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Russian Orthodox Archpriest Michael James Oleksa has died at 76

Fr. Michael James Oleksa is seen while giving an interview at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral on July 5, 2021.
Simon Scionka
Sacred Alaska Film
Fr. Michael James Oleksa is seen while giving an interview at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral on July 5, 2021.

The well-known Russian Orthodox missionary and scholar, Archpriest Michael James Oleksa, has died at the age of 76 in Anchorage following a stroke. His death was confirmed by the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sitka and Alaska on Nov. 29.

Oleksa served as a priest in more than a dozen Alaska Native villages across the state over his five decades in Alaska. He came to Kwethluk in 1972, where he met his wife Xenia and served as a deacon before spending time as a priest in Napaskiak.

Retired priest Fr. Martin Nicolai of Kwethluk worked with Oleksa on Yup’ik translations of documents related to Orthodox history in Alaska. He said that Oleksa had deep ties to the local community.

"He married into a Kwethluk family. He was very close to the Yup’ik community," Nicolai said. "He was instrumental in a lot of things, not only the church in Alaska, but for the Alaska Native peoples in general."

Most recently, Oleksa played a key role in the process of nominating Olga Michael of Kwethluk to become the first female Orthodox saint in North America, as well as the first-ever Yup’ik saint. Oleksa met St. Olga when he served as deacon in Kwethluk in the 1970s and spent years compiling the testimonies necessary for her official naming as a saint.

Oleksa was born on March 16, 1947 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He came to Alaska in 1970 from St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York at the invitation of the Alutiiq village of Old Harbor on Kodiak Island.

Oleksa was a leader in cross-cultural communication in Alaska and a student of Alaska Native languages and cultures. He taught at multiple universities in Alaska and published books on Russian Orthodox history, including "Orthodox Alaska" and "Alaskan Missionary Spirituality." He earned his Ph.D. in Slovakia in 1988 with an emphasis on Alaska Native history during the Alaska Russian period (1741-1867).

Oleksa is survived by his wife and children.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.