Rising from ashes

From fire to factionalism, Hoonah church has survived it all

July 20, 2010

The exterior of Hoonah Presbyterian Church.

Hoonah Presbyterian Church —Photos by Jerry Van Marter

HOONAH, Alaska

The kitchen area of the one-room Hoonah Presbyterian Church bustles with activity as members prepare a pot-luck supper that will proceed the session meeting.

Two years ago, such a scene was unthinkable. "The church had imploded," says Kathy Ruddy frankly. Ruddy, an elder in Chapel by the Lake Presbyterian in Juneau — the state capital, which is four hours from Hoonah by ferry — has been serving on an Alaska Presbytery administrative commission for the Hoonah congregation.

Like many of the Alaska Native village Presbyterian churches scattered around the islands of southeast Alaska, the Hoonah church has relied on lay pastors for much of its century-old life. In 2008, when the PC(USA)’s last Commissioned Lay Pastor left Hoonah, Alaska Presbytery could not find a successor and so struck an agreement with the Missouri Synod Lutherans to keep the congregation alive. "We wanted to keep a Protestant presence in Hoonah," says the Rev. David Dobler, interim executive for the presbytery.

A small group of people gathered around an oblong table.

A recent session meeting (clockwise from left) the Rev. David Dobler, executive for Alaska Presbytery; Paul Comoli, holding daughter Sophia; Kathie Deitering, clerk of session; Diane Woitte, treasurer; Marjorie Carlson; Don Bolton.

After a disastrous year in which "an oral contract for open communion and the inclusion of women was repeatedly broken," Dobler said, the Lutherans abandoned Hoonah, a Tlingit (pronounced "Klink-it") village of 800 near Icy Strait on Chichigof Island west of Juneau.

Two Alaska Native Presbyterian patriarchs, the Revs. Walter Soboleff and Henry Fawcett, insisted that the church in Hoonah had to continue, so Alaska Presbytery created the commission to see what could be done.

It wasn't the first time the Hoonah Presbyterian Church had been threatened with extinction.

The church building — and most of the rest of Hoonah — was destroyed by fire in 1945 when U.S. military oil drums that had been stored underneath the docks along the shore during World War II ignited. "It blew up the whole town," Soboleff recalls, "and when I showed up the next day (from Juneau), the townspeople were very unhappy."

A large, rusted bell under a wooden triangle awning.

The church bell is all that remains of the original Hoonah Presbyterian Church building, destroyed by fire in 1945.

All that remains of that original church building is the bell. "But the church survived, as they almost always do," Ruddy said.

As in 1945, the hardy Presbyterians of Hoonah have survived the disaster of 2008. A five-member session has been reconstituted. The Rev. Ron Horn, pastor of Haines Presbyterian Church — a 6-7 hour ferry ride from Hoonah, depending on the weather — and chair of the presbytery's Committee on Ministry, shares moderatorial duties with Dobler.

A woman beneath a large white banner with Tlingit and Presbyterian symbols.

A banner in the entryway of Hoonah Presbyterian Church blends Tlingit symbolism with the seal of the PC(USA).

Hoonah Presbyterian Church, which throughout its history has led efforts to improve education, health care, housing and the Native heritage of its community "is on the verge of bursting into a new era of vitality," Ruddy says.

Katherine Bolton, whose grandparents helped build the church that burned and whose parents helped build the replacement church on the same site, proudly shows a banner that is hung in the entryway of Hoonah Presbyterian Church. On the banner — mainly in the traditional Tlingit colors of red, black and white — are a raven, an eagle and a dove.

The raven and eagle represent the two branches of the Tlingit "family tree" and the dove is the Christian symbol for peace and unity. "This is my hope," says Bolton. "Of course there have been disputes about customs, traditions, hair, clothing.

"But there's never been a dispute about God."

  1. Let me clarify "everything", every human endeavor. Only Jesus Christ is perfect.

    by Catherine J Bolton

    March 29, 2014

  2. It is true, when our beloved Tlingit elders pass away there was an implosion and the locks were changed by someone in the church and I was denied access. It is also true that the Lutheran group helped our church and the community. It also true that there was a lack of inclusion of women. Similar to the statement the Presbytery made in the form of an apology to the Tlingit people regarding behavior that would be unconscionable by today's standard, there is good and bad in everything. Small correction it was my great-grandparents and grandparents that helped build the church and rebuild again, my parents were busy with land claims, SEARCH, T&H Housing, etc . . . As a past elder and treasurer the spirit of this article in my opinion is accurate.

    by Catherine J Bolton

    March 29, 2014

  3. My wife and I visited church people at Hoonah Presbyterian in 2003. I have pictures of the old church bell that my dad rang as pastor in 1931-32.As a new pastor he learned the difficulty of reaching a new culture that displayed very little emotion.He told many stories to me over the years.I'm now 80 and would return again, but like dad always said," if I don't see you down here, I'll see you up there!" God is always good!. Oldest son of two. Because of Him, David A. Fogal.

    by David A. Fogal

    March 22, 2014

  4. I need to contact the church minister, clerk of session or someone on session. Thank you, Lee

    by Lee Van Landuyt

    May 6, 2013

  5. I was reading info on Hoonah and found this. I grew up with this church and have many truely happy memories. When strong, many Lingits were involved and remember way back as a very young child my grandmother Lilly B. Fawcett being a joyful christian singing in the choir. We do have some photos.

    by Lilly A. James

    May 31, 2012

  6. Hi, wow wondering blog. This is really very nice blog. i really love this blog. This blog gives to us very good knowledge about church building. Thank you,

    by Big Sky LLC

    December 25, 2010

  7. Jerry L. Van Marter's piece about Hoonah Presbyterian Church is not telling true history of Lutherans helping the church and people of Hoonah. Alaska Mission for Christ and Lutheran groups that have come to Hoonah have generously lifted us in prayer, helped us financially, and blessed this community. This article makes the Lutherans look bad. Very sorry to read this article.

    by Kathie Deitering

    July 29, 2010

  8. What a testament it is of God working in a place that is geographically on the fringes. I was surprised when I saw the story as I spent one summer in Hoonah as a VIM (Volunteer in Mission), with three other college students, leading Vacation Bible School and spending time with the village kids and youth. I remember the people and my time there with great fondness even though it has been around 25 years since my visit.

    by Scott Crane

    July 27, 2010

  9. Please keep the people of Hoonah in your prayers. Yesterday a saw mill there burned and 15 people lost their jobs.

    by Rev. Bob Carter

    July 23, 2010

  10. How happy I am to read this article and to know that this church is moving forward...Blessings to all of you in SE Alaska.

    by Dixie Anders

    July 22, 2010