There aren’t many highways suitable for road-tripping in Alaska. But the ones we do have are dotted with plenty of interesting road-side attractions. In the second part of a series we’re calling “Roadside Attractions,” we head to Ninilchik and get a tour of the historic Russian Orthodox Church just off the highway.
“To truly understand the history of the Orthodox Church here, you would have to go back all the way to the 1800s,” Greg Encelewski said. He served as a church tour guide. “In the late 1800s, the original church was in the village and it was right across from the yellow bridge where we have a fenced in area, and that burnt down.”
Encelewski said after that church burnt down, the village decided on its current location high on the hill, overlooking Cook Inlet with a view of mounts Redoubt and Illiamna.
“I think that was the plan of all the Orthodox churches…. Travel to Seldovia, it’s up high on the hill, you go to Tyonek, it’s high on the hill. They built them in a beautiful place… that’s part of the design. The community picked it out,” he said.
The new church was dedicated in 1901 and built by Aleksei Oskolkoff. The white and green building is surrounded by a white picket fence. On top of the roof are five onion-shaped domes that are each topped with a cross. The Russian Orthodox faith depicts where Jesus’ feet and hands were nailed to the cross.
At that time this church was built, there were almost 100 people living in the village. There was a mix of Russian families and Dena’ina people.
Walking into the church, he explained there is still a small congregation that shows up every Sunday.
“My family and probably six other families are regular attendees. And then on holidays you have big attendance. We could go from six people to 30 on a regular Sunday, and then on a holiday you might have 40 or 50 in here,” he said.
The entrance of the church is called the Narthex. Through the next set of doors is the Nave and that’s where the Icons are located.
“And it has the Feast Days, the major holidays of the church,” he said.
This space is open to the public. There’s a dome with four windows and the interior of it is painted a light blue. Encelewski said all the design work with the wood inside the Nave was done by hand.
“This is all cut by hand with hand ax. A lot of this work was done by real handy-craft people. But these logs are so old that they’re dry rot and they’re starting to crumble from within the walls. So the church needs to be rebuilt,” he said.
He said the small congregation will need to come up with the funds to rebuild and replace parts of the historic structure. Another way the church could raise money is through small donations it receives by offering tours. Encelewski said they just started opening the church up to the public in the last few years for tours. He said it’s a way to share the history of the building as well as faith.
“People just ask if they can come in and sit and pray a little bit… or light a candle. They’re down and out… we let them do it and they go about their business,” he said.
Encelewski is a devout man and loves this church. He said he was an altar boy for his grandfather in Kenai who served as a priest for many years. Encelewski recalled people gathering for major holidays and said everyone would walk up the hills to attend. Going back down was a different story for him.
“Christmas I’d run out here and jump and slide down over the hill.”
Back outside the church and walking through the cemetery, Encelewski said some of the oldest graves date back to the early 1900s. But many of those gravestones have fallen. Though he knows there are Dena’ina as well as Russian Orthodox buried on top of the hill.
With all this tradition, it’s no wonder the church has made the National Register of Historic Places and is a well-worn stop for many tourists who make their way across the Kenai Peninsula.
But for Encelewski and many like him in the community, it’s a place that conjures up memories of togetherness.
“You think about people like my mom, Fedora… those old ladies laughing. And my aunts get together and sing and people played guitar… accordion. We had lots of fun.”