SITKA (AP) — Father Ishmael Andrew is the new priest at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka.
He moved to the city earlier this month from Kwigillingok, accompanied by his wife Anastasia and their six children, ages 12, 10, 8, 6, 4 and 2.
“It is a great honor,” said Andrew of being assigned as the Russian Orthodox priest in Sitka. “This is holy land. This is where saints have walked. Words can’t describe how it makes me feel. … The history of the church, and St. Innocent, is breathtaking.”
The Sitka parish has been without a resident priest for quite some time. Father Michael Oleksa of Anchorage has been filling in over the past year.
Andrew’s most recent post was as assistant priest in Napaskiak, near Bethel on the Kuskokwim River.
He was there for seven years, his first assignment after graduating from Saint Herman’s Orthodox Seminary in Kodiak.
At Napaskiak he ministered to youth by playing basketball, even starting a youth conference for the area. Basketball is one of his passions and he hopes to join Sitka’s city league, he said.
He also enjoys participating in subsistence activities, he said.
Andrew said he’s known since high school that he had a higher calling.
“Growing up in Kwig we didn’t have a parish priest,” he said. “I saw the shortage … and started thinking of wanting to become a priest.”
After one of his teachers convinced him to go to college, Andrew studied elementary education at the Kuskokwim Campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks for a few years before deciding that he needed to answer his calling to the priesthood and attend seminary.
It was at college that he met his wife, who is from the village of Chefornak.
“She’s really helped me through the priesthood,” Andrew said. “The sacrifices she has to make, the support she gives me is phenomenal.”
The family has been settling into life in Sitka, and Andrew has been getting the hang of his new parish and his duties of elder visits, baptisms and regular services.
“God’s presence you can definitely feel here,” he said. “It makes me feel at peace.”
Sitka is quite the change from the 450-person village his family came from, he said.
“The lifestyle is totally different,” he said. “It’s been overwhelming, but this is God’s will definitely, and following God’s will isn’t easy sometimes.”
However, Sitka is beautiful and the community has made them feel at home, he said.
“We miss friends and family, but everyone in Sitka has been so welcoming and they made the move so much more bearable,” Andrew said.