If you had only a backpack, and were packing to head to the other side of the world for a week, what would you bring? If you were to be gone for a month, or a year, or even longer, would what you decide to bring change? When coming to Alaska, most employees of the Russian American Company were working under 4 or 5 year contracts, bringing only the small things most valuable to them. An important and comforting thing they brought that took no space at all was their faith. Like the Russian Bishop’s House, St. Michael’s Cathedral was paid for and constructed by the Russian American Company. The construction of the cathedral in 1848 not only provided a proper worship space for the new bishop, it also provided a familiar and comforting space for orthodox employees. Its location in the center of town is symbolic of the faith’s central role as the heart of the Russian Empire, and of the Russian identity of the employees.
Unfortunately, the building that stands today is not the same one that was first built in 1848. In January of 1966, a fire broke out in downtown Sitka and destroyed the cathedral and other buildings nearby. Thankfully, observant Sitkans saw the fire start and jumped into action - working together to save almost every icon and holy relic within the cathedral. When it was rebuilt, those same icons returned to their original homes within the cathedral. Something that was unable to be saved from the fire were the brass bells in the belfry. They were, however, salvaged from the wreckage,re-casted and now hang in the new belfry.
The Russian American Company included more than just Russians. The success of the company was due in no small part to the Finns. Finland was a part of the Russian Empire at the time, and as a maritime country, they were much more skilled as shipwrights and sailors than most Russians. The Finns differed from their Russian co-workers in that the faith they brought with them to Alaska was not Orthodox, but Lutheran. The managers of the Company recognized the value the cathedral had to their Orthodox employees, and extended a similar courtesy to their Lutheran employees. Across the street from the cathedral is another large stone church - the Sitka Lutheran Church. Upon that same site in 1840, the first Lutheran church was constructed, becoming the first Protestant church built on the West Coast of North America. Both St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Sitka Lutheran Church have active congregations that have been coming to worship since each building was established over 170 years ago.
Beyond providing a worship space, the company provided its employees with the basics for living and working in Alaska: company men stayed in barracks, used communal kitchens and laundry, and were nearby to their workplace. The next stop, Building 29, is an example of such provisions. Continue walking down Lincoln Street for about one block, staying on the left side of the street. Step into the space between Russell’s Sporting Goods and the Log Cache gift shop buildings.