Alaska Church lands officially returned to Diocese

Orthodox Church in America

On Wednesday, September 28, 2011, the long standing issue of Alaskan Church land ownership was settled as His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah and His Grace, Bishop Benjamin of San Francisco and the West, Locum Tenens of the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of Alaska, signed 18 quitclaim deeds, thereby officially turning over the land to the Diocese of Alaska.

Witnessing the signing were Archpriest Eric G. Tosi, OCA Secretary; Thaddeus Wojcik, OCA General Counsel; and Judge Ray Lanier, a member of the OCA Metropolitan Council from the Diocese of the South.

By way of background, Alaska was sold to the US in 1867 for $7.2 million. According to the Treaty of Cession, ownership of the land and buildings was to be retained by the Orthodox Christians who worshiped therein. Legal title, however, was deeded to the resident Orthodox Bishop, to be held in trust for them. In 1870, when the Church’s headquarters were moved to San Francisco, the deeds went south as well. In 1904, the Archbishop’s see once again was moved to New York City, where the title remained.

In a 1923 letter written in response to an appeal by Archpriest Andrew P. Kashevarov, the founder of the Alaska Territorial (now State) Historical Library and Museum, Judge James Wickersham of Juneau suggested that it would be prudent for the local bishop to hold the titles, rather than the head of the Church in New York.

In 1971, the US Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement, which recognized Alaska native land ownership, paid nearly $1 billion for about 80% of Alaska, and allowed the indigenous population to retain about 20% of the total area of the state, which they use and occupy. Alaskan Orthodox people gained title to their homes and villages, but not to their churches and cemeteries.

In 2009, the Diocese of Alaska requested the OCA to return title to Alaskan Church lands to the Diocese.

At the Metropolitan Council’s spring 2010 session, Archpriest Michael Oleksa, a member of the Metropolitan Council from the Diocese of Alaska, raised Wickersham’s suggestion and proposed that title to all Alaska Church lands be returned. Citing that it was the legal and fiduciary responsibility of the Council to know exactly what lands and funds were involved in such a move, Judge Lanier insisted that a complete listing of the holdings and their potential value be presented before any final decision be made. Subsequently, Judge Lanier spent an exhausting week in Anchorage, studying the records compiled by Ms. Grayce Oakley, the Diocese of Alaska’s lands secretary, who had spent over four years compiling, cataloging and becoming thoroughly familiar with all the deeds and their histories. Ms. Oakley’s work enabled the Church to act with proper diligence and care.

After two years of research and legal clarification, the Metropolitan Council voted unanimously to return the titles. Judge Lanier, Mr. Wojcik, and Alaskan attorney Jim Gorsky worked on the legal documents.

The move will ensure the preservation of this heritage for Orthodox Alaska and future generations.