Before Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, it was colonized by Russia. The Russians seemed fairly disinterested in Alaska as a whole, but they did have a small settlement in the town of Sitka, which was used as a trading post.
The town grew and talk of a church also grew, so a cathedral in the traditional Russian Orthodox style, St. Michael’s Cathedral, was constructed. It was the first of its kind in North America.
The church was originally built between 1844 and 1848 out of spruce timber and sailcloth for insulation. It was the largest building in Alaska at that time. During the construction, a ship bound for Sitka that was carrying a painting of St. Michael sank 30 miles from town.
Thirty days later, a crate containing the painting washed up on the beach near the construction site. Because of this unusual event, the cathedral was named for the saint in the painting and is hanging in the cathedral to this day.
St. Michael’s Cathedral also contains numerous icons, including the ‘Sitka Madonna,’ a painting of the mother of God. It is believed to be a miracle-working icon, known throughout the United States for its power to heal, answer prayers and perform miracles.
All of the icons in the church are original, but the cathedral had to be rebuilt following a fire in 1966. Luckily, the townspeople were able to rescue the sacred contents of the church. They even saved the large brass chandelier, which two men carried out, even though it later took six men to carry it back in.
It took a decade to rebuild the cathedral, but it’s an exact replica, down to the sailcloth lining the interior. There are no pews in the church because Russian Orthodox believe that standing during worship is the proper way to honor God.
There was a recent project to restore and refurbish the iconic Russian church bells in the cathedral’s tower. Russian bells differ from traditional church bells with unique clappers that are rung using strings or foot pedals. During restoration, a Russian priest traveled to Sitka to teach congregants how to play the bells. Historically, the bell tower was closed, but visitors can now tour the tower by climbing the four stories to ring the massive, historic bells.
St. Michael’s Cathedral is only three blocks from the Pacific Ocean and is open for tours on days that cruise ships are in port. With its copper domes, this church has become the iconic emblem of Sitka.
There’s a $5 entrance fee, which goes towards building maintenance. There are evening services every day, and the Sunday services are sung in English, Church Slavonic as well as portions in Tlingit, Aleut and Yupik.
The church is located at 240 Lincoln St. in Sitka, Alaska. For more information visit www.stmichaelcathedral.org.