The architecture and treasured icons of this landmark highlight Sitka’s long history as a European settlement decades before the American Revolution, on the other side of the continent from the English colonies and the fledgling United States.
The most prominent landmark of Russian America, St. Michael’s dominates Sitka’s downtown. Rebuilt in 1976, it’s an exact replica of the historic cathedral built in the 1840s and destroyed by fire in 1966. Topped by a copper green onion dome and spire, its architectural styles match ones common in Saint Petersburg when Russians settled Alaska. The most famous of its centuries-old religious icons, rescued from the fire, include two paintings surrounding the altar screen doors, “Christ Omnipotent,” and “Our Lady of Sitka,” (or Sitka Madonna) believed by some to have healing properties.
The cathedral’s pearl-studded miter was worn by Bishop Innocent Veniaminov. Born Ivan Popov and canonized as St. Innocent of Alaska after his death, Innocent was a skilled craftsmen, accomplished linguist, missionary and historian who documented Native cultures in Southeast Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Unlike other missionaries of other religions who banned indigenous languages, Innocent’s interest and tolerance laid the groundwork for saving Alaska’s Native languages. The first Orthodox bishop in North America, Innocent introduced vaccine to Alaska, built Sitka’s first church, and devised a clock operated by water droplets.
The cathedral remains the capital of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska. Saturday night services include appeals from around the world for intercession by the Sitka Madonna.