‘We want to preserve every single thing’: Restoration begins on the oldest standing building in the Anchorage area

A crowd watches as the bell tower from the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church is removed on Friday. (Shiri Segal/Alaska Public Media)

A small crowd gathered on a cool Friday morning at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Eklutna, the oldest standing building in the Municipality of Anchorage. Bishop Alexei of Sitka and Alaska delivered a prayer in front of a large crane and several scissor lifts. 

It’s the start of a project to restore the historic church, work funded through a federal grant. The building is a far cry from its heyday decades ago. Inside, layers of dust cover numerous religious icons that are more than a century old. The outside of the church needs work too, said Jobe Bernier, one of the architects working on the restoration project. 

“It is rare to demo anything on a historic building, and especially a historic sacred building,” Bernier said. “We want to preserve every single thing we can, but in this case, it does have a head heighbuit issue where people are hitting their head and has rotting logs.”

The first step in the restoration project is taking down the old bell tower. 

As the crowd looked on, construction workers on Friday carefully sawed the thin wooden beams holding up the tower. A crane then steadied it and brought it to the ground. 

Bernier said the restoration project is still in its early stages and he’s not sure when it’ll actually finish, but the goal is to return the church to a usable form. 

“It still is important that this is a tourist site and tourist destination and informative site,” Bernier said. “However, its primary function is sacred, and that’s important to all of us. Even those of us that are not Russian Orthodox.”

The church was built in Knik in 1875 and moved to Eklutna by 1895. (Shiri Segal/Alaska Public Media)

Watching the tower come down was an emotional experience for many at the site, including Charleen Shaginaw, great granddaughter of Eklutna Alex and granddaughter of Mike Alex. Eklutna was the last Dena’ina shaman of the village while Mike was the village’s last traditional chief. Shaginaw said she sees the restoration project as a new beginning. 

“It was like a renewal. It wasn’t an ending,” Shaginaw said. “It was like the beginning of the next 50 or 70 years that this church is going to be serving our community and our tribal members.”

The overlap of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Dena’ina Athabascans who’ve long occupied the Eklutna area has a long history. Aaron Leggett, president of the Native Village of Eklutna, estimated that roughly half of his people’s population died between 1836 and 1839 due to an outbreak of smallpox. 

“The Russian Orthodox Church was in charge of inoculating its followers,” Leggett said. “And so we started to see a new religion as part of, you know, our cosmology.”

While the church is the oldest standing building in Anchorage, it didn’t originate here. Leggett said the church was originally built in Knik around 1875, but it didn’t stay there for long. 

“This location was reestablished in the late 19th century, when Knik became overrun with trappers and gold miners,” Leggett said. “It was literally the Wild West.”

Legett said the church was moved to Eklutna by around 1895. 

The old bell tower from the c.1870 Old St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church sits on the ground after removal on Friday morning October 13, 2023
The bell tower sits on the ground after removal. (Shiri Segal/Alaska Public Media)

There’s also a cemetery nearby. Walking around the cemetery is a different experience than walking through a traditional Russian burial area. While Russian Orthodox followers typically bury their dead, Leggett said, the Dena’ina had a spiritual practice of cremating their remains. So the two groups came to a compromise.

“We were afraid that the spirits would get confused,” Leggett said. “So we constructed the spirit houses and, traditionally, a person’s prized possessions would be put inside the house. Things that they would need in the afterlife, like a good pair of gloves, moccasins, a good knife, some food, that kind of thing.”

Leggett said the graveyard gets a lot more visitors than in years past, so the tribe has moved away from putting personal items in the small decorative spirit houses placed above the graves. 

“You will still see, sometimes, little things of nominal value, put by the graves,” Leggett said. “For example, behind me, you can see Julie’s grave, her daughters always put a fresh bottle of Coca-Cola for her.”

Like Shaginaw, Leggett is a descendant of Eklutna Alex, a longtime caretaker of the church. He said his people aren’t as tied to the Russian Orthodox faith as they used to be. 

“Most of the people of my grandmother’s generation, those born before World War II, were baptized Russian Orthodox,” Leggett said. “However, most people of my mom’s generation, and certainly my generation are not Russian Orthodox.”

Still, he described the St. Nicholas Orthodox church as a reflection of his tribe’s history and its heritage, and he’s hopeful the restoration project will ensure that history is preserved.

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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