A Russian commander, Druzhinin, is credited for having discovered Dutch Harbor in the early 1700’s. He envisioned the natural port as a haven for ships seeking refuge from the winds of the Bering Sea.
Russian fur traders followed and established a community on Unalaska in 1798. Efforts to evangelize the Aleutian people ensued and a small, Russian Orthodox chapel was erected, though there was no regular priest.
The Aleuts welcomed the newcomers as they offered support to the local peoples and education to their children. A monk named Macarius joined the community, baptizing the local population.
In 1826 Ivan Veniaminov arrived as the first priest and built a church not far from the original chapel. He learned the language of the native peoples, created an alphabet for the Aleut language, and translated the book of Matthew which includes the verse: (Matthew 28:19-20) “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
Fr. Veniaminov was a strong force in advancing the education of the Aleutian children, establishing a school to help them learn to read and write. He was reassigned ten years later to another area and repeated his mission work there.
In 1858, the newest structure was crumbling from the effects of the elements, so another was built in its place. A visiting bishop who had to sleep at the local cannery instigated the addition of a priest’s quarters, as well as a local school, at the site of the church. The building was cruciform in shape with a bell tower on its western end that still chimes six bells for the services. The tower is an octagonal cupola topped by a green onion dome with an Orthodox cross at the top.
In 1867 Russia sold the Aleutians to the United States and fur trading became the main enterprise. But as the otter population declined, the market for pelts dwindled. Fishing grew more important.
In 1894 the present church structure, the Church of the Holy Ascension, was erected, using timbers from the original building. Unalaska had now grown into a thriving town and Dutch Harbor had proved itself a valuable port.
During World War II the natives were evacuated to the southeastern side of Alaska. A military presence was established at Fort Mead and 60,000 troops brought in. The iconic pieces within the church were preserved and stored among those interned. Dutch Harbor was bombed twice during WWII by the Japanese during air raids launched from aircraft carriers. After the war the natives returned, but in smaller numbers, affecting the operation of the church and not all of the icons were restored.
In 1970 the Church of the Holy Ascension was designated a national landmark. The historic building established the place where the first missionaries built in 1826, bringing the Orthodox teachings to the Aleutian peoples. To this day much of the population remains Orthodox, services still sung and chanted in the Aleut language. The congregation stands during the service, women on the left and men on the right. Benches for the elderly are provided against the back wall.
Pictures taken by Jonathan Lee in Dutch Harbor, Unalaska