular, taking care of the church and trying to maintain it,” said Aaron Leggett, president and chairman of the Native Village of Eklutna’s tribal council. “There aren’t that many Russian Orthodox followers (anymore), but it’s part of our heritage and we do want to see it preserved.”

The presence of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska is perhaps the most visible legacy of the Russia’s Alaskan odyssey, which began nearly three centuries ago when Peter the Great sent Danish mariner Vitus Bering to claim new territory east of Russia in 1725. Bering made landfall in Alaska in 1741 and soon Russian trappers flooded the area for its sea otter pelts, and clashed with the Aleuts who lived there.

Russian settlements sprang up across Alaska, first in Unalaska in 1772 and then further north and east as the fur trading industry took hold. Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million in 1867 and Alaska became a U.S. state in 1959.

The Russian Orthodox church was established in Alaska on Kodiak Island in 1794 and missionaries spread the faith, baptizing an estimated 18,000 Alaska Natives. Today, up to 50,000 Alaskans practice the Orthodox faith.

Many Alaska geographic places still bear Russian names. Their language and traditions merged with Indigenous tribes over the decades and many Alaska Natives have Russian surnames after intermarriages.

Experts estimate about 80 historic Orthodox churches exist across Alaska, but weather and time are taking a toll, making restoration efforts even more critical. There are 33 churches on the National Register of Historic Places and about a third of them need urgent restoration, said Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, which is dedicated to preserving the churches in the state.

Better-preserved churches, some with iconic onion domes atop them, can be found in bigger cities including Anchorage, Unalaska, Kenai, and Sitka.

Unique among them is the old Eklutna church, where graves incorporate religious conventions like Orthodox crosses, which have three cross beams with the lowest slanted, with the Dena’ina Athabascan tradition of building spirit homes above graves where the deceased person’s spirit can reside. Some are simple, but others have brightly painted roofs, gables and even chimneys. Vice President Richard Nixon and his family visited the cemetery and its spirit houses in 1958.

“The Russians did not try to Russify the natives,” said the Rev. Deacon Thomas Rivas, the episcopal secretary to the Alaska Orthodox bishop. “They’re very much the inheritors of the faith and they’re the inheritors of the land, even though it was given to the church in stewardship.”

A federal document says the compact church was built in 1870 but acknowledges it could be older because the style is less formal than other Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska from the late 19th century.

Leggett, of the Eklutna’s tribal council, said for hundreds of years Indigenous people have moved back and forth across a body of water known as the Knik Arm, an offshoot of Cook Inlet.

In the late 19th century, the entire village moved to its current location about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of downtown Anchorage because the other side of the inlet became overrun with trappers and gold miners.

With the town came St. Nicholas Church.

“My grandfather probably played a part in moving this building … using a boat going across the inlet,” said Gina Ondola, 79, who came to the bell tower removal ceremony and remembers attending the church for funerals and on holidays.

“Those attending the church sang hymns in Russian,” she said. “The priest conducted the service in Russian, which very few understood.”

The church’s role in daily village life has diminished over the years and attendance is low, Rivas said. The church has no full-time pastor, but it is a vibrant tourist destination.

A new church in 1962 replaced the historic sanctuary, which is now closed for the restoration work. Stored inside are religious artifacts and icons and religious paintings done usually on wood depicting famous people and events from the Bible.

The Russian Imperial Mission Society, which was founded by Romanov czars to support Orthodox mission work in Siberia and Alaska, gave the church many of the artifacts still kept there, Rivas said.

The restoration project is intended to bring the building back to its most important period of significance, around the 1920s, historic architect Jobe Bernier said.

“It still is important that it is a tourist site and tourist destination and an informative site,” he said. “However, its primary function is sacred and that’s important to all of us, even those of us that are not Russian Orthodox.”

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Anchorage’s oldest building, a Russian Orthodox church, gets new life in restoration project