• Russian Orthodox faitht
  • Russian Orthodox faith

By Sam Howe Verhovek, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer - October 1, 2006

TATITLEK, Alaska - Steve Totemoff keeps faith alive in this tiny Alaskan village - the Russian Orthodox faith.

Totemoff, a native Aleut, keeps the faith when he caulks, paints, or replaces the wood of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox church after it is cracked by ice heaves or pulverized by the driving, salty, sleet-filled winds that come in from Prince William Sound.

Because of the work he and other Aleuts do, the 100-year-old church still stands.

Its three onion domes, each painted robin's-egg blue and topped by the three-bar Orthodox cross, grace the simple wooden building that looms above the steel-gray harbor in Tatitlek and sets off the misty green stretches of spruce trees with its own vivid burst of color.

Today, though the statewide Russian Orthodox diocese has 30,000 adherents and 40 ordained priests - both all-time highs, the church says - it is nonetheless struggling to preserve some of its most iconic landmarks: the historic chapels in poor native villages such as this one, about 90 miles southeast of Anchorage.

In nearly 100 villages and towns along the Alaskan coast, from the tip of the Aleutian Islands to the onetime Russian-American capital of Sitka, the Russian Orthodox churches remain the most visible - often the most colorful - man-made landmarks.

Forty of the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places or designated as National Historic Landmarks. Some are meticulously maintained; a few are "literally ready to collapse," warned a report last year by Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, a nonprofit preservation group.

Most, however, are like Tatitlek's: battered by time, weather and wind, but still standing as a focal point of faith in the community, and kept alive by a lay congregation.

"We keep holding on," says Totemoff, 55, a powerfully built Vietnam War veteran with a big mustache. He wears a thick black work jacket, with a logo proclaiming Tatitlek to be "God's Country, U.S.A.," both to church and to his day job as the village's water-treatment plant operator.

"I could tell you what the church needs," he adds with a shrug, listing a new heater, a new fuel tank and yet another coat of paint. "But I prefer to think about what we have. To me, the miracle is that our church is still here at all."

Although many of the people who care for the churches have names like Totemoff, Kompkoff, Gregoriev and Vlasoff, they do so with a curious distinction: They have little or no Russian blood.

"Many of us have never even seen a Russian," says Gary Kompkoff, the elected village chief in Tatitlek, letting out a small laugh. "Most of us are full-blooded Aleut. It was very long ago that the Russians were here, of course."

The diocese's modest growth is almost all in the Anchorage area, where it has opened five new churches in the last decade as well as a museum that tells the tale of the faith in Alaska.

The church's leader here is the Right Rev. Bishop Nikolai, the bishop of Sitka, Anchorage and Alaska. He came here five years ago after spending 22 years in Las Vegas, where he founded two parishes and served as chancellor of the Western diocese that includes California. He also worked outside the church as a juvenile parole and probation officer in Las Vegas.

The bishop, who formally uses just one name, says the Alaska diocese has also invested in its St. Herman seminary on Kodiak Island.

It is named for a man who was among the first 10 Russian monks to come to Alaska, in 1794, and who became North America's first Orthodox saint. His name is still recalled in the special prayers of the faithful for the diocese, such as this one:

"Beset by hardships in this far northern land, we are lifted up by the faith our Father Herman instilled in us, and by the prayers of Our Lady of Sitka we take upon ourselves, with hope and fortitude, the Cross our Lord has given to each one of us ... "

At the seminary, four of every five graduates are from native Alaskan groups: the Aleut in the south, the Yupik Eskimos in the west and the Tlingit of the southeast. Those who become priests sometimes mix three languages into a service: English, Slavonic (an old form of church Russian) and their native Alaskan tongue.

The Russian empire arrived in Alaska in 1741 with the voyage of explorer Vitus Bering, for whom the Bering Strait is named. It laid claim to the Alaskan wilderness, and hundreds of seal- and otter-fur trappers and traders quickly followed, working their way along the Alaska coast and eventually to Northern California.

Monks and missionaries came as well, and onion-domed Orthodox churches were erected along with the military outposts that protected the colony.

As with almost any story of colonization, there is a brutal side of history to be told of Russian Alaska: military subjugation; smallpox epidemics; couplings that were forced on native women by Russian men, creating an Alaskan class of Creoles.

Even natives with no Russian blood, who generally called one another by just one name, were assigned Russian family names that their descendants use to this day.

The Russian era here came to an abrupt end in 1867, when Czar Alexander II, consumed with other details of his overextended empire, sold Alaska.

Many of the estimated 900 or so Russians in the Last Frontier at the time sailed back across the Bering Strait.

But the Orthodox tradition remained, in part because the church had found ways to adapt to the natives, scholars say. Missionaries had made considerable effort to learn native languages and had given the natives wide latitude in conducting church affairs.

"It's very easy to stereotype missionaries" as having imposed a completely foreign religion on natives here, says Richard Dauenhauer, the President's Professor of Native Languages and Culture at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau.

"But there was actually a lot of synthesis of Orthodoxy with the Aleutian culture," Dauenhauer says. "A lot of what happened in the native tradition was baptized into the church, is their way of looking at it. So when you define ancestry, the church is very much part of that."

Indeed, tradition is what many native Alaskans cite as a big reason for remaining true to the faith.

The paradox remains, that it is a religion imported from afar that many natives say keeps them most attuned to the spirit of their ancestors here.

"I think for many, the Orthodox church is very - comforting, actually," says Totemoff, carefully searching for the right word.

"It is the traditional way," adds Totemoff, who leads services here as a lay reader. "There is a sense of connection. It is how our ancestors worshiped."

"We were brought up this way," says Eleanor Tomaganuk, 44, one Sunday morning just after services at St. Nicholas, where she had come with her two young children. "There's very much a feeling that this is our church."

With 40 ordained priests today, the number exceeds the 32 clergy on record at the height of Russian influence in the mid-1800s, says Barbara Sweetland Smith, an Alaska historian who is also vice president of the nonprofit "sacred sites" group dedicated to preserving the old churches.

Even with that growth, however, many small parishes such as Tatitlek's continue to function as they have for decades - with lay leaders conducting the services most of the time because traveling priests can come only once every several weeks.

"In many of these villages, the strong message of the church is this: 'We're still here,' " says Bishop Nikolai, who frequently travels to the remote chapels. "This faith is very much alive in Alaska."

Historic Churches

There are seven Russian Orthodox buildings in Alaska that are federally designated National Historic Landmarks:

  • Sts. Peter and Paul Church
  • St. George the Martyr Church
  • Holy Ascension Cathedral
  • Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church; Chapel of St. Nicholas
  • St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral; Bishop's House and Chapel


Help the Orthodox in Alaska!

Donate to Outreach Alaska ยป