Kenai’s Orthodox Church serves local parish for over 120 years
The Church of the Holy Assumption is an Orthodox church in Kenai. In Alison Hoagland’s book, Buildings of Alaska, she describes it as a dramatic and well-proportioned building. Built in 1895, it is one of the oldest Orthodox churches in Alaska.
The Kenai Peninsula is home to the Kenaitze, a branch of Dena’ina Athabascan Indians. When the Lebedev-Lastochin Company (a predecessor to the Russian-American Company) established Nikolaevsky Redoubt (Fort St. Nicholas) at the mouth of the Kenai River in 1791, the Kenaitze already occupied a village there.
Early in the redoubt’s history, Russians began referring to the community as Kenai. It was not the first Russian settlement on the peninsula, but Kenai quickly became the area’s dominant community.
A small chapel was built at Kenai in 1841, and in 1849 the chapel was replaced by a larger church. By the 1890s the church was in poor condition, and the Kenai parish began constructing a new building in 1894.
According to National Park Service documents, the new church was completed in 1895. On June 9, the building was blessed and consecrated in the name of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The oldest portion of the building was constructed of 6-foot squared logs with dovetailed corners and covered with beveled siding painted white. As with most Orthodox churches, the building is oriented along an east-west axis, with the entry at the western end and the altar to the east.
The design followed a typical village-church layout, called the Pskov or ship pattern. The original portion of the church includes a large rectangular room about 23-feet-wide by 38-feet-long, with the central, almost square portion having 18-foot-high walls. This section housed the narthex, or entry; the nave, the main portion of the church where parishioners gather; and the sanctuary where the clergy conducted services. At the eastern end of the building is a 5-foot-deep by 10-foot-wide room where the altar is located — the apse.
The central portion of the building has a four-sided hipped roof with wood shingles, surmounted by a cupola with an onion-shaped dome. Another onion-shaped dome stands at the eastern end of the building over the sanctuary. The interior walls were covered with wallpaper, and during rehabilitation work in the 1970s 12 layers of wallpaper were exposed.
In 1900, a 15-foot by 15-foot, two-story wood-framed entrance was built at the west end of the church. The entrance is surmounted by an octagonal belfry housing three bells. As with the main part of the church, the belfry is crowned with an onion-shaped dome.
The church looks much the same as it did in 1900 except for the belfry. As originally constructed, the belfry was open to the elements. Parishioners experimented with various means of closing off the window openings while still allowing for bell ringing. The windows are now closed-in with louvered panels.
The church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. In 1978-79, the building received some rehabilitation work to repair damage from weathering and inadequate maintenance, including repairs to the roof and the cupolas. Some interior work was also done to stabilize walls, weatherproof, and insulate the structure.
More extensive repairs began in 2010 to stabilize the log walls of the main church building, fix problems with the foundation, repair the front porch, improve the entry, and install a fire-suppression system. That work, still in progress, is spearheaded by ROSSIA (Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska) Inc. a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Alaska’s Russian Orthodox Churches and iconography. ROSSIA is also involved with three other church restoration projects: at Karluk, Juneau and Chuathbaluk.
- Buildings of Alaska. Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
- “Holy Assumption Orthodox Church – National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Barbara Smith. National Park Service. 1972
- “Resurrecting history—Church in need of long awaited repairs.” Clair Fair. In The Redoubt Reporter. 4-21-2010.