Genevieve Coffey was not shy about meeting Alaska’s newest Orthodox Bishop David Mahaffey Thursday as members of Kenai’s Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church gathered to celebrate the blessing of a new building on the church’s property in Old Town Kenai.
The small building houses the church’s gift shop, a much-needed bathroom on the property and will hold a fire suppression system that will use mist instead of streams of water to put out potential fires in the church — essential for protecting the historic building and the artifacts it houses.
Coffey, 1, tugged at her deep brown and green head covering before toddling over to the new bishop and briefly holding his hand during the ceremony. Then, with the typical toddler’s attention span she touched his black robe briefly before wandering off to climb into a chair and play with her baby brother.
The ceremony was at times formal, with the bishop and Father Thomas Andrew working their way through the regular prayers, song and petition of the blessing ceremony, and at times it dipped into the informal; Mahaffey spent a short amount of time counseling local parishioners on what to name the building.
“I don’t like the name of the building. Outbuilding kind of sounds, well, it’s its purpose, but it’s not its purpose. The building is really a center for everyone who comes and visits this parish,” he said. “I’ll certainly bless whatever you do, as long as it doesn’t have the word outbuilding in it.”
The ceremony started in the small, white, historical church in the center of Old Town, then a procession of parishioners and spectators walked to the small building that sits on the south corner of the church’s property where the bishop and a small procession circled the building — singing and flinging holy water onto the external walls.
The gift shop was moved into the building in early June, Andrew said, though the fire suppression system is not ready yet. It will be open when the church is open — 10 a.m. to 4 p.m Monday through Saturday.
Andrew said it was nice to have a separate gift shop because the move freed up space in the entrance of the church and more statues and items could be put on display in the main building.
He said parishioners would benefit from having a bathroom nearby as the more than 100-year-old church does not have one of its own.
The completed outbuilding and fire suppression system is one of many upcoming renovations to the National Historic Landmark, including a new roof, new electrical wiring and a restoration of a long white picket fence around the property.
Many of the changes have been orchestrated by the Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, or ROSSIA, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve Alaska’s Russian orthodox churches. The group was recently awarded a grant to fix the church’s bell tower.
Kenai City Manager Rick Koch spoke during the event, as did Sen. Peter Micchiche, R-Soldotna, and Rep. Kurt Olsen. R-Soldotna, who helped get funding from the state for the renovations to the church.
“This church, it’s more than a church. It is a historical landmark,” Koch said. “It’s a touchstone of our history, the fabric of the community, singularly unique in our community. It is a blessing that they have it here.”