St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church

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History: Tlingit Orthodox Texts
History

The History of St. Nicholas Church

Although there were no Russians in Juneau at that time and Alaska had been under United States control since 1867, the Russian Orthodox Church of St Nicholas was established there in 1894. Many tourists who visit our church during the summer months are surprised to learn that it was the native Tlingit people who were the catalyst for the establishment of our church.

By the mid 1880's, Juneau was a robust frontier town enjoying the boom of the gold rush. I sometimes say that, "First came the prospectors and gold miners. Then came the saloon keepers and their associates, closely followed by the missionaries wagging their fingers."

It was those same missionaries, from various denominations in the Lower 48, that sought to convert the local Tlingit people to their faith.  However, in neighboring Sitka and in the village of Killisnoo, a great majority of the Tlingit had embraced Eastern Orthodox Christianity during the Russian period (1741-1867).

About 1892, some of the Auk Bay Tlingit, living just a few miles north of Juneau, had visited Sitka and were baptized there.  In Sitka, the Tlingit had their own Orthodox chapel where the services were conducted in their own language. In contrast to this, the American missionaries were under strict instructions from their own church authorities and the United States government, to suppress the use of the native languages and customs, and force the use of the English language. To many of the heterodox missionaries, the Eastern Orthodox Church was no better than the natives own pagan religion.

As a result of this oppressive policy, many more traditional Tlingits gravitated toward the Orthodox Church where local languages had been used in worship since about 1800 in Kodiak, and 1824 in the Alutian Islands. The Tlingit felt that there was no need to adopt the "language and faith of the foreigners." The church in Juneau became strongly established through the efforts and initiative of local Tlingit leaders.

In 1890 Taku leader Anathahash went to Sitka to be baptized. The Rev. Father Vladimir Donskoy returned with him to Juneau and was the first priest to conduct church services. During his stay he instructed and baptized many of the local Tlingit people and supervised the construction of the church building. This same year saw also the conversion of Alexei Yaakwaan, son of a Tlingit leader. He encouraged his father, Yees Gaanaalx, leader of the L'eeneidi (Dog Salmon) people of Auk Bay to become baptized. Through Sitka Chief Khlantych, the church was informed that Yees Gaanaalx was intent on embracing Orthodoxy and that many would follow his example.

 

The Vision of St Nicholas to the Tlingit

An Episcopal Visit

In 1892, on July 26, Bishop NIKOLAI (Ziorov), Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska 1891-1898, visited Juneau from San Francisco where the seat of the church in America had been transfered in 1872. The bishop was met by the Tlingit leaders who were eager to embrace the Orthodox faith. According to oral tradition, he was told the following.

The Tlingit leaders had been experiencing a common, reoccurring dream.  In their dream, a short, white-bearded, elderly man encouraged them to become Christian. When these leaders saw an icon of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, they all recognized him as being the man in their dreams. Three days later, the Priest-monk Mitrofan baptized both Yees Gaanaalx and his wife giving them the names of Dimitri and Elizabeth. Following their example some 700 Tlingit came forward to embrace the Orthodox Christian faith.

Establishing a Community

Gifts from Russia

On November 21, 1869, His Imperial Majesty, Tsar Alexander granted approval for the establisment of the Orthodox Missionary Society. The Society was the fruit of the labor and vision of none other than the then Metropolitan of Moscow, St Innocent (Veniaminov).  The purpose of the Society was simple.  It was to provide the means, both financial and practical, for the spread of the Gospel and the support of missions, especially in the American diocese. The new Orthodox community in Juneau was to benefit from the benevolence of the Society.

After word reached Moscow that the work in Juneau had been established, the Society sent architectural drawings and two thousand silver rubles to build and equip the church.  Another significant donation of 400 dollars came from Rev. Ivan Il’ich Sergiyev, known better to us as St. John of Kronstadt. The Iconostasis was constructed and provided by Ivan A. Zheverzheev’s Factory and Store of Church Utensils.

Also included in the shipment were articles of interior church furnishings - candle stands, chalice set, censer, banners, a full icon screen and festal icons. Many of these items can still be seen (and some are still in use) at the church today. 

A Modular building?

Constructed locally with Rusian funds

Despite information to the contrary, St Nicholas Juneau is not a modular building.  This building was constructed in 1893-1894 in Juneau with local timber, local labor, and under the supervision of Ellingen and Rudolph, a local contractor.[1]  Confusion arises because the architectural plans, funds for construction, and the interior furnishings, including the icon screen, called an iconostasis, and the six large icons at the front of the church, were shipped from Russia. The iconostasis  was assembled and placed prior to the building’s consecration. The iconostasis is the only part of this building that was made in Russia and assembled here.

 



[1]           Inventory of Historic Sites and Structures, city and Borough of Juneau.  City and Borough of Juneau Planning Department, p 40.

Building the Church

July 1893 saw the beginning of the construction of the church. A local construction firm was employed to supervise the construction using the plans sent from the Society. The labor was provided by many of the new Orthodox Natives, Mr. Ivan Kusher, and Serbian gold miners living in the Juneau area.

The building of the church was not only of interest to the local Native Alaskans, but caught the immagination of the local American populace as well.  In October 1893, a fundraising event was sponsored by a local Juneau physician. A total fo $400 was raised at a "fancy dress ball" at the Court House where participants sought to win prizes, dance to an orchestra, and eat ice cream.

The Bishop Visits a Second Time

A Warship and a Bishop

In June 1894, the USS Pinta sailed into Juneau. By order of the US War Department, the commander of the Pinta was to call in at Sitka and take aboard the Bishop of the Aleutians and Alaska, His Grace NIKOLAI and party, and transport them to Juneau for the purpose of the consecration of the altar and church of St Nicholas.

Along with the consecration of the new church, the first resident priest, Father John Bartnovsky, was ordained during the hierarchial Divine Liturgy on June 24.

At the time of the consecration, there was no dome or belfry in place on the building. The characteristic "onion" dome was constructed and placed in 1895. The bell and belfry were constructed and placed in 1905 or 1906.  Inscriptions on the bell indicate that it was cast (or at least sponsored) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

About five acres were purchased in 1894 for an Orthodox cemetery. Dimitri died before 1910, and he and Elizabeth are buried there.

Since that time, the church has been in continuous use serving the Orthodox faithful of Juneau and the surrounding areas. St. Nicholas church has the distinction of being the oldest, continual use Orthodox structure in Southeast Alaska.

St. Sava Of Serbia Orthodox Church, Douglas, AK

The Church Across the Chanel

The Orthodox Community in the early days of Juneau/Douglas was not exclusively Tlingit.  St. Nicholas was also patronized by many Serbian Miners in its early days.  There were enough Serbians in the area to justify a second Orthodox Church across Gastineau Chanel in Douglas.  This church was primarily attended by Serbs, and was dedicated to St. Sava of Serbia.

According to records from Fr. Andrew P. Kashevaroff, St Sava Orthodox Church was built in 1903 on land donated by the Treadwell Gold Mine Company.  The Church was consecrated by Igumen Sebastian (Dabovich), Hieromonk Anthony, and Fr. Alexander Yaroshevich, the rector of St. Nicholas from 1896-1906. 

The church, along with most of downtown Douglas, most likely burned in or 1937, the records are, as of now unclear.  There were fires in 1911, 1926, and 1937, but since Fr. Kashevearoff’s report indicates refurbishments in 1915 and 1916, we can safely assume that it survived the 1911 fire.  There is also a 1929 report from Fr. Kashevaroff in the archives of the OCA that indicate St. Sava was a subsidiary of St. Nicholas, but it was empty at the time of the report.  This indicates that St. Sava also survived the 1926 fire.

Clerical News - St. Nicholas Church in Juneau, Alaska for 1916
by Fr. Andrew P. Kashevarof - typewritten 1917 (0.1 MB)

 

http://orthodoxhistory.org/2010/07/27/source-of-the-week-an-interview-with-fr-sebastian-dabovich/

 

 

Interior of St Sava.  From the Alaska State Library's Digital Archives, ASL-P243-2-026b
Interior of St Sava. From the Alaska State Library's Digital Archives, ASL-P243-2-026b
Interior of St Sava. From the Alaska State Library's Digital Archives, ASL-P243-2-026b
Exterior of St Sava.  From the Alaska State Library's Digital Archives, ASL-P243-2-026a
Exterior of St Sava. From the Alaska State Library's Digital Archives, ASL-P243-2-026a
Exterior of St Sava. From the Alaska State Library's Digital Archives, ASL-P243-2-026a
That\'s Not All!

The writing of the history of St Nicholas Church is an ongoing project.  Check back occassionally for updates and added material.
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