Sitka Lutheran Church - Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
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New Archangel, Russian Alaska

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Throughout its long and rich history, Sitka Lutheran Church has been home to dynamic and interesting stories. The Finns, Swedes, Baltic Germans, Latvians, Ingrians and others who worked for the Russian-America Company (RAC) were members of the first and oldest Protestant congregation in Alaska, the Lutheran Church of New Archangel, founded in 1839-40 under the leadership of RAC Governor Arvid Adolf Etholèn, a Finnish Lutheran.

The church's story begins earlier, however, when Baron von Wrangell was Governor of the Russian America Company (RAC) from 1830 to 1835. Arvid Adolph Etholen was his Adjutant. Along with von Wrangell’s wife, Baroness von Rasillon, all were Lutherans. At a certain point in the process of giving birth, as it were, to this new Lutheran presence in Russian Alaska, the RAC Board made an official request which ultimately was signed by Tzar Nicholas I, approving the congregation’s establishment.

The newly appointed governor left Kronstadt, Russia, in 1839 on the vessel NIKOLAI I, arriving in New Archangel (Sitka) on May 12, 1840. The party included Etholén's wife, Margaretha, and the Reverend Uno Cygnaeus who held the first Lutheran worship service in New Archangel on August 23, 1840. Also arriving with the NIKOLAI I was the vessel KONSTANTIN, under the command of Etholén's Executive Adjutant Johan Joachim von Bartram, his wife, and sister-in-law Wilhemina Swartz.

The KONSTANTIN was purchased in Rio de Janeiro and sailed to Valparaiso under the command of former RAC employees. In Valparaiso, command of the vessel and crew was turned over to Lieutenant von Bartram who then sailed it to Sitka. Both boats sailed into the port of New Archangel on the same day, a show of might and a most impressive way for the new governor to arrive. No other RAC governor and party is know to have arrived onboard two ships.

 

Finland was a Grand Duchy of 19th century Russia and hundreds of Finns, Baltic Germans,  Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and others worked in Russian America. These ethnically diverse employees of the Russian American Company (RAC) formed the nucleus of the Lutheran congregation in New Archangel (Sitka), which served as their spiritual home. 

Arvid Adolph Etholén began his Russian Naval career as a teenager. A Finnish officer in the Russian navy, Etholèn, like many young, ambitious Finns, used the Russian America Company [RAC] to promote his career. He first visited Novo Archangelsk (Sitka) in 1818. Governor Etholen served 25 years with the RAC as one of hundreds of Finns in culturally-diverse Alaska.

Margaretha Etholén, the governor's wife, was a devoted Lutheran who's role in the church's beginnings has been somewhat over-emphasized but her role in providing the RAC's young women has not been emphasized enough.
 

The congregation in New Archangel laid the cornerstone of the original building in 1841 and dedicated the facility in 1843. When Russia transferred title of Alaska to the United Stated in 1867, the Russian government deeded the property to the Lutheran congregation and the Consistory of St. Petersburg no longer sent pastors to New Archangel. The city tore down the first building in 1888 due to its vandalized condition. However, a lively Lutheran presence in Sitka continued into the early 1930’s, where people met in homes and schools, conducted Sunday School and confirmation classes, held meetings and did all that a congregation does, without a building.

  Pastor Uno Cygnaeus accompanied the Etholens on their trip and served from 1840-1845.

He later achieved some measure of fame in his native Finland by influencing the development of the Finnish Public School System.

 

Photos (from From top down):
Governor Arvid Adolf Etholèn.
Margareth Etholen, the governor's wife.
A model of the first building crafted by SLC member Bill Kleinert.
Pastor Uno Cygnaeus.

 


Sitka Lutheran Church 
•  224 Lincoln St.  •  PO Box 598  •  Sitka AK 99835
Office phone: 907.747.3338  Office
E-mail  •  Last updated: 04/02/2008

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