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Peace of Kake

20 members then and now, Alaska village church readies centennial celebration

June 8, 2010

Kake church building

Kake Memorial Presbyterian Church, founded in 1912.

KAKE, Alaska

Records show that Kake Memorial Presbyterian Church was chartered with 15 members on Nov. 26, 1912. Eighteen months from now, the hardy congregation — still numbering about 20 members — will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

"If we had a pastor we’d probably have a few more members," says Mary Ann Kondro, who moved with her husband, Leo, to Kake from their native Washington state 32 years ago. Mary Ann, who serves as clerk of session, has been a member of Kake Memorial for 26 years. On the day she joined the church, Leo and their two children, Karen and Ben, were baptized.

Rosie Faye, a longtime member and Alaska Native Tlingit (pronounced "Klink-it"), agrees. "Not having a pastor is a big handicap," she says. "Sometimes I just want to be preached at."

Faye, who joined Kake Memorial when she was 13, isn't waiting, though. She is enrolled in Alaska Presbytery's Commissioned Lay Pastor program. "I think I'm the only one who turned in my last report on time," she says proudly.

Kake’s last pastor, Eric Gebhart — a lay pastor — left in July 2007. Alaska Presbytery's pastor to the presbytery, the Rev. David Dobler, comes over from Sitka — by ferry, which runs infrequently, or charter airplane, weather-permitting  — every couple of months to preach and offer support to the congregation. The session is moderated by the Rev. Bob Carter, a former pastor now living in Petersburg, on the opposite side of Kupreanof Island.

A pastor nominating committee is at work, says Mary Ann Kondro, "but not too many ministers want to come and work for hardly any salary, even though we've got the most beautiful manse in the PC(USA)."

Kake Memorial was the first church established in the village. The beautiful blue and white wood frame building sits on a bluff overlooking Keku Strait and nearby Frederick Sound in the heart of the village. The manse is next door.

"When people think of the Presbyterian Church, they think of our long history. We are tied to many of the people in town because they and their families went to Sheldon Jackson School and College," says Mary Ann Kondro, referring to the now-closed PC(USA)-related institution in Sitka. "We do a lot of services at our church because so many people feel connected to the Presbyterians."

But Kake Memorial will probably never have many more members. Like many Southeast Alaskan villages, Kake has lost at least half its population in the last eight to 10 years, says Faye. The village now numbers 400 people.

Historically, fishing villages like Kake have seen fish-processing methods shift from dozens of small local canneries to a few large regional processing plants, wiping out village jobs. For a time in the mid-to-late 20th century, timber provided another local industry, but most of the islands in Southeast Alaska have seen most of their prime timberlands logged off, further decimating employment opportunities.

"Kake is not a good place for young people these days," Faye says. "There's too much peer pressure and not enough good things to do."

This fall Kake Memorial is starting a monthly potluck supper and family activities night. "It's something healthy to do as a family," Faye says.

Kake Memorial is also known for its strong women.

"At least 15 of our members are women, and we’re all active in the community," Mary Ann Kondro says.

But ministry ebbs and flows in Kake, which, including Kake Memorial, has six churches — two Baptist, one Salvation Army, on Bahai and one Assembly of God — as well as Catholic and Mormon house churches.

The Rev. David Dobler, pastor to the presbytery for Alaska Presbytery, preaching at Kake Memorial Presbyterian Church on June 6, 2010. "A lot of people go to different churches depending on what's going on," says Mary Ann Kondro. "One of our niches is our Christmas Eve service," she explains. "And our music — we have a community choir in Kake and its almost all Presbyterians. We also have three of the four piano players in town."

Kake Memorial had a thriving youth group under Gebhart, who had a teenage son. When Gebhart left, youth ministry in Kake flowed to the Assembly of God Church, whose new pastor had teenage children. "That's the way it is in small villages," Mary Ann Kondro says.

Though membership has hovered around 20 for almost 100 years, Faye is optimistic.

"There's just a few of us right now, but I feel a real sense of renewal at Kake Church," she says. "For years I’ve prayed for God to revive this church ... and right now I really feel it. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but it’s in my heart."

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