BOSTON – The Transfiguration Greek Orthodox parish in Anchorage, AK survived the recent strong earthquake with minimal consequences and damage according to its presiding priest of seven years Fr. Vasili Hillhouse. In a telephone interview with The National Herald Fr. Vasili said, “Thank God everybody is well and safe. We are experiencing aftershocks even as we are talking. We have started to clean up the glass that was broken in homes and stores. The grocery stores and also the convenience stores are opening again as well as the gas stations. Also, the water is safe, so we are on the road to recovery; some roads, however, are damaged and some of the bridges have collapsed.”
During the telephone interview Fr. Vasili said, “I am on my way to the church. We had engineers yesterday inspect the building. There are cracks, but the structure is sound. The church is a new building, four years old, and it is in good shape, but we have a lot of clean up to do.”
Asked if he was going to liturgize on Sunday at the church, he said “absolutely. We are going to have a full service. The building is safe. We are getting the cleanup done and we are going to offer a Service of Thanksgiving now that all of us are safe.”
He also said that “all the parishioners are ok. I am checking on a lot of elderly persons and they are ok, and again we are experiencing the aftershocks.”
He said about spirit among the parishioners, “We have an interesting dynamic up here in Alaska. We are all far away from our families. Either they are from Greece or California and so they are united with one another here, being out on our own.”
He added that “Everyone is upbeat and asking how they can help. People go to the church because they want to clean up, they want to do something, and they are very positive and very thankful.”
According to Fr. Vasili, “The community is comprised of one hundred families in the entire state of Alaska, but in Anchorage there are about eighthly five.”
The earthquake struck as Fr. Vasili returned to his home. He said, “I had pulled into my garage after I drove my children to school; it was 8:29 AM here in Alaska…I experienced a big earthquake in the California Bay area in 1989 and when it started shaking here I realized right away that we were in big trouble, but thanks to Panagia and St. Demetrios we are safe.”
When asked about life in Alaska, he said, “Thank God, it is a unique place,” and noted that serving a parish is the same for every priest. “Your mission is serving your people and trying to be involved in the community, like anywhere else.”
The parish’s website notes that the Greek Orthodox presence in Alaska dates to the early eighteenth century when Greeks accompanied the first Russian Orthodox missionaries. However, it was not until the early 1900s that large numbers of Greeks first arrived to work on the construction of Alaska’s railroad. After its completion, a small number remained in the railroad camp at the head of Cook Inlet, which became the city of Anchorage. For many years, the nearest Orthodox parish was St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Eklutna, a village 35 miles north of Anchorage.
The Orthodox Christian community in Anchorage first met in 1953 in the basement of the Chiamis Apartment Building located on Third Avenue between B and C Streets, where Orthodox families would gather in an effort to preserve their traditions, and Russian priests would come occasionally to give sermons. Several years later Soterios Chiamis, Chris Papademetrios, George Poggas and Goldie Grames began talking about building a small church.
Finally, in 1958, a small group of Greeks built the first Orthodox Church in Anchorage. Chris and Marika Papademetrios donated the land, Goldie Grames supplied the building materials, Soterios Chiamis served as the general contractor, and the church was built entirely by volunteer labor. The church was originally named “Saint Sotirios Greek Orthodox Church.” It was a 1,900 square foot cinder block structure with a metal roof, divided into two sections containing the church and a hall on one-half acre at Arctic Boulevard and Campbell Station Road (now Tudor Road). The little church became the center of religious and social activities for Greek, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, and Alaskan Native Orthodox. Reverend Michael Oskolkoff was among the visiting Russian Orthodox clergy who conducted liturgy on a regular basis, and Fr. Norman Elliott of All Saints Episcopal Church, assisted when needed with baptisms, weddings and funerals. The new nave was build four years ago.