Repairs have wrapped, for now, on one of Alaska’s oldest standing Orthodox churches. The Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church in Old Town Kenai has shed its scaffold to reveal an updated roof, cupolas and crosses.
Any building with the superlative of “oldest” is going to need an upgrade once in a while. Especially when that building is made of wood and sits on a blustery bluff.
“If you've ever owned an old house, you know what it’s like. You fix one thing and then something else goes wrong," said Dorothy Gray, treasurer-secretary of Holy Assumption and the chair of Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska (ROSSIA).
Every year, ROSSIA chooses a historic church or two to work on. This year, they were planning on restoring the log walls of the Chapel of St. Nicholas across the street, a continuation of a restoration project that began last summer. But they were working with a restoration business from Outside on that, which would be too difficult to coordinate with COVID.
Instead, they turned their focus to the church building. Blazy Construction in Soldotna did the repairs, which included giving it a new roof, says John Wachtel, a historical architect with the Alaska regional office of the National Park Service.
“That’s often where you start, with preservation projects, is to give the structure a new hat, so to speak," he said. "And it tends to buy it some time, because if you have a leaky roof, the water coming in can damage some of the other structural components over time and just cause more problems.”
The new cedar shingle roof has plywood decking and a waterproof membrane underneath. Blazy also replaced the wooden crosses up top with stainless steel crosses and repaired some of the cupolas.
While they were replacing the smallest cupola, they found artifacts from the last time it was restored, including a 1978 silver dollar and photos from a 1990s Peninsula Clarion story.
They also restored the belltower, so it can let rain and snow in without damaging the structure below. You might notice the window spaces in that tower are now open, a feature Wechtel says more closely resembles the original style of the church.
Relatively few changes have been made to the church building itself since 1894 when it was built. The church is a National Historic Landmark.
“It’s a fascinating structure in that it’s very simple, yet it kind of reveals some of the construction techniques of the day," Wachtel said.
The church’s predecessor was built in 1849, across the street where the chapel now sits. The adjacent parish house is thought to be the oldest standing building in the Cook Inlet area.
Back then, the Eastern Orthodox churches in North America were governed by Russia. Funding for the construction of the current church, totaling $400, came straight from St. Petersburg.
The price tag on this project was a little higher. Gray approximated it cost around $185,000, gathered through grants from foundations and individual donations. But they’re not done yet.
“The final piece of the project hasn’t been finished. And that is to paint the cedar shingles," she said.
It got too cold too quickly to finish up that part of the project, so they’ll likely wait until next spring or summer to do it. They’ll be light blue, like other parts of the church.
The church is still a functioning parish. It closed to visitors this spring as the threat of COVID-19 ramped up, and then reopened to smaller quantities of people more recently.
It closed again this past weekend when Fr. Peter Tobias tested positive for COVID-19, according to a post on the church’s Facebook page.