Barrow Church Plans

Yearlong Centennial Celebration 

By Charles Bingham

Arctic Sounder

September 17, 1998

 BARROW – The congregation of Barrow’s Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church is honoring its centennial with a yearlong celebration, culminating with its Easter 1999 service.

The 100th Anniversary Committee met July 20 to outline a series of roughly 150 events leading up to the Easter service. Some of the events include the “Random Kindness Week” Sept. 13-19, and every third Sunday being set aside to intentionally practice forgiveness. The deadline for the 100th Anniversary Committee’s logo design contest is Sept. 27, for artworks featuring the church’s trademark whalebone sign and steeple cross. 

“We Started planning in June when the new ministers came in, and we decided to have the celebration all year to Easter 1999,” said church elder Rex A. Okakok Sr., the chairman of the anniversary committee. “We want to prepare our members, and our new members, for stepping into a new century and the new millennium. We’ll start next week with the random acts of kindness and the following Sunday (Sept. 20) will be forgiveness day. There’s been a lot of hurt in the community, and we need to forgive so we can move on.” 

Like the start of most of Alaska’s missions, the Presbyterian Church first came to the North Slope after then-territorial education commissioner and Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson hosted an ecumenical meeting in 1880 and began assigning mission territories to different religious groups. The assigned territories were designed to eliminate competition in heavily populated areas and to help in spreading the message of God to such a vast new territory, and they were also designed to provide schools around the territory.

For example, after that meeting the Moravians were assigned the region of the Lower Kuskokwim River, settling in 1885 in what later became known as Bethel; and the Friends Church (Quakers) went to the Kotzebue region, settling in 1898 in what was then known as Kikiktagruk. When none of the other groups offered to start a mission in Point Barrow, Jackson volunteered the Presbyterians. 

The first Presbyterian teacher-missionary was Leander M. Stevenson, who came to Alaska from Ohio in 1890 and was called “Mitchimii” by the Inupiat, Okakok said. Stevenson arrived in Point Barrow to find a community suffering from the arrival of commercial whalers, a community struggling to deal with disease, alcohol and starvation, Lyn Kidder wrote in the chapter on the Presbyterians in her book, “Barrow, Alaska … from A to Z!” 

Kidder wrote that Stevenson was given a room at the U.S. Government Refuge Station, and that room became a school as well as Stevenson’s living quarters. Early missionaries had to teach English, learn Inupiaq, construct buildings, procure food, water and fuel, and act as doctor, judge, orphanage, firefighter and mortician, Kidder wrote. 

Once the school was established and he’d begun to learn the ways of the Inupiat, Stevenson began to work on building a church. After visiting some of the coastal villages, he returned to what is now known as Barrow. Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church was the first church established on the North Slope. Okakok said. Historical notes on the “barrow Alaska Walking Map” said Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church was established in 1898 and organized on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1899. Other Presbyterian churches soon followed in coastal villages like Wainwright, Nuvuk (Point Barrow), Nuiqsut and others. 

In a church memo, Okakok quoted Lloyd Ahvakana from the church’s 75th Anniversary Celebration, when Ahvakana said the Inupiat were “ripe for the Holy Spirit”. Ahvakana mentioned the Inupiat prophet Maniilaq who spent most of his time in the Kobuk River valley before wandering toward the North Slope area), and Maniilaq’s prophecy that “uivvaqsaaq” was where the Inupiat would go to meet their loved ones after their days ended. Ahvakana said this prophecy was made long before Caucasians came to the arctic, and when the missionaries started talking about heaven the Inupiat “would begin to get excited about seeing their loved ones and talked about how happy they will be with them again.”

“Our people were primed for Christ’s message, which Mitchimii brought,” Okakok wrote that Ahvakana said.

The current ch8urch building was built in 1949, and the small green parsonage next to it was built in 1930. Many earlier versions of the two buildings were destroyed by fire. The church now holds weekly services in three languages – English, Inupiaq and Korean – and has even printed an Inupiaq hymnal. It also hosts meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Alanon and Narcotics Anonymous.

Okakok said two of the more important dates before the Easter service include Nov. 6-8, when the Ahmaogak Memorial Parish will hold its quarterly meeting and revival in Barrow, and Feb. 25-28, 1999, when Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church will host the Yukon Presbytery (a regional group that includes Alaska Presbyterian churches from Kaktovik to Anchorage to St. Lawrence Island) and the Presbyterian Women’s annual meetings. Molly Peder-son said the February meetings will open with a welcoming potluck and Eskimo dancing on Feb. 25, 1999, and they expect to house and feed about 150 guests.

 The Rev. Mike Stuart, the senior pastor at Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church, said several former ministers are expected to return to Barrow during the centennial celebration, and recently the church had the Rev. John Chambers and his wife Barbara in attendance. Chambers was the missionary pilot and pastor of the church 40 years ago, pastoring with the Rev. Samuel Simmonds who is the namesake of Barrow’s hospital.

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