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Parish Pilgrimage to Alaska - 06/08/2015

St. Ignatius Orthodox Church, Twin Falls, Idaho Parish Pilgrimage to Alaska
June 1-8, 2015
By: Mary Lou Panatopoulos

“I want to go to Alaska some day; it’s on my bucket list,” said one member of our parish to Father Michael Habib in early summer of 2014. By August, Father Michael had secured the blessing of His Eminence, Metropolitan JOSEPH and planned a pilgrimage to Alaska for the parish members of St. Ignatius of Antioch Orthodox Church in Twin Falls, Idaho for the first week of June 2015.

As we approached the final hours before the trip, we received our first surprise! Kh. Masha’s water broke less than 36 hours before we were schedule to fly to Alaska. The obvious decision was made that Father Michael would definitely not leave with us for Alaska on June 1. Little Maximus Joseph Habib arrived on May 31, 2015 (the eve of the trip).

The next surprise came in the form of flight cancellations causing only half the group to arrive at the first scheduled stop, Kodiak, Alaska, on June 1.  They were met at the airport by Father Innocent Dresdow, the dean of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral (OCA), and enjoyed dinner of freshly caught salmon at Father Innocent’s home.

The other half of the group arrived in Kodiak early on June 2, and the whole group (minus Father Michael), went to meet Father Innocent at the boat dock in the bay. It was a beautiful day, sun shining, bright blue sky and a few white clouds. Overhead were bald eagles and terns soaring, dipping toward the water, then flying skyward and soaring ever so gracefully above us.

Going across the bay, we entered open waters and crossed over to Nilius Island to visit St. Nilius Island Skete. We were shown around the monastery including, a small flower garden, the guest house for women visitors, and the chapel. The chapel is a small wooden temple, with icons on the walls, candles for light and a wood stove for heat. We also saw their large greenhouse, complete with raised beds for vegetables and a few flowers. They raise potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbage, and herbs to name a few staples.  They hand water the plants from a spring that has gravity flow to the greenhouse. The sisters live a simple life, working and praying and sustaining their existence in a very remote place.

We returned to the boat in hopes of making it to Spruce Island. In route, the wind began to kick up.  Father Innocent, a licensed sea captain, told us that he could get us on to Spruce Island but would not be able to get us off, so we were forced to head back to Kodiak.  Disappointment! But safety first.

The next morning we celebrated the Atkathist to St. Herman at his reliquary at Holy Resurrection Cathedral.  We were given a history lesson regarding the Cathedral and the Orthodox history in Alaska, and had the opportunity of having our questions answered.  Later, we met up again with Father Innocent for a tour that included Pillar Mountain and Monashka Bay.
Thursday morning, it was time to say goodbye to Father Innocent and Kodiak Island. Father Innocent agreed to meet us at the Cathedral so we could venerate the relics of St. Herman.  He also prayed for our travel and gave each of us oil from the lampada over St. Herman’s reliquary.

Arriving in Anchorage we were met by Father Michael, who had flown up the previous day.  We met His Grace, Bishop DAVID (OCA Bishop of Alaska) for lunch. We had a nice visit with him over a wonderful meal. He related more history of Orthodoxy in Alaska.  He shared stories about life in Alaska and customs in Alaska. He travels constantly to the vast area he serves so we were very fortunate to be in Anchorage at the same time he was there.  Following lunch, we headed out on the four and one-half hour drive to Homer. We saw several Moose along the road. The scenery was beautiful.

The next morning, we went out for a sight-seeing tour of Homer, beginning at a lookout point on the outskirts of town.  It overlooks the bay and the beautiful mountains behind the bay to the southeast.  From there we went to Bishops Beach and then to the spit.  What is a spit? It is a long, narrow piece of land going out through the bay. It is lined with various shops, businesses, canneries and eating places.  We were especially fascinated by an old ship that had been dry-docked and converted into someone’s home. It was quite a place to call home!

Deacon Andrew and Sharon Bardwell were kind enough to host us for lunch in their lovely home part way up the mountain.  After lunch, we went down the hill to Bear Creek Winery, where grapes are flown in and paired with various berries and fruits to make the wines sold there. That evening, we attended the Paraklesis service at All Saints of America Orthodox Mission.  What a picturesque setting for a picturesque church! The church sits on 10 acres of land that includes a building which houses several apartments, one rented and others used as a church hall, offices and Sunday school rooms. We were especially blessed to be able to venerate the relics of our patron, St. Ignatius of Antioch, there at the church. We toured the grounds viewing the cemetery, trapeza and taking in the awesome panoramic views which are so prominent everywhere we went in Homer. The mountains rise almost vertically from the icy-cold sea to the cloud covered sky, with sights of glaciers appearing to flow down to the sea.  

It was now time to travel back down the mountain and out onto the end of the spit for a fine dinner at the Land’s End Restaurant.  We were indeed at the land’s end, the very end of the spit.  After dinner we said goodbye, and thanked Deacon Andrew and Sharon for their time and hospitality.

On Saturday morning, we headed back to Anchorage.  On the way, we stopped to see beautiful church in Ninilchik (the most photographed church in all of Alaska). The Transfiguration of our Lord Russian Orthodox Church is a white wooden structure with the typical onion-style golden dome. It has a green metal roof, with steps leading up to the front door.  The property included the church and a very old, well filled cemetery surrounded by a white picket fence.  We could see at least three fresh graves among the many graves from the early 1900’s or before, marked with white crosses.  

Upon arriving in Anchorage, we met Father John Zabinko, the dean of St. Innocent Cathedral (OCA).  He told us the history of St Innocent of Irkutsk for whom the Cathedral is named. The Cathedral was large with many beautiful icons and relics of saints.

We continued our drive to St. John Cathedral in Eagle River, pastored by Father Marc Dunaway, where we were hosted at the St. James House for a wonderful dinner by Deacon Daniel and Theresa Gray. The traditional Alaskan meal consisted of Caribou Stew, Moose Sausage, Salmon and various side dishes.  Father Michael and Kh. Masha lived in the St. James house during their stay in Alaska. We attended Great Vespers at St. John Cathedral, which is located on 56 acres at the base of the Chugach Mountains, 12 miles outside of Anchorage. Today there are about 75 families living in the surrounding area. The property contains an elementary school, a guest home, a chapel dedicated to St. Sergius of Radonezh, the St. James House and a cemetery.

Sunday morning, we drove 45 minutes to Wasilla to attend Orthros and Divine Liturgy at St. Herman Church, pastored by Father Matthew Howell. Arriving at the church, we were met by Deacon Thomas Ross, whom Father Michael had served under as a deacon for six months. It was a beautiful service in a humble and welcoming atmosphere. After the service Father Michael was asked to bless the new handicap ramp and the dip nets that are used to catch salmon during the annual run.  We had never experienced the blessing of the nets!

After lunch, we went back into the church with Father Matthew.  He told us the history of the church, church property and his work serving God and his people there.  He also related the story of his friendship with Father Michael over the years, including their time in Seminary together.  He told us about his family, (how he met his wife, and their journey through courtship, marriage, having children) and how one of them was almost born in Father Michael’s Town Car. He also spoke about his ordination to the deaconate and priesthood. Our time spent with him was both enriching and filled with laughter.

That evening, we drove into Anchorage to see Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church.  The church was built about two years ago. It is a traditional Byzantine Orthodox structure with beautiful tile floors that look like marble.  The building is a very impressive structure.  

Leaving there we traveled to St. Tikhon’s Church (OCA) where we were greeted by Father Daniel Andrejuk.  Entering the Nave of St. Tikhon’s gives one the same sense as walking into the OCA Cathedral in San Francisco. Its’ beauty is unique. The walls of the church are adorned with iconography that tell the story beginning with the presentation of the child Mary into the Temple, the Annunciation, the Nativity of Christ, and continuing on all four walls of the Nave, ending with Christ’s Resurrection. Father Daniel then took us to an outdoor wooden structure that houses the bells. It was like a wooden gazebo with a bell tower.  We toured the fellowship hall, which houses a kitchen, dining area, and office/class rooms.  There is a small chapel in the building, which he said was very special.  Indeed, it is special.  There is an altar to serve smaller liturgies for fewer people, such as week day services and a baptistery.  The baptistery is an amazing hexagonally shaped structure that can be used for both adult and infant baptisms.  There is a faucet in the Sanctuary and a drain in the baptismal font.

The next morning, Monday, June 8, it was time to say goodbye to Alaska and return to Twin Falls. Leaving Alaska, the temperature was in the low 50’s.  Upon arrival in Boise that evening, the temperature was 97 degrees.  What a shock!

Thank you Father Michael for a wonderful and memorable pilgrimage. It was well planned and spiritually uplifting. We thank our merciful Lord for giving us this opportunity to visit a part of our country that is so rich in Orthodox history.

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