Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Quintessential Symbol of Unalaska

The oldest, most prominent, and most architecturally unusual building in Unalaska is the Russian Orthodox Church, which we toured today. Our guide was the daughter of the area's nationally recognized, preeminent Unangan artist, Gert Svarny, who is now 80 years old. (More about Gert in an other blog.)

When the Russians came in the late 1700s to enlist the native people to hunt sea otters for their fur, they introduced them not only to barbaric cruelty, but also to the Russian Orthodox faith. The Native people saw this as very spiritually powerful, and a small chapel was built in 1808. The people requested that a priest be assigned to them in 1824, and the chapel was re-built in 1826.

When World War II came to the Aleutian Islands all of the native peoples were re-located to other parts of Alaska. (More about that in another blog.) They were concerned about the church treasures, so took the chandelier and the big icons down, packaged them and buried them! The small items they took with them to have a church where they were going.

The ravages of weather took their toll, and the icons are in terrible shape today. (At one point they were covered with cooking oil, as recommended to stop moisture damage. At another time they were advised to shellac them, which resulted in the canvas being stretched, and a strong yellow haze obscuring them.) One by one, as they can afford, the icons are being beautifully restored, but it is a long and costly process.

This tiny congregation, almost exclusively Unangan, is now served by a priest who comes in once a month for services, and the lay people manage the rest of the time. When a member dies, the able members of the church come together to prepare the body, place it in the coffin, and prepare the service. This is truly a frontier, and that is how things are done on the frontier. Our guide had been involved with yesterday's funeral and said, "It's hard, but you just can't refuse."

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