Father Michael dies at 74

Posted: Thursday, March 18, 1999

Father Michael Williams lived in many worlds during his 74 years. A Tlingit priest in the Russian Orthodox Church, he died Tuesday morning in Juneau.

His family gathered today at the downtown home of his daughter Sue Ann Lindoff, just a block away from St. Nicholas Orthodox Church where he sang and served. Formal services are scheduled for this weekend.

Williams was called to the priesthood at the age of 52, after serving in World War II and working as a commercial fisherman.

``He was the very first graduate of the seminary of St. Hermans when they first started in Kenai, and he was the only ordained Tlingit priest we had in the Russian Orthodox'' church, Lindoff said this morning, amid a bustle of voices and activity, punctuated with the cries of Williams' great-grandson.

Williams was raised Presbyterian, and converted to Russian Orthodoxy in 1950, said Lindoff, who interviewed her father last week for an English paper about her family's history.

``He first moved to Sitka in 1948. He used to sing with the choir (at the Orthodox church) because he loved to sing. Bishop John asked him to join the church, and he said, `No, I'm happy being a Presbyterian.' But the bishop told him back then, `You'll join the church.' And he did two years later when he married my mom.''

Michael and Emily Williams married twice - in June 1950, in the Episcopal church, and again in December in the Orthodox church.

``He used to say to my mom, `you're the only woman I'll ever marry twice,''' Lindoff said.

He took the name Michael when he was ordained. He was born James Williams in Juneau in 1924, and was raised by his grandparents in Hoonah. His grandmother was a staunch Presbyterian at a time when the church forbade Tlingit customs and language, said Lindoff. He told her last week his grandmother didn't want him learning his Native language.

``Even as old as he is today, he said he can still taste the brown soap that was used to wash out his mouth for speaking Tlingit,'' Lindoff said.

He became a fluent speaker anyway, thanks to his grandfather John Williams.

``He taught him out in his workshop. So he learned to speak Tlingit fluently, and he learned a lot of the traditional Tlingit customs,'' Lindoff said.

Alaska Native Brotherhood leader Alfred McKinley of Juneau was a boy of 10 in the early 1940s when he met Williams in Excursion Inlet. Williams was in the U.S. Army, serving during the years of World War II. McKinley remembers Williams after the war, purse seining in Icy Strait, plying the waters between Hoonah, Juneau and Sitka.

Williams was called to the priesthood in the mid-1970s. He went back to school and earned his GED so he could attend the seminary, and after years of study he was ordained in 1976 on St. Michael's Day in St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka.

He was a missionary priest, and served in Hawaii, San Francisco, Hoonah, Angoon and Sitka. He was based out of Juneau since 1977. In recent years he was retired, but Father Robert Polson of the Orthodox church said they served liturgies together.

``In Orthodoxy even though you're retired you're still a priest until the day you die,'' he said.

A funeral service with Bishop Innocent will begin at 6 p.m. Saturday at Tlingit-Haida Community Hall at Salmon Creek. A meal will follow.

Pontifical liturgy will be at 9:30 a.m. Sunday at St. Nicholas Church.

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