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Unalaska has first in-person Christmas starring since pandemic’s onset

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Theo Greenly
/
KUCB
On Russian Orthodox Christmas, congregants stood at the front of the church, spinning large, colorfully decorated stars in clockwise circles, and the choir sang traditional songs in Russian, Unangam Tunuu, English and the Eastern Orthodox Church’s liturgical language, Slavonic.

The local Russian Orthodox community celebrated Slavi, or Russian Christmas, over the weekend, which follows the Julian calendar and takes place Jan. 7.

It was the first time the church held in-person Christmas services since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unalaska’s Church of the Holy Ascension is one of the oldest churches in Alaska, and arguably the oldest Russian Orthodox church in the state.

On Russian Orthodox Christmas, congregants stood at the front of the church, spinning large, colorfully decorated stars in clockwise circles, and the choir sang traditional songs in Russian, Unangam Tunuu, English and the Eastern Orthodox Church’s liturgical language, Slavonic.

Like many places of worship around the world, the church’s doors remained mostly closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Julia Dushkin is a church reader and the choir director. She said she felt emotional being back inside for the Christmas starring tradition.

“I’m overwhelmed with it, I really am. It’s good to see everybody, and everybody seeing each other. They really like this,” Dushkin said.

Another reason this year was special: this is the first Christmas that the church’s new priest spent in Unalaska.

Heiromonk Ioasaph arrived in Unalaska in Feb. 2022, and said he has been pleased with this year’s celebrations.

“I feel wonderful. It’s a very faithful starring group and I’m very happy with them,” Ioasaph said.

St. Innocent was the first Russian Orthodox bishop of Alaska. He arrived in Unalaska in 1824 as Ivan Veniaminov, before he was tonsured St. Innocent.

He and the local Unangax community completed building the first Church of the Holy Ascension in 1826, which was later rebuilt in 1894.

Ioasaph says the church’s history goes back further than that, to his own namesake, Ioasaph, who traveled to the Aleutians and Kodiak in the late 1700s on the first missionary trip ordered by Catherine the Great.

Ioasaph says that the earlier Ioasaph returned to Russia because the church wanted to make him a bishop.

“They enthroned him as a vicarbishop, but on his way back, the boat went down in rough seas, only about 30 miles from where he was going,” Ioasaph said. “It was another 40 years before St. Innocent came and became the first bishop of Alaska.

While most of the congregation had to wait two years for the Christmas starring, some had to wait longer.

Anfesia Tutiakoff grew up in Unalaska, but only moved back to the island last year, after more than a decade away, and hadn’t been able to attend Christmas services since she returned.

“I actually haven’t been able to be here for about 12 or 14 years for Christmas,” Tutiakoff said. “It’s beautiful seeing everyone up there.”

Tutiakoff’s niece, Maya Tutiakoff, agreed.

“Good to be watching them star and sing,” Tutiakoff said. “Good to be back.”

Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.
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