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Chamber presentation highlights the history of Kenai's most recognizable site

Holy Assumption of Saint Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Old Town Kenai was built in 1894-96. In 1970, the church site was declared a National Historic Landmark.
Redoubt Reporter
Holy Assumption of Saint Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Old Town Kenai was built in 1894-96. In 1970, the church site was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Russian fur traders first found their way to Kenai in the 1780s, establishing the first European settlement on the Alaska mainland. Although these fur traders didn’t actually hunt sea otters or fur seals, they traded Russian blue beads for furs with the Native Dena'ina people.

The Russians would then sell these furs to the Chinese, making a fortune. As time went on, the Native people noticed the Russians had other items to trade, and expressed interest in expanding trade options. The Russian foreman of the new settlement was reluctant to do so.

“In retaliation, the Dena'ina men said ‘fine, we’re not going to go out and get any more sea otter pelts,'” said Dorothy Gray, treasurer of Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, a nonprofit devoted to the preservation of Alaska’s Russian Orthodox Churches. She presented about the church's history at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.

“Eventually, this kept escalating to the point where the foreman of the company here in Kenai resorted to kidnapping women and children and holding them hostage," she said. "This blew into a big altercation which is referred to as the battle of Kenai.” 

According to Gray, the governor of Russian-America expressed concern to Russian empress Catherine the Great over the fur traders’ actions. They agreed to send missionaries to Alaska, as they felt the presence of an Orthodox priest would keep the fur traders’ behavior in check. Departing from St. Petersburg, Russia via boat, it took 293 days for the missionaries to arrive in Kodiak, the longest recorded journey of any Orthodox church.

In 1844, Father Igumen Nikolai Militov arrived in Kenai and oversaw the construction of the city’s first and temporary Russian Orthodox Church. The construction of the church’s rectory, or clergy house, was completed in 1887, making it the oldest standing structure on the peninsula. Since then, all the church’s priests have resided in the building.

After receiving $400 from Russia for construction costs, the Holy Assumption Orthodox Church was completed in 1896 and remains the oldest standing Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska.

“The construction of the church was a family, community affair," Gray said. "Every family that belonged to the church at that time had to contribute five hand-hewn logs for its construction.”

The church’s architectural design is meant to resemble a boat, which Gray says is symbolic of navigating turbulent waters toward heaven. She also says the candlelight-shaped domes atop the structure symbolize the light of Christ.

The church is also home to several hand-painted icons, one of which is thought to be one of the oldest non-Native pieces of art in the state. It’s also the site of a large candle-lit chandelier.

“The chandelier is solid brass and is estimated to weigh 2,000 pounds," Gray said. "It’s lit during Christmas, Easter, often during funerals and always during weddings, because the money to purchase that chandelier was donated by newlywed couples.” 

The site also consists of the St. Nicholas Chapel, which overlooks the Kenai bluff. The chapel was built in 1906 and sits over the graves of Militov, his assistant and an unrecorded monk.

Gray, who is a member of the Holy Assumption Orthodox Church, says as many as 400 people stop by to photograph or tour the church on a given summer day. Because of its historic value, she says it's a special place for her to worship.

“They are curious and eager to learn about what this was like 100 or 150 years ago," Gray said. "They want to see places, log cabins that were built, old artifacts, and get a sense of what Alaska was like in the early years.”

The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970. Gray says it received this recognition because of its historic beauty, and community advancement efforts carried out by some of the church’s first priests.

Hunter Morrison is a news reporter at KDLL
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