Evangel Island Journey 2 – The Evangel Visits Old Harbor

By Timothy Smith (restored and expanded fall 2019)

Spectacular scenery greets the Evangel on approach to Old Harbor. This is a slide from a trip there in the mid-1950’s.

Our eventual arrival at Old Harbor seems almost anticlimactic after our long, rolling trip from Kodiak. The village looks so peaceful and picturesque, spread out along a narrow ledge of shore beneath one of those steep, rounded green mountains so typical of these islands. After we drop anchor, we busy ourselves with the bailing of the skiff, and then head to shore to make the rounds. One does not come barging in and set up religious shop. The witnessing is mostly in the form of visiting old friends, sharing a cup of “chai” (plain tea in the local Russian vernacular) and just being there. The formal “services” and programs for the children will wait until tomorrow. This village has a missionary already living there, a rarity around Kodiak Island. A World War II Quonset hut has been reassembled in the center of the village (on a previous trip, Dad had a hand in building the foundation), and it serves as a makeshift chapel.

Although no priest is on hand, at the south end of town, a small Russian Orthodox Church reminds all residents just what religion they are. Likewise, the village has history that predates the coming of the Russians by hundreds of years, and the story of those battles and that invasion is still part of the local lore. Old Harbor does not take kindly to anything resembling an invasion. And several families regularly forbid their children from taking part in any of the planned children’s programs. (Continued below…)

Norman and Joyce are not interested in changing anyone’s religion, but of helping people know more about the Jesus they already believe in (but hardly know about). My parents have studied and read Orthodox materials, and know that there is broad agreement beneath the differences of worship style. There is the still-present language barrier between the Orthodox Church’s liturgy in Old Russian and the English and Alutiic- speaking villagers. So the struggle is in how to communicate the Gospel – how to bring into focus what the local people already (should) know. The approach is basic and simple, with the help of Bible filmstrips, flannel graphs, and well-known or easy to learn hymns and choruses.  

The local missionary is from a different church organization, but there is no competition; Mom and Dad's arrival is more like the arrival of reinforcements here. The services they will hold will be hosted in the little chapel, and led by the host missionary. In some villages, with some other missionaries, this has not been the case; the Smiths always try to avoid any sectarian shoving matches. Normally, the more sectarian you are, the shorter your stay in the already extremely sectarian environment of the local villages. When the others get discouraged and leave, Norman and Joyce will still be around; they are not invaders, and they have friends here. But now I have kid business. I know which houses are friendly and which ones have kids who will start messing with me as soon as the adults turn their backs. I find some good playmates, and spend my time playing tag in and around an overturned boat hull down by the beach while the adults do their adult things. (Continued below…)

A Side Note:  Norman and Joyce’s music ministry was loved around the islands. Mom could play anything, in any key, on that little organ, and Dad had a remarkable, clear and sonorous voice with enormous range. The new and novel combination of technology and an outstanding music ministry made the Evangel’s arrival a major event in the island villages, and Dad’s simple style of preaching out of the Bible in a storytelling style made everything easy to understand.

The following day, we set up a Vacation Bible School in the little Quonset hut chapel. We show the filmstrips, sing the songs, recite the verses and play lots of games. After lunch, we come back to the chapel for more, and then we all take a hike up the steep mountain that rises behind the village. From the top, Dad takes a few pictures, catching a group of kids playing in a tiny patch of remaining snow. The sun is shining brightly and the colors around and below us are almost violently intense. The kids are suddenly distracted by the fact that one of them has spotted a Kodiak bear in the shallow valley behind us. We and the bear beat polite retreats in opposite directions. With such an incentive, our trip down the mountain is amazingly quick. Dad once had a rifle given to him, but he just stored it in the coat closet of the Evangel for awhile and never used it – likely gave it away to someone who needed it in this hunters’ paradise.  (Continued below…)

An Old Harbor Scrapbook

About the photos:

Top view is of Old Harbor village from about halfway up the mountain behind it. The large red-roofed building is the schoolhouse. The colors really are that vibrant!

Next, the large black and white photo shows a group of local kids plus Joyce Smith at the top, surveying the dramatic mountain range to the north of the village.

Left, above: kids and dogs enjoying a little patch of snow still remaining in early summer.

Right, above: the view of the mountains behind the village taken with the slide camera (same day). Dad often shot both slides and black and white print film when he wanted to be sure to capture the moment.

Left: Dad’s Argus C3 camera, loaded with slow slide film, had no telephoto capabilities. This is a zoom-in of a large Kodiak bear, smelling us out. He went his way, and we turned around and went down the mountain. But what a spectacular setting Old Harbor is graced with!

The Smith family goes back to the boat for supper and a bit of a rest before loading more materials for the evening service into the skiff and heading back to shore. Dad has left the the portable record player ashore, and sticks the speaker out the door of the little chapel to announce the service. Not nearly as formal or solemnly religious as the bells and incense of the Orthodox services, but quite a few people show up nonetheless, perhaps drawn by the novelty of hearing an organ and chimes record for the first time! The host missionary gets up, has a few kind words for Mom and Dad, and preaches about something I don’t recall; I always seem to have an easier time understanding things when Dad speaks. Then Dad sings “Now I Belong to Jesus,” mostly as a solo, and lets the words speak for themselves. Somebody prays, and Dad leads the liturgical benediction,

“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart,

Be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

And may the Lord watch between me and thee,

While we are absent one from the other, Amen!

It is summertime in Alaska, and the weather is clear. So naturally there are still several hours of sunshine left for playing! I try to get into a game with some kids, but by the time the adults are done chatting I’m more than ready to go home to the boat. Soon I will crawl into my sleeping bag on the padded bench that is once more back in its proper place after our rough journey here. Hot cocoa and the gentle lapping of the waves in the bay take the place of throbbing engine sounds as an effective sleep-inducement, and I get yet another great night's sleep on the Evangel. In the morning we’ll have another children’s program before weighing anchor and heading down the island again. Once the services and programs are over, even the reluctant ones are happy to talk and joke with us. Mom and Dad will leave some Gospel literature and encouragement with the local missionary, and say a friendly goodbye to all. Until next trip!  (Continues below…)


Old Harbor is a village with an incredibly rich history. Since those days on the Evangel, Old Harbor has been through a lot. Almost totally destroyed in the Tidal Wave of 1964, only the school and the Orthodox Church survived. The town was swiftly rebuilt, and remains the Kodiak Island area’s largest village. Since then, the village has received national attention of the PBS / Smithsonian / National Geographic variety thanks to renewed interest in the battles between Russians and Natives which resulted in the subjugation of the Island peoples. An early effort (summer of 1961) to uncover some of that history involved our family, two archaeologists, and the Evangel. Our adventures in Rolling Bay (successful) and Three Saints Bay (definitely not) may show up eventually in an article on this site.

But the epilogue for the Evangel’s ministry  to Old Harbor comes in the form of an email I received shortly after posting this article online in the late 1990’s. One of the young ladies whose family forbade her to come to any of our services or children’s activities back then wrote to me as an adult. She had moved some years later to a city on the Alaska mainland. And she still wondered what it was about the Evangel and its mission that was so dangerous. So out of curiosity, she attended a vibrant church in her new town, and in short order became a living, walking follower of Christ. The whole story makes me smile; Old Harbor was by far the hardest “mission field” that the Evangel and its crew ever encountered. But sometimes the Lord can win by losing. The curiosity in that young girl’s heart, ignited by having been forbidden to participate way back then, resulted in an opening for faith many years later.

The Orthodox Church also has its own better ending (from my perspective). A beautiful new Orthodox sanctuary has been built since the Tidal Wave, and in it, the services and liturgies and ceremonies that make Orthodox Christianity so compelling and beautiful are now meaningful. All services are conducted in English, and a priest from the Cathedral in Kodiak (sometimes with a seminarian from the Saint Herman’s Seminary) makes regular trips to the village thanks to the expansion of ferry service via the M/V Tustumena. My late parents would rejoice at such developments, and the spiritual blessings they bring to the historic and beautiful village of Old Harbor.

Above: Old Harbor in panorama from two photos taken in 1953. Right: Old Harbor after being rebuilt, in the summer of 1966. The original Orthodox Church is in the foreground of both photos.

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Beach Scenes at Old Harbor

(Kodiak Island’s Largest Village)

Dad listens intently to the resident missionary in the little Protestant chapel in Old Harbor. In the rear of the room is the Evangel’s filmstrip projector, so up at the front of the room would be the folding screen, the portable record player for the filmstrip’s soundtrack, and the Evangel’s folding pump organ.

Top Left: Our skiff heads toward the Evangel to ferry more supplies to shore. Top Right: local fishermen have brought ashore a fine feast for their families! Above: a busy scene at Kodiak Island’s largest village – things are happening all up and down the beach, as adults work and the children find endlessly creative ways of amusing themselves. These slides were all likelytaken on the same day on one of our visits in the mid-1950’s. The changes in color can be blamed on the changing light of a partly cloudy day and the limitations of the Argus C3 slide camera that Dad was using.

Information from this site can be used for non-commercial purposes with attribution. The text of all the articles on Tanignak.com and TruthTexts.com are copyright 2020 by Timothy L. Smith (see the “About Tanignak.com” link). The photographs are copyright the estate of Rev. Norman L. Smith, or are copyright Timothy L. Smith unless otherwise attributed. Many thanks to the people who have shared their stories and those who have allowed me to use their photographs on Tanignak.com!