Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part story concerning the early Christian churches of the central Kenai Peninsula. This week features the origin of Christianity on the Kenai and early church efforts throughout the 1940s. Next week will focus on how local church offerings, particularly the Catholic Church, expanded throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s. The following installment will feature other early places of worship, including the Methodist Church, the first church in Soldotna.
By Clark Fair
Much has been made — and rightly so — of the massive changes wrought once non-Natives began settling in Southcentral Alaska. The arrival of the Russians in the late 1700s ushered in a new economic system, social unrest, altered distribution of natural resources, increase in the spread of disease and a shift in education and the ownership of property.
A change in belief systems arrived, too, when Christianity was introduced to the Kenai Peninsula.
The Russian Orthodox Church established the first Christian presence in the form of 34-year-old missionary, Father Juvenaly, who came to Kenai in 1795 and began baptizing local inhabitants. He spent the winter of 1795-96 at Fort St. Nicholas (the first area Russian fur-trading outpost, established in 1795 by the Lebedev-Lastochin Company) and at the nearby village of Shk’ituk’t.
Juvenaly was part of a group of eight monks organized in 1793 in a Russia monastery and charged with preaching to Alaska Natives. He ran into trouble, however, after leaving Kenai in 1796. Although reports are conflicting, it appears that as he continued his missionary work westward he was killed by a group of Yup’ik villagers he was attempting to convert.
In the absence of Juvenaly in Kenai, the faithful of the central peninsula had to settle for limited church leadership for several decades. Until 1840, Kenai would be visited by missionaries from the Kodiak parish only every two to three years.
Then, in 1841, Father Nicholas (Igumen Nicholai) arranged the construction of the first Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai. Three years later, Kenai was officially established as a parish, encompassing a vast territory.
Father Nicholas’ 1859 diary noted that he needed two years to make the rounds of the villages in his care. Without benefit of a road system, he traveled from Kenai north as far as Knik, south to the tip of the peninsula, and east to the site of present-day Valdez. Typically, he traveled by bidarka, usually accompanied by an interpreter, assistant and his oarsmen.
The United States purchased Alaska in 1867, around the same time that Father Nicholas died. Over the next quarter-century, he was succeeded by Father Nikita, who had the church remodeled in 1883, Father Mitropolsky and Father Alexander Yaroshevich, who advocated successfully for the construction of a new church.
In April 1894, Russian Orthodox parishioners in Kenai received word that their construction petition had been approved by the Holy Ruling Synod in Russia. 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 listed all the materials they would need to complete the project. They wasted little time celebrating and got right to work. Under the guidance of Father Yaroshevich, construction began on a site just south of the rectory.
Each church family was required to donate five hand-hewn logs to the new church. 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 — after Yaroshevich was transferred to Juneau — Kenai’s shiny new church was consecrated to God under the guidance of a new priest, Father Ionn Bortnovsky.
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.
Father Bortnovsky returned to Russia in 1906, and Father Paul Shadura took over the following year. He remained in place until about 1950, and many longtime Kenai residents still remember him.
It was during Shadura’s tenure that Christianity on the Kenai began to expand beyond the Russian Orthodox Church.
According to the scrapbook of Kasilof teacher Enid McLane, in July 1938 the Rev. Martin Ramsey (who was living at the home of Clayton and Lucy Pollard) presided at the “first Divine service” for the Kasilof School. Lucy Pollard, who had been a missionary with a Baptist orphanage in Kodiak, would become a matron for the Kasilof Community Church more than a decade later.
In 1939, Walter Covich, a young missionary with the Slavic Gospel Association, visited Kenai and held special services in the village.
According to the SGA’s official website, the Slavic Gospel Association traces its history back to 1934 and the city of Chicago. Its founder, the Rev. Peter Deyneka, who had come to the United States from Belarus at age 15, believed that he had a life mission to share his newfound Christian views with the people of his homeland, and his ministry had sprouted from this belief.
In 1925, he had traveled and preached extensively in Belarus. While there, he had established a relationship with the churches of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. But in the early 1930s, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had intensified persecution of the churches, making it impossible for Deyneka to travel to his homeland. Convinced that there were ways to help the churches from the United States, he and a small group of Chicago-area businessmen met in the back of a shoe store and founded the Russian Gospel Association, later renamed the Slavic Gospel Association.
Throughout the 1940s, SGA missionaries (and some missionaries from other faiths) served the Kenai area.
On Aug. 22, 1945, Olga Erickson and Violet Able were flown in an SGA missionary plane to Kenai, where they occupied the old two-story George Pederson home that had been purchased by the SGA and remodeled (under the supervision of Covich, working as a missionary in Port Graham) to include a chapel meeting room downstairs and an apartment upstairs.
This building became the Kenai Bible Chapel, the first Protest
ant place of worship in Kenai.
In 1947, SGA missionaries Gladys Erdman and Florence Dalbow began directing Kasilof Community Church meetings in the homes of parishioners. Meanwhile, Erickson and Able served in Kenai until 1948, when they were transferred to other villages. They were replaced by Walter and Eldy Covich, who took charge of the expanding missionary work at Kenai Bible Chapel and remained in Kenai until 1955.
As the second half of the 20th century began, Christian-based churches were expanding rapidly, becoming considerably more varied and frenetic.