Reverend Father Simeon Johnson, the rector for St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, left, stands in the church chapel with the recently enthroned Bishop of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sitka and Alaska, the Right Reverend Alexei on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Alexei was in Juneau to discuss rennovations to St. Nicholas, the second oldest Orthodox church in Alaska. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Reverend Father Simeon Johnson, the rector for St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, left, stands in the church chapel with the recently enthroned Bishop of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sitka and Alaska, the Right Reverend Alexei on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Alexei was in Juneau to discuss rennovations to St. Nicholas, the second oldest Orthodox church in Alaska. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church prepares for a heavy lift

Renovations will require moving the building several feet

The recently enthroned Bishop of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sitka and Alaska, Bishop Alexei, visited Juneau Wednesday to meet with local parish leaders about renovations to the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, one of Alaska’s oldest orthodox churches.

“Basically, we’re here to evaluate the state of the grounds and draw up a plan for how we can best restore the church,” Bishop Alexei told the Empire in an interview inside St. Nicholas’ chapel, originally constructed in 1893. Bishop Alexei said in addition to discussing renovations, he was visiting the Juneau parish. As bishop for all of Alaska, the Rt. Rev. Alexei said he wanted to grow the parish and encourage members to lead committed Christian lives.

“We have many parishes that don’t have priests,” Bishop Alexei said.

The bishop’s trip to Juneau was brief, arriving in the morning and returning to Anchorage in the afternoon, but Bishop Alexei said he would return to visit more communities in Southeast Alaska.

St. Nicholas is on the National Register of Historic Places, and according to the National Park Service, it is the second oldest Russian Orthodox church in the state. Repairs to the church have taken place over the years, but preparations are underway to make major renovations to both the chapel and rectory buildings.

According to the Rev. Simeon Johnson, the rector for the Juneau parish, restoration of the chapel took place in 2012 and again in 2015, but the next phase of the restoration will focus on the rectory, specifically the installation of a fire suppression system.

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The plans involve restoring the rectory to how it would have looked at the turn of the 20th century which means having the main door of the rectory facing the street instead of the courtyard where it is now. But in order to get the space to be able to do that, the entire rectory building itself will have to be picked up and moved a few feet.

“Part of the plan is to move it two-and-a-half feet up the hillside,” said Dorothy Gray, chair of the board of directors for Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, or ROSSIA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving historical Orthodox churches in Alaska. ROSSIA is currently trying to move another church in Karluk on Kodiak Island, Gray said, where the Ascension of Our Lord Chapel is only about 25 feet from a rapidly eroding cliffside. Gray was at the church Wednesday to meet with the bishop.

Because the church is a nationally registered historic place, renovations will receive technical assistance from Grant Crosby, a historical architect with the National Park Service, which oversees national historic sites.

Dorothy Gray, chair of the board of directors of Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, a non-profit dedicated to preserving Russian Orthodox sites in Alaska was in Juneau on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, to meet with church officials about renovations to St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, which is not the National Register of Historic Places. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Dorothy Gray, chair of the board of directors of Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, a non-profit dedicated to preserving Russian Orthodox sites in Alaska was in Juneau on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, to meet with church officials about renovations to St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, which is not the National Register of Historic Places. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

“Technical assistance is making sure the projects meet the standards of historic preservation,” Crosby said. “To make sure (the contractor) understands the value of the historic building.”

The new rectory building will have all new plumbing and heating, Gray said, as well as the fire suppression system. Gray said part of the preparations for the renovations to St. Nicholas included a cost estimate, and declined to say how much the renovation was expected to cost. Once plans are drawn, ROSSIA will bid with local contractors.

“What’s complex about these projects is where to stop,” Crosby said, “because there’s so much work that could be done.”

ROSSIA will begin fundraising for the project once there’s a better estimate of the cost, but Gray said the organization often tries to involve the local communities where the churches are located.

“In most of these communities even people who are not Orthodox love to get involved in helping because they recognize the historical importance of these buildings,” Gray said.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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