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In Historic Move,

OCA Returns Lands to Alaskan Diocese

In an historic decision the Metropolitan Council of the Orthodox Church in America voted unanimously to return title to hundreds of acres of church land and scores of church buildings to the Orthodox Diocese of Sitka and Alaska, ending a 143 year old debate over the patrimony of Russian Alaska.

According to the 1867 Treaty of Cession, which transferred Russian Alaska to American rule, it was “...understood and agreed, that the churches which have been built in the ceded territory by the Russian government, shall remain the property of such members of the Greek Oriental Church resident in the territory, as may choose to worship therein.” Legal title was deeded to the resident Russian Bishop in Sitka, who was to hold the titles in trust. In 1870, when the church’s headquarters relocated to San Francisco, the bishop and the deeds went south. In 1904, the Russian bishop, now an Archbishop, moved to New York City, where the titles have remained--until today. The issue was not just academic, but financial, for several of the historic parcels controlled valuable leases.

Several earlier attempts to return the titles to Alaska failed. In an November 1923 response to an appeal by Father Andrew P. Kashevarov, a native Orthodox priest and founder of the Alaska Territorial (now State) Historical Library and Alaskan Territorial (now State) Museum, Judge James Wickersham opined that it would be
“... more satisfactory to your congregations in Alaska if the titles to your properties were transferred to the resident head of your church in Alaska. The church would lose not lose by this transfer, and the members of your congregations would be better satisfied. I can only suggest this action to you...for it would give greater freedom and strength to the Alaskan members of (the) Church.” Wickersham’s suggestion, despite Kashevarov’s support, went nowhere in New York. For the next 50 years, the lands remained under control of the New York headquarters, a continent away. Lands were sold, transferred and leased, often without any input from those in Alaska.

In 1972 however, with the founding of St. Herman’s Orthodox Seminary in Kodiak, Alaska, the Orthodox Church in America tacitly agreed that income from the Alaskan lands would be split between the Diocese of Sitka, St. Herman’s Seminary, and the national Orthodox Church in America. Unfortunately, this arrangement faltered in 2006 when the former bishop of Sitka, Nikolai (Soraich) arbitrarily claimed all the lands and income. The bishop’s actions, in turn, placed the OCA in turmoil, as the controversy over the lands and assets became yet another factor preventing the OCA from receiving the clean financial audits it so desperately needed to emerge from its recent "Time of Troubles".

In late 2009 Fr. Michael Oleksa, the Chancellor of the Alaskan diocese and a member of the Metropolitan Council, raised the issue once again. As part of its rebuilding the OCA, the Metropolitan Council authorized a full review.

Earlier this year Judge Ray Lanier, a professor of law and member of the OCA’s Metropolitan Council from Georgia, spent a week in Anchorage, pouring over historical records compiled by Ms. Grayce Oakley, the diocesan lands secretary. (Ms. Oakley had spent over four years compiling and cataloging hundreds of documents relating to the Russian patrimony, detailing how lands were lost to squatters, trade, sale or seizure; leased profitably or not; and even in some instances, acquired.) Lanier’s 78 page report, covering titles from Sitka to Nome, the Aleutian Islands to the Kenai peninsula was presented to the Council at its meeting in Syosset on Tuesday evening, September 20th. Lanier recommended that the OCA adopt Judge Wickersham’s suggestion of 1923, returning the patrimony of Russian Alaska to its local heirs. The Council and Synod agreed, and the OCA took one more step forward. Fr. Kashevaroff would be so pleased....

- Mark Stokoe


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