North America’s first Orthodox cathedral was completed in 1848 under the direction of Father Veniaminov (who later became Saint Innocent). With its copper domes, this church has become the iconic emblem of Sitka. Veniaminov designed the cathedral and named it after a miraculous thing happened. A ship bound for Sitka, carrying a painting of St. Michael, sank 30 miles from town. Thirty days later, a crate containing the painting washed up on the beach in front of the town’s interim chapel, and Veniaminov named the cathedral for the saint. You’ll see the painting when you visit.
In fact, the church contains numerous icons, including the “Sitka Madonna,” a painting of the mother of God. It is believed to be a miracle-working icon, known throughout the United States for its power to heal, answer prayers, and perform miracles.
All of the icons in the church are original, but the cathedral had to be rebuilt following a fire in 1966. It started across the street in a dry goods store and spread quickly, engulfing the cathedral. But some 100 townspeople and parishioners came to the rescue, emptying the cathedral in 20 minutes. They even saved the large brass chandelier, which two men carried out, even though it later took six men to carry it back in. They also saved the work of Bishop Veniaminov, including gospels translated into the Aleut language, his design plans for the cathedral, and the original key.
It took a decade to rebuild the cathedral, but it’s an exact replica, down to the sailcloth lining the interior (traditionally used for insulation and acoustics.) The building’s made with steel, cement, and fireproof wood, but the design replicates Veniaminov’s drawings.
A recent effort by the Sitka Historical Museum, the Park Service, and the church have the cathedral’s bells ringing again. The two-year, $7,000 project refurbished the eight bells and the tower. Russian bells are very different from traditional church bells, with unique clappers that are rung using strings or foot pedals. In fact, a Russian priest had to travel to Sitka to train congregants how to play the bells and read the written scores.
Historically the Bell Tower was closed to all but church clergy, but visitors can now tour the tower, which is open when cruise ships are in port. You’ll climb four stories above the cathedral floor, where you can ring the massive, historic bells. You’ll also have a unique vantage point over downtown and the waterfront. Bell Tower tours are done on a donation basis, with proceeds benefitting the St. Michael’s Cathedral building maintenance fund.
The cathedral itself is also open for tours on days that cruise ships are in town, and a priest or parishioner is on hand to answer questions. There’s a $5 fee, which goes towards building maintenance. There are evening services every day, and the Sunday services are sung in English, Church Slavonic as well as portions in Tlingit, Aleut, and Yupik.
You won’t find pews in the church, since Russian Orthodox believe that standing during worship is the proper way to honor God.
Right across Lincoln Street, the cathedral has a well-stocked gift shop with souvenirs, music CDs, books, and even books for children.
Open summer to visitors, Mon-Fri, 9am-4pm.
$5 donation requested.