Kenai’s Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church is filled with religious art and historical artifacts, is built of logs, and hosts weekly masses with dozens of candles. Thankfully, the church is raising money to install new fire-suppressors.
According to the preservation nonprofit Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska (ROSSIA), Holy Assumption contains icons created in Russian in the early 1700s, icons by Alaska Native iconographers and historic documents and priests’ journals dating from 1844. The 121-year-old church’s current fire protection consists of smoke alarms and two fire extinguishers. A ROSSIA refurbishment project would upgrade it to a Hi-Fog mist fire suppression system, designed as an alternative to sprinklers for water-sensitive buildings such as art and history museums and computer server farms.
The church will hold a meeting at the Kenai Senior Center Saturday to detail its fire suppression plans and recognize the donors who have thus far helped raise the $60,000 required to finish installing the fire suppressor — among them the Kenai Historical society, Salamatof Native Association and the City of Kenai, which at its March 2 meeting voted to match the project’s funds up to $20,000.
During the two weeks that ROSSIA and Holy Assumption have been fundraising, they have raised close to $10,000 from local organizations and individuals.
Dorothy Gray is a member of the Holy Assumption church and treasurer of ROSSIA. She said the group is making Holy Assumption’s refurbishment a top priority.
“ROSSIA is working (on restorations) with about five or six churches simultaneously now, but it has prioritized Kenai as its number one,” Gray said. “Because of the fact that it’s a national historical landmark, it’s on the road system, it’s a very active church now — (Holy Assumption priest) Father Thomas (Andrew) has helped the church grow — and it’s a very vibrant part of our community.”
Locally, Gray said the Kenai community’s fundraising for the mist system is very different from the attitude she saw in 1978, when she moved to Kenai for a teaching job.
“The church looked abandoned,” Gray said. “Grass was growing up waist-high, the fence was in disrepair. Very few people attended. It was rather small.”
Gray, a third-generation descendent of Czech immigrants, has belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church since her childhood in upstate New York. She said Russian Orthodox churches in the Lower 48 tend to be found near industrial centers where Eastern European immigrants gathered for factory work. In her community in New York, where she said the church was the most beautiful building in town.
After moving to Kenai and joining Holy Assumption, Gray found a different relationship between church and town.
“In 1978 and the early 80’s, several people asked about my affiliation with the church,” Gray said. “They said ‘Oh, is that still open? Is it a museum?’ People weren’t aware it was still a church with practicing parishioners.”
Soon Gray became involved in efforts to change the church’s public face when she and friend started mowing the lawn. Since then, Gray said Kenai has given more attention to its historic buildings, following a national trend of interest in the past.
“There’s been a greater recognition of people’s roots,” Gray said. “... Everybody back then, 50 or 60 years ago, tried to blend in. Now there’s been a rise in people’s roots and cultural identities.”
According to Gray, one specific event that made Kenai take notice of the church was a ROSSIA preservation project between 2008 and 2010 that replaced the rotting original logs in Holy Assumption’s walls with fresh lumber. During the work, the church’s historic paintings, icons, and altar pieces were temporarily moved to the Kenai Visitor Center, where they were on public display.
“People realized that there were some exquisite oil paintings and icons inside the church,” Gray said. “And I think people also realized — it sounds sort of silly — that it was a Christian church. Some people thought Russian Orthodoxy must be some kind of weird religion.”
The current fire-suppressor plans, which began 3 years ago, are a continuation of the 2008 refurbishments. The mist fire system has been installed in three phases, two of which have been finished. The first was the refitting the mechanical outbuilding that now houses the church’s gift shop. The second phase was to run piping into the main church.
“Phase three, the final part, is connecting the piping,” Gray said.
Father Andrew said a technician will visit the church next Friday to install a pump and find locations in the church for the misting system’s nozzles. If the fundraising is successful, the fire suppressor will be fully installed by summer.
Even without a new fire system, Andrew said the church’s days of being an ignored building with an overgrown lawn are certainly in the past.
“It really is an attraction from all over the world,” Andrew said “... We’ve had Russians, people from Kuwait, Africa, the European countries, Canada, South America, everywhere. This is one of their destinations, to come see this church.”
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.