Former Kodiak Island Priest Speaks Out
BY MIKE ROSTAD
Recently I listened to the heartfelt concerns of Fr. Alexei Knagin, who is currently serving a parish in Cordova, Alaska.
Fr. Alexei grew up in the village of Afognak, which, following the 1964 earthquake and tidal wave, relocated to what is now Port Lions in Kizhuyak Bay on Kodiak Island. Before he entered the seminary, he was a commercial salmon fisherman. Through the gentle and loving counsel of Father Peter Kreta, of blessed memory, Fr. Alexei was encouraged to attend the seminary in order to serve his people on Kodiak Island. Since Alaska clergy are not paid very well, Fr. Alexei intended to continue salmon fishing once he was ordained.
Father Alexei said he was very saddened at Bishop Nikolai's treatment of Alaska parishioners and clergy. On several occasions he came very close to quitting the priesthood. When the bishop threw Kodiak parishioner Olivia Brisbane out of church for simply whispering to her hearing-impaired brother during the Bishop's homily, Fr. Alexei wanted to walk out the door right behind her. But he knew that if he did, he probably would have been suspended.
When the Knagins, during Fr.Alexei's final year in an seminary internship program, had to move into a private residence because of overcrowding in the seminary dorms, Father Alexei said he and his wife were led to believe that the seminary would provide free housing. As it turned out, the Knagins had to pay back the rent, which amounted to $10,000. Father Alexei's wife wrote the bishop, asking him why they should have to look for money to pay off the debt when they were in the seminary's internship program. He emailed back saying "I'm not selling programs." At this time the Knagins are still paying off the debt. Father Alexei said he was thankful to Native corporations who provided scholarships that paid his way through seminary.
While Fr. Alexei attended the 2005 Diocesan Assembly in Anchorage he was troubled by the bishop's response when he told him that he had skipped the bishop's tea at the diocesan museum in order to minister to a dying woman. The bishop scolded Fr. Alexei for missing what he said was the most important part of the assembly. He didn't seem to think that hearing the confession of a dying woman was as important as sipping coffee and buying items at a museum.
The bishop was going 'to punish' Fr. Alexei for missing the tea party by sending him to New Stuyahok (a small village northeast was of Dillingham) for three months, he said. Fotunately, the hierarch changed his mind; and told Fr. Alexei would get to choose whatever community he wanted to serve. Father Alexei said he had looked forward to being assigned as the parish priest of his home, Port Lions, and the nearby villages of Ouzinkie and Larsen Bay.
Instead, he was told that he would serve a parish in Prince William Sound, hundreds of miles away. He was told to start looking for a house there. The church could not provide for that basic necessity. The Knagins ended up buying their own home with a mortgage of $1,250 a month. The cost of living in Cordova is even more expensive than it is in Kodiak, he said. The church agreed to give him $250 a month, "but how am I supposed to live on that when we're still paying $10,000 back rent?" he asked.
Recently it was brought to Fr. Alexei's attention that his traditional form of livelihood may no longer be an option for him.
When Fr. Alexei graduated from the seminary Father Chad Hatfield, Seminary Dean, had told the bishop that Fr. Alexei had proven himself by putting the church first when he was fishing. Since Fr. Alexei was never very far away from Kodiak and the villages, he could hold services, hear confessions and tend to other ecclesiastical duties. Upon hearing that, the bishop said he would bless him to take a leave from Cordova in the summer so he could continue fishing.
However, last spring the bishop told Fr. Alexei that he had to get another blessing in order to come back to Kodiak to fish. Obeying his command, Fr. Alexei emailed him, asking for that blessing. He received no response.
Father Alexei emailed his dean, Father Sergei Active, who agreed to talk to the bishop about the request. The bishop finally emailed Fr. Alexei, informing him that this would be the last year he could fish. Father Alexei said he was going to email the bishop for a blessing again. "If he doesn't allow me to come to Kodiak to take care of this livelihood, I'm going to ask for leave of absence. I don't know how he expects us to make a living."
Father Alexei's wife has a job at the school, but she is terribly underpaid, Fr. Alexei said. She took the job because of the health insurance it provided. "We had hoped to get my wife on the diocesan insurance. We emailed Fr. Isidore (the Chancellor) to look into this matter, but we never heard back from him."
Communication with the bishop and chancellor has been an ongoing problem, according to Fr. Alexei. When he requested permission from the bishop to perform the marriage between an Orthodox woman and her Protestant fiane in Cordova, the bishop replied, via email, "How do you expect me to give a blessing with this cavalier approach?" Father Alexei said he had used the very form that the bishop had provided. Father Alexei then wrote him back, asking him to have to patience with him. The bishop asked Fr. Alexei why he had not learned proper clerical etiquette from Father Isidore.
After Fr. Alexei contacted Father Isidore, the Chancellor sent him the very form he had used before. "I filled in the blank and sent it to the bishop. Soon I got a call from Fr. Isidore who said, 'Now the bishop's upset with me!' Father Isidore told me he didn't know what the bishop was looking for."
Apparently impatient with the lack of progress within the Orthodox Church, the couple chose to get married in the Catholic Church.
During the 2007 Diocesan Assembly in Anchorage Fr. Alexei told Fr. Isidore that the situation with the couple in Cordova had a disastrous effect. People quit attending the Orthodox Church because of it. Father Isidore apologized and said he would call the bride to explain what had happened, Fr. Alexei said. Two months later the bride said she had never heard from Fr. Isidore. Father Alexei sent an email to Fr. Isidore, with copies to the bishop, Fr. Active and the bride, making it clear that he had taken care of his part of the responsibility and that someone else had dropped the ball. "I got a threatening email back from the chancellor who said that if I ever sent another email to anybody about things referring to him, he would make the consequences very ugly for me. I emailed him asking him if he was going to have me suspended or get me deposed. I wrote, 'I sure hope so.' Father Isidore sent emails and left phone messages, trying to explain his letter. As clergy, we're supposed to work together, not threaten each other," Fr. Alexei said.
A Widespread Problem
Father Alexei said he had been invited all over Alaska, including Atka, Nikolski, Akutan, Unalaska, King Cove, Tititluk, Ouzinkie and other villages. "In 90 percent of those places people said they don't want to see Bishop Nikolai again." Why? He offered the following story: When the bishop went to one of the Aleutian Chain villages during Great Lent, they served him lavishly in the Native way, serving piroks, turkey, ducks and other foods from their cache, Fr. Alexei said. The bishop reprimanded them for feeding him meat during the Great Fast. "Instead of teaching with compassion, he scolded and embarrassed them."
"We Natives spend the rest of our lives not forgetting. What is taking place now will go on from generation to generation," he said.
The Needs of Kodiak Island Unmet
Father Alexei said he went to the seminary so that he could truly serve his people as Fr. Peter Kreta had done. "But Bishop Nikolai pulls the clergy from their people and ships them somewhere else. So many clergy in Alaska aren't where they belong." When the communities on Kodiak Island got word that Fr. Alexei was being sent to another parish, people in Ouzinkie and Port Lions signed petitions asking the bishop to reconsider. A majority of the signers were Protestants! "I was yanked out of Port Lions just as the parish was getting stronger. The parish in Larsen Bay had started to bloom. The bishop had no plan for someone else to serve these communities. If you don't have a shepherd to tend to the spiritual needs of his flock, they will stray away. I understand that Port Lions does not have church every Sunday as it used to."
Father Alexei said he gets calls, letters and emails from people in Kodiak who say they never see a priest at their door. "That is heart breaking. How are you going to teach these people if you're not going to try to bring them back to church? The (new) attitude is: 'We'll just fill the church up with converts.' The Church belongs to God. It is for everybody."
Love is Needed
Expressing a deep concern for the spiritual needs of the people of Alaska, Fr. Alexei said that the church has never had as much negative publicity as it is getting now. "In this day and age, we need to continue to move forward," Fr.Alexei said. "But it seems that the bishop is trying to make us become Russian again. It doesn't work that way. One of the reasons why I quit going to church (years ago) was that it was conducted in a language foreign to me."
Father Alexei decried the spirit of suspicion and mistrust that is in the diocese. "How can we minister to our people if the brothers in the clergy don't trust each other?" The church is all about healing, he said.
Father Alexei said he bears no animosity toward Bishop Nikolai. He said he recognized his strong points. "In some ways, Alaska needed a bishop like him - someone who could get this diocese in order. But somebody with that strength also has to have compassion and love for the people."
(Mike Rostad is a freelance journalist in Kodiak and former instructor at St. Herman's Seminary.)