A flurry of private donations for Sitka’s historic cathedral

Father Ishmael Andrew is the new priest at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka. He led parish members in the starring tradition on Orthodox Christmas, going door to door with a silver star and spiritual songs. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

A historic landmark in the center of downtown Sitka was the subject of fierce debate at the Assembly table two weeks ago over the separation of church and state. Even the city attorney weighed in on the legality of the issue, citing a Supreme Court ruling. While the Assembly ultimately decided not to donate to renovation work at St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral, a local citizen put forward the cash — and many more have followed.

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The Sitka Sentinel reported the donor left a written statement, in which she said, “We Sitkans see this every time we are downtown. I would be happy to make that contribution. How about you?”

Turns out, many Sitkans agreed. Ana Dittmar is leading the construction project. “As the Assembly continued to discuss it, it was really the best thing that ever happened in our fundraising because we continued to get donations from private individuals here in Sitka,” she said.

Since the Assembly took up the issue, citizens have made $50,000 in private donations to St. Michael’s. One resident pledged an additional $40,000 this spring.

If that sounds like a big figure, keep in mind the bills for restoration work are big too. The exterior paint job on the bottom half of the building costs $135,000 alone, and possibly more if additional work is needed.

Dittmar says the parrish board has contracted with Pete Hagan of K D Painting for the intensive work, which will continue in the spring when the weather improves and the cruise ships are in town.

“That’s helpful with fundraising too,” she added. “In fact, the first check we got from a cruise ship visitor that was of any substance last summer was a young man who came in. We never saw him before. We never saw him after that. He just wrote out a check for $1000.”

When asked what compels people to dip into their pockets upon entering St. Michael’s Cathedral, Dittmar simply said, “You can feel the history when you step inside.”

“Some of the cruise ship visitors cry. They come into the building and they’re so taken that they just sit down and tears come into their eyes. There are a lot of people who are very moved. I mean, there are other people who can’t get out fast enough. I’m not trying to say everybody that you’ll step in and start crying! (Laughs) But there are people who have an emotional experience,” Dittmar continued.

St. Michael’s Cathedral is a national historic landmark and one of Alaska most “endangered” properties. The original structure burned to the ground in 1966 and reconstructed from historic drawings. In 1973, it was re-entered in the National Register of Historic Places.

Moving forward, the cathedral is also in dire need of a new roof. Eventually, the rotted front steps will need to be replaced and inspection work done on the spire. As for the dome, the leaking has diminished since Hagan began working on the exterior.