Wednesday, January 31, 2018

History of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church: ministry to Tlingit

FAIRBANKS (News Miner) — St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, 326 Fifth St., Juneau, is the oldest continually-used Orthodox church in Southeast Alaska, and the only surviving octagonal Orthodox church in Alaska.

Juneau’s Orthodox church was established at the request of local Tlingit Indians. According to a 1994 history of the church, there were several reasons for the invitation. One was the Russian Orthodox Church’s long history in Southeast Alaska. By the 1890s there were sizable populations of Tlingit Orthodox believers in the Sitka and Kilisnoo areas. Another was the Orthodox Church’s acceptance of Tlingit culture, its encouragement of Tlingit literacy (Orthodox clergy developed the first written Tlingit alphabet), and use of the Tlingit language in church services.

Juneau’s Tlingit encouraged Sitka clergy to visit, even though there were Protestant denominations working in the area. This may have been because, in keeping with the U.S. government’s assimilationist policy toward Native Americans, Protestant efforts often included suppression of Native culture and prohibitions on speaking Tlingit in church services and church schools.

Orthodox clergy visited Juneau in 1892, and many area Tlingit were baptized. Planning for an Orthodox church in Juneau began.

Alaska was part of the American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. The church’s missions branch, the Imperial Missionary Society, provided plans for the Juneau church, furnishings (including icons) and 2,000 rubles for construction.

Construction began in 1893 and was essentially completed by the end of that year. Lumber for the wood-frame structure was obtained locally, and most of the labor was provided by Tlingit parishioners. Additional labor and building supplies were provided by Orthodox Slavic miners. The church, consecrated in June 1894, was named for Nicholas of Myra, a saint in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The onion dome on top of the church was constructed in 1895, and the belfry atop the narthex (entrance) was added in about 1905.

The eight-sided church is approximately 28 feet in diameter and, from ground level to the top of the dome’s cross, almost 48 feet high. Walls are sheathed with shiplap siding, wooden shakes were on the roof. The approximately 10-foot-wide by 12-foot-long narthex sits askew of the lot’s boundaries to conform with Orthodox tradition that churches be constructed along an east-west axis.

A rectory, or priest’s residence, was built to the right of the church in the drawing. Early photos show a small parish school downhill and to the left of the church. Education was an integral part of Russian Orthodox missions in Alaska. The book, “Orthodox Christians in North America,” states that by the 1880s, there were 43 Orthodox parish schools in Alaska and that the governor of Alaska said in 1897 that the Orthodox Church was “spending more on education of Native peoples in Alaska than the United States government.”

That ended with the 1917 revolution in Russia, during which the tzar abdicated and Russia was plunged into chaos. The Russian Orthodox Church was a department of the Russian government, so it too faced crisis. All allotments from the Imperial Missionary Society, which, among other things, paid for education in the American Diocese, ended by March 1917. St. Nicholas’s parish school, along with most parish schools in Alaska, was forced to close. The school building eventually disappeared.

However, St. Nicholas Church looks much the same today as it did in the early 1900s. This is in a great part due to a restoration project undertaken by ROSSIA (Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska) Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Alaska’s Russian Orthodox Churches and iconography. The next phase of the project will be restoration of the rectory.


  1. But the younger Tlingit don't go to church very often. I guess they're just not Inuit.