GR US

On the Pristine Arctic Tundra, a Joyous Priest Knows How to Keep His Flock Warm

Αssociated Press

The Bogoslof Volcano erupting in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. (Lynda Lybeck Robinson via AP)

Whenever Alaska strikes my fancy, a few things fill my viewfinder. There’s the classic Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. And the fact that its 663,000 square miles once belonged to the Russian Empire before it was sold to the United States at the bargain-basement price of $7.2 million. And who can forget the disturbing image of Sarah Palin field dressing a moose?

But, viewed through another lens, none of that is significant. Only one vision stands alone: these are the frozen stomping grounds of Father Vasili Hillhouse. For 10 years, he’s served the Holy Transfiguration in Anchorage, the only Greek Orthodox church in Alaska. Anchorage, nestled on the Cook Inlet, is home to about half of the Last Frontier’s 731,000 residents.

Moreover, it comes in last in another way: It’s the farthest most distant Greek church in the world. “They decided to send me as far away as they could,” joked the 47-year-old father of five boys, who was born a Southern Baptist. “This is the last stop. I can do what I want.” His feigned arrogance was beyond refreshing.

Father Vasili studied at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He also spent time on Mount Athos. “I hardly had classes,” he quipped, “between feast days and (labor) strikes.” His parents also converted; his father is a retired Antiochian Orthodox priest in Oregon. 

I was surprised to find a Greek priest as funny as Hillhouse, a native Californian. His comic timing, performed only 258 miles from the North Pole, is disarmingly impeccable. I expected he’d activate the famous mic drop between sets. His quintessence has all the marks of a fresh-baked cookie: crisp, buttery and flavor-filled inside and out.

While the parish is multi-ethnic with Russian, Serbians, Ukrainians and Palestinians on its rolls, the festival, held the weekend after the Dormition of the Theotokos in August, has always been called the Greek Festival. “All the other cultures have assimilated.”

The church, which unveiled a new building in 2014, dates to the early 18th century when Greeks showed up alongside the first Russian Orthodox missionaries. By the early 1900s, the largest wave of Greeks immigrants arrived to work on the Alaska railroad.

Before COVID, Father Vasili was averaging between 85 and 100 worshipers on Sundays. “Half of them are either in the oil or medical industry,” he reported. “I have a couple doctors, probably 10 nurses.” Other members work the oil fields up north. Some hardy souls drive up to two hours for the Divine Liturgy. In the summer, when more and more locals are enjoying the warm, short, season, he said, attendance goes down 30 to 40 percent.

I mentioned that when I think of Greeks, I think of olives and figs kissed by gentle Ionian breezes. Whale blubber and reindeer dog don’t fit in. The first wave of Greek immigrants were there to fish and work the mines. The second influx took root after Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974. “They may have had an uncle here.” In those days, full-on Greek restaurants were nonexistent. “No one knew what Greek food was,” he said. “So the newcomers began folding a Greek dish here and there into an Italian menu.

Striking a more serious tone, Father Vasili recalled the process that resulted in his accepting the Alaska assignment. Traveling to Kodiak to meditate before the relics of St. Herman at Holy Resurrection Cathedral brought clarity. “I prayed to him and I felt this giant weight was lifted from my shoulders. I wept. I felt God was calling me to do this.”

Living in such a unique area, the priest asserted, means having to adjust to Mother Nature – not the other way around. Come winter, “the sun sets here at 2:30 in the afternoon. I’ll be driving with my kids and they’ll say, `Dad, we’re so tired. We’re ready for bed.’ We have to take 4,000 IU’s (international units) of Vitamin D a day. We need it for our immune systems and for energy.”

That extra shot of energy comes in handy when he’s called upon to do a house blessing. While his counterpart clerics in the lower 48 don’t have to worry so much about odometer readings, Father Vasili often drives so far into the hinterlands, often turning the journey into an overnighter. “It’s pretty crazy,” he maintained, his gift of improv higher than Denali. “Free room and board. All I do is throw some holy water on ‘em and I have a place to stay.”