Wind, weather, and time are slowly eroding many of Alaska’s most distinctive landmarks – Russian Orthodox Churches. These churches, from Juneau to St. Paul Island and from Karluk to Eklutna, date from the 19th century and hope for their rehabilitation comes from ROSSIA, Incorporated – Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska.
ROSSIA Inc. is a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization dedicated to the preservation of Alaska’s Russian Orthodox Churches and iconography. Started in 2002 by preservation-minded Native corporation leaders, Orthodox clergy, government officials, architects, and historians, ROSSIA has helped initiate several restoration projects over the last ten years.
ROSSIA’s Board of Directors continues to offer assistance to church parishes around the state to preserve these significant landmarks. But ROSSIA has its work cut out for it. Today Alaska has 33 Orthodox Churches on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2002, the ROSSIA Board identified ten of these churches as requiring urgent restoration and chose to focus on two prominent churches first; St. Nicholas in Alaska’s capital city, Juneau and the Holy Assumption, one of several National Historic Landmark Orthodox churches, in Kenai.
Our Alaskan communities face tough choices as it is often more costly to restore a historic building than to build a newer, simpler, often less elegant, house of worship. ROSSIA works closely with local communities to encourage them to preserve their original structure and a prominent story of Alaska’s history. Individuals, Native corporations, and foundations are being approached for assistance in what promises to be a multi-million dollar campaign.
How did this unique inheritance come to be? Russia laid claim to Alaska in 1741, following Vitus Bering’s pioneer voyage across the Pacific from Siberia. Hundreds of Russian fur-seekers followed. The first Orthodox house of worship in America was a chapel built by laymen on Umnak Island in the Aleutians in the 1760’s. The Orthodox mission established a formal presence in North America, at Kodiak, in 1794 with the arrival of ten monks including North America’s first Orthodox Saint, the humble monk Herman. Another great cleric, Bishop (also Saint) Innocent (Veniaminov) designed and built the first Russian Orthodox cathedral in North America, St. Michael’s in Sitka, between 1844 and 1848. Today, there are more than 90 active Russian Orthodox Churches in the state of Alaska, of which 7 are National Historic Landmarks.