Seldovias Russian Orthodox church rests in transition
Land by church may be sold, but ancient church building wont be
by Naomi Klouda
Seldovias 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 thats 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 churchs fate is compared to the
life that befell Karluks 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 arent enough there
to restore it to a historic site.
Before Homer was ever a dot in a coal
prospectors 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 Alaskas 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 wasnt true whenever she was asked.
Theres always the possibility a towns
population will grow again or that, in the
outward migration to Anchorage that empties
Alaskas 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.