Parish prays for funding sources: Russian Orthodox Church faces deterioration

Posted: Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Holy Assumption Russian Orthodox Church in Old Town Kenai represents many things to Dorothy Gray, secretary of the church's council.

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The moon hovers behind a cupola Wednesday night at the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai. The church is planning a major renovation effort.

It's a glimpse of the past, a tourist attraction and a present-day spiritual center.

"It's part of the cultural identity of Kenai," she said.

But the church in all of its manifestations is threatened by mounting structural deterioration and the parish is seeking funds for its conservation -- and the City of Kenai may be able to help.

At the Kenai City Council meeting last week, Gray petitioned council for monetary and in-kind service donations to help preserve the church.

Holy Assumption is a National Historic Landmark, one of only 49 in Alaska, which is the highest designation any building can receive from the federal government, she explained.

The church and its surrounding buildings are testaments to Russian culture in Southcentral Alaska, and a link to the area's Native Alaskan traditions.

"It has maintained its original historical use by the community for the last 150 years," Gray said, explaining that it is still an active parish that holds services weekly.

Completed in 1895 by Russian missionaries, the landmark shows apparent signs of dilapidation. The log walls are caving in and the foundation is crumbling, she said. Apart from that, there is no disability access to the church or a fire and theft alarm system to protect the religious artifacts.

"The National Park Service said we really had to consider stabilizing the foundation or the walls or we would lose the building," she said.

In order to ensure its preservation, the local parish partnered with the National Parks Service and Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, a non-profit group dedicated to saving Alaska's old orthodox buildings. The groups devised a plan and identified possible funding sources to make it happen.

Last year, the parish received a "Save America's Treasure" grant, a federal matching grant of some $125,000, with the hopes the Rasmuson Foundation would be able to provide the majority of needed funds.

"Little did we know there'd be an economic downturn last fall and the Rasmuson Foundation froze their Tier 2 grants," Gray said. The parish received a $25,000 Tier 1 Rasmuson grant instead.

At the city council meeting, Mayor Pat Porter proposed giving the Russian Orthodox Church a $10,000 donation to help meet its funding goal.

"My personal opinion is your whole 13 acres over there is really a treasure to the city of Kenai," Porter said. "Let's hope your other funding source come through as well."

Gray said other potential funds equaling about $50,000 could be coming from the state and borough.

If that funding comes through the parish still needs about $16,000 to complete the renovation. The church has sent out requests for donations and is planning some upcoming fundraisers to help make up the difference.

"We need to have the funds to do it this summer," Gray said, adding that if the matching money is not raised by March 2011 the parish has to give the grant back. "We want to make sure the church is preserved and restored for generations to come."

While waiting for the funding to come through, the parish is preparing for the renovations by documenting artifacts and relocating the altar, icons and historical objects to the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center for an exhibit from May to September.

Gray said the historic site has an important place in Kenai's economy, in addition to its culture.

"We know from the visitors who sign into our guestbook that thousands of people come to Kenai" to see it, she said. "It's one of the most highly photographed sites on the Kenai Peninsula."

Gray believes in her heart the money will come through in time for construction this summer.

"The engineering plans are already being drawn up to be ready," she said. "We're people of faith. People that have good faith that it's going to happen."

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at

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