By Gary Flanagan
You can’t get there from here, if you drive from the continental United States.If you’re a Russian Orthodox or Roman Catholic leader you haven’t directly communicated since the great schism of 1054, until this week. However, if you visit the capital of Alaska in Juneau, you will find a Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic church sharing the same street as Alaska’s State Capitol.
Juneau is the only US Capitol inaccessible by road beyond it’s borders. It is surrounded by the Juneau Icefield on the mainland behind it and the Gastineau channel of the Pacific ocean in front of it. It was named after gold prospector Joe Juneau in 1881.
Father John Althoff was assigned pastor to this mining community in 1886 and built a small church for worship. In 1910, the building was replaced with the current structure and in 1951 became what they believe to be the smallest Cathedral in North America. Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary http://juneaucathedral.org resides at the corner of 5th and Gold a block away from the back of the Alaska State Capitol.
Even closer to the Capitol on 5th street is St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox church http://stnicholasjuneau.org/. By 1892, Missionaries began arriving to convert the local Tlingit natives. The were encouraged by their church leaders and the US government to integrate English language instead of the native language. Many Tlingit objected and started to embrace Eastern Orthodox customs from the surrounding islands. During the same time period many Tlingit leaders had been experiencing vivid dreams of a short, white-bearded elderly man, encouraging them to become Christian. When Bishop Nikolai arrived from San Francisco and showed them the icon of St. Nicholas, they recognized him from their dreams. Word was sent to Moscow that a new Orthodox community had been established in Juneau. Local materials were paid for by Russia and the iconostasis consisting of 6 icons were shipped from Russia where they had been assembled.
In 1894, the USS Pinta sailed in to Juneau by order of the US War dept. Bishop Nikolai was on board for the purpose of consecrating the new church. The Onion dome was placed in 1895 and the bell and belfry in 1905. It has been in continuous use since, despite the harsh rain forest semi-arctic climate.
Juneau has been the capital since 1906 of the Alaska territory and then the state of Alaska in 1959. Funds for a Capitol Building were granted by the US Congress in 1911 but it was 20 years before the Art Deco style structure was built as the Federal and Territorial building. It has served as a courthouse and post office before becoming the State Capitol in 1959.
I was able to visit this beautiful, but remote capital city, on a very rainy day in June 2013, as part of my separation of church and state tour. The Capitol was under construction but I received a very educational tour of the statehouse before strolling down 5th street to visit these churches. Going inside both houses of worship left me with a very peaceful feeling of connection despite the split of these two institutions over a millennium ago. During the tour of the Capitol, my guide gave us a little trivia test. Which state has the most Eastern, Western and Northern points in the US? Alaska. Right here on 5th street, behind the Alaska State Capitol are two churches that represent World Christianity for the East and West.
On February 12, 2016, on the island of Cuba, Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, will have a first in history meeting of the leaders of these two faiths, since they became estranged. I wonder if they are aware, that a simple stroll on 5th street in Juneau, Alaska, could have accomplished this for the last 100 years. This Capitols and churches reporter discovered this simple solution 3 years ago. I’m guessing the world media will be reporting on a much bigger scale this week.