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Revitalization of Anchorage’s Oldest Structure, a Russian Orthodox Church, Sheds Light on a Complex Historical Chapter

by Sophia Chen
2 comments
Restoration of St. Nicholas Church

Situated on the periphery of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, the Russian Orthodox St. Nicholas Church is a repository of Christian artifacts, including icons bestowed by Romanov emperors, elaborate oil paintings, and incense burners adorned with jewels. Surrounding this log-constructed sanctuary are miniature spirit houses of Alaska Native origin, situated beside timeworn graves marked by Orthodox crosses.

This slender church with white-bordered windows serves as a relic of Russia’s extensive effort, spanning nearly a century and a half, to colonize Alaska and assimilate its Indigenous inhabitants. However, the church has evolved into a significant cultural landmark for Alaska Natives, particularly those in the nearby Alaska Native village of Eklutna where it is located. Numerous Alaska Natives have been laid to rest in its adjacent cemetery.

A comprehensive three-year initiative to restore the church, which commenced this month, is drawing renewed focus to this modest edifice, illuminating an often-overlooked aspect of Alaska’s distinctive history.

Members of the Dena’ina Athabascan tribe have expressed their support for the restoration effort. Several attended a recent ceremony in October, marking the removal of the church’s bell tower, while sharing personal reminiscences.

Charlene Shaginaw, whose grandfather was the last traditional chief of Eklutna, stated, “The restoration enables us to reconnect with the paths walked and the prayers uttered by our forebears. The rejuvenation of the venerable St. Nicholas Church shall serve as sustenance for both our spiritual and emotional well-being.”

The initiative is financed through a $350,000 grant from the National Park Service. Conservationists aspire that this will catalyze further activities to not only catalog the religious artifacts within the church but also to collaborate with the tribe for the upkeep of the spirit houses.

Aaron Leggett, the president and chairman of the Native Village of Eklutna’s tribal council, remarked, “The Dena’ina have a protracted history of stewardship over this church. While the congregation of Russian Orthodox followers has waned, the church embodies a part of our cultural inheritance that we are keen to preserve.”

The Russian Orthodox Church remains a conspicuous remnant of Russia’s colonial ambitions in Alaska, a venture initiated in the 18th century when Peter the Great dispatched Danish mariner Vitus Bering to annex territories eastward of Russia. Upon Bering’s arrival in Alaska in 1741, Russian settlers swiftly colonized the region, initially for fur trade, leading to inevitable conflicts with the native Aleuts.

Russia ceded Alaska to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million, and Alaska was incorporated as a state in 1959. The Russian Orthodox Church had established its Alaskan presence much earlier, in 1794, on Kodiak Island. It is estimated that today, as many as 50,000 Alaskans adhere to Orthodox Christianity.

Names of places across Alaska still reflect their Russian origins, and over the years, Russian customs and languages have integrated with Indigenous cultures, resulting in many Alaska Natives having Russian surnames due to intermarriage.

Approximately 80 historical Orthodox churches are scattered across Alaska. Time and the elements have necessitated restoration work, with 33 of these structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places and nearly a third requiring immediate attention, according to Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, an organization committed to their preservation.

The St. Nicholas Church in Eklutna stands unique, integrating Orthodox crosses and the Dena’ina Athabascan tradition of constructing spirit houses above graves. The location even drew a visit from then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1958.

Rev. Deacon Thomas Rivas, the episcopal secretary to the Alaska Orthodox bishop, emphasized that the Russian colonizers did not attempt to “Russify” the natives. “They are not merely inheritors of the faith, but also stewards of the land,” he noted.

Federal documentation suggests the compact church was erected in 1870, although its architectural style indicates it could predate this period.

In conclusion, the ongoing restoration project, targeting a timeframe around the 1920s, aims to rehabilitate the edifice to its period of greatest significance, according to historic architect Jobe Bernier. “While the church serves as an informative and appealing tourist destination, its primary function remains sacred, which holds importance for everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation,” he stated.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Restoration of St. Nicholas Church

What is the significance of the St. Nicholas Church restoration project?

The restoration project of St. Nicholas Church holds significance in preserving both Russian and Indigenous Alaskan history and culture. It aims to revitalize the church and associated artifacts, shedding light on a unique chapter in Alaska’s past.

Who is funding this restoration initiative?

The restoration project is funded by a $350,000 grant from the National Park Service, emphasizing the importance of preserving this historical landmark.

What is the historical background of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska?

The Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska has a history dating back to 1794 when it was established on Kodiak Island. Missionaries spread the faith, baptizing thousands of Alaska Natives, and today, it remains an integral part of the region’s religious landscape.

How many historic Orthodox churches are there in Alaska?

There are approximately 80 historic Orthodox churches scattered across Alaska. Of these, 33 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with many in need of urgent restoration.

What makes the St. Nicholas Church in Eklutna unique?

The St. Nicholas Church in Eklutna stands out due to its integration of Orthodox crosses and the Dena’ina Athabascan tradition of constructing spirit houses above graves. It holds a unique place in both religious and cultural contexts.

What is the primary goal of the restoration project?

The primary goal of the restoration project is to bring the St. Nicholas Church back to its most important period of significance, around the 1920s, ensuring it serves as both a sacred site and a tourist destination, preserving its historical and cultural value.

How does the local community, particularly the Dena’ina Athabascan tribe, view this restoration effort?

The Dena’ina Athabascan tribe is supportive of the restoration project, viewing it as an opportunity to reconnect with their heritage and ancestors’ traditions. They consider it a vital part of their cultural preservation efforts.

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2 comments

JohnDoe October 29, 2023 - 1:45 pm

wow, dis is an amazin’ story bout da church in Alaska, so impornt 4 history n culture preservashun. luv how they fixin it up.

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HistoryBuff October 30, 2023 - 6:49 am

Thx 4 sharin’ dis, real fascinatin’ read. da mix of Russian n Indigenous stuff is kool, dey wanna keep it alive.

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