Historic Structures

SS. Peter & Paul Russian Orthodox Church, St. Paul Alaska

Date added: May 3, 2019 Categories: Alaska Church

This 1905 church is the oldest building on the island of St. Paul. The church's separate elements - sanctuary, nave, narthex, vestibule, and belltower - are clearly expressed on the exterior in a harmonious composition, and the interior features an elaborate mahogany iconostas. In contrast to their housing, which was supplied by the government, the church was commissioned by the natives, and remains an important expression of Russian-influenced Aleut culture.

The Russian people began to settle on St. Paul Island in 1810. They had no means of constructing a temple. Finally Russian Ignatii Cherkashenin, who died in 1822, and Creole Kassian Shayashnikov built the first church, without assistance from the Company, in 1821. Since that time Shayashnikov has continued (in the 1840s) to take care of the church as church warden.

Fr. Innocent (Veniaminov) described the chapel in 1838: In the village of to-day (1838) there is a wooden chapel in honor of the apostles Peter and Paul, erected in 1821, and nicely ornamented in the interior, at the expense of the resident Aleuts; . .. built... of neatly dressed drift logs.

This chapel, pictured in an 1843 drawing by Voznesenskii, was sketched thirty years later by Henry W. Elliott, who visited the islands on behalf of the Smithsonian. His drawing, dated October 22, 1872, and captioned in part "the old Russian church," shows the village cove, village, and the three separate hip roofs of the church. A photograph of this church shows a log structure, composed of several elements. The square-plan nave has a twostory section in the middle, topped with a pyramidal roof. A semi-octagonal sanctuary on one end has a polygonal roof, while at the other end the narthex appears to be one-and-ahalf stories, square in plan with a pyramidal roof. Each of these three elements has a small onion dome.

This chapel was replaced in 1873-75. On May 28, 1873, two San Francisco carpenters named Mossman and Davidson were brought to St. Paul by the Alaska Commercial Company "to frame and build a church for the natives." The natives paid for the materials and furnished part of the labor. At the end of the summer of 1873, when the carpenters left, the church had been "raised and boarded and will be completed before another year." Progress was made in 1874: "the church advanced as far as the material on the island permitted"; the onion domes were covered with canvas and painted, and Mossman decorated the belltower with ornamental woodwork. In 1875, the church was painted, and on May 26, 1875, the new priest arrived: Fr. Paul Shisnekoff, an Aleut who had lived on St. Paul, and who was the brother of Rev. Innocent Shisenekoff (also spelled Shaiashnikoff), archpriest of Unalaska.

Photographs of this 1875 church show a building with many of the same elements of the previous chapel, but with much more architectural sophistication: it had a hip-roofed, square-plan nave with a hip-roofed sanctuary and a narthex, from which rose a square belltower with clock. There were three onion domes, each perched on a drum; there were pediments over the windows and paired brackets at the eaves. The photograph of the interior shows the same iconostas and doors, with the same icons, that appear in the present church. Above the iconostas was a space about 2' high, through which the ceiling of the sanctuary was visible. On the wall above the iconostas, five paintings were hung, as in the present church. The amvon, too, was similar, with three steps and a curve in the center, and with the same balusters.

The churches in the Pribilofs were unusual because they were self-sustaining. Pribilof Aleuts were financially well off, compared to those on the Aleutian Chain, and they devoted a portion of their wealth to the church. In an arrangement closely supervised by the U.S. government, which leased exclusive sealing rights to the Alaska Commercial Company from 1870 to 1890, the Company paid the natives 40 cents per seal skin and provided rent-free housing, schooling, medical care, fuel, oil, and salmon. The natives divided their sealing money "among the laborers according to their standing as workmen," and gave two first-class shares to the church. When priests were assigned to the islands, they too received sealing shares. Beginning in 1827, the priest in Unalaska visited the islands once every year or two. In 1875, though, just as the new church was completed, St. Paul received its first resident priest, who was entirely supported by the community.

On September 8, 1903, Fr. John Orloff, then priest at St. Paul's, notified Fr. Alexander Kedrofsky in Unalaska that he had arranged for the construction of a new church with the agent of the North American Commercial Company, the private concern that then had exclusive sealing rights on the Pribilof Islands. In 1904, the belltower of the old church was taken down, probably because it posed a hazard. The architectural drawings for the new church were noted as approved by Bishop Tikhon on March 28, 1905. On June 5, 1905, four carpenters from San Francisco arrived on St. Paul "to build a church." On October 10, the church was completed and painted. That winter, though, the church was still described as "unfinished," although the community used it for Christmas and Easter services.

The churches in the Pribilofs were unusual because they were self-sustaining. Pribilof Aleuts were financially well off, compared to those on the Aleutian Chain, and they devoted a portion of their wealth to the church. In an arrangement closely supervised by the U.S. government, which leased exclusive sealing rights to the Alaska Commercial Company from 1870 to 1890, the Company paid the natives 40 cents per seal skin and provided rent-free housing, schooling, medical care, fuel, oil, and salmon. The natives divided their sealing money "among the laborers according to their standing as workmen," and gave two first-class shares to the church. When priests were assigned to the islands, they too received sealing shares. Beginning in 1827, the priest in Unalaska visited the islands once every year or two. In 1875, though, just as the new church was completed, St. Paul received its first resident priest, who was entirely supported by the community.