- Associated Press - Sunday, February 16, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - One can’t help but feel like they’ve stepped back in time when walking past the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church on Fifth Street. The church, completed in 1894, feels like a relic of Russian America, even though Juneau had been under American control since 1867. The church itself was built at the behest of Alaska Natives who had converted to the Orthodox faith.

The history tied to the St. Nicholas Church, however, is farther reaching geographically than one might expect - as illuminated by a recent donation of $10,000 from the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Restitution Trust toward the Juneau church’s restoration.

Mike Zacharoff, of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, as well as a member of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and a former airline manager, visited Juneau with his wife, Judy, and her brother to present the check from APIRT to the church’s parish council over dinner last week. The Zacharoffs split their time now between the island of St. Paul and Anchorage, though St. Paul is certainly where their hearts and history are. In the 1890s, the bell at the newly built St. Nicholas Church in Juneau was donated by the St. Paul Russian Orthodox Church.

Zacharoff was born on St. George but, as a young child, was held at Funter Bay with his family during World War II, when residents of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands were held in internment camps in Southeast Alaska despite being U.S. citizens.

In a foreign environment, disease, poor living conditions and lack of care took many lives. Zacharoff said he thought they lost about 10 percent of the Aleutian and Pribilof Island population that had been forcefully relocated to Southeast Alaska after the Japanese attacked Kiska and Attu.

St. Nicholas Church parish council member Richard Dauenhauer noted people of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands were being held in inhumane conditions; whereas German prisoners of war were treated to three square meals a day and medical attention at nearby Excursion Inlet.

“As it turned out, there were no more attacks on Alaskan soil,” Zacharoff said, concluding the U.S. government “would have been better off to leave people in their homes.”

Judy Zacharoff’s little brother died and was buried at Funter Bay. He was a year old.

While many returned to the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands - Zacharoff said he returned to St. Paul with his grandmother - many others stayed behind, finding community in the St. Nicholas Church.

He said the Orthodox faith is predominant in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, and described religion as “crucial to our survivability.”

Those who returned to the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands found that the U.S. government had desecrated their churches, burned homes and buildings, and stolen weapons and heirlooms.

Though the U.S. government never apologized for the brutal treatment of its citizens of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, it did offer settlements to those affected, Zacharoff said. According to an email from Jake Lestenkof, a restitution trust was authorized by a 1988 civil rights law passed by the U.S. Congress “to address the redress for Japanese Americans and Aleuts interned during WWII.”

The Federal Government provided $1.2 million (about $200,000 per church) for restoration of the churches destroyed during WWII. Those interned were able to obtain an additional $3.4 million from Congress, allowing them to restore churches in the communities and to build a new church in Atka. The people of the region chose to accept individual settlements of $12,000 each, with $5 million invested in a trust. APIRT, now with nearly $8 million in the trust, pays out an annual distribution each year, funds a scholarship program and provides grants for tribal programs.

Some money from the trust has gone toward projects outside the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, including toward the Alaska Native Cultural Heritage Center in Anchorage to improve the section on the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, and now toward the restoration of the St. Nicholas Church in Juneau.

Dauenhauer said they have so far replaced the church belfry that had rotted out and the roof on the church rectory, as well as removing a dormer that had been added in the 1930s. The next project is to repair the church foundation and drainage - all big projects. Also in the church’s future is a memorial to the people of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands kept at internment camps in Southeast Alaska.

In regards to the $10,000 donation toward the restoration, Zacharoff said, “We didn’t want to have the church in that condition.”

He said upkeep and improvement of the buildings and markers of that history are taken seriously.

One of Zacharoff’s sons managed a project, with grant money from the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to restore grave markers in Funter Bay, many of which had been knocked over. Each grave is now marked with an Orthodox cross.

According to Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, the first phase of the preservation work on the St. Nicholas Church has been completed, including inspection, reroofing of the rectory and Narthex, reconstruction of the bell tower support beams and refurbishment and reinstallation of the bell.

ROSSIA is a non-profit organization that depends on donations, like the one from APIRT, but also from individuals committed to the preservation of churches like St. Nicholas, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.

Dauenhauer said a major goal of the church restoration, which he anticipates will take several years and around $800,000, is historical accuracy. His wife, Nora, was baptized in the church and said it is very special to her.

“It looks the way it looked when I was a kid,” she said.

For many, the church was “the only connection to anything they had of their own heritage,” Dauenhauer said. The priest at the time was of Alaska Native heritage and the Orthodox Church had a long tradition of offering services in Alaska Native languages.

Martin Stepetin, a young parishioner, said his father was born in Southeast Alaska and not St. Paul, as he would have been otherwise. Stepetin was born and raised in St. Paul, though he has family connections in Southeast Alaska. He visited Juneau with his brother in between fishing seasons and met his wife, Ann, who is originally from Angoon. He works at Hecla Greens Creek Mine now.

Stepetin noted that he’s here, living in Juneau, 72 years after his father was born here, but as a free man.

“My father was not free,” he said. “That’s the big difference.”

For Stepetin, coming from St. Paul, where the church is “a close thing to our heart,” he’s found community today through the St. Nicholas Church.

Stepetin, whose wife and three children have been baptized in the St. Nicholas Church, said “the church needs help a lot,” adding that “any little bit helps.” Though he and Ann are already married, he looks forward to having a ceremony in the St. Nicholas Church with both their families, though the small size of the church paired with their large extended families could prove a tight squeeze.

Though he admits to getting homesick during the holidays, Stepetin said, “In Southeast, I have the church, that’s enough home.”

___

Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, http://www.juneauempire.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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