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Parishioners rejuvenate historic Kenai church

112-year-old building sees about 30,000 tourists each year

Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2007

KENAI - The blue minarets of the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church will be much brighter against the backdrop of faded cabins in Old Town Kenai. Thanks to parishioner Ernie Jordan, the 112-year-old symbol of Kenai's heritage sports a brand new paint job, wood paneling and a new cross.

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Jordan began attending church in 1970 and estimated that with all the tourists visiting Old Town, there are approximately 3 million church photos floating around. Wanting to do something special for Kenai's visitors and the church itself, he painted the yellow molding and blue octagonal ring at the base of the minarets, even painting the white stars by hand. He also replaced the rotted wood paneling with cedar planks.

"Nothing has been done as far as changing the wood for 13 years," Jordan said. "I love working in cedar because it smells so good."

Jordan brought in a 20,000 pound lift from Anchorage in order to reach the bell tower, minarets and cross, which he replaced. He also straightened the aluminum cross on St. Nicholas Chapel.

"I added aluminum bracing and found some of the angling, the wood, had cracked," Jordan said. "The wiggle in the wind coming off that Cook Inlet got the wiggle in the cross and it cracked the wood."

Father Thomas Andrew, the priest at the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary, said approximately 30,000 tourists visit the church a season, but added that the number might be reduced this year because of fuel prices. There are between 25 and 30 regular parishioners, he said, and all of the work on the upkeep of the church is done by volunteers.

"Usually they don't have an expectation of payment," he said, "so it's usually done by volunteers."

Jordan said the church talked about hiring a painter, but the cost would have been more than $16,000, so he volunteered to save them money. The church supplied the paint and the wood, and Jordan and Andrew hope that a $5,000 grant from the Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites of Alaska will cover the cost of the lift.

"In a roundabout way, the tourists have paid for (the upgrades)," he said. "They donated the money or have bought things at the little book shop."

Church construction began in 1894 and was completed in 1895. Though he doesn't know what the siding is made out of, Andrew said you can see the logs supporting the church on the inside. After Jordan's work is completed, Andrew wants to tackle the north wall, which is beginning to bow and needs to be addressed within the next couple of years.

"We don't have a set formula for upgrading the church," Andrew said. "If we see something that needs to be done, we try to get to it as soon as possible."

Jordan is confident that as long as tourists show up to see Kenai's church, there will be enough funds for any kind of repairs and upgrades the church needs.

"It seems like rain or shine, we still have a lot of tourists," he said. "We'll go in and see a church or a museum or something. A lot of people do that, I guess, no matter what country or state you're in."

To Andrew, the fundamental difference between a museum and Kenai's Russian Orthodox Church is that it still has an active parish.

"If a church is a museum that means it's dead, it doesn't have a parish," Andrew said. "We still have an active parish here. We hope it doesn't ever turn into a museum."



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