The spring 2006 First Communion
class at Holy Family Church in
Newtok, Alaska, gathers with their
teacher, Albertina Charles.
PHOTO BY BRAD REYNOLDS, S.J.
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
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
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
Archdiocese of Anchorage:
From Urban to Bush
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Catholic Church Extension Society
provides needed help, and an inhouse
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
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
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,"
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, ‘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
"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
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
"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
Bishop Burns says he was surprised,
and disheartened, when told that his
new diocese was only 10-percent
"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
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
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
"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
Today, a priest or, on special occasions,
a bishop, comes about eight times
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
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.