St. Nicholas Church in Eklutna, oldest standing building in Anchorage, will be restored

On a recent sunny day in May, Russian Orthodox priest Timothy Kolb unlocked a padlock securing the door to Anchorage’s oldest standing building and stepped inside. The small, rough-hewn building looks like a log cabin and is easy to overlook next to the taller, brighter, onion-domed new St. Nicholas Church.

The old St. Nicholas Church has been in disrepair for years, and a $350,000 federal grant, awarded in 2022 under the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Fund, is intended to tackle many of the big issues, including a dangerously leaning bell tower and the construction of a new foundation.

Inside the church, a thin layer of dust covered 150-year-old icons depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Newspaper clippings adorned the windows, including one of then-Vice President Richard Nixon and his family visiting the church in 1958. A handmade chandelier hung from the ceiling, with the candles sitting in empty .45-70 bullet casings.

Around the time of Nixon’s visit, the church would have been filled with worshippers during Sunday service.

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“When I was little boy, say 6, thereabout, you had to be in the church for 12 hours,” said Lee Stephan, 68, vice president of the Alaska Native village corporation Eklutna Inc. “And lo and behold, if you were a young person and you couldn’t stand for 12 hours — you didn’t believe in God, I guess.”

The old St. Nicholas Church was built in Knik sometime around 1870 and was moved to Eklutna around 1895, according to Native Village of Eklutna president Aaron Leggett, who has worked for decades on K’enah’tana Dena’ina revitalization. The new church next door was built in the 1960s by Leggett’s great-great-uncle Mike Alex, who inherited caretaker duties from his father, Eklutna Alex.


“There was this duality of traditional (Orthodox Christian) belief and Dena’ina shamanism, Dena’ina traditional beliefs,” said Leggett, who noted that Dena’ina tradition was to cremate human remains, where in Russian Orthodoxy the body had to be buried.

This duality can be seen today in the spirit houses that Eklutna is famous for — small, brightly colored structures covering gravesites near the church. These houses give the spirits a place to go, honoring Dena’ina tradition while at the same time following Orthodox beliefs.

Outside the old church sits a simple wooden Orthodox cross marking the original site of the church after it was moved from Knik. Using a tape measure, Kolb and Laura Schue, a contractor who works with Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, figured the church will need to be moved about 16 feet onto a new foundation.

Other major work planned on the structure includes repairing the roof, re-chinking the logs and shoring up the bell tower, as well as adding fire-suppression equipment.

The grant also will be used to catalog and restore the icons inside the church, some of which came from Russia when the church was built. In Orthodox tradition, the icons and the church building are essentially the same thing.

“It just wouldn’t be an Orthodox church without icons,” said Kolb. “It would just be bare walls. But with the icons there, that makes it the church. They are really essential for our Orthodox belief, our Orthodox worship.”

The influence of the Russian Orthodox church in Eklutna has waned over the years. When Lee Stephan was a boy in the 1960s, around 30 people would regularly attend Sunday services and the church would be full. For the past few years, only one or two families have regularly attended.

“My mom was born in 1957 and she was never baptized Russian Orthodox,” said Leggett, great-great-grandson of Eklutna Alex, the last shaman in the village, who was also the caretaker of the church. “So really, my grandmother’s generation were among the last people that were baptized.”

The separation between the church and the community is even more stark today. “I’ve never seen it used much by our village except occasionally at funerals,” said Leggett.

Despite the disconnect between the church and the village, he is supportive of the grant and is hopeful that the restoration project might reunite them.

Loren Holmes

Loren Holmes is a staff photojournalist at the Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at