By Jenny Neyman
When visitors come to Kenai, one of the older permanent settlements in Alaska, they want to sample a taste of the community’s 200-plus years of history.
They can find a big part of that history still thriving today in the Russian Orthodox Church.
“We’ve found that when we have visitors come to Kenai, they are extremely interested in what it used to be like. They’re hungry for information on what life was like 100 years ago, or 150 years ago,” said Dorothy Gray, with the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai. “That is part of our goal in preserving the church, is maintaining its historical integrity for generations to come.”
Kenai was established in 1791 by Russian fur traders on a bluff overlooking the Kenai River near a Native Dena’ina village, an area now termed Old Town Kenai. Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived in the area in the late 1700s, and the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church was built in the late 1800s to minister to the growing Orthodox congregation, replacing the original, deteriorating church building.
Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary boasts three onion-shaped domes, and the building is one of the oldest Russian Orthodox Churches in Alaska. It is considered to be the most intact representation of traditional church architecture in the state, since the two older churches, in Kodiak and Sitka, have both been ravaged by fire.
In 1970 the church was named a National Historic Landmark, owing not only to its age, but also because of the many integral roles it played in the community. The church served as a judicial center for the fur traders and residents, and it gave local people their first access to public health services by providing smallpox vaccinations after the epidemic killed nearly half of the Native population on the Kenai Peninsula in the early 1800s, Gray said. Parish priests also started the peninsula’s first school.
“The children learned not only how to read and write, but also how to grow vegetables and basic building methods with the Russian tools that were available at that time period,” Gray said.
The church is home to several historically, culturally and religiously significant artworks and artifacts, including journals and notes dating from the first resident priest, Father Nikolai, as well as educational materials from the school.
The church also houses sacred icons — depictions of religious scenes — dating from the early 1700s. One, “Our Lady of Kazan,” is one of the oldest pieces of non-Native art in Alaska, brought from Russia with the first group of missionaries to Kodiak Island, Gray said. Three other pieces in the church are rare examples of icons “written” — the term for the creation of an icon, since each image depicts a Biblical scene or character — by an Alaska Native iconographer.
“In addition to being religious artifacts, they do have a historic importance to the Kenai area because of their age,” Gray said.
In an effort to preserve the artifacts, as well as better share them with the public, the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center is hosting an exhibit titled “Sacred Space, Sacred Time,” opening with a gala reception April 23 and running through September. Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary will undergo extensive structural renovations over the summer, necessitating that it be closed to visitors. Rather than transferring all the icons and sacred objects to storage, the church will in effect be re-created in the visitors center exhibit, with added interpretive programs and informational displays.
“We’re hoping it will give people a sense of what the church represents, not only historically but also its present-day significance in the community,” Gray said. “It’s still an active parish. We’ve had 11 resident priests come to Kenai from all parts of Alaska and Russia who have served here. It’s important for our own church members, as well as visitors, to learn more about the Russian era here on the Kenai Peninsula. We’re trying to expand it to contain sort of bits and pieces of all the history of that era, and bring it to life for people today.”
Laura Forbes, director of programs and exhibits at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, said the exhibit will be a rare chance to learn about the history of the Orthodox Church in Kenai, and also its present and future by learning about the restoration process.
The center will host an interpretive series throughout the summer, with speakers presenting information on the church, such as its architecture, the restoration process and the significance of the icons.
“It gives us the opportunity to integrate art and history and culture and architecture and all of these different ideas a little differently than we have in the past,” Forbes said. “All of these icons and objects that are tremendous historic pieces, as well as part of this living faith — we’ll be able to more widely discuss and interpret them for the community of Kenai and visitors.”
Typically each summer the center hosts a contemporary art show of statewide prominence, involving noted artists from around the state. But this year, the center chose to look within its community and help celebrate what makes it unique.
“Once we started talking to Father Thomas and realized the scope and magnitude and significance of the icons and what they had at the Russian Orthodox Church, and got a sense of the potential and opportunity it could present as far as telling the story of the history of Kenai, there’s just so much there, we couldn’t not do it,” said Natasha Ala, executive director of the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau, which runs the visitors center.
The process of creating the exhibit has involved a community effort, which is a fitting tribute to the communitywide impact the church has had on the development of Kenai. Volunteers from the Kenai Performers helped create “sets” to echo the look of the church in the center. Members of the Unocal Retirees Association peeled and joined logs to create a diorama demonstrating how the walls and corners of the church were constructed. This shows why the structure is bowing and needs to be repaired. And photographers and artists are contributing images of and inspired by the church.
“I’m really looking forward to the exhibit because I know Laura has made it a real community event,” Gray said. “I’m envisioning the background to look like the church, so when people walk in it’s not going to look like a museum, it’s going to re-create the sense of people entering our church. People will be amazed to see the way it’s been set up.”
Gray has been particularly awed by the community support of the exhibit and church restoration project, especially how interested people have been to learn more about the community’s history.
“It’s an extension of how people value our Natural Historic Landmark,” she said. “We’re very fortunate in this community to have one of only 49 landmarks in the state. People recognize that and the part it has played in our local history and culture of this area.”
“This will be a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit,” Gray said. “I hope it will pave the way for other local exhibits, because people come to Kenai to see what is unique about our community.”
What is an icon?
The word icon (ikon in the Russian) is a Greek word meaning, simply, “image.” There is often confusion about the veneration of the icons of the Orthodox tradition. Many find it a contradictory action, as the Second Commandment (Exodus: 20) includes exhortation against false idols. Even within the history of the Orthodox church, periods of iconoclasm have challenged the dogma of iconography. In particular, during the 8th and 9th centuries, Eastern Orthodoxy saw periods of Iconoclasm during which many icons were destroyed.
The question was resolved during the Seventh Ecumenical Council at the meeting of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. The veneration of images of Christ and other holy men and women such as the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), was not a worship of the image or art, but a memory or reflection upon the individual or event depicted in an icon. The veneration of icons is akin to reading scripture and understanding the teachings of Christ and other holy figures — through the veneration of an icon, the believer sends prayers to God through the lens of the image, not to the icon, itself.
The creation of an icon is, according to Orthodox Tradition, a creation of God himself. Several of the most well-known icons are considered miraculous, as in “Our Lady of Kazan,” in which the Theotokos appeared to a girl in dreams, telling her where the icon would be found.
The images do not derive from individual inspiration, but from the pattern set forward in theological guidelines for iconography. Through time, consistency of iconic subjects is maintained through workshops where iconographers train and study. There are also physical manuals called “podlinniks.”
An iconographer must not only be an artist of skill — this is the basic requirement for an iconographer — an iconographer must be a person of faith and dedication, who understands the significance of the icons he or she writes. An icon is not a signed work of art, but a specific representation carrying meaning beyond a photographic reproduction or an imaginative interpretation.
— Submitted by the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center