In early 1915, anticipating construction of the Alaska Railroad, hundreds of jobseekers hastily erected a boomtown along Ship Creek in Upper Cook Inlet. Many in the camp were concerned for the spiritual needs of the boomtown’s residents. According to the book, “Our First 100 Years, Holy Family Cathedral,” a group of Catholic men petitioned the Catholic Church for a priest for the budding city. A Jesuit priest from Valdez arrived to investigate and based on his report, the Catholic Church authorized purchasing property at Ship Creek.
The creek-bottom boomtown moved to a permanent townsite on benchland just south of Ship Creek in early summer 1915. At the townsite auction on July 10, A.J. Wendler (who built Anchorage’s Wendler Building) bid on two lots at the corner of Sixth Avenue and H Street for the church. The story goes that when bidding began, he offered all the cash he had on hand, $175. Before the auctioneer could ask for additional bids, Wendler shouted that the lots were for a church and hospital. The auctioneer promptly closed the bidding and awarded the lots to Wendler.
The Catholics erected Anchorage’s first church building later that year. Work started in mid-September, and the first Mass in Holy Family Church was celebrated on Oct. 17.
By the 1930s the church needed replacement. However, lack of funds and the exigencies of World War II prevented any work.
Not until 1946 did the parish begin planning for a new church. Augustine Porrecca, a Seattle architect who assisted Marcus Priteca in designing Anchorage’s Fourth Avenue Theatre (completed in 1947) was selected to design the church. Porrecca also designed Anchorage’s KENI radio building (completed in 1948). Both the Fourth Avenue Theatre and the KENI building are Art Deco structures, and Porrecca, sticking with his strengths, produced an Art Deco design for the new church.
Allison Hoagland’s book, “Buildings of Alaska,” states that Porrecca designed a single-story, reinforced-concrete structure with simple geometric ornamentation. It is 115-feet-long by 40-feet-wide, with a two-story bell tower at the front corner.
The new building would be located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and H Street, adjacent to the old church. Groundbreaking occurred on July 24, 1947, and by December work on the basement had progressed enough to hold Mass.
Construction on the rest of the church proceeded slowly as funds became available. Work on the structure’s first floor began in June 1948 and the roof was completed by that October. The interior of the church was not completed until 1952.
The 1964 Good Friday earthquake ushered in major changes for Holy Family Church. This was not because of damage to the building — the concrete structure escaped the quake relatively unscathed. However, when church officials visited Anchorage to access the post-quake situation, they realized the importance of Anchorage to the future of Alaska and the Catholic Church.
Based on their observations, the Holy See in Rome established the Archdiocese of the Metropolitan See of Anchorage on April 14, 1966.
With that change, Holy Family Church became Holy Family Cathedral.
With the church becoming the center of the archdiocese, coupled with liturgical changes brought about through the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the church building was remodeled in the late 1960s. One of those changes moved the sanctuary’s main entrance, which was originally on the H Street-side of the bell tower, to the north side of the building.
The drawing shows this iteration of the church.
Because of its larger facility, Anchorage’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was elevated to co-cathedral status in 2014, but Holy Family Cathedral continues to be the primary church of the archdiocese.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
• “Archdiocese of Anchorage to celebrate 25th anniversary.” In “Inside Passage.” Vol 22, No. 21, 6-21-1991
• “Buildings of Alaska,” Allison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
• “Mid-Twentieth Century Architecture in Alaska Historic Context (1945-1968).” Amy Ramirez et al. National Park Service. 2016
• “Our first 100 Years: Holy Family Cathedral, Anchorage Alaska.” James Carns & Teresa White Carns. Holy Family Cathedral. 2015