Alaska Natives’ loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church can be traced to the brave missionaries who traveled to Alaska in the late 1700s. Before then, Russian fur traders were in control and behaved very abusively toward the Aleut people, even though the Tsar had forbidden mistreatment of Alaska’s Natives.
The Aleut’s population decreased dramatically in the 18th century from the traders’ harsh treatment, forced labor and European diseases. When the Orthodox missionaries arrived, they defended Native people from the fur traders and taught them Jesus Christ’s lessons of grace, kindness and salvation. The missionaries also brought written language to Alaska and helped the Aleuts create an alphabet for their language.
Having been displaced from their traditional homeland, the Aleuts of St. Paul Island have repaid the missionaries by an unswerving dedication to the Russian Orthodox faith.
The first church on St. Paul Island was built in the late 1700s, then replaced in 1819. The current Saints Peter and Paul Church was built in 1907 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its signature Russian onion dome, however, has been repeatedly damaged by storms and replaced.
Most of the church’s worship services are in English, but at times, in Church Slavonic and Aleut. During Christmas (according to the Old Calendar), the priests and volunteers walk from house to house carrying a large star and sing traditional hymns, after which each home welcomes them inside for refreshments.