It took 155 years for the Sitka Icon of the Mother of God to make it to Juneau, and it wasn't a moment too soon for roughly 60 Orthodox and non-Orthodox practitioners who attended a free prayer and reception Thursday night at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall.
Returning from its two-month tour of more than 120 churches in the Lower 48, the icon arrived in Juneau by airplane at 1:30 p.m. It rested at the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church before the three-hour gala at the ANB Hall.
The icon left Thursday night for Sitka, where it will return to its place on the left side of the iconostasis, a pedestal for icons, in the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel.
"The people that I've heard from were real thrilled that the icon was going to be here to be a part of the community for an evening," said Debra Spainhoward, wife of Father Michael Spainhoward. "It's a real big deal for the city of Juneau."
About 20 people had gathered at the ANB Hall by 4:55 p.m., five minutes before the icon's expected arrival. Some 25 more showed up by the time it appeared at 5:20.
The crowd lined up and spent about 30 minutes venerating the icon.
Most made a sign of the cross, followed by a prostration or a deep bow. Many kissed the icon before backing away and making another bow or prostration.
Bishop Nikolai (Soraich) of Sitka, Anchorage and Alaska, arrived at 6 p.m. The crowd rose and greeted him with a hymn before launching into "The Akathist Hymn to Our Lady of Sitka."
The icon, 36 inches tall and 1712 inches wide, is painted in the style of the ancient Our Lady of Kazan icon. Discovered in 1579 in a garden in Kazan, Russia, that icon was used for centuries as a symbol of Russian nationalism. It was housed for years in the St. Petersburg Cathedral of the Kazan, where the Russian iconographer Vladimir Lukich Borovikovsky worked for decades.
Borovikovsky is believed to have created the Sitka icon sometime in the early 19th century. He was commissioned by Saint Innocent Veniaminov, North America's first ruling Orthodox bishop, to create it for the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel in Sitka.
The Russian American Co., a colonial trading company, presented it to Sitka in 1850, two years after the cathedral was built.
Over the years, the icon has developed a reputation as a wonder-worker. It's said to have healing powers and the ability to create miracles. Many make pilgrimages to Sitka, where the icon is open to the public.
"To put it very simply, people come before the icon and they pray for whatever their need may be," Father Spainhoward said. "The need is met by the grace of God through the intercessions of the Mother of God."
"It's not like you go and pray for a new Mercedes-Benz," he said. "You're talking about spiritual things, physical things. Blessings and prayers for other people, and prayers for yourself."
The icon took a short tour of the state, including trips to Native villages on the Aleutian chain, before its trip throughout the United States. Thousands were estimated to have venerated the icon on the tour, Debra Spainhoward said.
"I'm just sorry it didn't have more publicity, but supposedly it does have healing powers," said one of the non-Orthodox attendees, Jo-Anne Cottle. "I came to see it because I haven't been able to get over to Sitka for awhile, and this is something special when you consider it's been all over the country."