National Lutheran News

Leading tours and cleaning rooms

Sitka Lutheran Church in Alaska offers summer volunteer experience

An Edina couple with strong Lutheran ties and an interest in history found a compelling adventure last summer. In August, the Rev. Phil Froiland and his wife Marilyn Froiland served as volunteer docents at Sitka Lutheran Church in Alaska.

While they enjoyed their time in Sitka, they recollect that the nearly five weeks there was not a vacation. After a day of telling cruise ship visitors about the historic church, they emptied wastebaskets and cleaned up the building, included the restrooms. The Sitka church has no paid custodial service during the summer months. The Froilands laughingly referred to the church’s outreach as the “toilet ministry.” That’s because the historic Russian Orthodox Church (with its onion dome) across the street has no public restrooms. But Sitka Lutheran does and attracts swarms of cruise ship and ferry boat passengers who disembark for a visit to Sitka. A signboard outside the church invites people to use the restrooms.

The Rev. Phil and Marilyn Froiland welcomed visitors to Sitka Lutheran Church, even if it was just to use the restroom. Photo provided by Phil Froiland

After a day of telling cruise ship visitors about the historic church, they emptied wastebaskets and cleaned up the building.

Sitka Lutheran Church has the distinction of being the oldest Lutheran congregation on the West Coast of the United States. There are many artifacts dating from the founding in 1840 as well as a Kessler organ built in Estonia in 1844. The organ is considered the oldest pipe organ on the West Coast of the U.S. and is still used for worship services. Visitors are invited to play the organ.

The organ, which survived two church fires, has just four octaves and five working stops. It is very compact and was ideal for transport by ship from Estonia. A restoration several years ago included a glass back which makes the pipes inside the organ visible.

An 1839 altar painting called “The Transfiguration of Christ” is also of great interest; it arrived by ship with the founding pastor. It is currently on a sanctuary wall of the contemporary-designed church which was built in 1967. During the Froiland’s Alaskan adventure, 1,100 visitors came to the Sitka church to view the many artifacts and, in many cases, use the restrooms.

Pastor Froiland is the retired director of church relations at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. Marilyn worked in the Wartburg College library.

From whence the congregation?

Sitka Lutheran traces its roots to 1840 when the Czar of Russia granted permission for the Lutherans to have a church in Sitka. Prior to that the Russian Orthodox Church was the only Christian church in the area. It was closely tied to the Russian-American Company that ran things in Alaska at that time. Pastor Uno Cygnaeus of Finland was chosen to start the church. He came on the same ship that brought a new governor general to the colony. The first governor general was also a Finn, not Russian. (Russia governed Finland at the time as a Grand Duchy.)

Their ship left Helsinki in September of 1839 and reached Sitka in May of 1840. Lutheran services were begun immediately in a room of the governor general’s mansion and plans were made to build a church on land allotted to the Lutherans. The original church was built by the Russian-American Company, and many of the workers were Finns and folks from the Baltic countries and some northern Germans — most of whom were Lutherans. With a multilingual congregation, sermons were preached in Swedish, Finnish, and German.

Pastor Cygnaeus returned to Finland after his time in Sitka. He is celebrated as the father of the elementary school system in Finland and has schools there named after him.

Because of the physical work involved with the Sitka docent positions, the Froilands feel the position is best suited to a couple. Docents work from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. six days a week and are needed May through August. There is no pay, though docents are provided with housing and a car. Travel to Sitka is by ship or air; no highways serve the coastal community.

Month-long docent assignments for 2013 are booked. Persons interested in knowing more about the opportunity for 2014 may reach the Froilands at froiland@q.com.

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