Historic Structures

Building Description Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church, Unalaska Alaska

Bishop Nicholas and Rudolph Newman of the Alaska Commercial Company entered into an agreement for construction of the church on June 2, 1894. On September 12, 1894, the Company billed the consistory for the construction. The south chapel was consecrated September 4, 1894; the north chapel January 30, 1895; and the main church August 18, 1896.

The church was designed as a whole, with a central nave, two side chapels, a sanctuary in the rear, a narthex, and a belltower in front. There has been speculation that the nave was part of the 1858 church, or that the side chapels were added later, but recent scholarship has shown that this is not the case.

In 1893, Rev. Nicholas Rysev—then the priest at Unalaska-obtained permission to build a new church, but was transferred before it could be built. The task then fell to Rev. Alexander Kedrofsky, who arrived in Unalaska in 1894; his written accounts survive:

"In 1894, from June to October, yet another church rose in place of the older, deteriorating one, [this] with two side chapels, through the efforts, diligence, and care for the glory of God of the local parishioners, costing them more than $9,000. This most recent church to the glory of the Holy Ascension of Our Lord is constructed of siding (redwood) with a shingle roof and two cupolas (one atop the belltower and the other over the main body of the church)....

Inside and outside, the church is painted with white oil[-based] paint; in the main church there is a choir loft above the entrance to the church. The church is enclosed by a wooden fence."

The bishop, Nicholas, visited the church in 1897 and noted, "The church at Unalaska is really the best among all the Alaskan churches. ... [It contains both] beautiful art work and pure Russian architecture."

The church was probably located on the site of the previous church; the north chapel extended to include the site of the 1825-26 church. The nave of the new church was larger than the previous one by about a third.

In 1893, the Orthodox church divided Alaska into two administrative districts, based in Sitka and Unalaska. Unalaska's district included the Aleutian parish (containing eight villages in addition to Unalaska); the two parishes of St. George and SS. Peter and Paul on the Pribilof Islands; Belkovsky on the Alaska Peninsula; St. Michael on Norton Sound; Nushagak on the Bering Sea Coast; and the Yukon and Kuskokwim parishes in southwest interior Alaska. This increased responsibility probably accounts for the grandeur of the new church. With the exception of St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka, this is the only church in Alaska with three chapels. The generous proportions and clean lines of the Unalaska church make a significant architectural achievement.

By ca. 1910, windows had been added in the west wall of the nave, above the narthex roof. Several pieces of ornament have been removed from the belltower, including: spires on the top corners at the base of the cupola; false balconies at the second-story windows; a beltcourse above the second-story windows; the lower half of the cornice fascia board; and the entablatures above the tower's north and south doors. These pieces are shown in early photographs, but do not exist today. A circular molding on three sides has been moved about a foot lower; originally, it projected above the cornice line and fit under the pediments. All of the above alterations were made before 1961.