Before coming to Alaska, father Steven McGuigan had never been to the west coast. He was expecting igloos and sled dogs and “snow as far as the eye can see” when he touched down in Kodiak for his first Alaska posting.
But the reality of Alaska life was a little less extreme than the Massachusetts product expected.
“I’d call home and my dad would be like, ‘What’s the weather like? It’s a blizzard here.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, it’s green, you know, and 45 degrees,” McGuigan said with a chuckle. “But it’s Alaska!”
McGuigan, a priest, was installed in his position as the rector of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in August. He’s the first full-time priest the church has had in about seven years. The St. Nicholas parish had previously been served by a patchwork of deacons and priests with other duties. Most recently, Father David Alexander, a U.S. Coast Guard chaplain, served as the “attached priest” at St. Nicholas for about a year.
Though Alexander has been “invaluable” to serving the Juneau parish, McGuigan said he’s excited to establish a full-time presence at St. Nicholas. He hopes to provide a consistency in service and worship — the very thing that drew him to the Orthodox church. He converted after more than 20 years service in the Roman Catholic Church.
“My overall pastoral game plan is simply, after so many years of not having a priest, or if they had a priest, not having a full-time one, will just try to be very stable and consistent. To let folks know that, if it’s Saturday night, yes, there’s Vespers. If it’s Sunday, yes, there’s liturgy. You don’t have to think about it,” McGuigan said.
About 30-40 people attend the church currently. A Saturday night Vespers (6 p.m.) and Sunday morning liturgy (10 a.m.) constitutes Orthodox Sabbath services.
Many of his parishioners are converts to the Orthodox church and many are Alaska Native. People flock to the church, he said, for its structure and permanence. Russian Orthodox practices largely haven’t changed for hundreds of years. McGuigan said that history reassures parishioners. He converted to the Russian Orthodox Church for the same reason.
McGuigan’s mother began her life as a Russian Orthodox before converting to Roman Catholicism when she married, so he’s been close to Orthodox culture since childhood.
“There was always that element in family life — Orthodox weddings and stuff like that,” McGuigan said. “My own spiritual life has always been sort of east-west.”
At some point, it became increasingly more difficult for McGuigan to remain a faithful traditional Catholic. The church felt like it was changing too fast. He wasn’t completely comfortable with the direction it was taking.
“That’s what I was struggling against as a priest in the Catholic Church. Everything was far more dependent on the priest’s personality and it felt like God was getting lost in the shuffle. This just felt so much more right,” McGuigan said.
So McGuigan converted six years ago. But coming by a posting as a priest. A colleague suggested he take a position as a second priest to get his feet wet working under another Orthodox priest. Postings as a second priest in Massachusetts were few and far between. McGuigan had colleagues in Alaska, though, whose ears perked up when he mentioned he was looking for a parish.
He was ordained as an Orthodox priest in March and flew to Kodiak shortly after.
“It seemed like every other door was shutting and there was this stream of light pointing to Alaska to the point that I finally had to go, OK, for some reason you want me in Alaska. So I’ll give it a whirl,” he said.
McGuigan is here to stay and turn the small, eight-sided church into a “teeny powerhouse of prayer.” It’s going to be a lot of work, both mentally and physically. For one, the facility itself is old and requires careful maintenance. The darkened icons — of Christ, Mary, St. Innocent, St. Nicholas and St. Cyril — which were installed when the church was built in 1894, are in need of restoration. That would cost $2,000-3,000 each.
McGuigan wants to start daily prayer services and improve the parking situation for his parishioners at the downtown church. McGuigan and his parishioners are the only ones to do the work. Is it exciting to have the future of the church fall on his shoulders?
“That’s one adjective,” he joked. “What I would like to see is that, despite its size, that this becomes a powerhouse of prayer for all of Juneau — Orthodox or not.”
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.