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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 September, 2004, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
Religious legacy lives on in Alaska
By Martha Dixon
BBC, Alaska

Orthodox Church is a durable legacy of Alaska's Russian past
The Russian Orthodox church in Alaska is claiming a resurgence in a faith that most people predicted would die out. When Russia sold Alaska to America for $7.2m in 1867 it left little trace on the state - except its religion.

Speeding across calm blue waters we head with pilgrims from around the world towards one of the Russian Orthodox Church's most holy places. But this is not Russia - it's Alaska.

Spruce Island, off Alaska's south coast, was made famous by St Herman, America's first Orthodox saint.

He and other monks brought orthodoxy to Alaska in 1794, several decades after the Russians conquered this land. We land on the shingled beach and look up to an old Orthodox church nestled in thick green forest.

New cathedral in Anchorage
A new cathedral is being built in Anchorage
"For me it's a wonderful place to be. After Perestroika there is a resurrection of religion in Russia and every church and every chapel there has an icon of St Herman of Alaska," says Alexander Vankov, a Russian pilgrim from St Petersburg.

Nuns and monks here follow the traditions of St Herman - living a life of prayer in this remote outpost with no electricity or running water.

From their nearby island monastery nuns kayak in to Spruce Island to celebrate the pilgrimage.

Strong faith

It was in this region where the Russians laid down their roots in Alaska. Russia was the dominant power in the North Pacific for more than 100 years - from 1741 to 1867.

The Tsarist empire oversaw the near-extinction of sea otters for their valuable pelts. But after Alaska was sold, most Russians left.

Tania Chichenoff
I have eight children and 36 grandchildren and they've all been baptised Orthodox
Tania Chichenoff
Now, with Alaska very much a part of the American psyche, the Orthodox Church has turned out to be the most durable legacy of the Russian past.

And it's in the native Alaskan villages where that faith is still strongest. Travel half an hour by boat down the coast and you get to Ouzinkie - you can only reach it by sea.

Here more than two centuries ago locals embraced a church which protected them against the tyranny of the Russian fur traders.

"We were born not knowing that there was any other. We live in a remote, remote village and the only thing was Orthodox... and we've kept it," says 67-year-old Tania Chichenoff.

"I have eight children and 36 grandchildren and they've all been baptised Orthodox."

Tania, like many native Alaskans from this area, has a Russian surname. Many of the Russians intermarried with natives.

Bishop Nikolai
We are now the largest church in Alaska
Bishop Nikolai
"Very few Russian women came to Alaska. Russians had no prejudices against peoples with Asiatic appearances, so marriage with a native woman - that was nothing out of the ordinary," says local historian Dr Lydia Black.

Despite the arrival of Protestant missionaries after Alaska became American, the onion domes of Orthodox churches can still be seen across most Alaskan towns.

In Alaska's main city, Anchorage, the finishing touches are being put on a new cathedral. The church says it needs more space because of growing congregations.

"At the sale of Alaska, everyone thought that orthodoxy would disappear because all the Russians left. Actually quite the contrary has happened - we are now the largest church in Alaska," says Bishop Nikolai, the Russian Orthodox bishop of Alaska.

The Russian Orthodox church now says it has 49 parishes in Alaska and up to 50,000 followers here. Despite the radical changes wrought by Americans, the deep impression of Russian Orthodoxy remains to this day in Alaska.

State profile: Alaska
22 Dec 03  |  Americas

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