Sacred Space: Russian orthodox return to historic church in Old Town

Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Father Thomas Andrew's preparations for divine liturgy last week were a little more involved than usual.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Ernie Jordan and Father Thomas Andrew work to move church icons back into the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai last Thursday.

"Be careful with the green stuff," the Russian orthodox priest told a helper as they unpacked icons and other church items that had been stored at Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

The green stuff was bubble wrap that needed to be returned to the visitors center.

Dozens of boxes filled the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Old Town Kenai on Thursday afternoon while Father Thomas and members of the church community unpacked pictures of famous Christian figures and other church relics.

St. Ignatius, who wrote the Nicene Creed, and Mary were among the first icons out of the boxes on Thursday.

"Icon in Greek means image," Father Thomas said, explaining the name for the painting-like pieces lined up at the front of the church.

There was a little bit of a deadline to their unpacking: the first liturgy in the newly restored building was held Sunday morning. Father Thomas said that two former Kenai priests were coming to town for the service.

And so, after nearly a year of careful restoration, the Old Town structure is once again a place of worship.

Natasha Ala, the executive director at Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, said that last spring it took a month to get everything packed and moved out of the building. When the building inspector finished on Wednesday, it took just one afternoon for the church community to get everything back to the historic building.

"I know Father Thomas is really excited," she said on Thursday afternoon, when after a few hours of work, just a handful of carefully wrapped items remained at the visitors center.

Father Thomas, who has been at the Kenai church for more than seven years, credited Ala and her staff for their help in getting everything ready for the return.

"They packed it all up and they were so wonderful," he said. "They treated all of this with respect and care."

Last spring, the church held a processional to move items to the center. Moving back in was a smaller affair.

"Bringing them back is just as important," he said. But it's cold out.

Other than unpacking, there is no requirement for making the church a sacred space anew.

"This is a sanctified space," he said. It was consecrated when the church was established in the community in 1846.

Because of its long history in Kenai, the church is more than just a place for the faithful to worship. It is also a stop for visitors in the summer, Father Thomas said.

"We get all kinds of people from all over the world," he said. "We get all kinds of questions."

The church is the only federally designated National Historic Landmark on the Kenai Peninsula.

Funding for the restoration, which included structural work, asbestos removal and new paint, reflected the building's multiple uses. Local, state and national organizations helped chip in.

While the building was being restored, the visitors center hosted the items as an exhibit called Sacred Space, Sacred Time, so that visitors and the community could still appreciate the relics. And the faithful met at Fort Kenay for their worship services.

Father Thomas said they had a "little chapel in there" at the old school, which he started to disassemble the day the building inspector said the church was ready to re-open.

Inside the building, some work remains. A picture of the church in the 1970s shows wallpaper, so they're still planning to cover some of the blue and white walls.

Molly Dischner can be reached at

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