More Trouble From Alaska
First he confiscated stewardship of church lands from the OCA’s Alaskan Land Commission and refused to relinquish it. Now Dr. Lydia Black, professor emeritus from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and one of the most respected ethnographers of Alaska, accuses Bishop Nikolai of having seized her personal archives and refusing to return them. Such high-handedness by the Bishop of Alaska is not just the misfortune of those who live in his diocese, but actions which are causing serious trouble for the whole OCA.
As reported by OCANews.org last April, the unannounced sales of Alaskan Church properties resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing into OCA coffers between 1972-2001. (Read that story here) A months-long investigation by volunteers at OCANews.org has now uncovered documentation showing that since +Nikolai became the Bishop of Alaska, he has been quietly mortgaging Church properties throughout Alaska, mortgages that may result in hundreds of thousands of debt for the OCA.
The mounting mortgages in Alaska are one heretofore undisclosed reason why the 2004-2005 audits of the national Church accounts failed; and why no further audits can be fully completed. Until ownership of those lands, and now the debt on them, is resolved, the OCA cannot place its own financial affairs in order.
Dr. Black's "Sad Tale"
Dr. Lydia Black latest book "Russians in Alaska: 1732-1867" ( University of Alaska Press 2004) was reviewed as “one of the definitive works on the topic.” In addition to the Order of St. Herman, Dr. Black was awarded The Order of Friendship by the Russian Federation in 2000 for her scholarly commitment to Russian Alaska. Thus her charges against the Bishop are those of serious scholar. In an open letter posted on the Orthodox-Forum this week, Dr. Black writes:
“ In 2001, during the St. Herman’s pilgrimage, I was 76 years old and diagnosed with congestive heart failure. I had come to St. Herman’s Theological Seminary upon my retirement from University of Alaska-Fairbanks in 1998.
My tenure at St. Herman’s had arisen because, several years earlier, Fr. Michael Oleksa approached me, asking if I knew of a willing graduate student who, for a pittance, would sort out the Seminary’s archive which was stored in trash bags (following a flood here) in the basement. I told him that I was due to retire soon, and I would be more than happy to put my extensive expertise on Russian America to good use by serving the Church by sorting through what were presumably valuable - on historical, cultural and religious levels - documents, books and miscellaneous items.
So, in 1998, with Bishop Innocent’s approval, I was “hired” by the Seminary - my compensation was free housing. Keep in mind that as a retired professor, I have a pension, and I had a wise husband who, upon his death, left me several investments.
Among the many things which I undertook, I completed an inventory of all the materials which included possessions of St. Herman and Father Gerasim, unique native language liturgies, rare foreign language books, etc.
In conjunction with both state and federal granting agencies, I obtained funding for the Seminary to have items such as The Life of St. Nilus which was ostensibly given to St. Herman by his spiritual advisor restored and to procure appropriate archival and museum storage units and environmental controls. (The current whereabouts of The Life of St. Nilus are unclear - Mina Jacobs, the “Diocesan archivist” running +Nikolai’s Anchorage museum, claimed to have no knowledge of it when I asked about it.)
Along comes +Nikolai and the 2001 St. Herman’s pilgrimage. I went to the airport to meet the Bishop’s plane (he had made a previous visit before his consecration as Bishop of Alaska during which I was his guide on Spruce Island). I was wearing my Holy Cross of St. Herman which was awarded to me by Bishop Innocent (in 1999).
Bishop Nikolai arrived, I presented myself, and he commented (he seemed annoyed) to Fr. Kondratick, who was accompanying him, that there were no St. Herman’s medals in Anchorage....
On the day of my expulsion from the Seminary, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and began helping the Seminary staff and students make accommodation for the many pilgrims. This included sharing my room with a pilgrim from the North Slope and his child. I worked in this capacity throughout the day, and at about 7:00 p.m., a visiting priest asked me to find sheets and make a bed for a guest (as I recall, possibly Fr. Kondratick, but my daughter does not recall this). I begged off, pleading tiredness, and retired to my room.
At approximately 10:00 p.m., someone pounded on the door - it was +Nikolai, and when I opened the door, +Nikolai proceeded to enter while yelling at me. He made a variety of statements, including “How dare you?” in reference to my begging off from making a bed, something about my living “off the charity of the Church” and then told me that I had until 8:00 a.m. the next morning to remove myself from Seminary premises.
In other words, he evicted me with approximately 10 hours’ notice, and the bulk of those hours constitute the middle of the night. Needless to say, I left many belongings behind, including all of my materials on professional commitments such as the Bicentennial of St. Innocent (1996 - two years before I retired from the University) documents which were exclusively mine but given the short notice I had and the size of the quarters which were available on less-than-24-hours’ notice, I could not take with me. As it was, I spent approximately $2,000 to pay professional movers to remove what I had time to remove and a considerable sum to house my two cats at the veterinarian’s office.
I was lucky to find a small apartment into which I could move on Saturday. I spent Friday at a friend’s house.
I recently had a request from Russia which required my St. Innocent’s papers to answer quickly, and when I requested their return, I was told that they belonged to the archive and that I needed Bishop Nikolai’s permission to obtain them. I have asked a lawyer to make this request, but so far, there has been no response (literally).“
Critics of Dr. Black suggest that “she was running a private museum”. Dr. Black denies such criticisms.
“Since I have many reputable friends and colleagues who can attest to my professionalism and with my record of furnishing my expertise to a variety of people and institutions, particularly those of Native Alaskan origin, for free, this accusation is laughable and is not in need of response.“
Dr. Black concludes her letter with additional charges against Bishop Nikolai: most notably that other items not taken to his new museum in Anchorage from the existing church museum in Kodiak were simply disposed of. Sources in Kodiak have confirmed to OCA News.org that ”Many of these items are historical items, and (local) people are upset, and concerned that remaining heirlooms don’t get 'decommissioned' or trashed. There are banners, grammotas, etc.”
Dr. Black’s charges have been substantiated by the former parish priest in Kodiak, Fr. Gerasim Vurik. Writing of the situation in Kodiak on the Orthodox- Forum this week as well, the now-retired Fr. Vurik states:
“....documents,artifacts, and historical records have been discarded, removed, and transferred elsewhere. Much has simply disappeared.
Dr Lydia speaks to these things. I can verify her work at Kodiak and the thoroughness of her cataloging as well as her conservation efforts. Under her guidance the museum was open to the public 5 days a week year around. Dr Lydia was very often in contact with other scholars working on Alaska history projects providing and receiving document copies to enhance the collection. She also placed her own private collection on loan to the Archives and Museum, items which have not been returned to her as requested.
The godson of Archmandrite Gerasim (Schmaltz) also placed items and documents on loan and despite requests to have them returned, has been ignored.”
Fr. Gerasim (Schmaltz) was the long-time guardian of the relics of St. Herman.
Mortgaging the Past
Such accusations come at a critical time for Bishop Nikolai, in that his repudiation of the OCA’s Alaskan Lands Commission has contributed to the failure of the OCA’s recent audits. Since stewardship of the almost 900 acres of land, including leases, is now in debate - the issue being whether the national church or the Bishop of Alaska alone controls the land - the external OCA Auditors were at a loss as to whether these lands were real assets; or whether any mortgages on those lands should be counted as diocesan or OCA debts.
And mortgages there are.
Recent searches of property transactions recorded by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources by dedicated OCA volunteers have revealed a web of land deals (including sales and mortgages) stretching back to 1972. (Land transactions before 1972 are not available on the internet. The Alaska Land Record files can be accessed at: http://www.dnr.state.ak.us/ssd/recoff/search.cfm.)
Any attempt to make sense of these existing public records is made difficult in that, at last count, there were 88 listed names under which Orthodox Church lands in Alaska may be recorded. A partial list includes:
Orthodox Church in America
Orthodox Church in America Alaska Diocese
Orthodox Church in America Alaska Diocese of The
Orthodox Church in America Diocese of Alaska
Orthodox Church in America Diocese of Sitka and Alaska
Orthodox Church in America Dioceses of Anchorage Orthodox Church in America Inc The
Orthodox Church in America Inc Bishop of the Diocese of Sitka
Orthodox Church in America Inc Diocese of Alaska
Orthodox Church in America Inc Diocese of Sitka and Alaska
Orthodox Church in America Inc Diocese of Sitka and Alaska The
Orthodox Church in America Inc The
Orthodox Church in America Inc The Diocese of Sitka and Alaska
Orthodox Church in America Sitka and Alaska Diocese of The
Orthodox Church in America The
Orthodox Church in America The Diocese of Sitka and Alaska
Orthodox Church in American Inc Diocese of Alaska
Orthodox Church in American Inc Diocese of Sitka and Alaska
Orthodox Church of America
Orthodox Church of America Alaska Diocese of The
Orthodox Church of America Inc
Orthodox Church of America Inc Diocese of Sitka Alaska
Orthodox Church of America Inc The
Orthodox Church of America The Trustee
Orthodox Church of Sitka and Alaska
Orthodox Diocese of Alaska
Orthodox Diocese of Alaska Chancery
Orthodox Diocese of Sitka Alaska Orthodox Church in America
Orthodox Diocese of Sitka and Alaska
Orthodox Diocese of Sitka and Alaska Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America Inc Diocese of Sitka and AK
Archbishop of the Russian Greek Eastern Catholic Orthodox
Archbishop of the Russian Greek Eastern Orthodox Church
Archbishop of Russian Greek Eastern Catholic Orthodox Church
Russian Greek Catholic Church of North America
Russian Greek Church
Russian Greek Church Mission Reserve
Russian Greek Eastern Catholic Orthodox Church
Russian Greek Mission Church
Russian Greek Mission Reserve
Russian Greek Orthodox Church
Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America Diocese AK
Russian Orthodox Catholic
Russian Orthodox Catholic Church of North America
Russian Orthodox CH TRE
Russian Orthodox Church
Russian Orthodox Church at Russian Mission
Russian Orthodox Church in America
Russian Orthodox Church in the Alaska Diocese The
Russian Orthodox Church of America
Russian Orthodox Church of America The
Russian Orthodox Church of Bethel
Russian Orthodox Church of North America
Russian Orthodox Church of North America The
Russian Orthodox Church The Alaska Diocese
Russian Orthodox Church The Alaska Diocese of
Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska
Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska OCA ST
Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sitka
Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sitka and Alaska
Russian Orthodox Diocise of Sitka and Alaska
Russian Orthodox Greek Cath
Russian Orthodox Greek Cathi
Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church
Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church North America
Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America
Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America
Russian Orthodox Greek Church of America Diocese of Alaska
Russian Orthodox Greek Church of North America
Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America
Sitka and Alaska Orthodox Church in America Inc
Sitka and Alaska Orthodox Church in America The Diocese of
Sitka and Alaska Orthodox Church of America Inc Diocese of
Alaska Diocese of Russian Orthodox
Alaska Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America
After searching all these records, the recent history of the OCA Church lands in Alaska becomes clearer.
During the time of Bishop Innocent’s tenure (1995-2001) nine Alaskan Church properties were sold including two in Bethel, one in Bristol Bay, two in Kodiak, one in Kvichak, one in Sitka and one in Valdez. During this time there were four purchases or transfers of property to the Diocese/OCA – including three in Anchorage and one in Valdez. There were no recorded mortgages during this period. As an Auxiliary Bishop, the late Bishop Innocent (Gula) had no authority to buy, sell, lease, or mortgage Church property. Thus, all transactions were conducted by the OCA’s Central Administration in Syosset and its appointed agent(s).
Until late in 1999 one of these agents was Protodeacon Eric Wheeler. In response to a question from OCANews.org about his role, Wheeler writes:
"You can add me as the agent from Syosset -- it was one of my offical positions and one of the reasons I travelled to Alaska once a quarter.... Each sale and/or transaction was approved by the diocese and Syosset throughout the Innocent reign....The four exchanges were direct correlations to the transfer of property listed above. The Valdez sale was a transfer for damaged property tainted by the Exxon disaster for a environmentally sound parcel. The times when sales would take place -- Kodiak -- we would lose the property through adverse possession if we did not sell. I believe one of the Kodiak sales was for a right of way for the town they had been using anyway for many years..."
In Spring 2001 Bishop Nikolai replaced the newly- sacked +Innocent. In the summer 2006 issue of the the Alaskan diocese’s publication “North Star” +Nikolai asserts:
“Throughout my life I have understood the importance of financial accountability, recognizing that many generous institutions and individuals trust us to use funds as they were intended. All seminary funds are audited by a professional accounting firm in Kodiak and a local CPA in Anchorage audits our diocesan assets so that there is no question as to where monies are spent and nothing is hidden. These audits were initiated from the very beginning of my tenure here in Alaska and will continue.”
To evidence that “nothing is hidden” +Nikolai states:
"Since my arrival three parcels of the originally deeded land have been sold.
1) USS 656 (Cordova) .25 acres of the patented 2.94 which would have been lost to adverse possession if not sold. Sales price: $38,000.
2) USS 459 (Uganuk Bay). This property is an inaccessible fishing camp which would also have been lost to adverse possession if not sold – and we would not have known about the adverse possession had the squatter not informed us. Sales Price: $20,000.
3) USS 872 (Chuathbaluk). To accommodate installation of public utilities for the village. Acre for acre exchange, no cash involved."
In fact, land records indicate seven church parcels have been sold since +Nikolai assumed control: including two in Anchorage, two in Cordova, one in Iliamna and two in Kodiak. During this same period, there were eleven properties acquired by the diocese, including four in Anchorage, one in Bristol Bay, one in Iliamna, one in Juneau, two in Kodiak and two in Valdez.
The discrepancy between the Bishop’s admitted sales, and the seven recorded may be attributed, in part, to the Bishop’s carefully chosen, and easily overlooked caveat: “of originally deeded land”. He makes no claims concerning lands not included in the Treaty of 1867....
As challenging as it is to have to parse a Bishop’s statements, it is what +Nikolai does not say that is most disturbing. For in his discussion of his oversight of the Alaskan Church lands, in which “nothing is hidden”, the Bishop fails to mention any of the mortgages he has taken out on these same lands.
In this article in the North Star, Bishop Nikolai wrote:
”With the sale of our building on 24th Street, we were able to purchase the current Chancery and a ten-plex across from the Cathedral. Later, in 2003 we purchased a large property at 605 A Street in downtown Anchorage giving us visibility in a central location.”
The Bishop’s article makes it appear that the sale of the 24th Street property was enough to buy the “current Chancery and a ten-plex across from the Cathedral”. What +Nikolai did not say was that was the proceeds of the 24th Street property PLUS two large mortgages that permitted him to purchase the new, larger property.
In Alaska, mortgages are commonly handled through conveyance of “Deeds of Trust”. There have been seven recorded Deeds of Trust, including six in Anchorage and one in Sitka, during +Nikolai’s reign. These are:
1). Doc. No. 2002-024171; $184,500;
2). Doc. No. 2002-047365; $ 472,000;
3). Doc. No. 2003-087740; $ 275,000;
4). Doc. No. 2003-088130; $ 250,000;
5). Doc. No. 2004-001229; $ 252,221;
6). Doc. No. 2004-081356; $ 33,000;
7). Doc. No. 2006-001498; $ 195,000;
Three of these loans, in turn, seem to have been paid off. These are known as Deeds of Reconveyance. These are:
Item 1 is nullified by Doc. No. 2006-000214,
recorded on 01/03/2006.
Item 2 is nullified by Doc. No. 2006-000201,
recorded on 01/03/2006.
Item 6 is nullified by Doc. No. 2006-021483,
recorded on 04/05/2006.
From publicly available records it appears that Deeds of Trust Nos. 3, 4, and 5 have not been released, and thus, +Nikolai has mortgaged Alaskan Church lands to the tune of almost a million dollars. That is, $972,227 to be exact.
However, since two of the loans are over three years old and one is over two years old, some, most or all of the debt may have been paid off, but not, as yet, recorded. Without knowing the loan agreements, one cannot know for sure. What is known is that the Bishop, while carefully choosing his words for the public record to suggest full disclosure, clearly failed to mention the existence of any mortgages.
The Larger Problem
Why is +Nikolai's authoritarian attitude –– which has led to the disregard of the rights of native peoples, volunteers and scholars as well as unreported financial dealings –– of any concern to the OCA as a whole?
In his recent speech to his diocesan assembly Bishop Nikolai himself makes this clear. +Nikolai stated:
“Alaska is the place that gives dignity to The Orthodox Church in America....Alaska is our Mother Diocese. She represents the beginnings of Orthodoxy in North America for every Orthodox Christian. We have the awesome responsibility of maintaining Her integrity to be what God intended.”
Seizing archives, dispersing collections, de-facto closing of museums, ignoring native traditions, etc., is an affront to the traditions of the whole OCA. Such high-handness is but a continuation of the attitudes and perspectives that have led the OCA into our current financial scandal; and that can be said without even mentioning the obvious disconnect between +Nikolai's claims of financial transparency and his failure to mention the mortgages.
Worse, the mortgages complicate the OCA's attempts to place its own financial affairs in order. Until ownership of Alaskan Church lands is fully resolved, no full audit is possible. Sadly, the Metropolitan and Synod seem unwilling or incapable of resolving this issue. The Metropolitan Council is only now discovering its voice. Perhaps it is the voice of the whole Church, in Council, that should speak: and sooner rather than later, lest the OCA find itself deeper and deeper in debt - or with less and less Alaskan patrimony with each passing year.