• Land by church may be sold, but ancient church building won’t be
by Naomi Klouda
Seldovia’s St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, sitting atop its hill as it has for more than a century, is currently in transition because its members are so few in Seldovia that services are seldom held there.
However, contrary to speculation, the church is not for sale, said Russian Orthodox priest, Father Michael Oleksa. Apparently the rumor started because land around the church is listed for sale, after a trailer court nearby has overflowed onto church property, creating a “squatting” situation that has left the church wanting to sell the land around the church.
“We have a person who is willing to buy the land and we would rather sell it and let the new owners sort out the squatter issue,” Oleksa said.
Oleksa said that no Russian Orthodox church can be sold. The buildings are owned outright by the diocese, and 30 of them in Alaska are on the historic register.
For that matter, every ancient, onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral in Alaska has a separate story, said Oleksa, a long-time professor of cultural and orthodox history at Alaska universities and the author of several books on the topic. Some churches, like Holy Assumption at Kenai, will be going through renovations to replace its 120-year old rotting log walls. In order to raise the $1 million it will take to do that, the nonprofit Rossia is coming to the rescue to raise the funds.
Still, other Russian orthodox churches will sit on their lonely hills without inhabitants to care for them.
“We have a dozen churches in ghost towns throughout Alaska,” Oleksa said. “It happens. People move in and people move out.”
In Anchorage, it takes five Russian Orthodox churches to serve an enormous flock — in addition to the European-style Cathedral off Muldoon. One church congregation even functions out of a mall at 58th Avenue and Arctic. Oleksa serves the mall church, and said he wishes it were possible to move an under-utilized church for service elsewhere where it might be needed more.
“But that’s not how it works, and it would be very expensive,” Oleksa conceded. “As it is, we are probably serving the faithful from Seldovia right here in Anchorage. Some villages such as those along the Kuskokwim are as big as ever, but then there are villages seeing shrinking populations.”
The Seldovia church’s fate is compared to the life that befell Karluk’s grand ancient structure. That one on Kodiak Island was built in 1884, large enough to hold several hundred people when seven canneries and 3,000 people used to live there.
“Now there are less than 20 people left in the village,” Oleksa said. “Every parish takes care of its own church, and there aren’t enough there to restore it to a historic site.”
Before Homer was ever a dot in a coal prospector’s eye, Seldovia was the burgeoning center of all things important on the Lower Kenai. That included education at the turn of the century. According to historical records kept by the church, the young Native Alaskan children were receiving a better education than their European counterparts because they were attending school at the church.
The original church was a small log structure located along the beach in Seldovia. The current one is purported to have been built in 1891, and was then named St. Nicholas. It was originally part of the Kenai Parish, but now is directly under Alaska’s Orthodox Bishop Gregory. In 1896, the first resident priest there, Father John Bortnovsky, wrote there were 17 houses and 110 people and that they “raised some chickens and engaged in a little agriculture.”
In 1904, the children were reportedly studying from Russian and English textbooks. Two of their text books were found in the ceiling area by Architect Sam Combs during the restoration project a decade ago. In 1906, a Russian trader purchased the big bells for the church. An invoice of the purchase still exists.
In 1981, the Alaska Legislature funded a $127,000 restoration to extend the life of the building. It was then registered as a historic site, recalled Seldovia resident Helen Josefsen, who worked on the project at the time.
“At that time, the whole town participated in the restoration,” Josefsen said. “We kept the church open in the summertime for the visitors to see. It was really popular.”
The orthodox population was significant in the past. When Josefsen was married in 1953, most of the town were members of the congregation. The church enjoyed a busy spell after the restoration, but slowly the flock dwindled, she recalled.
“The old-timers passed away and there are only a few members now,” Josefsen said. “I think just two or so of us. We have a visiting priest at times on the holidays.”
The idea that the church would sell this historic landmark was a persistent rumor that circulated for several months, but Josefsen said she told people it wasn’t true whenever she was asked.
There’s always the possibility a town’s population will grow again or that, in the outward migration to Anchorage that empties Alaska’s villages, that they will return again, Oleksa pointed out. This cycle works its course.
That means the ancient Russian Orthodox cathedral adorning the town of Seldovia might have a period of use in the future.
Father Sergie Active, who takes care of services in Nanwalek and Port Graham, said he would hold services in Seldovia March 20-21.
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