The church is a house of worship and a popular tourist destination in Old Town Kenai.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Often as life continues, people of profound faith and proud heritage seek to accentuate positives within their lives and the lives of others. They seek to remember, to relive and to honor, to set and follow examples for generations to come.
Anniversary celebrations are, at the least, moments that deserve the utmost respect and reverence. Many times these cherished historical dots on the timeline of life are fretted over in the days leading beforehand. The actual moments of celebration, much like the history celebrated, are etched forever in memory. And the circle completes with future telling of the stories of past celebrations and history, and respect given to all those within the heritage.
To take a step into the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church is to take a step among some of the Kenai Peninsula's deepest roots and history. The building itself is 110 years old and on a cool September Saturday, Sept. 17, the arrival of Bishop Vladyka Nikolai began a celebration for the ages.
Bishop Nikolai and other clergy pray for those who have gone before them during a hierarchal divine liturgy last Sunday that celebrated the 110-year-anniversary of the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai. The church was designated a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1970.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
160 years on the peninsula
The Russian Orthodox Liturgy was first served in North America in 1741. Although it wasn't until 1845, more than 100 years later, that Father Igumen Nikolai Militov established a parish in Kenai, the church actually can trace beginnings in this region to 1797 and has continued to be a bellwether in the lives of the Russian Orthodox people to this day.
"They (Orthodox services) were held here almost 50 years earlier, by the Igumen Juvenaly, the priest monk," said Father Michael Trefon, who served in Kenai from 1998-2003. "He came from Kodiak with the original group of eight missionaries who came here to the Kenai Peninsula, to Port St. Nicholas, the Russian colony. He served services here, and then went to other places, and then was martyred by the Natives the only one of all the missionaries."
Services over the next 50 years were done by visiting clergy or a priest from Kodiak. In 1845, Father Nikolai was assigned to Kenai and stayed until 1867. He was buried alongside the original church building, which was eventually deemed beyond repair and gave way to the current building. His grave is across the street from the current location, under a chapel which was erected in 1906.
Bishop Nikolai leads the hierarchal divine liturgy last Sunday that celebrated the 110-year-anniversary of the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"It's a great joy to come back," Trefon said. "I always remember the founders here."
Through the years, the church stood tall against many times of strife.
"For the Native people of the area, the Athabascans and the Dena'ina who live here in the Kenai area, and the people who live up further, in Soldotna and Ninilchik in the other direction, the church has been, over these past 200 years, the only stable thing in their life," said Archimandrite Isidore, Chancellor of the Russian Orthodox Diocese.
"The Russians came, and there was a lot of instability with the Russian traders, and the church put a stop to that basically. The Alaska purchase came, and it was hard for the Natives again to assimilate into American culture. The church protected them from being exploited. And that's the way the church has been, serving that role over time. The church has been the place that's preserved Native culture and identity, despite outside pressures to assimilate. You'll see this throughout the state, where the Orthodox have gone, the Native people still speak the language, still know the dances, still know their history. Where other churches wound up being the missionary group, that's not necessarily the case."
Father Thomas Andrew talks to parishioners during the hierarchal divine liturgy last Sunday. He became the 11th resident priest at the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in 2003.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Father Paul Shadura was in Kenai the longest of the 11 resident priests, serving from 1907 to 1952 without salary. He also established churches in both Tyonek and Seldovia. Trefon noted that Father Shadura's daughter and one son still live in Kasilof.
Changes throughout the years were mostly existent on the outside of the church walls as opposed to inside of them. Yes, there have been restorations and facelifts to the building itself, including the beautiful artwork which adorns the walls.
But the liturgical services inside remain centuries old. And paying homage to that history which has sustained so many people is important.
"It's really, not just bearing witness to long history," Isidore said. "But by the time this church was built, we were very well established. It's a continuation of that, sort of recognition that the Russian Orthodox Church has played a very big role, if not a singular role, in the culture and the development and the civilization of this part of the state, and much of the state."
The area around the church has changed significantly in the last 110 years but the structure itself remains nearly the same.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Unique Saturday setting
The unique Saturday setting could hardly be lost on those attending.
Inside the modestly sized building, ironically enough, are Western European Ren-ascence iconography.
"That was introduced by Peter the Great in the 1600s," said Father Thomas Andrew, resident priest. "He, being the Czar, really liked the Western European work of art. And he brought that style into the church. We're heirs to this stuff. This is not Orthodox iconography. Its Western European Renascence style."
He added, with a bit of a chuckle, "The thing about Alaska, when you go into an old church, they have the new European art. And when you go into a new church, it has the old Byzantine style iconography. If you go into the cathedral in Anchorage, it's basically new, it's got old Byzantine iconography. You come in here, 110 years old, and the new Western European icon-ography."
For this day, the beauty of the building and the spirit of the people were evident. They were there to worship God, to pay tribute to that which has served their people so well throughout the years.
They did so through a service of Divine Liturgy, among the oldest services besides that of the Roman Catholic Mass. It is more than 17 centuries old.
For Gretchen Noden, it was a chance to bring 4-year-old Christian Michael to receive Holy Communion from Bishop Nikolai.
"I wanted to bring my son," Noden said. "He was baptized when he was very little. I thought it was time to start introducing him to it because he was baptized and then we were out of the church for a while. We moved here, my dad has been sick and he's been real proud that, of his six children, I'm one of the only ones that are going to church. And he's proud that his grandson is going"
Noden said it's amazing the church building cost $400 over 100 years ago and still stands.
"It was a gorgeous service," Noden said. "It's been a long time since I've been to a service with a bishop. So I thought it was really neat."
And Divine Liturgy is the usual Saturday service here. The fact that Bishop Nikolai, who attends a service or two a year in Kenai, was in attendance added to the special nature of the day.
"Divine Liturgy is the means by which we Orthodox Christians commemorate the last supper of Jesus Christ," Isidore said. "It's the focus of our worship, and we call it the Holy Eucharist. Eucharist is a Greek word for giving thanks. And that's mainly the focus of our liturgical worship.
"Humans receive huge amounts of things from God life, we get our food, everything is a gift from him. There is really nothing we can give back. You can't give God a card because the card is his creation anyway. But you can give him your thanks, because that's something that comes from within you, and he didn't put it there. Gratitude. That's what the Eucharist is, giving thanks to God for things we've been given, including the blessings of the long history here, and health, and asking for those blessings to continue."
Near the end of the service, Bishop Nikolai spoke to the gathering of more than 50 with gentleness and compassion. He gave the charge to continue practicing the faith, adding, "We need to have fervor and warmth."
"Lawyers continue practicing law, doctors keep practicing medicine and we need to keep practicing our faith," Bishop Nikolai said. "Today, the two most prestigious occupations would be doctors and lawyers, after bishops, of course. But they're the most prestigious because they're the most educated, they're the most prestigious among the community. And that's what we have to do, we have to be the most prestigious. We'll practice it until our dying days."
When the day was done, the potluck lunch enjoyed, the singing in front of Bishop Nikolai by local children led by Father Andrew complete, the resident priest took a moment to consider, to remember.
His face flashed a smile, and he spoke from the heart.
"For the bishop to come today it completes the church," Father Andrew said. "The church with the bishop, the deacons, the priests, the sub deacons and choir and everybody. It's the fullness of the church. Without the bishop, you only have the priests. But with the bishop, it makes it complete. The celebration is more joyous. It's more glorious."
It was a celebration for the ages.
Alan Wooten is a freelance writer who lives in Nikiski.
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