The sheer size of Alaska is hard to wrap your head around, especially when you think of serving the Catholics spread throughout the state. One estimate is that the Diocese of Juneau stretches 700 miles, roughly the size of Florida. The Archdiocese of Anchorage is about the size of the state of Montana, covering approximately 139,000 square miles. And, the Diocese of Fairbanks is approximately one and one-half times the size of the state of Texas, totaling 450,000 square miles.
Our first stop in the Archdiocese of Anchorage was in Valdez, widely known as the end of the Alaskan pipeline and the “snow capitol of Alaska.” They mean it: on average they get upwards of 550 inches of snow and a mean black ice that will send the sturdiest parked car down a driveway. Remember, too, that these folks on average experience four hours of sunlight a day in the winter – roughly from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Upon arrival we met Fr. Frank and Sr. Marie, a dynamite team that make you proud to be a Catholic. Valdez just got a parish priest after 22 years without one, and Catholic Extension donors are subsidizing his salary, but that statistic shouldn’t lead one to believe that this parish has been limping along. Sr. Marie, who has been the parish mainstay for 18 years, described Fr. Frank’s arrival as “the cherry on the top of the sundae” they’ve built.
Fr. Frank is assigned to St. Francis Xavier of Valdez as well as another parish 118 miles away. “Think of it as the closest away game,” he said.
Over a wonderful potluck supper, an international smorgasbord that included such local favorites as moose meatloaf, the parishioners shared stories about their inspiring parish. “We Catholics stick together with or without a priest,” one parishioner said. Plus, they added, we’ve had Sr. Marie, who in addition to being the presence of the church, is a mainstay of the community, having served on nearly every board in town and for years as an emergency medical technician (EMT).
The parish was founded in 1903, recalled Mary Ellen, a parishioner, when her great-grandmother followed her husband to the area, where he was working in the lumber business. Not long after arriving, Mary Ellen said, her great-grandmother called the Bishop and said, “We have 10 Catholics here. Send a priest.” It took three days for one to arrive from Skagway and St. Francis Xavier was born.
What’s Sr. Marie’s secret to keeping these parishioners involved? I tell them, she said, that we are all called to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth wherever they are. Put more succinctly, “I want everybody,” she said in her charming, talkative manner, which makes one think it would be tough to say “no” to one of her requests.
She puts every parishioner on a cleaning list, where they help clean the church one weekend a year. She blesses the town Christmas tree and their “hogs” (motorcycles). This year they put Sr. Marie on the back for a short ride after the blessing, earning her a front page photo in the Valdez paper.
“Above the fold,” Sr. boasts about the story’s placement.
She doesn’t make light of the struggles people face living in Valdez: isolation, the cost of living (a gallon of milk can be $12 in parts of Alaska), darkness, the volume of snow, drugs, alcohol and incidents of suicide and sexual abuse. She estimated that 90 percent of her calls as an EMT were from accidents caused “while making the last booze run of the night.”
“This is beautiful country, but it can be a very violent country at the hands of the people or the terrain,” she added.
Sr. Marie builds community the old-fashioned way – she takes everyone in. When two men arrived at the parish having been turned away from a job they had been promised, she found them jobs washing dishes, a room to sleep in and provided them a meal. All by nightfall, she joked.
Amidst her many stories, her deep faith emerges and one realizes how powerful her presence is in Valdez. “If we are not celebrating the Word, sharing Communion, and taking care of those in need, then we are not fulfilling the Word of God on earth and building the body of Christ,” she said.
Sr. Marie will retire this year, but Valdez will remain her home. When thanking her for all her works, she simply replied, “(Catholic) Extension has been with me since I came to Alaska 40 years ago.”
Coming up: Voyage into the Alaskan Bush Country
— Kathy Handelman, Director of Marketing Communications