Holy Transfiguration of the Lord Orthodox Church

Holy Transfiguration of the Lord Orthodox Church in Ninilchik is still in use today. The church sits atop a bluff overlooking the old village of Ninilchik. Ray Bonnell sketch

The Russian-American Company (RAC) charter stipulated that its employees could not reside permanently in Alaska, having to return to Russia at the end of their contracts. However, by the 1820s, the RAC had a number of employees who, because of age or infirmity, were unable to hold meaningful jobs.

No longer valued as workers, and many having Native wives and children, they faced dim prospects returning to Russia. The RAC, sympathetic to their plight, allowed many to linger in Alaska, perhaps nominally employed, but none-the-less a drain on company finances.

According to Katherine Arndt’s 1996 paper on Ninilchik’s founding, in 1835 the RAC finally received permission from the Russian government to permanently settle elderly or infirm employees in Alaska. The RAC was obligated to find sites for the families to move to; construct houses; outfit the settlers with tools, livestock and seeds; provision them for a year; and provide aid thereafter if needed. The settlers could sell surplus produce as well as furs they obtained to the RAC.

Svetlana Federova’s 1973 book, “The Russian Population in Alaska and California,” lists four pensioners or “colonial citizens” communities on the Kenai Peninsula: Seldovia, Ninilchik, Kasilof and Kenai.

Ninilchik, located at the mouth of the Ninilchik River on the Kenai Peninsula’s west-central coast, was one of the first pensioners communities. A settlement was attempted there in 1841-42, but was unsuccessful. It was not until 1846 that settlement was again attempted there, this time successfully. Between 1846 and 1867 eight families (41 individuals) moved to Ninilchik. A small Russian Orthodox church was built there in about 1846.

That church was replaced in 1901 by the Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Church, located on the river bluff just north of the village. The new church was designed by Alexi Andreev Oskolkoff. He was born at the RAC’s Fort Ross colony in California and later lived at Sitka.

The 1901 church is built on a cross-shaped plan. As with most Orthodox churches, it is built along an east-west axis, with the holiest parts of the church in the east. The sanctuary (containing the altar) is at the eastern end of the cross, and the nave, where the congregation gathers, is formed by the cross’s northerly extension. A gabled porch at the west end of the building leads into the narthex, which in turn opens into the nave.

The church’s main section is one story, with a gable roof. Centered over the transept (the room that crosses the nave at right angles) there is a small octagonal tower. The tower has a hipped roof capped by an onion dome and Orthodox cross. There are also onion domes and Orthodox crosses at the east, south and north peaks of the main section, and atop the narthex. The narthex is three stories high. Its top-most story is a small room with hipped-roof skirting.

The south and west facades have double-hung 6/6 windows. The tower over the transept has four non-opening 4-lite windows, and the top-most story of the narthex has two windows on each of its four sides. The narthex used to have non-opening 6-lite windows, but one window on both the north and south facades has been replaced with double-hung 6/4 windows.

Most of the building is sheathed with shiplap siding, however, the sheathing on the narthex’s north facade has been replaced with beveled siding. The church, which used to be roofed with shingles, is now covered with metal roofing.

The church was added to the National Register of Historic places in 1997. It is still a vital part of the Ninilchik community and is now part of the Kenai/Prince William Sound Deanery of the Orthodox Church in America.

Sources:

• “Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord (Orthodox) Chapel, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Very Reverend Archpriest Joseph P. Kreta. National Park Service. 1977

• “’Released to Reside Forever in the Colonies:’ Founding of a Russian-American Company Retirement Settlement at Ninilchik, Alaska.” Katherine L. Arndt. In Adventures through Time: Readings in the Anthropology of Cook Inlet. The Cook Inlet Historical Society. 1996

• “The Russian Population of Alaska and California: Late 18th Century – 1867.” Svetlana G. Fedorova. The Limestone Press. 1973

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.