Updates from the Men’s Mission to Alaska

Friday, August 3

Team members (left to right) Fr. John Reeves, Dn. Alexander Cadman, Nikita Fedkin, Michael Haupt, Michael Stickles, Darren Torbic, and Ed Miranda. (Not pictured: Dn. Mark Oleynik, Jonathan Miranda, and Sam Leathers.)

10 p.m.: The team finally arrives at the State College airport, where the trip began almost two weeks ago. After being reunited with their families, the team gathers together for a final prayer. Thank you for your support and for following us on this journey.

Thursday, August 2

Ed Miranda puts the “finishing touches” on St. Michael the Archangel Church.

7 p.m. AKDT (11 p.m. EDT): The team is currently traveling home. We are taking 5 separate flights home and journeying for more than 24 hours straight. Check back periodically as pictures from the trip are posted here and on our parish’s Facebook page: facebook.com/holytrinitysc.

1 p.m. AKDT (5 p.m. EDT): After the team spent a few hours cleaning the church’s interior and grounds, the entire community joined us in offering a service of thanksgiving to God for making these amazing twelve days possible. After an emotional and uplifting celebration that figuratively lifted the (newly repaired) roof of the building, the team officially bid farewell to each member of their Marshall family in a receiving line. We will have a quick lunch, finish packing, and meet one last time as a team at the church at 4 p.m. before heading to the Marshall Don Hunter Sr. Airport.

Wednesday, August 1

Fr. John and Michael Haupt ready the narthex for its first of three coats of paint.

On our last full day of work, a third and final coat of lacquer was applied to the altar floor. Emboldened by the success of completing nearly all of the projects on our “to-do” list, we decided to tackle the painting of the narthex. Now bright white, the once unfinished narthex now better welcomes visitors to St. Michael’s here. With the new gold trim that our team has just applied to the corners of the building’s exterior, the church–located in the center of town–is now even more inviting. The improvements that we have been able to make here through days of hard work and the power of the Holy Spirit are tangible. More evident, and even more remarkable, is the transformation that has taken place in the lives of our team and among the members of the community. The bonds that have been formed here will last a lifetime and beyond. Tomorrow we have to pack and stay goodbye to our temporary home.

Tuesday, July 31

Jonathan Miranda, Michael Haupt, and Darren Torbic repair the porch of local team coordinator Willie Andrew.

There have been many types of rain during our stay in Marshall: foggy rain, cold rain, damp rain, misty rain, horizontal rain, and so forth. Today was simply soaking rain. Fortunately most of us were able to work indoors, except for a crew who ventured outside to reassemble a broken porch of Willie Andrew, our local project coordinator. Among the new tasks worked on today was the insulating of the attic above the church’s narthex. While a crew applied the first and second coats of stain to the new altar floor, another group of men spruced up grounds outside the temple, moving the remainder of the heavy beams from Saturday’s outdoor work.

Monday, July 30

Team members Dn. Mark Oleynik, Sam Leathers, and Darren Torbic (left to right) lay a new altar floor.

Today was a very productive day. Once again we split into two teams. One group of men led by Darren Torbic began to assemble a new altar floor made out of planks of three-quarter inch plywood. By afternoon, all 17 boards had been cut to size, trimmed, and laid into place to ensure a perfect fit. Outside, another team led by Ed Miranda reinforced and sealed the new plywood that underpins the newly installed insulation that lies below the church’s floor. (By the way, many people remarked at liturgy yesterday that the church feels much warmer! One of our hosts, Sophie, mentioned that in past winters, even with the furnace on at full blast, her feet would still be freezing. Hopefully those days are now over.)

With the service schedule a little lighter this week, we have been able to work longer; we can say our evening prayers after dinner and not have to completely clean up for parishioners coming to church. As the day progressed, the summer Alaska sun finally broke through the clouds and began to illuminate all of Marshall. With the forecast calling for more(!) rain by tomorrow morning, Dn. Mark Oleynik assembled an impromptu team to climb atop the church to fix its cupola (steeple) and leaking roof. Taking full advantage of the long summer nights, the roof crew was afforded an amazing view of the 11 p.m. sunset over the Yukon River as the final screws were affixed.

The team with the parish family of St. Michael’s Church following Liturgy.

Sunday, July 29

The Divine Liturgy here was wonderful. Most of the choir’s responses were sung in Yup’ik, led by A’pa Nicholas Andrew Sr. Four members of our team served (Fr. John, our two deacons, and Darren Torbic) alongside Dn. Jason and A’pa Paul from Marshall. Weather prevented our team from touring the village and seeing its environs by boat, so we enjoyed a needed day of rest in the homes of our host families. In the evening, we all came over to the Catholic church’s rectory (where some members of our team have also been staying) to have a team meeting. This was an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the past week and plan out the week ahead. Much must be done in the only three working days we have left.

Saturday, July 28

A view of a branch of the Yukon River taken from uptown Marshall, a village of 400.

Orthodoxy in Alaska is a direct result of the missionary activity of Russian Orthodox Church, which was founded in 988 by Christ through St. Vladimir (Sviatoslavich) of Kiev. It is for this reason that his feast–celebrated today in parishes following the Julian (Old) Calendar–is an important day here. (It also marks the 54th wedding anniversary of two of our hosts and the namesday of another!) The day was bookended by church services and celebration, leaving just a few hours for the team to work. Still, important progress was made. A group of men began laying out a new floor for the altar while another group moved heavy pieces of lumber left over from the old church and the construction of the current one.

Friday, July 27

One of our host families, Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Andrew, Sr. (A’ma and A’pa), leave church on their ATV after Vespers. They celebrate their 54th anniversary tomorrow.

Working almost until the start of Great Vespers for the (Old Calendar) Feast of St. Vladmir (July 15/28) tonight, the team is able to celebrate a major accomplishment: the entire floor below St. Michael’s Church–both nave/altar and narthex–is now completely insulated. While much more hard work remains for the group, there was great relief that the backbreaking nailing of plywood under the church is finished. Because tomorrow is a feast day, it will be a little lighter day of work for the team. It will be a good opportunity to assess what now can be done before we depart on next Thursday.

Spirits are extremely high as we have settled into our temporary home. We praise God that one of our integral team members, Samuel Leathers, is feeling much better after falling ill yesterday. The food and hospitality shown to us here in Marshall have been wonderful. We have been treated to quite possibly the best prepared and freshest fish in the world. But most importantly, the love shared between the team members and our host families is real and will definitely be missed by all this time next week.

Thursday, July 26

Ed Miranda, Michael Stickles, and Darren Torbic (left to right) cut plywood to cover the installed insulation.

The team hit its stride today, breaking into two groups: one that cut plywood; the other that affixed it below the nave floor to cover the exposed insulation we installed. Since both groups essentially worked indoors, we were able to stay relatively dry even though a steady drizzle continued to fall. But as the team emerged from our respective work areas after a long day, so did the sun, brightly illuminating the town and river that runs alongside it. It gave the team hope that Friday would be dry enough for members to fix parts of the narthex roof that had blown off, as well as completely wrap up insulating the whole church especially above and below the narthex.

It was fitting, then, for the team to give glory to God for all things. After we restored the inside of the church for worship, the village lead us in beautifully chanting the Akathist (Prayer Hymn) of Thanksgiving. Composed by an Orthodox priest shortly before his death in a prison camp in 1940, the service is an exaltation of praise amidst the most terrible sufferings. For the team, it was a glimpse into why the people of Marshall are so joyful despite living in a land and climate where mere survival can often be challenging.

Wednesday, July 25

Team leader Fr. John Reeves looks out over the town of Marshall during a walk to the airport to retrieve lost luggage.

The sun makes its first appearance since the trip began, but only briefly before the wind and driving rains move in. Keeping insulation and plywood dry have been an ongoing challenge for the team. Still the day is productive as plans proceed to lay flooring in the altar and to bring our wood cutting operation indoors to avoid further interruption tomorrow. Meanwhile, some of the younger team members have begun demolition work on a home situated on parish grounds that was given to the parish but has since fallen into disrepair. Since almost everything here is in short supply, every bit of usable wood is being salvaged. Fixtures from the old home are also being carefully removed and will be eventually moved to what will be the rectory for the new priest.

Today was a typical day. We begin with morning prayers at 8 a.m., followed by breakfast at our host homes. We are on the job from 9:30 to 4:30, breaking for lunch in the middle and dinner afterward, which are graciously served by the parishioners who have become our extended family. Then we celebrate Vespers at 6 p.m. followed by a daily team debrief. Free time starts at 9 p.m. Everyone falls asleep well before sunset past 11:30 p.m.

Team members begin to install insulation underneath St. Michael’s Church.

Tuesday, July 24

After morning prayers and breakfast, the team begins work. Our first job is install insulation below the church’s floor to save on heating costs during the harsh winters here. Last winter, temperatures hovered at -50 degrees Fahrenheit for almost a full month. This helps us put today’s rainy and cool 50-degree summer day in perspective. After Vespers this evening, the team greeted members of the community at the church. We went around the nave introducing ourselves and had the opportunity to share about our families and life experiences as Orthodox Christians in America.

Monday, July 23

The parishioners of St. Michael’s Church in Marshall sing a variety of Orthodox hymns for the team in Yup’ik.

6 p.m. AKDT (10 p.m. EDT): Led by the parish of St. Michael’s Church, the team celebrates a service of thanksgiving to God for our safe arrival and pray for the work that lies ahead. After dinner, members of the community put on a performance for us, singing carols with beautiful traditional Alaskan melodies.

4 p.m. AKDT (8 p.m. EDT): We have been progressively boarding smaller planes since Minneapolis. Planes to Marshall are 9-seaters, so the team splits up and heads to Marshall separately. Flying at 1,000 feet, the 30-minute flight gives us a really good sense of what will be our surroundings for the next ten days.  Before we all leave Bethel, the first set of photos of the team is posted to facebook.com/holytrinitysc.

During a layover in Bethel, Alaska, the team searches for a place to eat.

12 p.m. AKDT (4 p.m. EDT): Now in the small town of Bethel (pop. 6,080), the team finds ways to pass the time of their five-hour layover. We learn of a pizza place and make a half-mile trek in search of it. After asking around, we find the Arctic Sun Restaurant (formerly Brothers Pizza) and spend a wonderful afternoon of fellowship. On the TV is wall-to-wall coverage of Penn State.

7 a.m. AKDT (11 a.m. EDT): We awake to hear the news of the NCAA’s ruling on Penn State football. Though we are now 3,500 miles away, State College still feels close to us. The team boards a shuttle back to Ted Stevens Anchorage International to begin our daylong trip to Marshall. More planes, here we come!

12:33 a.m. AKDT (4:33 a.m. EDT): The team arrives in Anchorage safe and sound and heads to a hotel in midtown to get a few hours of sleep before boarding a morning flight towards Marshall. Speaking of glitches, two carry-on bags containing two weeks of clothes for two passengers don’t make it to Alaska this morning. (Update: the bags will end up arriving in Marshall to greatly-relieved team members three days later.)

Sunday, July 22

The team spends an unexpected layover in State College while airline representatives reroute them across North America.

12:30 p.m. EDT: The team experiences its first “glitch” on their journey. The flight from State College to Philadelphia is delayed for more than two hours because of a mechanical problem, causing them to miss their connection. The team remains upbeat as airline representatives try for more than an hour to route all ten passengers. Though the team initially gets excited when they hear of a layover in Las Vegas, the final revised routing will take the team through Minneapolis on their way to Anchorage.