What kind of architecture do you think of when you hear the phrase “Russian Orthodox?” Maybe massive St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, its round, colorful spires reaching for the sky, or possibly the more modest, but still majestic, gold-domed houses of worship that dot cityscapes in the United States.
So what is a miniature version of one of these churches doing in Juneau, Alaska? The answer might surprise you.
St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church was built in 1894 to serve the native Tlinglit population after the Russian Orthodox faith took root during Alaska’s stint as a Russian territory. The wood-frame house of worship is still functional today, a prized and well-preserved relic of a formative time in the state’s history.
“All you have to do is walk in and be quiet and you just fall in love with the place,” says Father Deacon Paul Erickson, who has served at the church for about 10 years.
St. Nicholas Church has been in continuous operation since it opened, and the story of how it came to be is uniquely tied to the native Alaskan people. According to local lore, in 1890 the chief of the Juneau Tlinglit tribe, Ishkhanalykh, was baptized in Sitka, about 92 miles away, along with several other members of the tribe.
In 1892, the designated Russian Orthodox bishop of Alaska, also named Nicholas, paid a visit to Juneau to meet with a delegation of chiefs who “said they wished to be baptized and that they would donate land, lumber, and labor for a church,” according to the building’s National Register nomination.
This eagerness stemmed from a common vision, shared by many members of the tribe, of a short, white, bearded elderly man encouraging them to convert to Christianity. When they were shown a picture of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, they recognized him as the man from their visions.
Bishop Nicholas left a priest behind to minister to the burgeoning Orthodox population, which eventually led to the conversion of about 700 Tlinglit. The bishop allocated money for construction costs, Chief Ishkhanalykh donated land, and other residents of Juneau provided lumber and labor. Early in 1894, Bishop Nicholas consecrated the church.
The church still contains a wealth of artifacts and relics from its early days, many of which were shipped from Russia. Historic icon screens, candle and incense holders, and holy water fonts are on prominent display in the church’s sanctuary. As Father Paul points out, several of the iconostasis paintings in the sanctuary were a gift from Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia.
Preservation projects have been in high gear at the church in recent years, Father Paul explains. In 2013, roof repairs on the adjacent rectory building eliminated a non-historic dormer and replaced corrugated metal with historically-accurate cedar shingles. Currently, repair crews are three months into a project that will give the church a more solid foundation, which involved lifting the structure up and pouring concrete underneath.
“Things were just kind of wedged in there” to keep it stable, Father Paul says, also mentioning that underground streams had been causing the church to slide down the incline on which it was built. The church also recently received a grant from the National Trust to fund designs for a fire suppression system and a new electrical schematic design.
While the church’s small congregation -- anywhere from a half dozen to 30 people on a given Sunday -- is no longer primarily Tlinglit, the structure still remains a big draw for tourists eager to explore Juneau’s one-of-a-kind history.
Father Paul, who frequently leads tours of the church and rectory, says that he doesn’t like to over-explain what’s so special about the church -- rather, he says, when people walk in, “it’s better for me to just shut up and let them feel it.”
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