Before Alaska became the 49th of the United States, it was colonized by Russia. The Russians didn’t use Alaska for much, and their only outpost in the province was Sitka, used as a trading post. As it grew, it would need a religious center, so the missionary Bishop Innocent constructed a cathedral in the traditional Russian Orthodox style, the first of its kind in North America.
The church, designed by Bishop Innocent himself, was built between 1844 and 1848 out of spruce timber and sailcloth for insulation. As it was the first on the continent, St. Michael’s was the seat of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of North America. It was the largest building in Alaska at that time, and would into the 20th century brought more development to the peninsula.
Though the congregation would mostly have been Russian expats and Scandinavian laborers upon the cathedral’s opening, today it is largely an indigenous population. Liturgies are predominantly in English, but hymns are sung in Tlingit, Aleut, Yupik and Slavonic, the language of Russian Orthodox services, as well.
Sadly, the original building caught fire in 1966 and burnt to the ground. St. Michael’s was the literal center of Sitka, and townspeople collected what artifacts they could of the demolished church, including precious icons. These were put on display in the new St. Michael’s, an exact replica of the original with some modern architectural updates. Though better insulation has since been introduced, the walls of St. Michael’s are still lined with sailcloth in memory of both the original church and those who have lost their lives at sea.