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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Community Life  >  Religion
Tanana Mission: Mission of Our Savior
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No Sir Christopher Wren gave his vision and powers to the planning of these Alaska houses of God. And however awe-inspiring St. Paul's Cathedral may be in its beauty and grandeur, there is a wondrous beauty to the simple fanes that raise heavenward in the bright Alaska summers, or the chill air of the long winters. . . . The time will come in the Interior when we shall desire to construct buildings of frame or stone, but up to the present time, the place and spirit of the country seem to demand the log construction.

- The Alaska Churchman
"Temples of the North"
November 1919

The Tanana Indians' contact with Western missionaries initially came from Canada through the Church of England, whose missionaries established a mission in 1851 at the mouth of the Tozitna River -- a point some 11 miles downriver from Tanana. There, a village of some 200 Indians and a trading post manned by Arthur Harper meant regular river traffic and human contact. History books have several names for the post: Harper's Station, Fort Adamas, and Old Station have all been listed as the location for the original mission.

The Canadian mission was 33 years old in 1884, when the American Congress passed legislation to set up a civil government in Alaska, and the Presbyterian Rev. Dr. Sheldon Jackson was appointed General Agent for Education. Jackson was charged to establish an educational system for all children, regardless of race, on the meager budget of $25,000. His territory was so large that its land mass equaled one-fifth of the continental United States. So Jackson relied on the then-common custom of funding missionary schools through government contracts. To stretch his budget, he divided Alaska into geographic segments and invited church groups to open and operate schools. Since the Church of England was already working along the Yukon, that area was assigned to the Episcopal Church.

It wasn't until 1891 that the Methodist Episcopalians laid claim on the old mission at Fort Adams. That year the Rev. Jules Prevost joined English priest T. H. Canham, and they worked together for a year before Canham returned to Canada, leaving the missionary field solely in the hands of the American.

In the fall of 1896, Prevost hosted newly appointed Bishop Peter Trimble Rowe, who held his first confirmation service in Alaska while he was visiting St. James Mission. During the visit, the two men decided the mission should be moved to a more favorable location, and promptly selected a prime spot -- the junction of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers. It was already a traditional meeting place for the local people, who called it Nuchalawoyya, or "Where the Two Great Rivers Meet." There the Native population traded, discussed problems, settled hunting boundaries, celebrated special occasions, and then departed for their transient lives.

Rowe and Prevost cleared a 100-by-300-foot area on a bluff near the junction and relocated a log cabin from the old mission. A year later, a sawmill was placed near the clearing and another cabin was built.

"In 1899," wrote Bishop Rowe, "the Mission was transferred to the present site, named the Mission of our Savior, St. James' being given to the Mission for white people, three miles away. The beautiful Church, given by Miss Mary Rhinelander King, was built. There was erected a sawmill. The Mission suffered serious losses by two fires, destroying all the property excepting the Church and the sawmill."

Prevost used the new site as a home base when he traveled the river network in his small steamboat, the Northern Light -- a gift from his "Philadelphia friends." Prevost also was the editor of a semi-annual newspaper, the Yukon Press, the first paper printed in the Interior. He resigned in 1906 after working in the area for 15 years. At that time there were 13 Native houses, a sawmill, a school, and three larger houses built near the big log church with the delicate white window frames. With Rowe's help, Prevost had built a community in the wilderness.

By 1947, the Mission of Our Savior was quietly standing empty. Another 33 years would pass before it would be declared a historical site and the new generation of community leaders would start renovating the building that was so much a part of their history. The mission is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also listed in the Alaska Heritage Resources Survey, which is maintained by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
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Gallery of Images
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St. James' Church and surroundings
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Mission Garden at Tanana
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Blind Paul, Native Catechist at Tanana
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Mission of Our Savior
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Tanana Valley Mission dog team
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