Ten members of the Board of Trustees of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) completed a whirlwind four-day pilgrimage to various Orthodox sites in the Anchorage and Kodiak areas following the Board’s spring meeting in Portland, OR. As they venerated the relics of St. Herman of Alaska in the Holy Resurrection Cathedral before departing for their homes in the “Lower 48,” they understood much more about Orthodoxy in this place where it first came to North America over two hundred years ago.
The Mission Center has been a long-time and consistent supporter of Orthodoxy in Alaska. Donations have been made to clergy, parishes, and St. Herman Theological Seminary in Kodiak, and especially the funding of training seminarians in drug and alcohol counseling. More recently, OCMC short-term mission teams have traveled to the 49th state to assist with religious instruction in remote villages and this summer four more are planned.
His Grace Bishop Nikolai of the OCA Diocese, and a former OCMC Board member, was a most gracious host to the OCMC group. He welcomed them at a dinner at his chancery in Anchorage and provided warm hospitality throughout the visit in Kodiak. His Grace expressed appreciation for the strong relationship between the Mission Center and Alaska.
The OCMC Board members saw and experienced a wide variety of the Orthodox presence in Alaska from the traditional and, by far, the largest body, the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sitka and Alaska of the Orthodox Church in America (founded by Russian monks in Kodiak in 1794) to much more recent parishes and communities of the Greek and Antiochian Archdioceses and Bulgarian Diocese. The pilgrims also visited Spruce Island near Kodiak where St. Herman lived for many years ministering to the local native population.
In Kodiak, the OCMC pilgrims visited St. Herman Seminary which trains native Alaskans for service in the Church; they made the trip to Spruce Island and participated in evening Vigil and Sunday morning Hierarchal Divine Liturgy at Holy Resurrection Cathedral. They also toured St. Innocent Academy, a school for “at risk” Orthodox youth from around the country, and Monk’s Rock Bookstore and Coffeehouse operated under the Bulgarian Diocese.
In Anchorage, the group visited St. John’s Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral and its surrounding complex including a community school, residence facility for young singles and a chapel in Eagle River. They visited nearby Eklutna Historic Park, including St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (OCA) and a cemetery with graves covered by unique “spirit houses” for native Athabascan Indians, most of whom are Orthodox. St. Innocent Orthodox Cathedral (OCA), the center of church life for many Orthodox in the Anchorage area and the constant stream of visitors from outlying villages, was another highlight of the pilgrimage. The group toured the Anchorage Museum of History and Art for a quick lesson in Alaskan history and heard about the work of a new organization, ROSSIA, which is dedicated to preserving the historic and often environmentally threatened Orthodox Churches in Alaska.
Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, started in the early 1960’s, was another part of the visit to Anchorage. It began as a small cinder-block building near mid-town and today is in a former mansion on a five-acre site south of the city. A number of Greek immigrants arrived in Anchorage when it was founded, just under a century ago. They came to work on the railroad, seek their fortunes in the mines, be fishermen, and eventually some opened restaurants.
The four days in Alaska offered a deeply rewarding spiritual experience for those who participated. It also served as a reconfirmation of the need for continued support of Alaska by OCMC. There were many opportunities for worship, fellowship, interaction with local Orthodox, learning, and something that the Orthodox do very well - eating. Being that it was the Paschal season, a common thread wherever the group went was the joyous singing of “Christ is Risen.” It was sung not only in traditional languages like English, Greek, Slavonic, and Arabic, but also in Alaskan native tongues such as Yupik, an Eskimo dialect from the Yukon-Kuskokwim area.
For most of the people on the pilgrimage this was their first time to be in Alaska, and all agreed it likely would not be the last time they visit this “Great Land,” where Orthodoxy was planted in North America and today needs support to maintain a strong presence.
For more information about the Orthodox Christian Mission Center and their efforts, log onto their website at www.ocmc.org and for more information about the Diocese of Alaska, log onto their website at www.alaskanchurch.org.