Juneau’s gold rush in the 1880s and the growth of the then frontier town initiated efforts by various missionaries to convert the Amerindians people to their faith. American missionaries were instructed to suppress the use of native languages and as a result, many Tlingits chose to embrace the Orthodox Church which used native languages in worship. St. Innocent Veniaminov, who studied the Tlingit language, was the first to translate the Christian Scripture into that language and taught Native Alaskans to read and write in their own language. Juneau Tlingit leaders, led in part by Taku leader Anathahash, were eager to develop a parish and in July of 1892, Bishop Nikolai visited Juneau and baptized nearly 700 of 1,500 natives in the town.
By 1893 community support was growing to establish a church in Juneau. Funds were raised to buy two lots in town and construction was started in July of that year. The church passed building inspection in later November of 1893 and a school house was built sometime later and remained open until 1917. Bishop Nikolai consecrated the church in June of 1894.
It is believed the flame-shaped dome was constructed in 1895. Apparently a lack of funds prevented the community from installing a bell in 1894, but the bell and belfry are believed to have been added in 1905 or 1906. The bell was likely cast in St. Petersburg, Russia. The unique octagon plan of St. Nicholas is known to be the last of the Russian Orthodox churches of this shape. Architecturally, the building is beautiful example of the Russian American architecture at both the exterior and interior with small gable dormers on a steep polygonal roof which is topped by a characteristic onion dome. The interior space is beautifully adorned with a seven-bay iconostas and high ceiling.
In its first decade, St. Nicholas Church was served by Father John Bartnovsky, and Father Alexander Yaroshevich, both Russian clergy who were familiar with the Tlingit language. In 1913, Juneau’s most prominent and famous pastor arrived from Kodiak. Father Andrew Kashevaroff, an Aleut-Creole who championed many causes from the protection of Native traditions of the potlatch to protection of eagles put under bounty in 1917, thus earning the title of the “Fighting Priest.”
The church and associated buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in September of 1973.
The foundation of church, historically constructed of wood piers and more recently, concrete piers, shows signs of movement in several locations. In addition, the soil beneath the church is perpetually saturated due to extremely poor site drainage and Juneau’s inherently moist climate. Unfortunately, the building is not attached to the foundation and in the event of a large earthquake, could be dislodged. During the re-roofing project in 2007, another considerable concern was discovered. The contractor found severe deterioration of the belfry supports while removing the roof and the belfry was removed for fear of collapse. The belfry now sits on blocks, uphill from the church and the entry vestibule is covered with a blue tarp. Combined, these two issues threaten the St. Nicholas church and preservation efforts are critical.
In January of 2009, National Park Service Historical Architect, Grant Crosby, and BBFM Structural Engineer, Troy Feller, visited the church to inspect the foundation and the belfry. Juneau based contractor, North Pacific Erectors, also inspected the project and provided a scope of work to repair the foundation, install seismic upgrades and provide adequate drainage around the building. Fundraising efforts are underway to support the foundation portion of the project which is estimated at $118,000.
The Friends of St. Nicholas, a non-profit community group, was established in 1989 and has been instrumental in the preservation of the church, icons and related properties. The Friends have helped ensure the church undergoes regular maintenance and have painted the building, repaired the onion dome and more recently, replaced the roof with in-kind cedar shingles.