The Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel in Sitka (originally Novo-Arkhangel’sk, meaning New Archangel) is perhaps the most well-known example of Alaskan architecture from the Russian-American period.
The first church services in Novo-Arkhangel’sk were held in a small chapel space set aside by the Russian-American Company (RAC) after the colony’s capital was moved from Kodiak to Novo-Arkhangel’sk in 1808. Services were conducted by a lay leader.
A priest sent from Russia arrived in 1816. According to a National Park Service study, A construction history of Sitka, Alaska, at that time a small church, dedicated to St. Michael, was constructed along the shore east of Castle Hill, the administrative center of the community.
During the 1820s, the RAC began doubting the wisdom of its capital being in Southeast Alaska. Consequently, maintenance of existing facilities languished. In the 1830s, the RAC decided to keep its capital in Novo-Arkhangel’sk, but it was too late for the 1816 church, which officials deemed unsafe to use. The old church building was replaced by a larger one on the same site in 1831.
In 1834, a new priest, Fr. Ioann Veniaminov came to Novo-Arkhangel’sk. Father Veniaminov had been the priest in Unalaska for 10 years, where, in addition to serving the local Aleuts, he designed and oversaw construction of its church.
In 1840, Veniaminov was elevated to the bishopric of a newly-created diocese encompassing the Kamchatka Peninsula, Kurile and Aleutian Islands, and Russian possessions in the Pacific Northwest. The Diocese seat was to be Novo-Arkhangel’sk.
Veniaminov, now Bishop Innocent, began designing his new cathedral soon after arriving in Novo-Arkhangel’sk in 1841. It was built just east of Castle Hill, in the middle of Lincoln Street, with traffic flowing on either side. The cornerstone for the new church was laid in 1844, and on November 20, 1848, the new cathedral was dedicated.
The new cathedral was similar in design to the church Veniaminov designed for Unalaska, but much more elaborate, in keeping with the Rococo tastes popular in Russia at that time.
National Register of Historic Places documents state that the cathedral, like many orthodox churches, was laid out in a cruciform pattern. It had the church entrance and a bell tower to the west, at the foot of the cross, and the main part of the church at the cross’s center. The building had two domes: a small one atop the 41’ high bell tower and a larger one over the center of the church, with clerestory windows illuminating the nave below. Both of the domes, the onion-shaped spires atop them and the entrance porch roof were sheathed in copper. The rest of the church was roofed with shingles. The total length of the building was 98 feet, and at its widest it was 67 feet.
Disaster struck in 1966 when a fire that ravaged downtown Sitka also destroyed the cathedral. Fortunately, parishioners were able to save most of the cathedral’s icons and other treasures. It was also fortunate that in 1961 the Historic American Buildings Survey made detailed architectural drawings of the cathedral. Those drawings formed the basis for a reconstruction effort that spanned 10 years, culminating in the 1976 re-dedication of the cathedral.
The reconstruction, while faithful to the design of the original cathedral, replaced the old clapboard-covered log walls and other combustible building materials with modern fire-retardant alternatives. Also, due to limited building funds, some details, such as the Rococo design elements on the bell tower, were sacrificed.
The cathedral, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now the central church in the Orthodox Church of America’s Alaska Diocese.