by Deacon R. Thomas Zell

Recently, my wife and I boarded a plane in San Jose, California, located our window seat accommodations, and settled back to enjoy a spectacular journey catapulting us over the dusty brown foothills of northern California and into a world of ice-blue glaciers, green forests, deep bays and inlets, and a panorama filled with breathtaking, seemingly endless horizons. This, our first trip north to Alaska, had been long in coming.

Those who have followed AGAIN through the years will be familiar with our first stop, Saint John the Evangelist Cathedral in Eagle River. The visage of this beautiful church, laden with snow, has graced several AGAIN covers, as has that of the small hand-crafted St. Sergius Chapel built within walking distance. AGAIN has featured several articles by Father Marc Dunaway, the priest of Saint John Cathedral. Our 20th anniversary issue carried two “then and now” articles by Barbara Dunaway, Father Marc’s mom, which spanned over twenty years of the community’s history, from establishment as “Maranatha North” to its current form — an active parish with a church school and a community of over three hundred souls. Many of the members live and dwell within one mile of the church.

The yearly “Eagle River Institute” had concluded only a few weeks prior to our visit, drawing people from all over the country to five days of intensive study under several prominent Orthodox scholars. Now that the busyness of sponsoring that event was over, the community was working at full speed to finalize preparations for the school year which was just around the corner. The small school building was alive with carpenters, cleaners, teachers, and other willing workers, volunteering their time to get things ready for the approximately 50 schoolchildren soon to be in attendance.

From Eagle River, we traveled to the Kenai Peninsula, eventually arriving at Homer, Alaska. For all intents and purposes, the highway stops at Homer. Though there are native fishing villages further on, they can only be reached by boat or light plane. Spruce Island, home of the great missionary, Saint Herman of Alaska, was only a ferry trip away. Its unseen presence seemed to cast a holy light over the entire region — even through the rain.

The little mission church established last year in Homer by Father Paul Jaroslaw, formerly of St. John’s in Eagle River, was started with the blessing of Metropolitan PHILIP. In addition to being a little outpost of Orthodoxy in this distant corner of the globe, the mission has been laboring to establish the Holy Cross House, a ministry for Orthodox youth desiring to become more firmly rooted in their faith. The fruit of this effort can be clearly seen in the lives of the young people who have attached themselves to All Saints of America parish. It is a work being written on tablets of flesh and blood.

The facilities at Homer, on the other hand, are only now beginning to take form. The large house — a former bed and breakfast — shows the stress and strain of a constant flow of young people coming and going, eating and sleeping, working and worshipping — almost without interruption. Around this building is clustered a menagerie of small, hand-built sheds and cabins. All are within earshot of each other, and close to the main house. The community is never far apart.

The little chapel, rising up out of the soil of its rugged environment, reflects the loving dedication of a group of Christians who, under the guidance of Father Paul, his wife Bonnie, the inimitable Sub-deacon Basil (cook, liturgical assistant, teacher, and resident apologist — Baptists beware!), and a handful of former students, have given everything they know how to give to the work of establishing an Orthodox place of prayer in this community. Everything. To walk inside this little structure, beholding the altar and small iconostasis, the vigil lamps glittering before icons along spruce-paneled walls, and to hear the voices of those young people singing and worshipping together, is to be translated from Homer to heaven—something one would not expect to happen at first sight of Homer!

No, it hasn’t been easy for either of these communities. Nothing comes easily in Alaska — the land is already well on its way toward obliterating the nameless graves and collapsed shacks of those Gold Rush miners whose futile dreams died in this harsh country one hundred years ago. “There were times,” Father Paul told me, “when I honestly didn’t know how we were going to survive our first year. It’s been the hardest experience of my entire life — but it was worth every minute.” The pain and struggle of survival, the sorrow of failed attempts and halting missteps, the relentless, cruel attacks of the enemy — always seeking to rend and destroy — all have taken their toll.

Yet in both of these parishes, one in spirit yet diverse and unique as everything else in the Alaskan wilderness, I believe I have been granted to see once again the spirit of Orthodoxy in North America. It is a spirit alive, untamed, and unconquerable — even by the very gates of hell. Though at times the odds seem insurmountable, this spirit will indeed survive. And in its survival, even in its very struggle to survive, the opportunity for this Faith to truly capture the hearts and minds of those who are earnestly seeking for Christ and His Holy Church grows brighter each day. Brighter, in fact, than the first brilliant sunrise after the long night of a dark Alaskan winter.

From Again Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
Volume 20 No. 3/Fall 1977
p. 3