We gathered at 2pm Sunday afternoon at Sitka’s Totem Pole Square (which actually has no totem pole as it’s currently out to be repaired and restored by native Tinglit artists) for a tour to the Raptor Center, The Historical Park, the Museum and Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The Cathedral, is actually a close replica of the original that dated to 1849 but was destroyed in 1966 by a fast-moving fire that started down the street and burned out a good amount of the city center.
As the rear of the Cathedral caught fire, parishioners broke down the locked doors and made a hand-to-hand lines to get all the icons, precious liturgical vestments and vessels, and the great chandelier to safety. Aside from the building itself, only the bells and one painting were lost, a remarkable feat given that the structure was fully engaged in a mere 15 minutes.
Sitka is very aware and appreciative of its Russian cultural heritage. The day before, we had visited the Russian Bishop’s House, it’s most famous inhabitant being a man who had come to New Archangel, as Sitka was then named, as a young missionary in 1834 and soon distinguished himself as a unique and enlightened figure interacting with the native population.
Fr. Ivan Veniaminov believed that the Tlingit and other native peoples were godless but never considered them inferior, uncultured or in any way worthy of less than full respect and dignity. He learned at least two of the native languages, translating the Bible into them, educating native children in their own languages, and welcoming native men into study for the priesthood. He did not confuse the totem poles, which chronicle family history and Tlingit legends, with idolatry as did the later Protestant missionaries who introduced prejudice and oppression of native culture and language.
Fr. Veniaminov became Bishop Innocent in 1841 moving into the newly completed Bishop's House in 1843. He went on in 1867 to be named Metropolitan of Moscow, an enormous honor. After his death in 1879, the Russian Orthodox Church in America petitioned the mother church in Russia to declare him Saint Innocent, which request was granted.
The Bishop’s House was built of heavy squared timbers with sophisticated insulation techniques to be the administrative center for a Russian Orthodox diocese that stretched from Siberia to Northern California on the first floor, and a gracious residence on the second.
In the 20th
century the house was allowed to deteriorate gradually until its demolition seemed inevitable. The National Park Service acquired it at the last moment, annexed it to the Historical Park and made an extensive structural and decorative restoration, including recreation of the original wallpaper patterns by the original manufacturers in Russia. The Finnish-built furniture was repaired and the house opened for visitation.
One of the visitors was Soviet Union Premiere Boris Yeltsin who came to Sitka with his wife, Naina Iosifovna Yeltsina who, in an era when religious belief was discouraged in Russia, maintained a strong personal devotion. Guide John Fish showed us the lovely Chapel on the second floor and told us that while Boris was out in Sitka searching for a good bar, Mrs. Yeltsin toured the Bishop’s House, stared at the Chapel in wonder and then, as he put it, “moved in” and performed a 45 minute Orthodox service by herself and for herself, often deeply moved emotionally. Would that Bishop Innocent could have seen it.
The Raptor Center is a major facility for treating Birds of Prey (eagles, falcons, hawks, kites, owls, etc.) that are injured and require surgery, medication, and flight rehabilitation.
We spent a half hour or so there, including a talk and introduction to Volta, the Center’s educational demonstration eagle. Volta will never be released back into nature as his fractured wing bones had healed in the wild but had set in a configuration that would not let him fly. The fragility of bird wings – they’re hollow to lessen skeleton weight -- rules out re-breaking and resetting them as the bones would shatter.
Those birds whose injuries can be treated sufficiently to allow them to be released eventually, live in the huge flight training room where they’re able to build up strength and endurance in a somewhat natural environment that gives them plenty of space and perches for practice.