By Clark Fair
When parishioner Dorothy Gray stands in the nave of Kenai’s Russian Orthodox Church and narrates for a group of tourists the story of the church, she usually keeps to a set chronology that begins with visiting missionaries in the late 1700s and progresses to the resident priest of the present day.
Gray highlights her narrative with tales of the sometimes “despicable” Russian fur traders, with the spiritual and practical benefits brought to the area by the priests, and with the costs of construction and many of the sacred icons inside the church. When she finishes with her story and answers questions, she hopes tourists will be inspired to drop off donations as they head out the door.
Although the church sits in Old Town Kenai and is one of the city’s primary tourist attractions, it still functions as an active place of worship, and the money is crucial to keeping it going and in good shape. Donations alone, however, are not going to be enough for the work that is now necessary to keep the church intact.
The building has serious structural problems that will require $255,000 to repair, a figure that dwarfs any of the previous price tags attached to its history: the original cost of the church, the purchase of its icons, the construction of the nearby chapel and rectory, the addition of the bell tower, and the many repairs along the way.
The history of the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church in Kenai dates back more than a century.
In April 1894, when word arrived that their petition had been approved, the Russian Orthodox parishioners in Kenai were pleased. The Holy Ruling Synod in Russia had agreed to allow them to build the new church for which they had been hoping, replacing the deteriorating original church that the revered Father Igumen Nicholai had established in the 1840s.
And to help fund the project, the Alaskan Ecclesiastical Administration had sent along $400.
In their petition, the parishioners had detailed their expected expenses and the materials they would need to complete the project, so they wasted little time celebrating and got right to work.
Under the guidance of Father Alexander Yaroshevich, the work began on a site just south of the rectory on property that once had housed Nikolaevskii Redoubt, or Fort St. Nicholas, the first area Russian fur-trading outpost, established in 1795 by the Lebedev-Lastochin Company.
Each church family was required to donate five hand-hewn logs to the process. The plan called for 6-by-6-inch logs, bladed flat on each side (to form smooth walls and allow for easier stacking), and for dovetails where the logs met to form perpendicular adjoining walls.
Construction supervisor Alexander Demidov’s inventory of expenses included $49.50 for 16,500 shingles, $57 for several kegs of nails, $8 for two wide-headed axes and a new hand-drill, and $50 for paint. Also included in the budget was $420 for four months of labor at $3.50 a day.
The grand total was expected to be $916.31 — more than $21,000 in today’s money.
The project proceeded as planned, and, in an October 1895 letter, Father Yaroshevich announced that the church was complete. In the spring of 1896, under the guidance of a new priest, Father Ionn Bortnovsky, Kenai’s shiny new church was consecrated to God.
In 1900, at a cost of another $300, the church was expanded westward and a belfry was erected over the new addition. At the same time, a white picket fence was constructed around the perimeter of the church grounds. After those renovations, the Kenai church remained virtually unchanged —except for repairs, repainting and the installation of a concrete-block foundation — for the next century.
In 1970, however, one crucial change did occur: The church was named a National Historic Landmark, one of only two in the Kenai Peninsula Borough — the other is the Yukon Island Main Site in Kachemak Bay — and of only 48 across the entire state. The National Park Service, which oversees the maintenance and protection of national landmarks, termed it “the principal and most enduring representative of Russian culture in southcentral Alaska.”
In addition to bringing Christianity to the Kenai Peninsula, Russian Orthodox priests had also brought medical supplies, taught agriculture and new home-building skills to the Natives, acted as law enforcement when the “piratelike” fur traders got out of hand, and provided the area’s first school.
In fact, for the first 40 years after Alaska was purchased in 1867 by the United States, it was the Russian government, through the church, that provided the only education on the Kenai. The funding was halted only when the communists began their takeover and secularization of Russia.Now this important symbol of Kenai’s past requires new attention. The problem lies in the heart of the structure, in the middle (and largest) section of the church — the nave, the high-domed room in which services are held each Sunday.
Parishioners who enter the nave via the west-facing front door of the church can easily see that the north and south walls are seriously out of plumb. The top of each wall leans outward, as the weight of the overhead dome and its one-ton brass chandelier push the walls sideways under the constant influence of gravity.
There is, however, more to the story: Many of the original wall logs — enclosed now between exterior lap siding and interior Sheetrock — are deteriorating.
When builders created the bell tower addition, they cut away the original west wall; although they set load-bearing columns in place of the wall, the adjoining walls to the north and south were suddenly without the interlocking piece that gave them integrity. As the wall logs deteriorated, then, the walls themselves became seriously compromised.
An effort is under way between the NPS and a nonprofit historical-preservation group called ROSSIA (Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska) to see that the church gets what it needs — and the funding to pay for it.
Just a few months ago, ROSSIA was informed that it had received from the Save America’s Treasures coalition a $125,000 matching-funds grant to help with the restoration, and it was in the process of securing another $110,000 from the Rasmuson Foundation when the national economic crisis hit. The foundation has suspended the issuance of its larger grants, and now the church finds itself in need of more creative financing.
Consequently, a group of concerned experts congregated last week at the church to examine its structure and to discuss options and funding. On hand were ROSSIA treasurer Grant Crosby of the NPS; ROSSIA board member and Anchorage architect, Carroll Stockard; Doug Gasek of the State Historic Preservation Office; BBFM structural engineer, Troy Feller; ROSSIA secretary and lifelong member of the Russian Orthodox Church, Gray; and ROSSIA chair Sheri Buretta, who is also the chairman of the board of the Chugach Alaska Corporation. Later, they met up with Kenai city planner Marilyn Kebschull to further discuss funding.
After she unlocked the church and invited the group inside, Gray, whose Orthodox grandparents emigrated from Czechoslovakia, performed her church-history narration and answered questions. Then Crosby coordinated an examination of the premises, while Gasek, Stockard and Feller took measurements and offered suggestions and observations. Buretta and Kebschull proposed a wide variety of funding possibilities and listened to the suggestions for keeping the church together.
The restoration solution at the top of the list will involve temporarily closing and at least partially emptying the church during the repairs. The northern and southern interior and exterior walls will be stripped down to the wall logs, and deteriorating logs will be replaced. Two thick steel plates will then be bolted into the logs to “tie” them together and get them to work in unison against the roof thrust. Finally, a steel cable with a turnbuckle will be passed through the attic and attached to each wall, reconnecting the two walls and allowing them to better resist the outward force.
Also on the repair list is replacing the entire foundation. The concrete blocks now beneath the church have been settling at different rates and causing the church floors to slope slightly. Because the space beneath the church is narrow, much of the excavation for this portion of the project will have to be done by hand.
During the summer tourist season, the church pulls in about $6,000 in donations, but Gray said that ROSSIA must look to additional sources to raise the necessary funds. The Rasmuson money is still a possibility next year, she said, but even if it comes through eventually, it will not be enough to fully meet the requirements of matching funding.
This time, Gray knows, it will take more than a check from the church’s home office to do the job.