The striking Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church – with its red-shingled roofs and green onion domes – has become an integral part of the Unalaska skyline over the last century. It is both an oddity (architecturally different than anything else in the Aleutians) and a symbol of Russian influence on Aleut culture and religion.
Russian fur traders arrived in Unalaska in the mid-1700s and had introduced their religion to the Native peoples by the time Captain James Cook ventured there in 1778. The first church was built in 1808 in the same general area as the existing church, which was constructed in 1896. It’s the oldest cruciform-style (floor plan in the shape of a cross) cathedral in North America. For its 100th anniversary, Holy Ascension Church was restored to improve some of the deterioration that time and Aleutian weather had brought.
The church and the nearby Bishop’s House are National Historic Landmarks and are worth visiting even if only viewed from the outside. Tours of the inside of the cathedral are not always available to visitors. However, it is still used for regular services that are sung and chanted in Aleut/Unangan, Slavonic and English.
If you do get to enter, you’ll see many Russian icons, books and relics, some dating back to the 16th century. A long mural depicting different saints is believed to have been a gift from the last Czar of Russia. Still other icons have just as significant of a history. When the Unangan peoples of Unalaska were interred in Southeast Alaska during WWII, they took many icons. These were damaged by mold and treated with oils, which darkened them. These icons are slowly being restored, and are a reminder of the importance of the orthodox faith to the Unangan people then and today.