St. Nicholas Chapel (Biorka, Alaska)
St. Nicholas Chapel was a church of the Russian Orthodox Church, located in Biorka, Alaska, and functioned as a satellite of Holy Ascension Church in Unalaska. It was consecrated in 1855, and abandoned in 1942, with the forced evacuation of the eastern Aleutians following the Japanese attack on Unalaska on June 3, 1942 and on Kiska on June 6, 1942. Residents of Biorka were brought back to the Unalaska area in 1945. Although some families attempted to return to Biorka, on March 10, 1952 the town was hit by a major storm, damaging or destroying most of it, including the church. In the mid-1960's the church building was dismantled and burned, and a small structure was built to protect the area of consecrated ground where the altar had been. In 2010, a group of former residents and their descendants were allowed to visit the town's site and place a large wooden cross at the site as a memorial.
Biorka was a small Aleut town on Sedanka Island, across Beaver Inlet from Unalaska Island, where the city of Unalaska lies. Like many Aleut places, Biorka had probably existed for thousands of years, though from the time of first Russian contact in the 1700s, the population had never exceeded 150. Most residents lived by fishing and otter hunting, though the relative proximity to Unalaska made it possible for men to go there and work as needed.
Orthodoxy in Biorka
The first Orthodox priest to visit Biorka was Fr. Vasiliy Sivtsov, who was the priest aboard the ship "Glory of Russia", which anchored in Beaver Inlet in May, 1790. At that time, he baptized 48 residents of Biorka. In the ensuing years, both Fr. (now Saint) Jacob Netsvetov and Fr. Innocent Veniaminov (now St. Innocent of Alaska) visited and wrote about Biorka, as well as other Aleut villages. St. Nicholas Church was constructed and consecrated in 1855. However, there was no resident priest, so reader's services were conducted by church readers and starostas most of the time. From 1848 until his death in 1883, Fr. Innokentii Shaiashnikov ministered to this area.
There had been longstanding, but occasional, contact with the Japanese on the islands of the Aleutians. Some of this contact was limited to things floating from Japan to the islands, but it was not unheard of for Japanese fishermen to occasionally show up on Aleutian islands. In this region, however, the Japanese people were so feared that they were afraid even when events such as baseball games were arranged with Japanese teams.
During World War II, many residents of the Aleutians were nervous about a Japanese invasion. It was not until 1940, however, that the United States government saw how quickly countries in Europe were being overrun that consideration was given to fortifying Alaska's far west, and eventually the US military started building up the area around Dutch Harbor and the city of Unalaska. The military base of Fort Mears was established on Amaknak Island, within Unalaska Bay. In June, 1942, the Japanese attacked, bombing Fort Mears, Unalaska, and Dutch Harbor. They also occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska, taking the civilian population of Attu to Japan to be held prisoner there.
For this reason, the US government decided that nine villages in the vicinity ought to be evacuated. Biorka was one of these villages. Although the evacuation took place nearly a month after the attacks, no warning was given to the people living there, and many left without a chance to collect clothes or possessions or to do anything to secure their homes. St. Nicholas in Biorka was boarded up before the town was abandoned.
The residents of Biorka were relocated for the duration of the war to a camp not far from Ketchikan, in southeastern Alaska. Conditions were poor, and the Aleut people were not used to the environment, for instance, coming from a place with no trees to a place of thick forests. Many of the Aleut from Biorka did not survive the years in this place. Finally, in 1945, the Aleut people who had been relocated to southeastern Alaska were allowed to return. However, many were forbidden to return to their ancestral villages completely. Although this was not the case in Biorka, most people did not want to return straight to Biorka, instead preferring to stay closer to Unalaska. In the following years, a couple of families returned, though not all stayed. The death knell for Biorka came on March 10, 1952, when a large storm destroyed or damaged most of what was left of the village. Only two structures remained unscathed. St. Nicholas Church ended up with a damaged roof and gravel piled against it up to the windows. The starosta, Andrew Makarin, finally ended up dismantling the church in the mid-1960s, burning the pieces, and building a little structure to protect the consecrated ground where the altar had once been. In the time since then, the area has become a protected area, and visitors must obtain permission before coming. In 2010, a contingent of former Biorka residents and their descendants were allowed to come back to the village to visit, and they erected a new wooden cross at the altar site.
Many of the items from St. Nicholas were transferred to St. Seraphim of Sarov Church in Dillingham, Alaska, after their church burned down in 1968 and had to be rebuilt. An icon of the Resurrection above the Royal Doors at the church in Unalaska may be from St. Nicholas in Biorka.
- Lost Villages (National Park Service)
- Lost Villages of the Eastern Aleutians; Hudson, Ray & Rachel Mason; (ISBN 9780985394875)
- 40th Annual Meeting of the Ounalashka Corporation
- Russian Colonization of Three Villages in the Eastern Aleutians: Biorka, Kashega, and Makushin Mason, Rachel; Opportunities for Lifelong Education, Anchorage
- National Register of Historic Places survey on Russian Orthodox Churches & Historic Sites in Alaska (1979)
For Further Reading
- The Legacy of Unjust and Illegal Treatment of Unangan During World War II and Its Place in Unangan History Arnold, Carlene (Master's Degree paper)