St Michael Cathedral is a great example of Old Russian church architecture. The greatest Orthodox Missionary in Alaska, Bishop Innokenty Veniaminov, designed it. He came to Sitka in 1834, returned to Russia in 1838, and became a bishop in 1840. He was the first Bishop of Alaska, and upon his return to Sitka in 1841, he began planning the construction of the cathedral. Bishop Innokenty laid the cornerstone in 1844 and hired carpenters and craftsmen to build it. The building used spruce logs with an outer layer of clapboard, and sailcloth covered the ceilings and walls for insulation and acoustics. The history of St Michael Cathedral began when a ship carrying the St Michael icon sank, along with all its valuable cargo, 30 miles short of its destination. Thirty days after the Neva sank, the undamaged crate carrying the icon washed ashore at Sitka and local residents found it On 20 November 1848, Bishop Innokenty consecrated St Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The building is laid out in the form of a cross, with three altars dedicated from left to right to the Mother of God “of Sitka”, St Michael the Archangel, and St Innokenty.
Bishop Innokenty learned how to speak the Tlingit language, and the Tlingits loved him, as he went all-out to understand their way of life and spiritual needs. He provided them with medicine and vaccines. Today, 90 percent of the cathedral congregation is Tlingit, as well as other native groups. The music in the liturgy is sung a capella (unaccompanied voice) in English, Slavonic, Tlingit, Aleut, and Yupik. Bishop Innokenty eventually returned to Russia and became the Metropolitan of Moscow and all the Russias. The Church canonised him a saint in 1977.
On 2 January 1966, tragedy struck the cathedral. A fire in Sitka’s business district in the middle of the night eventually spread to the church. Scores of local people rushed to the cathedral, where they formed human chains to remove most of the treasures… original artworks, icons, and religious objects, at the risk of their own lives. Unfortunately, the fire destroyed the structure, the clock built by Bishop Innokenty, Bishop Innokenty’s library, and bells. The Icon of the Last Supper above the Royal Doors in the main altar also perished in the blaze. Immediately after this tragedy, concerned citizens made plans to rebuild the cathedral in its original form, beauty, size, and style. They formed the Sitka Historical Restoration Committee, including many prominent citizens. It took 10 years to rebuild due to the difficult conditions peculiar to Alaska. The original plans were extant and they used them in the reconstruction. The replacement was completed and consecrated on 21 November 1976. The generous support of thousands of people in Sitka, throughout Alaska, and Lower 48 states made all of it possible.
The National Parks Service designated St Michael Cathedral a National Historical Monument and the OCA Holy Synod of Bishops named it an architectural and historical monument. To this day, its clergy serve a full cycle of liturgical services to accommodate the needs of Orthodox believers in Sitka, and it’s the “Mother Cathedral” of the Orthodox Church in America.
20 August 2014