The cemetery at Old St. Nicholas Church in Eklutna. The grave markers, known as spirit houses, are meant to provide a site for the deceased to retrace the steps of their life before they can pass on to eternity.

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The Orthodox Church’s Northern Exposure

In Alaska, a unique combination of Indigenous rituals and Russian theology has a centuries-long history. It all began with sea otters.

Maggie Phillips
May 20, 2024
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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The cemetery at Old St. Nicholas Church in Eklutna. The grave markers, known as spirit houses, are meant to provide a site for the deceased to retrace the steps of their life before they can pass on to eternity.

Zoonar GmbH/Alamy

On the evening of May 4 in Anchorage, Alaska, at 11:30 p.m., the sun had only just gone down. Inside the Orthodox Christian Cathedral of St. Innocent, it was dark, except for the exit signs, the occasional phone flashlight, and a few flickering votive candles. Bold capital Cyrillic letters rose over the templon—the ornate barrier that separates the sanctuary from the tabernacle—where the consecration of the bread and wine for communion takes place. The letters read Христос воскрес: Christ is Risen. For the next five hours, a multisensory experience celebrating the Orthodox Christian feast of Pascha—Easter—would unfold, finishing as the first rays of dawn appeared behind the clouds.

The service was held in a mixture of Greek, English, and Slavonic (the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church). Many women sported bright headscarves that wouldn’t be out of place at a cathedral in Moscow or St. Petersburg. And some did so alongside expressions of their Native Alaskan identity: fur-lined leather slippers, facial tattoos. It was a moment out of time and place. The congregation, clergy, and choir participated in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, an order of service attributed to a fourth-century theologian, once celebrated throughout the Byzantine Empire, which fell in 1453. Orthodox Christianity itself was officially introduced to Russia by the monarch (and Orthodox saint) Vladimir during his 10th-century Viking Age reign. It would come to Alaska in the 18th century, during the reign of Catherine the Great.

Contrary to the familiar story of conquest and forced conversion that usually accompanies colonization, Orthodoxy found a surprisingly ready welcome among many of Alaska’s native peoples after the first Russian colony was established there in the 1780s. Today, Russia’s legacy in Alaska survives in the Orthodox churches, the Orthodox crosses and Cyrillic writing in cemeteries, the pelmeni (Russian meat dumplings) on the restaurant menus in Anchorage, and the names of streets, people, and buildings. Above all, it survives in the syncretism of Christian teachings and an Indigenous worldview that persists down to the present day.

The Orthodox Church’s presence in Alaska can ultimately be traced back to sea otters. Since the 16th century, Russian exploration of Siberia had pushed further and further east, and the hunt for “soft gold”—furs—would eventually reach what is today Kodiak Island by the mid-1700s. Russian efforts to colonize Kodiak roughly coincided with the final voyage of Captain James Cook (who was maybe eaten by cannibals in Hawaii after failing to cross the Bering Strait). Cook’s exploration led him to what is today known as the Cook Inlet, near Anchorage, and the Aleutian Islands. This expedition revealed the presence of sea otters, who live their entire lives in the water. Their pelts are therefore thick and watertight—much more so than Siberian sable, which had been a lucrative item on the Chinese markets for enterprising Russian frontiersmen. Cook’s sailors were able to make almost two years’ salary on one sea otter pelt in Canton.

As fur trading speculators pushed further and further into what is today Alaska, the amoral visionary and merchant Russian Grigory Shelikov spotted an opportunity to consolidate these efforts under a single company, with the weight of imperial Russia backing it up. The idea would eventually become the Russian American Company, a public-private partnership that Shelikov modeled on the British East India Company. A succession of Russian monarchs would lend their support to the venture, motivated by a combination of great-power competition to explore the north Pacific, and a wish to dominate the soft-gold rush in Alaska.

Shelikov arrived in Kodiak after sailing from Russia in August 1783. He was to spend two years there with his family and crew, after an initial skirmish with the Native Koniag people at which anywhere from 150 to 500 Koniags died. Although Shelikov and his wife set about baptizing the Natives themselves, their presence there was of a principally commercial nature. Exploiting tribal rivalries along the way, Shelikov established a permanent settlement in Kodiak by 1786. He then returned to St. Petersburg to persuade the monopoly-skeptical Catherine to back his scheme for a company, projecting more confidence about the colony’s stability than was really merited. Shelikov managed to procure an imperial charter in part with a pitch to the monarch’s religious sensibilities, pledging company sponsorship of a priest to teach and convert Native Alaskans. He would end up with eight monks and two priests, courtesy of the imperial Holy Synod (still needing to be put up at company expense). The presence of the clergy, straight out of the famously rigorous Valaam Monastery, would confer a degree of sanctified legitimacy on Shelikov’s scheme. However, accounts of brutality and cruelty toward Native Alaskans from the testimonies of a crewmember on the 1783 voyage cast a shadow on Shelikov’s reputation even at the time.

Grigory Shelikov's Kodiak Island settlement
Grigory Shelikov’s Kodiak Island settlement

Public Domain/Wikipedia

The only way east to Alaska from St. Petersburg was over land, across Siberia, a journey of thousands of miles that could take over a year. This journey proved to be a helpful form of training for the 10 missionaries, however, many of whom lacked formal training in that type of work. “They learned to be missionaries as they walked across Siberia,” said the late Father Michael James Oleksa, an Orthodox Christian priest who died in 2023. In a 2016 lecture at Villanova University, likening the church’s progress across Central Asia and Siberia to concentric rings on a tree stump, Oleksa explained that the church had long been establishing monasteries as the boundaries of the Russian Empire extended further and further out, following the frontiersmen in hot pursuit of soft gold. “The monks were reviewing, without consciously knowing it, the missionary expansion across Siberia,” he said, “as the previous monks that were there before them had experienced it.” In “talking shop” with their colleagues, Oleksa said, they picked up the sequence that had helped the monks successfully evangelize the Indigenous peoples of Siberia: First, learn the language; next, sit down with the religious leaders; and then, build on it, “[presenting] Christianity as the fulfillment of what the people already knew.”

It was a characteristic observation for the village priest, who lived in Alaska for 35 years, and was himself married to a Yup’ik woman (one of the Native peoples of Alaska’s Cook Inlet region). Aron Crowell, Alaska director of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage, knew Oleksa. “He was really very thoughtful,” Crowell said of Oleksa. “He was kind of a combination of a priest and an anthropologist.”

Crowell explained that concentric rings are in fact crucial to understanding Native Alaskan spirituality in Kodiak and the Aleutians, the image of a circle within a circle, with a dot in the center and four lines emanating out serving as an emblematic symbol of their worldview. “It’s kind of a diagrammatic representation of the cosmos,” he said, a symbolic union of earth, sea, and sky. “It’s an eternal cycle of rebirth,” said Crowell, encompassing both the return of life in the spring, and the masked winter hunting ceremonies that invited the animal spirits who resided in the sky to visit earth.

Perhaps the most famous verse from the Christian Bible is from the Gospel of John, verse 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son.” But in its original Greek, Oleksa explained, the phrase is, “For God so loved the cosmos”—creation in its entirety. In this, there was much commonality between the Orthodox and Native Alaskan cultures, for whom spirituality was in relationship with the natural world. For example, the Orthodox practice of blessing lakes, oceans, and rivers on Epiphany made sense to the Kodiak Natives, Oleksa said, and so the early missionaries frequently blessed bodies of water. “You have to go out and bless that river out of which you pull your salmon,” he said. “The river that provides you with everything.”

Crowell directed me to a video at the Arctic Studies Center exhibit. “Everything has awareness,” a Native Alaskan woman says in the video. “All things have gratitude. We always grew up with that sense of not putting yourself first or above others.”

When the Orthodox men arrived in Kodiak in 1794 after their Siberian crash course in missionary work, they quickly realized that they faced an uphill battle on the morality front. Commanded by his empress to recruit for the new Alaska colonization scheme, “it’s safe to say that the governor [of Irkutsk] did not send his best people,” historian Owen Matthews writes in his book on Russian America, Glorious Misadventures. The governor had filled Shelikov’s request for skilled artisans with men possessing the required CVs, but who were also convicts who had been sent to Siberia for life. They were the exiles of Irkutsk, “the last outpost of Russian civilization before the true wilderness,” in Matthews’ description. When they arrived in Kodiak in 1794, the men of God also discovered that Shelikov had misled them about conditions on the island, painting a rosy picture of a school and standing church that did not, in fact, really exist in any recognizable fashion. They encountered instead a disorderly, male-dominated shanty town, where food was scant; the colonists whom Shelikov had left behind in the 1780s freely cavorted with Native women. The holy men of Valaam who had journeyed over the Bering Sea with crosses, icons, and prayer books made camp on the beach and foraged for clams to sustain themselves. A hut functioned as the site of their daily religious services.

Nevertheless, despite the initial shock, the monks and priests encountered fertile ground among the Natives on Kodiak. According to Oleksa, Native Siberian frontiersmen had long been pairing off and having children with Indigenous Alaskan women by the time the first Orthodox missionaries arrived in 1794. These Siberians were the first to settle Alaska during the 50-year period between the initial discovery of sea otter pelts’ profitability and the founding of the Russian American Company, the “free-range capitalism” of the early days of fur trading. Oleksa said there many weddings and christenings to solemnize, but almost no one left to actually convert from scratch. There is a lesson in this for contemporary believers, Oleksa felt. “Mission work,” he said, “is primarily the work of laity.” They don’t need all the answers, but they’re in the position to say, “Come and see,” he said. This reliance on lay people would prove to be a consistent theme of Alaskan Orthodoxy down to the present day.

An additional benefit of the decades of intermarriage between Siberians and Alaskans was that the monks and priests had translators, which allowed them to sit down with Native elders to interview them about their beliefs, following the missionary protocol set by their monastic forbears in Siberia. They found beliefs that in many ways blended neatly with Christianity. Although the Native Alaskans they encountered adhered to a shamanistic belief system that appealed to animal spirits, they were monotheistic in a broader sense. They believed in a single creator, and had a myth of humanity’s origins that included a fall from grace. In terms of their values, they believed in respecting parents and elders, caring for the poor, and a reverent gratitude for creation. Nor was this a one-sided insight on the part of the missionaries. “Native commentators,” said Crowell, “also made that comment that they could accept Christian ideas.” The dispatches back to Valaam, both from those initial missionaries and in subsequent generations, Oleksa said, helped provide a comprehensive picture of the spiritual life of the Alaskan peoples of Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands.

Even if the Orthodox missionaries didn’t have to worry about winning hearts and minds among the Native populace, they still had their work cut out for them. The otter was a tricky animal to hunt from the ocean’s surface, in time, the Russian traders noticed Indigenous men had worked out a system, so they did what they had always done with Indigenous peoples in Siberia: They took the Indigenous men hostage in exchange for pelts, or threatened the storehouses where they kept their food in exchange for help. Soon, they pressed Native men into service, putting their time-honored hunting methods to work for the benefit of Russian pocketbooks. Having spent six months observing the exploitation of the Native Alaskans, the monks reported what they saw back to their monastery, pledging to advocate for them. They also wrote a diplomatic letter to Shelikov. In the politest way possible, they said they were informing him of the abuses that his deputy was allowing at Kodiak, since they were sure there was simply no way these things could occur if Shelikov were aware.

Several Native American women sit on the street outside the Sitka Trading Company in Sitka, Alaska, circa 1892
Several Native American women sit on the street outside the Sitka Trading Company in Sitka, Alaska, circa 1892

Michael Maslan/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

“Most Sugpiaq [a name for the Native people of the Aleutian region] have a firm belief that if not for the Russian Orthodox Church, the people would have been lost entirely,” wrote the late Gordon L. Pullar, a former colleague of Crowell’s at the Arctic Studies Center. The recognition of complementary beliefs, and the efforts of the Russian Orthodox missionaries to ameliorate abuse by the Russian American Company, “is why the Orthodox faith was embraced and why it has persisted so strongly to the present day.”

Pullar described the fusion of Russian and Sugpiaq traditions, where Christmas caroling is followed by traditional masked dancing, an echo of the animal spirits who featured in their hunting dances. In some Native communities, Russian New Year is still observed on Jan. 14, with a combination of Russian folk and Native Alaskan traditions. Crowell recalled attending a Russian New Year celebration in Nanwalek, Alaska. “It was such an interesting hybrid,” he said, “because people wear masks, and then the music,” played by a local band, was a sort of “cross between rock and kind of twangy country.”

Another vestige of the Russian influence is the practice of “starring” in a Christmas tradition of the Yup’ik people of the Aleutian region. They call the tradition Selaviq, and it is a combination of Ukrainian folk and ancient Native Alaskan tradition. The name of the holiday is itself a derivation of the Slavonic “Slava,” or “glory.” A Christmas carol from the Gospel of Luke (“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will”) is sung in Slavonic, English, and Tlingit—an Indigenous Alaskan language—while the singers carry and spin a decorated pinwheel meant to represent the Christmas star. Other carols are also sung in these languages. Afterward, among some peoples, masked celebrations also take place. These celebrations are vestiges of the pre-contact winter Bladder Festivals, in which hunters returned the bladders of seals, caught throughout the previous year, to the sea through the ice, enabling, it was believed, the seals to be reincarnated.

In his book Orthodox Alaska, Oleksa explains that the original people of Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands, called themselves Tlingit or Unangan, which literally means “to be a human being,” or Yup’ik or Sugpiaq, which means “to be a real person.” All the information needed to be a real person was passed down through the generations in sacred stories.

One such story is a Native Alaskan creation myth about the arrival of humankind. In the story, which Oleksa told in his 2016 Villanova lecture, the animals agreed—after first encountering people, and finding them ill-equipped to protect themselves from the elements—to sustain humanity with their own flesh, in exchange for their respect and gratitude. The central message of this and many Native legends, Oleksa said, relates to what is needed to live together in a community, especially in a tribal society. To do this, it is necessary to become a human being, which in these stories means sacrifice, and a concern for the well-being of those around you. In the understanding of the Native people whom the Orthodox missionaries encountered, “a real man,” Oleksa said, “cares about others.” The story of a God who took on human form, specifically to enter into human suffering all the way to the point of death, purely to save others, he said, was recognizable as a sterling example of a true Yup’ik—a real man. With the added layer of Orthodox Christianity’s belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine during communion, according to Oleksa, the idea that Christ gave himself to feed his people would have particularly resonated with a hunter-gatherer society, in which sacrificial cooperation was essential for survival.

“We can work with this,” Oleksa said, referring to the Russian missionaries. “There’s no reason for us to contradict their stories and tell them that your spiritual life is pagan and evil,” in contradiction to later Christian missionaries to Alaska, who would tell the Native peoples that their beliefs were nothing less than demonic.

A captivating witness to this syncretism exists today in the village of Eklutna, just outside Anchorage, not far from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. A few steps from a dilapidated wooden cabin—the original church—is a tidier white structure, a Russian Orthodox Church in miniature complete with onion domes. It’s Little House on the Prairie-meets-Romanov. A unique, ramshackle cemetery extends into the adjacent field, crowded with what appear to be little houses in various states of maintenance and disrepair.

Eklutna belongs to the south-central Alaskan Dena’ina people, one of nearly 300 villages, cities, and towns across the state where over 100,000 Indigenous Alaskans live (about 15% of the population). Comprising over 20 different Native languages and cultures, they are descended from several waves of migration from Siberia that began over 15,000 years ago. There is a great deal of cultural diversity across peoples, although there was cross-pollination as different cultures encountered each other through trade across the seas and waterways. The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center exhibit “Living our Cultures, Sharing our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska” includes a tobacco pipe from the St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik, who have close cultural ties to Yup’ik communities in Siberia. The pipes, with similar designs to those from China and Japan, would have come through with Siberian fur traders, along with tobacco.

A Wooden Moose sculpture standing behind a cross, in the cemetery at Old St. Nicholas Church in Eklutna
A Wooden Moose sculpture standing behind a cross, in the cemetery at Old St. Nicholas Church in Eklutna


Even though the Russian Orthodox presence had been established nearby in Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands, the church didn’t really make inroads with the Dena’ina people until Orthodox missionaries assisted them during a devastating smallpox epidemic in the 1830s. According to Eklutna’s current president, Aaron Leggett, the senior curator of Alaska history and Indigenous cultures at the Anchorage Museum, it was then that the Dena’ina people began converting to Orthodox Christianity in earnest.

The Orthodox presence continued among the Dena’ina after Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. Their small Orthodox church that dates to the 1890s is purported to be the oldest building in the Anchorage area, established during the height of the Alaska Gold Rush in the Gulf of Alaska’s Knik Arm Bay. This inlet, together with the land extending north of Anchorage to the Matanuska Valley, constitutes the area traditionally inhabited by the Dena’ina people. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Dena’ina’s home became a jumping off point for fur traders and miners headed into Alaska’s interior (the Iditarod Race passes through it today), rapidly transforming into a Wild West outpost. Seeking to escape the fast-living newcomers, the Dena’ina moved the church, along with their entire village, a few miles inland to Eklutna in 1895. This was no arbitrary decision. The Dena’ina had inhabited the area on and off for nearly a millennium before they reestablished a presence there. It was an ancestral Dena’ina site, Leggett said, with access to the productive Eklutna River and a surrounding area perfect for game hunting.

Due to the far-flung nature of the church’s presence, access to clergy for many Native Alaskans was scarce, with years sometimes passing between pastoral visits. “Most of the day-to-day work of the church was done by lay readers,” Leggett said, “who were Dena’ina members.” Echoing Oleksa’s contention that the laity did the primary work of conversion, Leggett said that journals from missionaries remarked, “all they want is babies to be baptized and marriages to be made official.”

The cemetery at Old St. Nicholas Church in Eklutna is, Leggett said, “probably the most significant vestige of that transition to Orthodoxy.” The grave markers, known as spirit houses, are meant to provide a site for the deceased to retrace the steps of their life before they can pass on to eternity. It was a conciliatory step meant to bridge the gap between Orthodox Christian in-ground burial and traditional Dena’ina burial practices: usually hanging a birch basket containing cremated remains from a tree branch, outside of the village. Concerns that the spirits of the deceased might be confused by this shift, the Dena’ina settled upon spirit houses as a temporary portal, stocking them with the prized possessions of the deceased, giving them time to adjust to the transition to the afterlife. Even the collapse of many of the spirit houses is intentional, Leggett said. Although by no means universal, the common practice is for families to let the houses return to the earth once they begin to disintegrate, “the ultimate interpretation” being that the inhabitant has moved on. With their population diminished first by the smallpox epidemic in the 19th century, then by the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, Dena’ina spirit houses are no longer as prevalent today. The one in Eklutna is by far the most accessible, Leggett said, and the best-known.

Another syncretic innovation is the peg calendar: wooden or ivory blocks with holes for pegs to keep track of the Julian calendar dates, with the Orthodox holidays specially marked with crosses. Russian Orthodox hymnals, translated into Alaska Native languages, were also common.

In the final analysis, despite a strong initial foray into fur trading, the Russian American Company became the 19th-century equivalent of vaporware: much-vaunted, widely advertised, but ultimately offering little to investors or consumers. Russia abandoned a fort in Hawaii, and pulled out of California just six years before the start of the California Gold Rush. The Ross River (named for Rossia, the Russian name for Russia), and nearby Fort Ross, a National Parks Service replica of a Russian frontier fort outside San Francisco, are among the few remaining testaments to Russia’s presence in the lower 48. In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States. Gold was discovered there some 30 years later. The Russian Empire, Matthews notes wryly, “never seemed to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

But it was not the demise of the Russian American Company that led to the loosening of Orthodoxy’s grip on Alaska’s Native peoples. Protestantism and Cold War paranoia, as well as the secularization that swept much of America in the 1960s and ’70s, contributed to Orthodoxy’s diminished presence there. Like President Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Indian Policy, the United States’ approach to their newly acquired territory post-1867 meant carving the massive land area up among different Protestant denominations, where missionaries ran schools that, as one commissioner of education put it, would train “people who have not yet achieved the Anglo-Saxon frame of mind.” The Native Alaskans might already have been Christian, but they were, Oleksa wrote in his book Orthodox Alaska, “the ‘wrong’ kind” of Christian, Russian Orthodoxy being altogether too different from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism for comfort. Russian Orthodox clergy on Kodiak even complained about prayers and hymns at the public school run by Baptist missionaries. Children at Native boarding schools run by missionaries were prohibited from returning home for Orthodox Easter, and the government closed at least one parochial school for teaching in Aleut.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, outside support for the Orthodox Church in Alaska all but ceased, as the violent death throes of the Ottoman Empire after WWI similarly convulsed Orthodox churches in other traditional strongholds of the faith. When WWII began, anticipating Japanese invasion, the U.S. military cleared entire Native Aleutian villages out. They relocated residents to concentration camps in the southeastern part of the state, and burned their buildings to the ground, and, Crowell said, took special care to demolish, desecrate, or loot the Orthodox churches.

As suspicion over all things Russian mounted throughout the 20th century, Leggett recalls “a general distrust after WWII of anything Russian.” A child of the 1980s himself, he said “what little Alaska history was taught” tended to portray the Americans as the unequivocal good guys, the clean-up operation that followed the clear bad guys, Russians.

As it was in the beginning, the lay people kept Orthodoxy alive in Alaska throughout the turbulent 20th century. According to Crowell, Indigenization and localization proved essential to Orthodoxy’s survival, where the daunting nature of travel still makes attending regular services difficult for those in more remote areas of the state. “If you’re going to have a religious community in a remote village,” he said, “readers and lay people take over.” Lay readers in Orthodox Christianity, entrusted with reading the Scriptures during services, are distinct from ordained priests. They do not preside over sacraments like communion or confession, but they are trained and specially recognized to read liturgical prayers and readings for congregations, which is an essential role in the absence of a priest.

A boy spins the star, a traditional ritual of the Yup’ik people of the Aleutian region. They call the tradition 'Selaviq,' and it is a combination of Ukrainian folk and ancient Native Alaskan tradition.
A boy spins the star, a traditional ritual of the Yup’ik people of the Aleutian region. They call the tradition ‘Selaviq,’ and it is a combination of Ukrainian folk and ancient Native Alaskan tradition.

Design Pics Inc/Alamy

The centuries-old traditions of Orthodoxy had an appeal for the deeply traditional Native peoples of Kodiak and the Aleutians, Oleksa said. For both, time was not linear, but, to reference another (fictional) Alaskan, a flat circle. The traditional way of doing things isn’t always the quickest or most efficient, but it is meaningful. If the first mother taught the first daughter to walk headfirst out of the door every morning, to instruct her fetus in the necessary protocol for a safe delivery, then it is something modern Native women do, including Oleksa’s own Yu’pik wife. The generations advance, but through their traditions, they circle back to their origins. “That puts us in solidarity with all our ancestors throughout chronological time,” he said, describing a concept, kairos, that the Greeks developed, meaning “sacred time.” It is also a concept in Christianity, evoked by name in the Orthodox liturgy, which begins with, “It is time for the Lord to act” (kairos tou poiesai to kurio in Greek), a statement that indicates to believers that they are entering into God’s time, into the eternal.

“They became Orthodox Christians,” he said. “But they didn’t see that it required them to renounce most of the beliefs they already had.” It was rather, “an addition to their repertoire.” Leggett said his own grandfather was a shaman, who carried traditional Dena’ina healing ritual objects, as well as Orthodox icons. The Orthodox liturgy isn’t supposed to be novel, but an interruption of the sacred into the regular world. As Oleksa explained, in the Native Alaskan understanding, doing something meaningfully means doing it the way it’s always been done, even if it takes chronological time.

The Orthodox Easter liturgy certainly takes time. Anticipating the marathon church session earlier this month, young children came prepared with blankets, and bedded down. Around midnight, candles were lit, illuminating the reverent dark at the beginning of the service. Congregation members lit handheld candles for each other, carrying them as they processed around the church shouting, “Christ is risen!” Back inside, around 1 a.m., I noticed a few congregation members had taken their shoes off. With no pews and limited seating reserved for the very old, very young, or disabled, both the congregation and the clergy were peripatetic. Robed clergy frequently circled the church swinging a jingling incense censer and shouting, “Christ is risen!” The congregation cleared the way responding, “Indeed, he is risen!” The bishop would repeat it again in Greek, again in Slavonic. The night was immersive. At one point, an officiant was in front of the templon reading a sermon by St. John Chrysostom; at another moment the bishop was in the center of the church chanting a call-and-response with the choir. Throughout, a choir sang a capella harmonies, and the incense hung in the air.

Yup'ik worshippers at a Russian Orthodox church service before Easter at the Saint Sophia Orthodox Church in Bethel, Alaska
Yup’ik worshippers at a Russian Orthodox church service before Easter at the Saint Sophia Orthodox Church in Bethel, Alaska

Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

During the service, in the early hours of the morning, I headed to the foyer (it had been made clear to me that it was socially acceptable to discreetly meander). People had retreated to stretch, wiggle their toes, or in some cases, power-nap. Lay men in “civilian clothes” hurried busily back and forth, gathering up collection baskets, assembling folding tables in the back of the church, and setting them with grape juice and bread for the observant to break their pre-communion fasts (likely begun midnight the night before). It was the story of Orthodox Alaska in action, with the lay people from the overwhelmingly Native congregation making it all happen. In the sanctuary, chronological time passed, hour after hour. But for believers in the sanctuary, the incense, songs, prayers, readings, and gestures, and above all, the consecration of the bread and wine into the body and blood of the Yup’ik par excellence, the real man, Jesus Christ, offering himself as food for them, was a deliberate, meaningful participation in sacred time. The women with traditional face markings crying “Христос воскрес!” were acting in solidarity with each other, with those who have come before, and with their paschal candles, lighting the way for those to come.

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.