The Eastern Orthodox Church got its start in what would become the United States in the high wilderness of Alaska. This was due to its introduction not by missionaries from Europe across the Atlantic, but by Russian explorers from across the Pacific. After Alaska’s first exploration by Russian merchant Grigory Shelikhov in the 18th century, Russian Orthodox colonies were established on Kodiak Island and on the Kenai Peninsula. There they constructed the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church, the first Orthodox church built on American soil. Because of this the Diocese of Alaska is considered the Mother Diocese of the Orthodox Church in the Americas. The Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church is a National Historic Landmark.
At the height of the Colonial era, as most of the European powers were expanding their empires overseas, the Russians were pushing eastwards across the great Asian Steppe until they reached the Pacific Ocean. Not content with this vast territory, Russian fur traders began probing across the Bering Strait in the 1740s. Russian merchant ships under Grigory Shelikhov began to explore the area in earnest in the 1770s.
The first Russian settlement was established on Kodiak Island in 1784. The settlement, named Three Saints Bay, would later be home to the first Orthodox congregation in North American. In 1791, the Russians became more established on the mainland, building a fort at what is now Kenai. Early in the 19th century, the first Russian Orthodox clergymen arrived.
Igumen Nikolai Milotov, a monk, established the first Orthodox parish in the territory and constructed the first permanent church at Kenai. This was the first Orthodox church building on the North American mainland, and was an important religious institution for Russian merchants and seamen. It also served as a mission for the local Native American population. Militov died in 1869 and was buried near his church.
The small Russian Orthodox population remained in Kenai even after the United States acquisition of the Alaska territory in 1867. In the 1890s, the old church was replaced with a new building. A memorial chapel to Milotov was added in 1906. The Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church remains in use today, and is generally recognized as the Mother Diocese not just of Russian Orthdoxy but of all the churches in the Eastern Orthodox communion in the Americas.
The Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church dates from the turn of the century. A moderately small wooden structure, it is a combination of traditional Russian Orthdox architecture and church design typical of the American frontier. The whitewashed building, surrounded by trees and a white picket fence, could easily have been lifted from the American prairie. However, the blue onion dome caps to to the bell towers are a dead giveaway of the church’s Russian influence.
The small interior is beautifully decorated, with every inch of the walls covered in iconic paintings of important saints. The main altar is just over the gravesite of Nikolai Militov and is marked by a stand topped with a picture of the local favorite son.
The Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church is located on the west side of Kenai’s Olde Town, approximately seventy miles southwest of Anchorage. It is open daily. There is no cost of admission. Web: http://oca.org/parishes/oca-ak-kendvm (official website).
Southern Alaska and Kodiak Island are dotted with sites of Eastern Orthodox interest. The latter is home to the Holy Resurrection Church, which stands on the site of its 18th century predecessor. The Russian Orthodox Museum in Anchorage is unfortunately closed at the current time.