The oldest Lutheran church west of the Mississippi

Nordic heritage lives on in Alaska

Sitka Lutheran Church

Image: public domain / Wikipedia
Detail of a watercolor depicting Sitka, Alaska, in the mid-19th century. The large building to the left of the boat is the Sitka Lutheran Church.

Sun City, Calif.

Where is the oldest Lutheran church west of the Mississippi River? Some may say Iowa, Minnesota, North or South Dakota—but the oldest Lutheran church is actually located in the largest city/borough in the United States in terms of area, an area of 4,811 square miles. The answer is Sitka Lutheran Church in Sitka, Alaska.

Sitka was originally inhabited by a tribe of Tlingits, who called the village “Shee Atika.” It was discovered by the Russian Vitus Bering expedition of 1741 and became “New Archangel” in 1799. It was built as a trading post and fort by Alexander Baronof, manager of the Russian-American company.

The Tlingits burned down the fort in 1802, and in 1804, the Russians retaliated by destroying the Tlingit Fort, in the Battle of Sitka. In 1808, Sitka became the capital of Russian Alaska, and Baronof was governor from 1790 through 1818.

Sitka Lutheran Church

Photo: Sitka Lutheran Church
Today, a plaque at Sitka Lutheran Church in Sitka, Alaska, commemorates the location of the original church structure at the same site.

By 1840, then Gov. Arvid Adolf Etholén had married a Finnish princess, but she would not come to Sitka unless he provided her with a Lutheran church, complete with a Finnish Lutheran pastor. Consequently, he brought the Rev. Uno Cygnaeus from Finland to establish a Lutheran congregation, located across from the Russian Orthodox Church—but it could not look like a church.

When the United States purchased the sovereignty of Alaska from Russia in 1867, in the transfer agreement, Russia specifically deeded this site to members of the Sitka Lutheran Church for their use on a perpetual basis, and today it is a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

A Presbyterian missionary, Sheldon Jackson, started a school in Sitka, and in 1878, one of the first canneries in Alaska was built there. During World War II, the town was fortified with 30,000 military personnel. Today, the U.S. Coast Guard maintains an air station and other facilities there—and the Sitka Lutheran Church is still home to an active congregation.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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David Moe

David Moe graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris, and earned his master's degree from San Francisco (Calif.) State University. He spent four years in the U.S. Navy and 32 years in the insurance business. He and his wife, Thordis, have two daughters and four grandchildren. They live in Sun City, Calif.