We went to church last Sunday. While the rest of you were doing whatever you do on Sunday mornings, we were being dazzled by a service very reminiscent of how Orthodox services were in the old days. The Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Kodiak, is the oldest Orthodox community in the Americas. Founded in 1794, it no longer carries the “Russian Orthodox” designation; rather it is part of the Orthodox Church in America. The OCA was formed during the cold war in order to clearly separate the Russian churches here from the hierarchy in the Soviet Union.
The Kodiak church is thriving. Picture a modest meeting room with at least 50 people milling around. In years past, men and women stood on separate sides of the church. Today, there was some separation. One man stood on the women’s side. Several women were on the men’s side, but they were with their husbands. (Yes, they were standing. A few folding chairs were along the sides and each side had a pew in the back, but most were standing.
Kids of all ages were milling around squealing, crawling, toddling, running around the adults, begging to be held, being handed from one adult to another, climbing upstairs and going in and out the front doors. Older kids tried to mind the younger kids with little success. As a teen, I tended the nursery in our prim, protestant church so as to keep these little distractions away from the serious business of the adults. But this chaos is the way it is still in many Orthodox services.
White women mostly wore long dresses with their hair tied back with a scarf knotted behind their neck. Very Russian peasant style. Native women often didn’t have a scarf or long dress. Men looked perfectly normal, but there were lots with long beards and some with long hair. The service lasted two hours so adults took breaks now and then, going outside to visit on the lawn or use the social room in the basement. Kodiak has a seminary a few blocks away, so there were also several men dressed in monk attire.
The service was in English, but honestly, it was hard to tell. Everything is sung or chanted except the sermon, so it was hard for me to understand it. Perhaps, if I attended regularly, I’d begin to catch on, but I’m not sure anyone cared what was being said. The interior, which is filled with icons, was also full of lighted candles ($2 to $500). All of the principal characters of the drama, and there were a lot of them – men, of course – were outfitted in green robes with gold trim. (I think the colors change for certain holidays). A wooden panel (iconostasis) separates the congregation from the secret work of the men in green. Only the priest can come and go through the center doors; all others must use side doors when coming and going to perform their various duties during the service.
There was so much repetition and so much kissing of cheeks and icons, and swinging the incense, that it felt as though the record was stuck and someone needed to tap the needle to move on. A small choir, about 3-4 parishioners and monks, played an important role, exchanging parts with the priest throughout the service. The congregation chimed in occasionally with “Kyrie Eleison” (I always thought it meant Christ is Risen, but I looked it up and apparently it means Lord have Mercy), usually repeated three times.
About 75 minutes into the service, the priest came out to deliver the sermon. Most of those who were standing immediately sat down on the floor. I’ve never seen this before, but maybe I never lasted long enough to get to the sermon. Nick thought the sermon was overly long. He has always said that he liked his father’s sermons, which were apparently shorter. This sermon was based on the scripture about Christ causing a blind man to see. (Must have faith!) But it went on with a tale about a venture to Monk’s Lagoon on a nearby island. The priest was taking a few dignitaries, but the water was too rough to land. He was hoping God would part the waves just long enough for them to get ashore, but it didn’t happen. However, they went to a calmer part of the island, got ashore, and wonderful things happened there. Moral: Maybe God has something better in store for you than whatever it is that you want.
Eventually, they got to communion, and I was shocked to see jugs of grape juice and small paper cups. People went to the priest, who held out a spoon, presumably with the blood of Christ. Did he drop a tiny bit onto their tongues? I couldn’t tell, but perhaps the grape juice and paper cups were a nod to the fact that Covid is still very present in the community. In the church of my youth, we never had wine for communion; it was always bread and grape juice and was strictly symbolic of the body and blood of Christ.
After the sermon and communion, there were announcements, a lot of them. Some newborns are in the NICU in Anchorage, and a trip to Monk’s Lagoon is happening next week. The church in Kodiak houses the relics of St Herman, who lived at Monk’s Lagoon; the relics are a big deal to this parish.
We had a few short conversations with people after the service. It really is a vibrant congregation, Anglo and native people both. One baby looked as though he might have a black father, but black people are not common here. There is, however, a Coast Guard Station with approximately 6000 people stationed here. That brings the total population to about 13,000.
Other than church, we’ve driven all of the 100 miles of roads on the island. It is absolutely stunning. It looks like a tropical paradise, but much of the vegetation is deciduous, so it is quite different most of the year. We have had spectacular weather. Two cloudy days, but upper 50’s to upper 60’s everyday. We’ve turned in the car, so we’ll be walking to the museums in town and chatting with people until we bring some lovely Kodiak weather home with us on Thursday.
Update: We actually won’t go the museums. On Monday, we both tested positive for Covid. We stood at the back and wore masks during the entire church service, so we likely didn’t spread it to anyone there. We probably caught the bug during an extended wait for our food in a local diner. We’ve been so cautious about eating out, but let our guard down in order to chat with a relative by marriage. We are not very sick, but this is still making hash of the end of our trip.