This beautiful yellow and red building is the Russian Bishop’s House and for a time was the heart of Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska. In 1840, the Metropolitan of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, decided to create a new diocese, one dedicated to serving the orthodox communities bordering the Pacific. The new Alaskan diocese would include all of Alaska, as well as far eastern Russian. At this time in Russian history, church and state were closely intertwined: high positions in the church, like that of bishop, had a high social status, like that of a nobleman. A bishop not only represented the church, but also the Russian Empire and the tsar himself. Sitka, as the unofficial ‘capital’ of Russian America and headquarters for the Russian American Company, was chosen to be the headquarters for the Alaskan diocese.
As a government-backed monopoly in the pacific fur trade, the Russian American Company had certain obligations to fulfil for the Russian Empire – namely that they would support the Russian Orthodox Church in all their ventures in Alaska. It was the desire of the Empire that wherever the Empire expanded to, the Orthodox faith would be there also. With the creation of a new Alaskan diocese, it was the responsibility of the Russian American Company to provide a living and working space for the bishop.
In 1843, the Russian Bishop’s House was built to fulfil both of those needs: the main floor housed a school and seminary, and the second floor provided the living quarters, dining room, formal reception room and private chapel for the bishop. The bright colors do more than just bring color to a cloudy day, it’s a not-so-subtle reminder of who paid for everything – red and yellow were company colors.
Even after the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, the Russian Bishop’s House remained an active part of the orthodox community. The second floor continued to provide living quarters for a total of 16 bishops until the house was finally abandoned in 1969. The National Park Service purchased the house from the Orthodox Church in 1972, and spent the next 16 years restoring it back to its former glory. Today, it is one of only four buildings remaining in the western hemisphere that have survived from the Russian Colonial period.
The next stop on the tour is St. Michael’s Cathedral. Take a right out of the front gate of the Russian Bishop’s House, and continue walking down Lincoln Street for approximately two and a half blocks. The cathedral will be right in the middle of Lincoln Street.