In 1919, St. George’s Episcopal Church was founded amid a rugged wilderness scattered with boom towns and railroad construction camps. A century later, congregants gathered to remember the ingenuity and determination of the Cordovans who built the church into a social and cultural landmark.
The Sept. 15 celebration, led by the Rev. Belle Mickelson, drew 47 attendees. Mickelson delivered a service including Luke’s Parable of the Lost Sheep and other staples from the Gospels, emphasizing the church’s role as a source of mutual support for the community. The church has a responsibility to bring residents together and to help them overcome addiction and other challenges, she said.
“I think it’s good to recognize the people who had the dream 111 years ago and how far-thinking they were,” Mickelson said. “Churches contribute to a community by serving as a gathering place where people can be touched by God’s spirit and take that spirit of joy and peace and helpfulness. You can’t have faith without works.”
The church should reinforce secular institutions in promoting social cohesion, Mickelson said.
“You can do great things in this world, and I believe God can work through you, even if you don’t believe in God,” Mickelson said. “God was here before the missionaries came.”
Mickelson’s service was followed by cake and refreshments. During the service, congregants’ children were occupied with “Godly Play,” a Montessori-inspired take on Sunday School in which children act out Bible stories using props. The introduction of Godly Play in 2016 was one of St. George’s biggest innovations in recent years, Mickelson said.
Who were the founders of St. George’s Episcopal Church?
Established in 1908, the Red Dragon Clubhouse “was designed to provide a social home for those men who, without family ties in Alaska, had been called by the lure of the North and by the hope of gain and adventure and who found the open saloon and gambling house the only place where they could meet their fellows,” reported The Cordova Daily Times.
With a library, a piano and a billiards table, the Red Dragon was able to match Cordova’s 24 saloons as a social hub, wrote Nicki J. Nielsen in “The Red Dragon and St. George’s: Glimpses Into Cordova’s Past.” The Red Dragon was a multipurpose facility: on Sunday mornings, it hosted worship services – on Saturday nights, boxing matches. By 1909, The Alaskan Churchman magazine reported that the Red Dragon was already growing “greatly crowded.”
As Cordova became more domesticated, the Red Dragon’s importance as an alternative to saloons declined. On Easter Sunday 1919, Bishop Peter Trimble Rowe consecrated St. George’s Episcopal Church. The church was built for $5,000, roughly equivalent to $74,000 in 2019.
“Cordova has grown more civilized,” wrote The Alaskan Churchman in 1924. “The Red Dragon still stands, but today it is only a clubhouse … where socials are given with congenial spirits gathered around the great log fire … the new church fits the present community as the Red Dragon fitted the earlier town.”
The church was designed by the Rev. Eustace Paul Ziegler, a jack-of-all-trades who had begun his time in Cordova as a lay missionary. Known for his folksy good humor, Ziegler ministered to a sparsely settled parish reaching from Cordova to Kennicott. A decidedly un-preppy alumnus of the Yale School of Art, Ziegler painted reproductions of Rubens’s crucifixion scenes and sketched images from Alaskan daily life.
“Big parishes are another pleasure,” wrote Ziegler in 1917. “Mine is 196 miles wide … There is great variety in 196 miles of Alaska, so we minister to great varieties of men, women and institutions. Salmon canneries, clam canneries, miners, prospectors, fishermen, sailors. What funds of human nature to learn from, what variety of tale, anecdote and experience.”
Over the decades, the congregation of St. George’s grew and shrank with the town, reaching a nadir from 1934-1939 when there were no regular worship services. Today, the church typically attracts 21 congregants to Sunday services, Mickelson said.