Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church

Completed Project
World Monuments Watch
Unalaska, Alaska, United States

Built in 1896 on the site of an earlier church, Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church in Unalaska is a reminder of the sizeable Russian community that once thrived in Alaska. The structure, formerly a cathedral, has a cruciform floor plan with three altars facing east, an apse, and a bell-tower that serves as the entry for the church. The roofs are covered with wooden shingles painted red, with the exception of two onion domes, which are painted green. The interior is brightly painted with blue walls and a red floor. The church was occupied by the American military from 1942 to 1945, when Aleut-Americans living in the villages of the Aleutian Islands were relocated to internment camps. Upon their return to Unalaska, they found the military had provided no maintenance for the building and the roof had begun to leak. Snow in the main vestibule and an ineffectual heating system caused environmental damage to the structure and the holy objects inside. The saline environment of the Pacific Ocean and Bearing Sea, and sunlight shining through unprotected windows, caused various metal and photochemical deteriorations.

1996 World Monuments Watch

Through assistance from American Express, WMF partnered with the Holy Ascension Cathedral Restoration Committee to conserve the historic structure. The church was made weather-tight so water and snow drifts were no longer a threat to interior walls and the icons they displayed. A fire detection and building security system was installed. Structural repairs were completed to stabilize the building. A conservation laboratory was established and experts restored the 252 Orthodox icons that had been damaged over time. The work resulted in the return of the objects to a stable environment and put plans in place for continued monitoring and maintenance of the historic building.

Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church is an outstanding reflection of Russian heritage in the Aleutian Islands. The site is associated with the first resident Orthodox bishop of Alaska, Rev. Ioann Veniaminov, also known as Saint Innocent of Alaska. The bishop and church made lasting impressions on the Aleut culture, architecture, and language. It is the oldest church of its kind in Alaska, with origins dating to the 18th century, and houses over 200 icons, many of which are demonstrative of fine Aleut craftsmanship. During World War II, many Alleut-Americans took these icons and artifacts from the church with them during their relocation in southeastern Alaska. While this ensured the objects’ survival and continual use, the rainy climate and transportation of objects wreaked havoc on the oil paintings, wood, paper, and canvas objects, all of which suffer when exposed to extreme shifts in temperature and humidity.

Last updated: February 2019.

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