Alaska Orthodox Bishop makes first visits to Aleutians and Pribilofs
There are around 50 people who live in Atka, one of the westernmost communities in the United States. And on an overcast, windy morning in May, about half of them waited at the airstrip to greet the bishop.
A tall man with a long gray beard and flowing black robes emerged from a Beechcraft King Air turboprop plane, and the people waiting greeted him with a hymn.
The Right Reverend Alexei was elected as the bishop of the Orthodox Church of Alaska in 2022, about two years after his predecessor, Archbishop David Mahaffey, passed away.
Alexei made his first visits to some of the farthest-flung parishes in his large, statewide diocese this spring, including St. George in the Pribilof Islands, and then Atka and Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands.
“I'm in the Aleutians, making a pastoral visit to reach out to the people,” Alexei said. “COVID has kept me out. And now that COVID is receding, I'm here to be with the people.”
The Orthodox Church holds a complicated position in Unangax̂ culture and history. While the Russian fur trade brought colonizers into conflict with local communities, the Orthodox Church was widely embraced, in part because it integrated Unangax̂ language and culture into the church.
“While the Russian colonizers that came in committed atrocities,” Alexei said, “the Russian church always took what they saw in the community … and they said, ‘This is beautiful, this is worth preserving.’”
The Russian Orthodox missionaries and priests did preserve the language. Most notably, the church’s first bishop in Alaska, Father Ivan Veniaminov, developed an alphabet for the region’s Indigenous language, Unangam Tunuu, which he used to translate the Bible.
St. Nicholas Church in Atka is one of the oldest parishes in the state. And it hasn’t had a resident priest since 1899 — still, the congregation has maintained the songs and liturgies for over a century.
Services are still performed in Church Slavonic and Unangam Tunuu, nearly 200 years after Veniaminov’s arrival in the Aleutians, a fact Alexei said was a testament to the community’s faith.
“There is a great love for the tradition, a great love for the languages that they've maintained almost — not almost, they have maintained, miraculously,” he said.
Alexei came to Atka to perform the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, a service only performed in the presence of a bishop. But there was a problem: the bishop’s luggage got bumped to a later flight, and he didn’t have his vestments to serve liturgy.
“You never know what's gonna happen with travel in the region,” said Crystal Dushkin, a church reader in Atka. “It's always a concern.”
So instead of serving liturgy, Bishop Alexei sang with the choir.
“It just worked out beautifully, because he was able to sing with us in the choir for the vigil,” Dushkin said. “There are services that we did this weekend that we're not really accustomed to doing very often. So it was great to have his help in the choir.”
But the vestments finally arrived the next day, and St. Nicholas Orthodox Church of Atka received the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy.
Following his three-day trip to Atka, Bishop Alexei continued to Unalaska where he performed services for the feast day at the Church of the Holy Ascension.