Alaska may be remote and rugged, but dedicated lay and religious leaders are working to help the Church come of age.
IF ALASKA, which marks its 50th anniversary of statehood in 2009, is known as "The Last Frontier," then the Church in Alaska might aptly be called "The Last Frontier of American Catholicism."
Take, for instance, the Diocese of Fairbanks: It's the largest diocese in the United States in geographical terms, encompassing almost 410,000 square miles. And yet its vast, largely roadless expanse is home to only 14,500 Catholics and around 20 active priests— roughly, one priest for every 20,000 square miles.
Or take the southernmost of Alaska's three dioceses—the Diocese of Juneau. When recently appointed Bishop Edward Burns made his first pastoral visit outside the state's capital city right after Easter, he traveled the Alaska Marine Highway for a seven-hour trip to the village of Pelican.
During the ferry's two-hour turnaround, Bishop Burns offered Easter Mass at Pelican City Hall. Never mind that it was Easter Tuesday: The handful of Catholics in remote Pelican are used to Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest. Masses are usually led by faithful congregants Tammy and Ing Lundahl.
Consider the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska's biggest city. To fly a priest from Anchorage 800 miles out to the archdiocese's most remote parish, St. Christopher by the Sea in Dutch Harbor, costs close to $1,000—and that's if the jet can make it through the often inclement weather.
The first thing to know about Alaska is its size. Forget those maps that place a miniature Alaska down around Hawaii. If an accurate U.S. map was made with Alaska superimposed on it, the state would cover one fifth of the "Lower 48" states, stretching from Florida to the coast of California.
Think of the differences in climate and terrain: from mountains to beaches, tundra to farmland, glaciers to meadows. Then imagine the challenges of ministry.
Archbishop Roger Schwietz has served the Anchorage Archdiocese since 2001. "The most pressing need we face right now is in the area of priestly ministry," says the archbishop, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who formerly served as the bishop of Duluth.
"We don't have the priests we used to have," he continues, "although we are gradually maturing into a Church that can take care of itself."
An example of that, Archbishop Schwietz says, is Father Leo Walsh, born and raised in Alaska, who has been named to serve as the assistant director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Although the archdiocese will miss his pastoral presence, the archbishop says that Father Walsh's appointment is a sign of the coming-of-age of the Church in Alaska.
The Anchorage Archdiocese covers 139,000 square miles, and yet has only eight priests currently active who are incardinated into the archdiocese. That number is supplemented by priests "on loan" from other dioceses, other countries and religious orders, including the archbishop's own Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The Oblates staff a threepriest team covering the Kenai Peninsula, a region south of Anchorage.
Despite the shortage of priests, the Anchorage Archdiocese has 32 vibrant parishes and missions. Parishes in urban Anchorage are much like city parishes anywhere, and the city has its share of strip malls and stores like Target and Wal-Mart.
But beyond Anchorage, one will find rural churches which see a priest only once or twice a month. In a program pioneered by Archbishop Emeritus Francis Hurley, a network of lay and religious parish directors ministers to parishes and conducts services in the absence of a priest.
"They're fully responsible for the parish," says the retired Archbishop Hurley. "They do everything but what only a priest can do."
A good example of this lay leadership is Renamary Rauchenstein, who has been the director at St. Bernard Parish in Talkeetna for 12 years. Talkeetna, 120 miles north of Anchorage at the archdiocese's northern edge, is a tourist mecca at the base of Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak.
The parish hasn't had a resident priest in 15 years. Like so many other small churches throughout Alaska, St. Bernard was built with assistance from The Catholic Church Extension Society, an organization whose mission is to strengthen "the Church's presence and mission in under-resourced and isolated communities across the United States." It has been a source of support for the Alaskan Church.
Rauchenstein, the mother of eight, presides over Word and Communion services in the absence of a priest, and presents reflections on the Sunday Scripture for the 35 families who make up the parish. The population swells when the summer tourists descend.
"I'm a volunteer. Everyone volunteers," she says. When Rauchenstein looks out at the parish on Sunday, "There's not one family that's not involved."
St. Bernard's has paid for a visiting priest from Tanzania to come to Talkeetna each summer for the past five summers. An Irish monk arrived this fall and will spend several months ministering to the parish. Priests "on the circuit" visit from Anchorage sporadically during the winters.
Rauchenstein says the parish yearns for a year-round priest for the sacraments and pastoral presence, but the years without a resident priest have given parishioners a sense of ownership of their parish.
"The previous model of priesthood—what the priest says goes—isn't the model of priesthood we need here now," says Rauchenstein.
Rauchenstein studied under Gonzaga University's Pastoral Leadership Program, which was offered to lay leaders in the Archdiocese of Anchorage. Earlier, Loyola University in New Orleans brought a master's program into the archdiocese.
Under Archbishop Roger Schwietz's leadership, Seattle University—another Jesuit institution—brought a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry program to Anchorage to train lay leadership. Thirteen Catholics from the Archdiocese of Anchorage, one from the Diocese of Juneau and one from the Diocese of Fairbanks will graduate by December. These programs have given Alaska a proportionally high number of welleducated lay leaders.
With 400,000 people, the Archdiocese of Anchorage encompasses nearly two thirds of the state's population, but only about eight percent of that number is Catholic. Alaska is, by and large, an "unchurched" place.
To the north of the Archdiocese of Anchorage lies the less populated and more rugged Diocese of Fairbanks, where Bishop Donald Kettler faces unique ministry challenges. It's the fabled "Land of the Midnight Sun" in the warm summer, but long months of total darkness descend in winter on its northernmost reaches.
"We experienced a significant change since the late 1970s, when we had over 50 Jesuits serving in the Fairbanks Diocese," says Bishop Kettler, the first non-Jesuit to head the diocese. "Today, we have four active Jesuits."
That decrease stems not only from declining numbers of ordinations, but also from sexual-abuse allegations that were leveled against a handful of Jesuits who had served in the diocese, many of them dead when the allegations surfaced.
Drawn-out lawsuits have discouraged younger Jesuits from coming north, and indeed both the diocese and the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus are reorganizing under Chapter 11 in the scandal's wake.
The Jesuits were among Alaska's original missionaries, and their departure leaves a gap. Together with the Ursuline Sisters and the Sisters of St. Ann, they operated a network of mission boarding schools, now closed, in the Alaskan interior.
And with the Sisters of St. Ann, they began the original Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Copper Valley in the 1950s, an organization which has spread nationally and internationally in the years since.
The Fairbanks Diocese also boasts the oldest Catholic radio station in the country: KNOM, broadcasting from Nome, went on the air in 1971. It has been showered with awards from Catholic and secular media professionals because of its community focus.
Bishop Kettler remains optimistic about his diocese, the only fully missionary Catholic diocese in the United States, falling under the "Congregation of the Evangelization of Peoples" in the Church's international missionary wing.
"The lawsuits have certainly been a distraction," says Bishop Kettler, who arrived from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 2002 to head up the Fairbanks Diocese. "But I've been so impressed with the Jesuits and with the people of Alaska."
Most of Bishop Kettler's 46 parishes and missions are in native, interior Alaska—small Yu'pik Eskimo or Athabascan Indian villages not on the road system. Most are accessible only by small planes landing on narrow gravel airstrips. It makes for an incredibly expensive and difficult ministry.
Only eight of Bishop Kettler's parishes are self-supporting. But Bishop Kettler says that donors have remained loyal, and diocesan priests are beginning to replenish the ranks of missionary Jesuits.
The Catholic Church Extension Society provides needed help, and an inhouse publication—The Alaskan Shepherd—reaches thousands of donors around the nation monthly.
All of Alaska is home to native groups, but nowhere does native culture remain as strong as in the Diocese of Fairbanks.
"The native people are caught in the middle between American culture and their subsistence lifestyle," Bishop Kettler observes. "They are on a difficult journey now. The greatest healer is presence, and the greatest challenge we face is bringing the presence of the Church."
His rural team of priests, sisters, lay ministers and native deacons attempts to provide what one of them described as "a ministry of presence on this journey."
Franciscan Sister Cathy Radich is the coordinator of rural ministry in the Fairbanks Diocese and serves 24 Yu'pik villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.
It shouldn't surprise "outsiders" (what Alaskans call the rest of the world) that the Church there is ministering to native peoples who have been in the region for millennia. It's more surprising to learn that Alaska and the Alaskan Church are experiencing the same influx of new residents as the rest of the country.
For example, the Anchorage School District reports that 95 different languages are spoken by its students. Catholic Social Services in Anchorage is the official Alaskan liaison for refugees assigned to the state through the State Department and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. In the past year they've welcomed people from Bhutan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other far corners of the earth.
Sunday Mass in Spanish is offered across the state, and on the island of Kodiak, in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, St. Mary's Parish built a center to serve the large number of Latinos. The church in Dutch Harbor, at the end of the Aleutian Chain, serves a large percentage of Filipinos and Vietnamese who come to work in fish-processing plants.
One of Anchorage's best parish choirs is, in fact, Samoan. And Anchorage's newest parish, St. Andrew Kim, serves the Korean community with a priest loaned from a South Korean diocese.
"Gas prices in the bush reach over $7 a gallon and heating fuel over $8 a gallon," she says.
Even without roads, Alaska natives use snow machines and boats for transportation and subsistence hunting and fishing. The harsh winter of 2008 meant an early freeze kept the supply barges from arriving, and many supplies had to be flown in, adding to the expense and hardship.
"The price of air travel is astounding," says Sister Radich. To travel from Emmonak—the village where she's stationed—to Anchorage costs $720. A journey from the small village of Scammon Bay to the village of St. Mary's 90 miles away costs $660 by air.
Sister Radich believes that lay leadership is extremely important. The Yu'pik people, especially the elders, are committed to the faith. In addition to lay presiders on Sundays, a rite has been developed for laypeople to conduct Triduum services in villages where it's impossible to provide a priest for Easter.
Thirty-five years ago, villages had no television and might be lucky to have one phone for communal use. Today the modern world is rapidly encroaching on rural life.
"I never thought I would hear myself say in a village, â€˜Please turn your cell phones off!'" laughs Sister Radich.
In March of 2009, Deacon Ted Greene from the Anchorage Archdiocese traveled to St. Mary's, a village on the Andreafsky River, to conduct a retreat for 25 Yu'pik Eskimo deacons and their wives. As Deacon Greene delivered his talks, a young Eskimo woman translated his words into the Yu'pik language, which is still commonly used in the area.
"Some of these men were secondgeneration deacons. I was humbled by their ministry. Some of them have been doing this for 50 years," Deacon Greene says.
"There's Allen who gets on his snowmobile and goes 14 miles up the frozen Yukon River to baptize a baby and then 14 miles back. It's dark and cold and dangerous. And then he goes another 20 miles to sit with an elderly woman who's dying," says Greene.
The deacon program is vital to communities where priests may not be seen for months at a time.
Deacon Greene realizes the 25 deacons and their wives have a common lament. "They have a sense of loss because they see the disappearance of their way of life. Many of their young people are not as willing to learn the subsistence ways."
Down in Juneau, along Alaska's panhandle, newly installed Bishop Edward Burns arrived from Pittsburgh in April 2009. He works with nine priests who serve 15 parishes and missions.
"No two towns are joined by road," says the affable bishop of his maritime diocese.
"But I have a great group of men in Juneau. Every morning I have a conference call with all nine of my priests. We have announcements and then a morning prayer together."
Bishop Burns says he was surprised, and disheartened, when told that his new diocese was only 10-percent Catholic.
"In Pittsburgh, it's more like 40 percent. But then I learned that, at 10 percent, the Catholic Church was the largest faith community, and that 60 percent of residents claimed to be unchurched. I recognize that as a great opportunity for evangelization."
Juneau is the state capital, a small city of streets that wind scenically into the mountains that surround the town. Cruise ships bring visitors throughout the summer, and the business of government is a mainstay of the economy.
But in villages like Pelican, where Tammy and Ing Lundahl met, commercial fishing dominates the economy.
The Lundahls met when Ing came to Alaska in the 1960s to work on a fishing boat. Tammy was there visiting her sister. The two married and did something uniquely Alaskan: They bought their own island—a two-acre spread where the only electricity comes from their generator. They raised three children there.
And, every Sunday, "come rain or shine," they travel to Pelican bringing with them the Eucharist which they reserve in a tabernacle in their home. Pelican is a charming village with a mile-long boardwalk and houses built on pilings.
At one time over 12 Catholics and a handful of Protestants would meet to pray together. Today, Pelican's size has shrunk to only about 80 people due to declines in the fishing markets. Only one or two other couples regularly join Tammy and Ing for Communion services in the absence of a priest. After the service, the Lundahls take the Eucharist to a 90-year-old woman who is homebound.
The Protestants have their own nondenominational church building now. After the Catholic service is complete, the two groups combine for a church fellowship potluck.
"It's all part of being Christian in an isolated area," says Ing.
He prizes his leadership role in the Catholic community. He received some training in lay ministry in Juneau and was formally commissioned by Bishop Michael Kenny 22 years ago. While at first Ing would deliver a reflection at services, he later discovered the best thing was for the congregation, no matter the size, to discuss the readings.
Tammy says the community once went 15 months without a priest. "We divided the host into eight pieces. We were literally down to crumbs," she says.
Today, a priest or, on special occasions, a bishop, comes about eight times a year.
Archbishop Schwietz, Bishop Burns, Bishop Kettler and Archbishop Hurley are joining efforts in their regional conference—the Alaska Catholic Conference—to find ways to link the rural/ urban divide and to establish methods for the three dioceses to help each other.
One way, says Archbishop Schwietz, is a plan to share ministry, allowing rural priests to trade places with urban priests and move between dioceses for service and renewal.
Recently, the ninth Alaska Catholic Youth Conference was held in Anchorage, and 180 enthusiastic teens from all three dioceses attended. One theme was "bridging the rural/urban divide." Ironically, because of high airfares, almost no teens from the distant villages of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta were able to attend.
The Church in Alaska has roots going back to 1779, when a Spanish Franciscan celebrated the first Mass in Alaska near present-day Craig, a small town in the Juneau Diocese.
But slow population growth meant that it was 1951 until the first diocese in Alaska was established in Juneau. In 1962, the Diocese of Fairbanks was established. It literally took the earth moving to bring about the creation of the Archdiocese of Anchorage. After the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, international attention was drawn to Alaska.
Anchorage became an archdiocese in 1966, just before the great Trans- Alaskan Pipeline was built in the 1970s extending from the North Slope to its terminus 800 miles south in Valdez.
Today, Catholics in Alaska face many challenges: a vast area with few priests, an unchurched population, Alaska natives struggling to maintain their identity in a changing world and an ongoing effort to educate lay leaders to keep the Church growing.
But perhaps it's best to use the word Bishop Burns uses—opportunity: "It's the opportunity to evangelize."
With this attitude, the Church in Alaska moves forward optimistically into its second half-century of statehood. St. Anthony Messenger