Russian Bishop's House

The Russian Bishop's House in Sitka was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. 

The building in the drawing, located at the corner of Lincoln and Monastery streets in Sitka, is referred to as the “Russian Bishop’s House.” It was once the ecclesiastical headquarters for the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska (ROC). After it was constructed in 1841-42 it became home for an auxiliary bishop who oversaw the Alaska portion of the Diocese of Kamchatka, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands.

The bishop’s house was built by the Russian-American Company (RAC), which in its charters with the Russian government was required to support ROC activities. According to National Park Service documents, the building’s construction was probably accomplished by ethnic Finns who worked in the RAC shipyard.

The main portion of the building has two stories and is constructed of squared spruce logs. It is approximately 43-feet wide by 64-feet long, with a hipped roof. On the first floor were administrative offices, classrooms, living quarters for the parish priest and for the housekeeper, and a kitchen. The second floor housed a chapel, guest quarters for visiting clergy, the bishop’s quarters, and living quarters for the bishop’s attendant.

At the west and east ends of the building are shed-roofed “galleries,” 14-feet wide. The galleries, which were of heavy timber construction, housed entryways, stairways, storage rooms and latrines.

As staffing and programs changed, the bishop’s house was modified numerous times. The exterior of the log structure was eventually sheathed with horizontal wood siding, and the galleries were covered with board-and-batten siding.

The 1867 Treaty of Cession, in which Russia ceded its Alaska interests to the United States, allowed the ROC to keep its property and continue its mission. At that time the RAC transferred the bishop’s house and related properties to the ROC.

According to a 2009 article by Matthew Namee on the “Orthodox History” website, in recognition of Alaska’s new status, the ROC separated Alaska from the Kamchatka, Kurile and Aleutian Islands diocese, and formed a separate diocese, the Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. A Russian-Orthodox church was soon established in San Francisco, and the bishop’s residence was moved from Sitka to San Francisco in 1872.

Even without a resident bishop, the ROC continued its programs, which included an emphasis on education. The Sitka church operated a small school out of the bishop’s house and in 1897 built a two-story schoolhouse next door. The book, “Orthodox Christians in North America,” states that by the 1880s there were 43 Orthodox parish schools in Alaska.

In 1903 an auxiliary diocese was established for Alaska, resulting in the return of a bishop to the Sitka residence.

The church’s programs in Alaska continued normally until 1917. Before the 1917 Russian Revolution the ROC operated as a governmental department. With the March 1917 abdication of the tzar and resulting chaos, funding for ROC operations collapsed. All allotments from the Imperial Missionary Society, which, among other things paid for education in the Alaska Diocese, quickly ceased. The church’s Sitka school closed in 1922, after which the Territory of Alaska utilized the building as school.

The collapse in ROC funding also meant the Alaska diocese was reduced to near penury, with resources insufficient for maintaining both programs and facilities. By the time the Alaska bishop moved out of the bishop’s house and into a new residence in 1969, the 1842 structure was in poor condition. The property, including the bishop’s residence, schoolhouse, and another small building, were purchased by the federal government in 1972 and incorporated into the National Park Service system. After a 16-year rehabilitation project the bishop’s house had been restored to its 1853 appearance, and it now operates as the Russian Bishop’s House Museum.

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

Sources:

• “Orthodox Christians in North America – 1794-1994.” Mark Stokoe and the Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky. Orthodox Christian Publications Center. 1995

• “Russian Bishop’s House, National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form.” Juaqlin Estus. National Park Service. 1983

• “The extent of the Russian diocese in the 19th century.” Matthew Namee. From Orthodox History website. 11-16-2009

• “The Russian Bishop’s House, Legacy of an Empire, 1842.” no author. Alaska Natural History Association. 1992