Preservation Magazine, Summer 2021

Behind the Effort to Save an Imperiled Cliffside Church in Alaska

As of June, Alaska’s oldest extant Russian Orthodox church stands at the edge of an eroding cliff on Kodiak Island. Since 1888, the white wooden structure in the Alaska Native village of Karluk has provided residents with a space to celebrate holidays, grieve over lost friends and relatives, and stay connected through song and ritual. But after years of erosion and an intense storm surge in the spring of 2020, the chapel clings to the bluff.

In 2020 and 2021, nonprofit Preservation Alaska listed the building, known as Ascension of Our Lord Chapel or the Karluk Russian Orthodox Church, as one of the state’s most endangered historic properties. Karluk residents are working on plans with the Orthodox Diocese of Sitka and Alaska, nonprofit Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska (ROSSIA), and the United States National Park Service to lift the church from its foundation and roll it on wheels away from the cliff. But Karluk, with a population of around 40, is accessible only by small plane or seaworthy boat, and it sits on the Shelikof Strait, which is infamous for harsh weather.

The exterior of the Karluk Russian Orthodox Chapel.

photo by: Grant Crosby/National Park Service

In April of 2021, Ascension of Our Lord Chapel (also known as the Karluk Russian Orthodox Church) lay just 20 feet from the edge of a cliff on Kodiak Island, Alaska.

“Its location is one of the most challenging locations in Alaska,” says Grant Crosby, a historical architect with the Park Service. In June, ROSSIA received private funding that will cover the nearly $500,000 cost of a temporary move to safety. Crosby and others working to save the church hope to be able to move the building this summer.

“To the best of our knowledge, this will be the oldest National Register–listed building in Alaska to be lifted up and saved from falling off a cliff,” says Dorothy Gray, chair of ROSSIA’s board of directors.

Even then, more funding will be needed for a permanent move closer to the Karluk community. And the church is not the only thing in danger. Surrounding the building are at least 200 graves, researchers estimate, and hundreds of years of the history of the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq people are embedded in the earth.

The exterior of the Karluk Russian Orthodox Chapel.

photo by: Grant Crosby/National Park Service

Preservation Alaska has placed the church on its most endangered historic properties list seven times since 1993, including this year.

In 1978, the village nearly washed away during a winter storm that reshaped the mouth of the Karluk River, collapsed a bridge, and destroyed the local fuel supply. Residents relocated a few miles upriver, but their much-loved church remains by the coast. Since then, erosion has only worsened, and “artifacts by the thousands were washed out with the storms,” Elder Ronnie Lind recalled in a 2012 interview published in Kal’unek-From Karluk, a book about Karluk’s archaeological history published by the University of Alaska Press.

Despite its age and precarious location, the church plays an active role in the community as a gathering center and place of worship. Karluk resident Kathryn Reft described it in an email as “the HEART of our existence.” Another lifelong parishioner and volunteer, Joyce Jones, found strength in the church following the death of a loved one. “It was just the place for me to go, and to pray, and to remember, and to heal,” Jones says.

Father John Dunlop, a priest on Kodiak Island, says some of his parishioners who moved from Karluk to other towns on the island have large photos of the church in their homes. Every time he visits one parishioner in Ouzinkie, on the other side of the island, she asks, “What’s going on with the Karluk church?” Now that the long-awaited funding has come though, he should have a good answer the next time he sees her.

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