(Note: This was written for an article in the Cordova Times in Oct. 2012. The sentiments expressed remain true; we’d love to receive more pictures and stories from these buildings’ past service to Cordova!)
St. George’s and the Red Dragon say, “Thank you, Cordovans!”
by the Rev. Belle Mickelson
Come and share your stories of St. George’s and the Red Dragon Thursday, Oct. 25from 6:30-8:30 pm at the Red Dragon. It’s a party to thank and honor the people of Cordova who have helped keep the church going for 108 years! We’ll be collecting stories and pictures for a Church and Red Dragon Yearbook.
This past year, I started thinking about the people that built the church and those that have kept it going year after year—helping folks here and there with prayers and resources. Maybe they were an acolyte, helped run the soup kitchen, bought something at a rummage sale, cut the grass, came to a square dance, mailed a Christmas package to kids in a village–or just went to the church for a few months. Little by little, everyone has kept it going so these buildings and grounds are there for us to enjoy—sacred places that inspire us and bring out the best in each of us.
Just since we’ve announced the Red Dragon Party, I’ve heard from the Rev. Bob Thwing who mentioned that one of the priests had several fish aquariums in the church basement. And I’ve met some of the Rev. Glen Wilcox family members who talked about living in the rectory in Cordova during the ’64 earthquake—with many fond memories of how Cordovans pulled together afterwards.
In 1983, Nicki Nielsen wrote The Red Dragon and St. George’s: Glimpses Into Cordova’s Past. She tells about how the Red Dragon is Cordova’s oldest building–dedicated on July 14th, 1908 as a clubhouse and reading room for the community and for the men building the Copper River Railroad.
“The opening day festivities… were attended by the pioneer Alaska missionary Bishop Peter Trimble Rowe, Red Dragon founder Rev. E. P. Newton and layman and summer worker Leonard Todd. At 2 pm that afternoon Chief Joseph and twenty-four natives of Eyak Village entertained those present.”
The Red Dragon Clubhouse was open from 10 am to midnight seven days a week—with church services and Sunday School on Sunday. It was well stocked with reading material—600 books plus magazines and writing materials. There was a piano and a pool table.
The Rev. E. P. Newton wrote about the Red Dragon Clubhouse in 1910 in the Alaska-Yukon Magazine. “Several considerations entered into the choice of a name. We wished to get far away from the church idea, the faintest suggestion that preaching and praying religion might be served up daily by stealth on the unwilling (the religion of human sympathy and helpfulness is there all the time without any advertising of itself). The future church will be called St. George’s, and the dragon is a proper concomitant…”
St. George’s Church was consecrated on Easter Sunday, April 20th, 1919. It was designed in the English architectural tradition by Cordova’s first priest, Eustice P. Ziegler. “Zieg” later became known as one of Alaska’s best artists. In addition to building and leading services at the church, he organized numerous Red Dragon activities including boxing matches, dances, card games, concerts, popcorn parties—all in an effort to keep people out of the town’s two dozen saloons. He traveled up and down the Copper River Railroad holding services and helping the railroad workers. Ziegler also served as scoutmaster of Cordova Troop 1. His wife Mary “had a special interest in working with women and children from the native village… She encouraged them to attend SundaySchool. Although the native people attended the Russian Orthodox Church, they had no resident priest at that time and the parents appeared to her to be… appreciative of what was being done for the children.”
Michael Heney, the builder of the Copper River Railroad gave a large donation to Bishop Rowe for the building of the Red Dragon—and in his will “left $10,000 to the Bishop for the work of the Episcopal Church among the Interior Natives.” The church was dedicated in memory of E.C. Hawkins, chief engineer of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway.
For many years, the Red Dragon served as the town’s library. Priests and their families came and left with activities that included theatre; valentine parties, scouts, the Order of Sir Galahad for boys, the Girls Friendly Society; and the Fellowship for Biblical Research. Rev. Kent in 1927 took his Sunday School class outdoors “teaching them the patience and artistry of God through simple geology; the beauty of the earth through simple botany; the wonder of God’s mind through simple entomology.”
With the decline in the railroad, the church ceased regular services from 1934-39, but the Red Dragon Clubhouse remained open thanks to the efforts of the Women’s Guild. Congregants were just visited once a year by the bishop. In 1939, Father Mervin Wanner took up residences in both Cordova and Valdez, “spending a month at a time in each community.” At a congregational meeting, “members pledged their support, made plans for the future and expressed the hope the church would never again be closed.”
In 1951 Father Wanner left and various others filled in. In 1956, “the Rev. and Mrs. Lewis Hodgkins arrived in Cordova, giving St. George’s a full-time resident priest for the first time in 25 years! The Red Dragon experienced a roof fire during a confirmation class—but was saved thanks to the quick action of neighbors and the fire department.
In 1961, the Rev. Glen Wilcox and his family came to Cordova. He was an excellent photographer and a founding member of the Cordova Historical Society and Museum. During this time, the State Highway Department planned to widen the Copper River Highway. To save the Red Dragon, Glen and Bishop Gordon worked together with other Cordovans to cut a deal with the Highway Department. The plans were modified slightly, and thanks to the building of a concrete retaining wall—the Red Dragon stayed in place.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, St. George’s joined with the Baptist Church in sharing a joint Sunday School. The Rev. Diane Tickell, one of the first ordained women, arrived as priest-in-charge in 1979. Her friendly smile and love of animals made her an inspiration to many. Diane revived the tradition of opening the church and the Red Dragon in the summer as a reading and gathering place for those fishing and working in the canneries.
In 1982, “the Red Dragon and the church building were accepted into the National Register of Historic Places under the listing ‘Red Dragon Historic District.’ Priests in succeeding years included the Rev. Ron Heister, the Rev. Barbara Smith, and now the Rev. Belle Mickelson. Belle teaches music here in the Cordova schools and also travels out to Alaskan villages teaching guitar and fiddle with a program called Dancing with the Spirit www.dancingwiththespirit.org
Members of the current St. George’s vestry include Seawan Gehlbach, Neva Nolan, Barclay Kopchak, Kris Kokborg, Cece Wiese, Joy Rawlins, and Dustin Solberg. For more information, check out St. George’s new web page www.stgeorgescordova.org or email me at email@example.com Thank you everyone for your help over the years—and now! Bring your mementos and old pictures so we can photograph and scan them