SITKA, Alaska – An effort is under way to bring traditional Russian Orthodox bell-ringing back to St. Michael’s Cathedral after more than 40 years.

The original bells were destroyed in the fire that ripped through the cathedral and a host of other buildings in downtown Sitka on Jan. 2, 1966.

The church was eventually rebuilt, and in 1977, after a fundraising effort, eight new bells were delivered to the cathedral and installed in the bell tower. The bells, made of copper and tin, were cast at a foundry in the Netherlands, using some of the metal salvaged from the original bells.

But there was a key problem.

The Sitka bell ringers trained in the traditional Russian Orthodox style were gone, and there was no one to fill the void.

New bell ringers never learned the songs, or how to play the bells, and the melodic Russian Orthodox style, which uses tightly strung ropes, foot pedals and a series of pulleys, has been absent from Sitka for going on 45 years.


“We haven’t had them in some time, not like they’re meant to be rung,” said Bob Medinger, executive director of the Sitka Historical Society.

The society’s museum, located in Centennial Hall, recently opened an exhibit on the cathedral that features a piece of St. Michael’s original clock works.

Medinger said it’s not quite clear what happened to the bell ringers between 1966 and 1977, but the traditional Russian style has not been heard in Sitka since Jan. 1, 1966, when the bells tolled to mark the new year.

About two years ago, Sitkan Archie Nielsen approached officials at the Sitka National Historical Park with an idea to bring Russian Orthodox songs back to St. Michael’s. Medinger was brought into the loop, and a small committee began pursuing the idea.

The first step was getting the bell tower into shape — cleaning it and installing a ringing station.

Last summer, a power washer was hoisted up to the bell tower and a thick layer of pigeon excrement was cleaned from the cathedral’s top floor.


Chuck Trierschield, whose family owns Sitka Bazaar, donated netting that has since kept pigeons out of the bell tower.

But there is much more work to do.

On a recent afternoon, Trierschield was in the bell tower with local contractor Pete Jones tossing ideas around about where to place the ringing station in the bell tower.

Playing the bells can be an arduous workout — Medinger said some of the more ornate songs require two bell ringers — and the placement of the four-inch platform is an important part of the process.

Trierschield, who is volunteering his time, said the bells bring back fond memories of his childhood, much of which was spent in and around the Bazaar on Lincoln Street, in the shadow of St. Michael’s. Sitka Bazaar has been in Trierschield’s family since 1919, and has stood at the corner of Lincoln and American streets since 1929.

Jones recalled hearing the bells played at lunchtime, while Trierschield called Russian bell ringing a “missing piece of Sitka’s puzzle.”


He said the bells were important to him personally, as a reminder of earlier days in Sitka, but also professionally. The cathedral, he said, draws thousands of tourists each summer, and many become his customers.

Helping restore the bell tower is a way to give back, Trierschield said.

Jones has already reinforced the three flights of stairs leading up to the bell tower, and installed a fourth, which replaced a dangerous ladder that had led to the top floor of the belfry.

The work got going this summer thanks to an anonymous $7,000 donation.

But Murphy’s Law recently reared its head.

As they were working on the floor of the bell tower, Trierschield and Jones determined that the wood was saturated with water and would need to be replaced.


Medinger said the repairs will more than double the cost of the project, from about $7,000 to $15,000.

Medinger has planned to launch a fundraising effort to help the project along. Now, instead of asking the community for $3,000, he needs about $10,000.

“It was totally unanticipated,” he said this week.

Medinger said the church has money in an account that will allow the restoration of the bell tower to proceed.

The bell tower is already torn up and stopping the project mid-stream is not really an option, Medinger said.

But St. Michael’s main dome also needs work, and the historical society has agreed to raise money to pay back the church, Medinger said.


The long-term plan is to install a ringing station and bring Father Stephan Meholick, a Russian Orthodox priest from Marin County, Calif., here to train at least four new bell ringers.

Medinger said members of the public will be welcome to learn the art form, though they have to be able to read music. And percussion experience will help. Medinger wants to bring Meholick, who is consulting on the project, to Sitka for two week-long training sessions.

Once the work on the bell tower is complete, Meholick’s first visit to Sitka will be planned, Medinger said.

“We’re hoping some time in September,” Medinger said.

Father Sergious Gerken, who took over as the pastor at St. Michael’s in May, called the project a “worthy pursuit.”

He said the traditional Russian Orthodox songs were played in Sitka from 1817 to 1966, when the church burned.


Gerken would like the songs to play for services each Sunday, and on special holidays.

Gerken and Medinger are planning public tours of the bell tower to help with the fundraising effort.

Medinger thinks the 360-degree view from the bell tower, which looks out over Sitka Sound, and down Lincoln Street in both directions, will help generate some public support for the project.

That, and being in close proximity to the impressive bells.

“This place just drips history,” Medinger said.


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