|Alaska Presbyterian icon Walter Soboleff dead at 102, Was one of first Alaska Natives in PC(USA) ministry|
|Written by Jerry L. Van Marter|
|Friday, 03 June 2011 19:33|
The Rev. Walter Soboleff, one of the first Alaskan Native Americans ordained to|
ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.,) died May 22 in Juneau, Alaska, of bone
cancer and prostate cancer. He was 102.
In 2008, this reporter ― who served with Soboleff on the board of trustees of Sheldon
Jackson College in Sitka, his alma mater ― interviewed him at length during Alaska
Presbytery’s celebration of his 100th birthday.
The full text of that story:
Walter Soboleff, first Alaska Native Presbyterian minister, turns 100
SITKA, Alaska (PNS) Walter Soboleff feels a particular kinship with Old Testament
patriarch Abraham. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house
to the land that I will show you” — that famous summons from God into an unknown
future recorded in Genesis 12 — resonates deeply in Soboleff’s life and spirit.
Today (Nov. 14, 2008), Walter Soboleff turns 100. His journey of faith from the now-
extinct Alaskan village named Killisnoo where he was born in 1908 to this day, when
he is one of the most revered leaders in Alaska, is the stuff of sprawling saga that only
James Michener could write. In fact, you could probably catch glimpses of Walter
Soboleff in Michener’s novel “Alaska.”
During his remarkable life, Walter Soboleff became the first Alaska Native American
ordained to the ministry in the Presbyterian Church, the first preacher in Alaska to
have his sermons broadcast live on radio and the co-founder of the first Alaska Native
organization to work for the preservation of Native language and culture. He is, today,
after nearly 70 years of ministry, arguably the spiritual leader of Alaska’s Native
Soboleff’s grandfather, John, migrated to Alaska when it was still owned by Russia.
John, a Russian Orthodox priest, baptized Walter in the little Russian church in
Killisnoo on the southeast Alaskan mainland. The town was inexplicably abandoned
Walter’s father, Alexander Ivan Soboleff, married a Tlingit woman, Anna Hunter.
When Alexander died at a young age and the widowed Anna was unable to care for
the family, she sent Walter to a Russian Orthodox boarding school in Sitka. This city
had been the provincial capital of Alaska before the U.S. purchased the territory from
the Russians in the mid-19th century.
The school’s financial support from the motherland dried up shortly after the Russian
revolution in 1917. So Walter moved up the street to Sheldon Jackson School
(now college), where he lived and studied from fifth grade through his high school
graduation in 1928. He became a Presbyterian in 1921.
“There was no dissatisfaction,” Walter says. “I had been a [Russian Orthodox] altar
boy and it was fun. Becoming Presbyterian was just one of those things.”
The seeds of his call to ministry were planted by Jackson L. Webster, who taught
theology at Sheldon Jackson School. “There were only two of us in the class,” Walter
recalls. “Mr. Webster saw the possibility of me becoming a clergyman. I told him I’d
think it over. Three months later I told him I’d give it a try.”
Walter was offered a “full ride” to the Presbyterian Church’s University of
Dubuque. “This was during the Depression and very few in Alaska, especially
Natives, were in college at that time.”
During his college years, Soboleff could seldom afford trips back home to Alaska. “It
got a little easier when I was in seminary (also at Dubuque) because seminary students
could travel on the Northern Pacific railroad for a penny a mile.” During his second
year of college Walter managed to save enough money from odd jobs to buy a ticket
on a freighter from Seattle to Sitka. “So I hitchhiked from Dubuque to Seattle … now
THAT was an adventure.”
Though thousands of miles away from his beloved Alaska, Walter says he
experienced very little homesickness. “The campus had a strong Christian atmosphere
and that was helpful,” he recalls. “And I made it my business to go to church every
He describes his first two years of college as “a new world with new ideas opening
up.” He confesses that he went through periods of doubt — both about his Christianity
and about being so far from home. “But simple faith is so powerful,” he says.
Upon graduating from seminary in 1940, Soboleff, who had already established
a reputation in the Midwest as a spellbinding preacher, turned down a number of
pulpit offers in the then-existing 48 states (Alaska did not become a state until 1959).
Instead, he returned home as pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Juneau, a
new church sponsored by the Board of National Missions.
“Memorial Church was a mission to the Tlingits, because racial bias was so great that
non-Natives wouldn’t welcome Natives in their churches,” Walter says.
Memorial Church had struggled for a number of years — had been without a pastor
for two years before Soboleff came — “so the elders agreed to open the church
to anyone who wanted to come, and all kinds of people started to attend!” Walter
says. “No one could imagine an integrated church in Alaska!”
In 1947 a local radio station began broadcasting Memorial Church’s worship services
— another first in Alaska — and soon Soboleff developed a devoted following that
reached far beyond the walls of his tiny sanctuary.
After overcoming segregation in his congregation, Soboleff trained his sights on the
bigger problem by helping to found the Alaska Native Brotherhood, which eventually
prodded the Alaska legislature to pass statewide anti-discrimination laws.
Over the next 30 years, Soboleff worked tirelessly to expand gains against anti-
Native discrimination into programs throughout the state to honor and preserve Native
Alaskan language, art and culture. In 1970 he moved to Fairbanks, where he started
the first Alaska Native Studies Department in the state at the University of Alaska-
“It was a far cry from 1904, when the federal government banned Native identity
programs,” Walter says. “After that the Tlingit culture went underground, because
Natives didn’t want to lose their identity.”
Interest in preserving Native culture continues to grow, Walter says. “The high
schools and colleges are teaching language and art — there is great appreciation for
Native culture and people.”
Soboleff was crushed when, in 1962, Alaska Presbytery and the Board of National
Missions decided to close Memorial Presbyterian Church. “I never knew why,” he
says wistfully. “It was a flourishing little church. The members fought it, but it was a
Further adventures were awaiting. For the next eight years, Soboleff plied the frigid
waters of Alaska’s intracoastal waterways as a “traveling evangelist” on two small
ships. These “floating sanctuaries” — the Princeton Hall and then the Anna Jackman
— were owned by the Presbyterian Church.
The floating ministry regularly visited between eight and 10 remote village churches,
bringing a teaching, preaching and sacramental ministry to the farthest reaches of
Alaska. The ships also visited marine stations and logging camps and during the
summers conducted vacation Bible schools in villages that were only accessible by
“The workers in the camps appreciated our efforts to minister with them,” Walter
says, “and, oh, those young people, how they loved to see us coming to teach them the
Improved educational opportunities are the most significant development Soboleff has
seen in his beloved Alaska during his lifetime. “Our young people are so much better
educated than when I was one of few Natives in college,” he says. “We have Native
doctors, lawyers, educators, political leaders — it has made our people so much
Such growth is not without its challenges for the church, however. “The government
and the Native corporations have drained a lot of our leadership into the corporate
world, which is good, I guess, but we have problems of leadership in the spiritual
world,” Walter says. “On the other hand, we have Native leaders who are active in our
churches, and that’s good.”
After 100 years Soboleff has few regrets. The only one he’s willing to mention is “that
I haven’t won more people to Jesus. It makes my Easter when I can lead someone to
Jesus during Lent,” he says.
“If each person would challenge himself or herself to lead just one person to Jesus
each year, the church would double!” Soboleff says. “But too many people think it’s
the preacher’s job when we all KNOW it’s each Christian’s job.”
Soboleff is still very active. He travels regularly between his home in Juneau and
Sitka, where his wife lives in a nursing home. He preaches regularly and is a fixture
on radio and television, interviewed constantly on radio and television and quoted in
the newspapers, fiercely defending Native Alaskans’ rights and culture and gently
calling people to forswear the material for the sake of the spiritual.
For 100 years that faith has propelled Walter Soboleff. “It’s Jesus that makes these
things happen,” he says. “And whatever Jesus has made me do makes me feel so