Russian Orthodox history at risk in California?

The AP has a story about Fort Ross Historic Park under threat of closure because of California state budget problems. (HT: George M.)

Nearly two centuries ago, Russian colonists selected a patch of sloping grassland along California’s rugged North Coast for a new settlement. It was from this spot about 80 miles north of San Francisco that they hoped to harvest Redwoods, grow crops and hunt seals for the lucrative fur trade.

Today, Russian Americans throughout Northern California honor their past by visiting Fort Ross Historic State Park. Hundreds drive up a winding coastal highway to picnic at the park on holidays, and priests still hold occasional services inside the fort’s reconstructed Russian Orthodox church.

But the colonial outpost that claims to have established California’s first shipyard and windmill is very much at risk of being abandoned by its current caretaker. Fort Ross is among 100 of California’s 279 state parks that officials are considering shutting down.

Orthodox Wiki says this in its entry on Holy Trinity Chapel at the fort:

Holy Trinity Chapel at Fort Ross

Holy Trinity Chapel at Fort Ross

Orthodox Christianity was part of the lives of the Russian, Creole, and Aleut colonists. In early 1820s they expressed their intentions to build a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas at their own expense. The chapel was built within the walls of “Ross Fortress.” The Christians of the colony were helped by the officers and crews of three Russian Navy ships in 1823-1824 who donated a considerable sum for the proposed chapel. The chapel was completed in 1825 and was used by the colonists for reader services.

The chapel was never formally consecrated as no clergymen were permanently assigned to it. In later years a few priests visited the Ross colony and its chapel. Among these priests was Fr. John Veniaminov—later Bishop Innocent of Alaska, then Metropolitan of Moscow, and saint—who spent three months in 1836 at the colony. During this time he visited the Spanish missions in the San Francisco area. The missions he visited were San Raphael, San Jose, Santa Clara, and San Francisco. At the time of his visit, Fr. John recorded that of the population of about 260 at Fort Ross, fifteen percent of the local Indian population living and working in the colony were baptized into the Orthodox Christian faith.


  1. George Michalopulos :

    Hopefully, American Orthodox can come together to reclaim this important piece of ouf history.

  2. This would be a shame on many levels.

    I visited, actually went on pilgrimige there, last year. I remember upbraiding the local tourist bureau because there was absolutely NO advertisement or signs announcing the existence of the place. If I didn’t know that I was looking for it, I would not have found it.

    This is a travesty on many levels: it has a fine museum, with very professional displays that can compete with the ones here in Chicago’s Field Museum, which has one of the finest, if not the finest, collections on Amerindian Cultures.

    The reconstruction is very authentic, and in the case of two of the buildings not reconstruction but renovation.

    Another thing that is interesting is the contrast at Fort Ross with the Russians and the Amerindians. Secular authorities, scholars, etc. contrast the destruction of native culture among the English and Spanish, and its preservation among the Russians.

    I wonder if the Russian government can be induced to show some interest, along with the State of Alaska (Fort Ross was intended to be the Southern outpost of Alaska), not to mention the Orthodox of all North America but particularly in the lower 48.

  3. George Michalopulos :

    Isa, very good insights. It has fascinated me as well how the Russians (despite their heavy-handedness at times) have respected the native Amerindian cultures and have never tried to “Russify” them. Their evangelism allowed for native expressions to grow and become Orthodox on their own terms, which is really the Orthodox way (in the ideal).

  4. One proof of that is Alaska: it was mainly converted AFTER the Russian administration left. The Tlingit resisted conversion, and did so en masse during the Jacksonian military administration. At one point the “Tlingit Orthodox Chiefs” sent a petition to the US President, reminding him that they knew “that the Czar did not sell us as slaves, but left us rights which the US Congress made firm.”

  5. George Michalopulos :

    Isa, good point. Baranov was typical of the westernized Russian elites that were well on their way to abandoning traditional Orthodox piety. It was the Church and its monastics which kept the traditional Orthodox evangelistic program alive and well. It’s so ironic, the secular elites that ran the Russian-American company did not want the eight Valaam monks preaching and baptizing the natives, mainly because it would elevate the natives to co-equal status wih the Europeans as well as make them subjects of the Russian Empire.

    This of course gives the lie to those who think that the Russian church “abandoned” the Alaska natives to their own devices. There is simply no way that the massive conversion project that resulted could have progressed without the due diligence of concerned Russian Orthodox clergy (no matter how miniscule their numbers in relation to the natives).

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