Historic Structures

Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church, Unalaska Alaska

Date added: April 26, 2019 Categories: Alaska Church

One of the oldest Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska, the Holy Ascension Church of 1894 has a cruciform plan but a hip-roofed nave that emphasizes its squareness. Featuring three altars, this church is rivaled only by St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka for size and grandeur. In addition, the site is associated with Fr. Innocent (Veniaminov), the Russian Orthodox missionary priest who studied Aleut language and culture while located here in the early nineteenth century. Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church is a National Historic Landmark.

The first church in Unalaska was built in 1808 by Fedor Burenin, the Russian-American Company manager. Depicted in an 1821 watercolor by L. Choris, it was a small octagonal chapel, apparently of log construction, with a cupola. It appears to have been located on the east side of the small town.

This chapel was replaced in 1825-26 by a church designed and built by Rev. Ioann Veniaminov, later consecrated a bishop under the name of Innocent, and canonized as a saint in 1977. The church, which had a dome and a large cupola, was built under his direction, as he was an accomplished carpenter. The iconostas, installed in 1831, he described as "a rather fine ikonostas, with finely wrought columns and carved gilded frames of Aleut workmanship." The church, the first to be named Holy Ascension, was probably located on the site of the north chapel of the present church.

The association of Fr. Innocent (Veniaminov) with this church is significant. Fr. Innocent was Unalaska's first resident priest, arriving in 1824 and staying for ten years. Unlike other missionaries (particularly Americans), Fr. Innocent studied and appreciated native culture; he developed an Aleut alphabet, and trained others to read both Aleut and Slavonic. In 1834, Fr. Innocent was transferred to Sitka where he worked with the Tlingits. In 1840 he was named Bishop of Kamchatka, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, and in 1858 became an archbishop. In 1870 he was named Metropolitan, or head, of the church in Russia. While expanding the mission of the Russian Orthodox church in America, he also had some success with vaccinations; he wrote histories and ethnographies; and he designed St. Michael's Cathedral and constructed its clock.

In 1858, Fr. Innocent's church was replaced. Located just south of the 1825-26 church, the new church was built under the direction of Rev. Innokenty Shaiashnikov, who like Fr. Innocent was a carpenter. An Aleut, Shaiashnikov served in Unalaska from 1848 to 1883. He noted that timbers from the old church were used for the new one. Photographs show a clapboard-covered church with a two-story nave in an apparently square plan, crowned by a hipped roof with an octagonal cupola supporting an onion dome. There was a sanctuary in the rear and a narthex in front; its gable roof extended forward to cover the belfry, which was open underneath and formed a porch. The nave measured 24-1/2' x 31- 1/2'.

After Shaiashnikov's death in 1883, the Alaska Commercial Company supplied a marble gravestone.