Saturday, May 30, 2015

The growth and decline of Eagle's historic churches

St. Paul's Church in Eagle



The first Christian missionaries in Eastern Interior Alaska did not follow the miners who began arriving toward the end of the 1800s. Rather, missionaries preceded the miners, following instead Hudson’s Bay Company as it set up trading posts. Thus, Anglican missionaries established a mission at Fort Yukon in 1862 to serve Athabascan Indians, and then began reaching out to surrounding villages along the Yukon River.

One of those villages was located just upriver from present-day Eagle. French-Canadian fur trader Francois Mercier opened a trading post he called Belle Isle near the village in 1874, and later moved the trading post downriver a few miles to a creek the Alaska Natives called Tototlindu.

According to the book, Yukon, the Last Frontier, the Rev. Vincent Sim started a mission adjacent to the trading post in the early 1880s — hence the change in the watercourse’s name to “Mission Creek.” Unfortunately, Rev. Sim, who was an itinerant priest, died in 1885 at Old Rampart, an Athabascan village on the Porcupine River where a Hudson’s Bay outpost and Anglican mission were located. The fledgling mission subsequently fell into disuse.

It was not until after the city of Eagle was established in 1898 that organized religion returned. The first churchman to set up shop was Father Francis Monroe, a Jesuit priest. He stepped off a boat on Aug. 10, 1899. A Catholic family leaving town sold him a lot with two cabins, and the larger cabin became the chapel of St. Francis Xavier.

A month later Presbyterians arrived. The Rev. James Kirk and his wife, Anna, moved into a small cabin and for a time held services in a saloon. The Kirks came with only the “essentials,” including china, linens and other household goods — even a sewing machine and washing machine. A history of the Presbyterian Church in Alaska relates that they also brought along a piano for their future church. Unfortunately, the piano was too large to fit through their cabin door, and for a time sat crated on the cabin’s front porch.

The Kirks eventually built a log church with attached residence overlooking the Yukon River at the end of Chamberlain Street. As with many churches in frontier Alaska, they set up a reading room in a corner of their residence to entice men out of the local saloons.

Unfortunately for Eagle, the Klondike gold rush soon petered out. When gold was discovered at Nome in 1900, most able-bodied men abandoned Eagle, and its population plummeted to about 100. Then, in 1902 gold was discovered in the hills above the Chena River, Fairbanks bloomed, and Eagle’s population shrank further.

Father Monroe struggled on a few more years in Eagle, but in 1904 shuttered St. Francis Xavier Chapel and moved to Fairbanks to establish a new church.

In 1902, the Episcopal Church, carrying on the work of the Anglican Church along the Yukon River, established a church in Eagle Village, the Athabascan community a few miles north of the white community. (When Hudson’s Bay Company vacated Fort Yukon after the U.S. purchase of Alaska, the Canadian Anglican Church also relinquished its missions to its kindred U.S. Episcopalians.)

The Presbyterian Church, due to declining membership, transferred its property in Eagle to the Episcopal Church in 1905. The Eagle Village church became St. John’s, and the church in Eagle became St. Paul’s.

Declining attendance eventually forced the closure of St. Paul’s and the church property was transferred to the Eagle Historical Society. The drawing is of St. Paul’s Church in the 1990s after the adjacent residence was torn down. The building is still used for weddings and other special occasions.

Sources:

  • A Century of Faith, Episcopal Diocese of Alaska, 1895-1995. Centennial Press. 1995

  • History, Presbytery of the Yukon, 1899-1988. Jessie DeVries. Yukon Presbytery website. 2007

  • Photo of St. Paul’s Church – c. 1913. Walter and Lillian Phillips Photograph Collection. UAF Archives

  • Photos of St. Paul’s Church. Historic American Building Survey, National Park Service. 1984

  • The Alaskan Missions of the Episcopal Church, A brief sketch, historical and descriptive. Hudson Stuck. Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, 1920

  • Yukon, the Last Frontier, Melody Webb. University of Nebraska Press. 1985


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