In the garden

Church built on garden plot still growing Presbyterians after 85 years

June 17, 2010

A front view of Frances Johnson Memorial Presbyterian Church during the day.

The 85-year-old Frances Johnson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Angoon, Alaska.

ANGOON, Alaska

In 1925, Dan Johnson Jr.'s grandfather, Samuel, was looking for a piece of land in this southeast Alaska island village on which to build a Presbyterian church. Samuel found his land when his sister volunteered her prized vegetable garden overlooking Chatham Strait.

Dan's father, Dan Sr., was baptized during the first worship service at what is today Frances Johnson Memorial Presbyterian Church — named after Sam’s much-loved first wife shortly after her death.

That's the way life is in the small Tlingit (pronounced "Klink-it") villages that dot the islands of southeast Alaska. Family — and church — ties are very strong in fishing villages like Angoon, population about 500.

When Presbyterian missionaries — inspired by the legendary Sheldon Jackson — began traveling to remote villages like Angoon beginning in the late 1800s, they generally found a welcome from the Tlingits.

"My grandfather's uncle invited the Presbyterian missionaries to Angoon in 1915," Dan says. "The first services were held in Raven House (Angoon’s tribal center) and they created quite a revival."

Samuel Johnson got "“swept up" in the missionary activity in Angoon, Dan says, and decided to become a lay pastor in the Presbyterian Church. After living and working in Haines for a few years — he met and married Frances there — Samuel returned to Angoon and started raising money for a church.

The church in Samuel’s sister's garden has been a fixture in Angoon for 85 years. As in most southeast Alaska island villages — where far more people leave than arrive — membership has remained small but stable over the years. And also like most Alaska villages, membership figures don’t begin to tell the story. Frances Johnson Memorial lists 10 members, but worship attendance averages about 20, says Cynthia "Hinnie" Frank, the church's treasurer.

"I came back to the Lord about four years ago," Hinnie says. "There were two choices — the Assembly of God and the Presbyterians — and the Presbyterian church feels more like home."

Life in Angoon is a struggle these days. Changes in the fishing industry have caused many local canneries to close, eliminating many of the community's jobs. "There's no seiners (who fish with nets) left here, so there’s no jobs," Hinny Frank says.

"We've talked about starting a food pantry because people need food sometimes," she says.

The Angoon church is without pastoral leadership right now, but over the years has been blessed with able lay pastors — no doubt part of the legacy of Samuel Johnson. Just outside the front door of Frances Johnson Memorial sits a marble and granite memorial to Peter Jack, who served the church as lay pastor and then as a PC(USA) commissioned lay pastor for many years before his death in January 2007.

Angoon, and many other village churches in Alaska Presbytery, get all kinds of help from the presbytery and its pastor to the presbytery, the Rev. David Dobler, who visits several times a year.

Historically, these isolated village churches were visited regularly by the "Presbyterian Navy" — mission boats sponsored by the presbytery, synod and the former Board of National Missions. The boats would anchor for weeks at a time in the summer, conducting Vacation Bible School and conducting leadership training for elders, deacons and youth leaders.

"Every summer the Anna Jackman (which plied the waters of Southeast Alaska between the early 1960s and early 1980s) came to Hawk Inlet (near Angoon) and it was always very exciting," Dan Johnson recalls.

"The last time I saw the Anna Jackman was when my grandfather died in 1976," he says. "They brought Sam and my family back to Angoon on the Anna Jackman so he could be buried here.

"It was a gift."

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