December 15, 2010
Catholic San Francisco
St. Nicholas, from whom the character of Santa Claus comes, looms large in Alaska where multiple Catholic and Orthodox churches bear the saint’s name.
His generosity and kindness to children is legendary, and veneration of the fourth-century saint spans 1,700 years. “St. Nicholas is next to the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist in devotion and veneration,” said Father James Barrand, pastor of St. Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church in Anchorage.
Known in the West as the patron of children, St. Nicholas is seen in the East primarily as the patron of sailors, based on accounts of his calming the seas during his return from a pilgrimage in the Holy Land and his appearance to storm-tossed sailors off the coast of Lycia. These miracles were related across the world, especially by missionaries to Russia.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher, an iconographer at the Catholic Cathedral of the Nativity in downtown Juneau, said there are many icons and images of St. Nicholas on fishing boats and other sailing vessels in Alaska and elsewhere.
According to Father Michael Oleksa, an Orthodox priest who is rector of St. Alexis Church and chancellor of the Orthodox Diocese of Sitka, Anchorage and Alaska, more churches in the Orthodox tradition are named for St. Nicholas than for any other saint.
The oldest of these is St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Juneau, established in 1894. According to its pastor, Father Simeon Johnson, the church received its name after a vision experienced by Tlingit tribal elders. The son of a leader in the community had journeyed to San Francisco where he was to be baptized. While he was gone, several people had dreams of a bearded, balding, white-haired man.
When the young man returned, he brought an image of St. Nicholas. After the elders recognized it as the one from the dreams, the church received its name and more than 700 Tlingit people were baptized there.
St. Nicholas Catholic Church in North Pole, Alaska, received its name with help from the Catholic Church Extension Society, which helped build the church. The town attracts tourists, and many photograph the church and its statue of a kneeling Santa praying at the feet of the infant Jesus.