Effort behind making amends on controversial closure of church 60 years later

Walter Soboleff was the first Alaska Native ordained minister at a Juneau church that unexpectedly closed in 1962
Published: Nov. 28, 2022 at 10:48 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The audience was small, but the testimony was mighty inside the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter Soboleff building in downtown Juneau.

The discussion held on Nov. 14 was centered around the efforts to heal an old wound from 60 years ago; the closing of a church led by Tlingit spiritual leader, Walter Soboleff.

“There’s so many things we can say about Dr. Soboleff,” Lillian Petershoare, co-leader of the Overture Subcommittee, said in a recent interview. “He gave so much to this community and was so well-respected within the Native community and within the non-Native community.”

For more than 20 years, Soboleff was the pastor at Memorial Presbyterian Church in Alaska’s capitol city. In the beginning, it served a predominantly Alaska Native congregation but was later opened up to non-Native members as well.

“In addition to everything he did at the Memorial church, he was a leading voice of an interest, he was active, he taught — he was part of the church for the National Guard in Alaska. He did a million things,” Myra Munson, an Overture Subcommittee member, added.

In 1962, the Alaska Presbytery and the National Board of Missions, which owned the church, shut it down without any explanation.

“It was 50% of the membership of the Memorial church chose to at least move their membership over to the Northern Light church, 50% dropped out,” Munson said.

Within three years, many who had changed churches eventually stopped going.

“But it left this wound in the community with families that had been part of Memorial church and the community at large,” Munson said.

Now, 60 years later and after decades of silence, reparations and a formal apology are in the works for the damage caused by the unexplained closure.

“By addressing the wrongs of the past, you begin to heal, and it’s so important to do this because so much of church history with Presbyterianism was stamping out Tlingit culture,” Petershoare said.

“The other piece of the work that was done and that is what I think the non-Native part of the church, as well as the Native members, believe is so critical, is that we not repeat the history,” Munson added.

Soboleff died in 2011 at the age of 102. He never received a formal apology, but those behind the effort to keep this story alive feel he would be proud of this moment.

“I could just see him smiling in this modest way, saying good job,” Overture Subcommittee Member Maxine Richert said.

On Indigenous People’s Day — which will be marked on Oct. 9 in 2023 — a ceremonial apology will be given and accepted in Juneau.