[OCMC] Sacred Ground in Alaska, Elaine Russos
Our OCMC mission team to Eklutna, Alaska was a wonderful experience, and we want each of you to know how much we appreciate the opportunity made possible by your support and prayers.
Alaska is a beautiful state with very warm and hospitable people. The weather was perfect (between 45-60 degrees). The mosquitoes were incredible, especially in Eklutna, but we had been warned and came prepared! On a more positive note, there are no fleas, ticks, termites, or snakes.
The Athabascan Alaska Natives moved the original St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church (completely constructed without nails!) from Knik to their sacred ground in Eklutna around the early 1900s. This area has since become a historical park, with up to 15,000 visitors each year from around the world. So as we worked in this remote spot, we watched people driving up and touring the grounds speaking many different languages.
The park is home to the Spirit Cemetery. When the monks arrived in this area from Russia, they converted the natives to Orthodoxy but did not try to completely change their customs and way of life as long as it did not conflict with Christianity. They were allowed to continue making their spirit houses but could no longer cremate. Believing the spirit hovers over the grave for a year, they cover the grave with a blanket to keep the spirit warm and build a house over the grave. In the house they place favorite items of the deceased person. The bright colors of the houses represent the tribes they are from or married into, and if they place a fence around the house it represents a chief.
In 1962 Chief Alex, thinking he was dying, was told by the bishop he would not die but would build a church, so the new St. Nicholas Church was where our Team of eight began work.
Team members included Adam Bieker from Nevada, Amy and Chris Burdette from Florida, Dean Gionis from Florida, Nastassia Hill from Ohio, our team leader Charlie Varelos from Florida, and the two of us (Elaine and John Roussos from Alabama). The low ceiling in the altar and the old insulation was removed. New electrical wiring, insulation, and lights were installed in the new cathedral ceiling. Large new icons were hung in the sanctuary. The bell tower was repaired, and at the outside entrance a brick landing was laid. We gold-leafed a large piece of plywood, attached an icon of St. Nicholas, and hung it over the outside entrance door of the church. We dug huge stones from a pit and lined the outside of the entire church with the stones for a flower bed. Then we added plants and bark. We cut grass throughout the park and cleaned around the spirit houses and repaired and painted crosses. The picket fence around the park had to be repaired and then completely painted, along with many signs.
After our work was finished each day, we went to a parishioner’s home for dinner, fellowship, and to share our Orthodox faith with one another. Many days we attended services. Women wore scarves, and we did as well. There were no pews, and Divine Liturgy could easily last two hours or more, with standing room only for around fifty people. Although the worship service was the same, the customs were very different and very interesting. We enjoyed visiting after church with the parishioners. Everyone was most appreciative of the work we had done during our time there.
Because of this mission and the repairs to St. Nicholas, many more people will come not only to tour the Eklutna Historical Park, but also to visit and pray in St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church and continue to learn about Orthodoxy and the strong faith of the Alaskans.