FAIRBANKS - St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church established itself on the banks of the Chena River when the gold mining supply camp it served began calling itself Fairbanks at the turn of the century. Over the next hundred years it opened a hospital, library and served as a hub for Episcopal missionaries reaching out to rural Alaska.
In the 1960s it established an alcohol rehabilitation program for the community. Since then, the Episcopal church has gone through its own changes. The original log cabin-style building burned down in 1947 and was replaced with the log cabin church that sits there today.
There are still original pieces in the church, like the altar, lectern and communion rail, which were carved in 1905 by Isabel M. Emberley, a nurse at St.
Matthew’s Hospital, from oak shipping crates.
There’s also the original bell that was cast in 1905 in Troy, New York, inscribed with “O Ye Frost and Cold, Bless Ye the Lord; Praise Him and Magnify Him Forever.”
Now members are seeking to have the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“I think, given the contribution of St. Matthew’s to Fairbanks and the Interior in general, if there’s any building that warrants listing on the register, it’s St.
Matthew’s,” said Ned Gaines, a member of the vestry who worked on the application.
Religious properties must have architectural, artistic or historical importance outside its religious services to be recognized on the register.
The application cites the church’s alcohol rehabilitation program that ran from the 1960s to 1973, when the program was turned over to the city, as the main focus of the building’s historical significance.
The application was compiled by Gaines, with the assistance of the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology intern Caitlan Dowling.
The church’s importance to the community isn’t overlooked in the rest of the application, though, and it’s recognized for “focusing on the welfare of the people of Fairbanks and the surrounding Native and rural communities” and that it “always looked to serve all people in Fairbanks, not solely church members.”
There are 32 buildings or places in the Fairbanks North Star Borough on the register, including Immaculate Conception Church, old City Hall, Constitution Hall on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, Gold Dredge No. 8 and Clay Street Cemetery.
The Fairbanks North Star Borough’s Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously at its Tuesday meeting to support the church’s application for historic status.
“It’s an attractive building,” member Martin Gutoski said. “I think something like that really has a benefit to the community to recognize it as historical.”
The seven-member board’s approval will now go to the Alaska Historical Commission, which will meet on Tuesday in Anchorage to review the nomination.
Then it’ll be up to the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, who will have 45 days to review the documentation and decide whether to list the property.
But ask anyone familiar with the church and they’ll tell you that it’s not the milled “D” logs, bell or original carved pieces that make the church historic.
And no one knows that better than Father Scott Fisher, who recently ended his more than 20-year service as the church’s rector. “An old Catholic Benedictine monk told me once that, when a church has been around for over 100 years, then, if you listen, you can hear all of the prayers and all of the people that have built the building over the years,” he said. “Sit in St. Matthew’s in the silence and you can hear them: prospectors and miners, early Fairbanks folk, trappers, university presidents, dog team drivers, young soldiers and returning veterans, smiling grandmothers, young people in love, grieving parents and all of the panorama of Fairbanks. “They are the ones being recognized by this nomination.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544.
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