In the past several months I’ve visited four Orthodox churches in Anchorage representing three branches of Orthodox Christianity. The Orthodox faith traces its roots in Christianity back to apostolic (early church) times. Eastern and Western Christianity mutually separated in the 11th century.
Anchorage Orthodox churches represent Greek, Antiochian, and Russian Orthodox. It’s like eating ice cream. You can have many flavors of ice cream, but it’s ice cream nonetheless. I’ll attempt to describe some of the flavors of each in this column.
Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church is located on O’Malley Road just east of Lake Otis Parkway. Moving into their new church just months ago, they eagerly await consecration by their bishop in September. Built in the Byzantine style, its richly decorated interior is light and comfortable, displaying beautiful pictures of the saints in outstanding iconography. Services start Sundays at 9 a.m. with Orthros and Divine Liturgy at 10 a.m. The Rev. Vasili Hillhouse is pastor.
During my recent visit, I witnessed two firsts among my many Anchorage church visits. Rev. Vasili’s homily was based on practical advice to the parishioner attendees regarding their physical, mental, and spiritual health. I’ve not heard a similar down-to-earth sermon in 15 years of visiting churches here in Anchorage. Secondly, during the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, it was first spoken in English. Then Rev. Vasili called on various ethnic tongues in attendance to recite it: Romanian, French, Arabic, Spanish, Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian, and Greek. Another spine-tingling first. Their renowned Greek Festival runs Friday-Sunday this weekend, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Bishop Maxim of the Serbian Archdiocese will celebrate Divine Liturgy Saturday at 9 a.m.
Russian Orthodox missionaries first arrived in Kodiak in 1797. In 217 years they’ve grown from a single mission there to an Alaska diocese of 89 churches. Anchorage has four, Wasilla and Tyonek each have one, and there are six on the Kenai Peninsula. I’ve had delightful visits to St. Innocent Orthodox Cathedral and St. Alexis Mission, which meets in Anchorage at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association building at 1131 E. International Airport Rd. Their services, with the exception of the homily, are usually standing services where the service is chanted by the priest, with choral and audience responses. Both of these churches have choirs who serve as the liturgical glue to keep participants on tune, and in the right place. The music is beautiful and often ancient. Sung in English, Yupik, and/or other native tongues, Slavonic, and Greek, those present participate with heart and soul. Preferring to simply be called Orthodox, a part of Orthodox Church in America, rather than Russian Orthodox, their churches are filled with multicultural attendees. Divine Liturgy services start at 9 a.m. Most worshippers fast from midnight until noon the next day, so the Eucharistic bread will be the first food they have in more than 12 hours. Invariably, each congregation has an after-service fellowship meal of sweet treats, coffee, juice, and other dishes. During my visit to St. Alexis, Rev. Michael Oleksa invited me to sing in the choir, an experience I’ll never forget. I truly understood their service after singing it. Oleksa gave a brief practical homily, a sermon delight. In less than 20 minutes he said more than many pastors labor an hour to achieve. Addressing the “are you saved?” challenge so many confront, he noted their assurances of salvation, but that it required more. They also needed to be “doing”, demonstrating that growing in their salvation means you will show it by working for others. I was treated graciously by both congregations.
In north Eagle River, a beautiful woodland setting contains St. John Cathedral, an Antiochian Orthodox church in Alaska. Rev. Marc Dunaway is pastor and the congregation is multicultural. He shared thhat two new congregations have started in Wasilla and Homer. I look forward to visiting them in the future. My first experience with St. John dates to 2009 when I received an email from a Church Visits blog reader by the name of Phoebe who invited me to explore the beauty of the Orthodox faith at St. John. Making a surprise visit, I was astounded by the simple grace, simplistic beauty of the church, and the musical flow of the service. Attending recently, in conjunction with the Eagle River Institute, an Orthodox conference, I was awestruck, once again by the beauty of their services, the reverence displayed by its people, children included, and the strong community it comprises. The congregation is composed of all ages, millennials included. I was invited to sing with the choir during the conference and found great value in doing so. St. John Sunday services begin with matins at 9 a.m., Divine Liturgy at 10 a.m., and vespers at 7 p.m.
Orthodox churches offer meaningful services. Some are more welcoming than others, but all extend hospitality. Music is clearly not entertainment, but part of liturgy. Divine Liturgy starts at 9 or 10 a.m. Homilies are usually 10-20 minutes offering memorable takeaways. These Orthodox churches are peopled by Christians who have sought and found meaningful faith.
Note to readers: I’ll offer individual visit reports churches, including those mentioned in this article, on my new Church Visits website which will mirror and archive my ADN articles and blogging. That site is now active at churchvisits.com.