A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip to Sitka to visit a friend of mine for his birthday and to help him get ready to move.
As we drove down Lincoln Street, I pointed at one of the buildings and said, “What’s that?” He looks at me and says, “Bro, you don’t know St. Michael’s Cathedral, the most famous building in Sitka, the first Russian Orthodox church in the United States?”[pb]5[/pb]
I knew about it, as many people in Southeast Alaska do, but I didn’t know what it looked like, other than it was beautiful.[pb]6[/pb]
He then laughed and said, “That’s all I know about it, it’s an old church.” I then revealed that I knew a fair amount about its history and began to explain it, which confused my friend because I couldn’t identify it just by looking at it.
A mutual friend of ours from high school told me all about it one time at a party. He is not a believer, but because of his Russian heritage, he felt a connection to the site and told me that he’d always wanted to go.
Here is the history of St. Michael’s Cathedral that I gave my friend, from its founding in the early 1800s up until the present.
The Creation of a Cathedral
Before Alaska became a US territory, it was part of the Russian Federation. The original chapel building was constructed by the Russian-American Company, which was run by Alexander Baranov (after whom Baranof Island, the island that contains Sitka, was named).
Baranov had previously lived on Kodiak Island but decided to move to Sitka in 1813, which was then known as “New Archangel”. He requested a priest be sent from Russia and that a church building should be constructed in his new capital city.
In 1816, Friar Aleksei Sokolov arrived from Russia and became the town’s priest. Construction on the building now known as St. Michael’s Cathedral, however, did not begin until 1844 and took four years to complete.
The cathedral was to be built in the direct center of town so that all could see its beauty and view it as a reminder of their faith, as well as a place for people in need to go in order to find respite from their problems.
The construction was ordered by the famous Orthodox missionary Friar Ivan Veniaminov, who later became the Metropolitan of Moscow and was canonized as Saint Innocent of Alaska. He personally made the bells and the clock that were housed in the cathedral’s tower.
After Russia sold Alaska to America in the 1867 event referred to as “Seward’s Folly“, Army Major Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate President) arrived in town and ransacked St. Michael’s, as well as various local businesses.
In 1962, the site was granted National Historic Landmark status by the National Parks Service. Unfortunately, four years later, tragedy struck.
The 1966 Fire
In January of 1966, a fire of unknown origin burned St. Michael’s to the ground. Fortunately, most of the artwork and Icons were able to be saved, as well as the chandelier and the royal doors (which separated the nave from the sanctuary).
Unfortunately, Baranov’s library of Russian, Aleut, and Tlingit literature was destroyed in the inferno, as were the bells and the clock handmade by Saint Innocent. Work began almost immediately to construct an exact replica of the original 1848 building.
Thankfully, in 1961, the Historic American Building Survey sketched a drawing of the entire cathedral, which was then used as the blueprint for reconstruction. The main difference between the two was the use of fire-resistant materials, to avoid another disaster.
In October of 1966, the National Parks Service added the rebuilt Cathedral to the list of
National Historical Buildings.
Icons of St. Michael’s Cathedral
St. Michael’s Cathedral is home to many Icons, which is a piece of artwork or a painting that goes beyond the physical and is considered sacred by the Russian Orthodox Church.
The most famous of these is called “The Sitka Madonna“, which was given as a gift by members of the Russian-American Company, and is still on display today.
It is a depiction of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, depicted wearing gold armor as the Protector of Russia, and is based on the famous Our Lady of Kazan Icon that is now housed at the Kazan Monastery of the Theotokos in Russia.
In all, there are five display cases of Icons visible inside the rebuilt Cathedral. Two are in each chapel, and one is housed in the nave.
St. Michael’s Cathedral Tours
The Cathedral is open for tours on most heavy cruise ship days from 9 AM to 4 PM Monday through Saturday, although Sunday, winter, and private tours can also be scheduled by calling in advance.
The tour is free, but there is a recommended donation of $5 per person, in order to help pay for the Cathedral’s upkeep and make sure it remains standing for even longer than the original building.
Visitors are also welcome to attend the church’s regularly scheduled services, including the Sunday morning Liturgy at 9:30 AM, 5 PM Akathists on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and Vespers at 5 PM on Saturdays.
St. Michael’s was the first Russian Orthodox Cathedral to be built in Alaska, although there were a few chapels and smaller buildings constructed before in Unalaska and on Kodiak Island that have not survived to the present day.
Although the building itself is a replica of the original cathedral, there are still many great Icons and memories of the Russian occupation of Alaska to be seen here, even if you aren’t particularly religious yourself.
You definitely won’t want to miss the opportunity to view this amazing history in downtown Sitka on your next amazing trip to Southeast Alaska!