Into the Bush Country (Alaska part 3)

Bethel, Alaska, in the Diocese of Fairbanks, is the largest of all 600 Bush villages.  Bethel is a “hub” for planes in and out of the region, serving 56 villages.  It’s a hub because the only way to get in and out of Bethel and the rest of the Bush country is by boat or plane.  Half of the village of Bethel just got indoor plumbing; no cell phone service is available in the entire area.  As opposed to the gorgeous mountains, cascading waterfalls and pristine coast of Valdez, the Bush country is tundra – flat and treeless, with millions of lakes, marshes and mosquitoes- what they call the State Bird of Alaska.

The expansive Bush country in Alaska.

Everyday life is tough and challenging in the Bush country, but these Native Alaskans are a happy and faith-filled people.  They are Yu-pic Americans; Yu-pic meaning “the real people.”  We grew up calling them “Eskimos.”

Many of the people revel in the challenges and take joy and pride in their way of life.  Justin, who is finishing up two years with the Jesuit Volunteer Corp., said he “wanted to come to the Bush Country of Alaska ever since he was a little kid.”  He is discerning the priesthood, and has been leading the youth group for 8th-12th graders.

“Bethel comes alive in the winter,” Justin explained, noting that “snow machining,” ice fishing, dog mushing, cross country skiing, para-skiing and other outdoor activities keep the village going, even in days that reach negative 70 degrees.  “Negative 25 (-25 degrees Fahrenheit) is like summer,” he laughed.  The first snow hit last year on September 29.  It’s so cold in Bethel in winter that pipes are raised above ground – those placed in the ground freeze and crack.

Justin leads a youth group for 8th-12th graders.

Justin is even optimistic when discussing living in the freezing cold in four hours of sunlight, on average each day, in winter.  “I get to see the sunrise and sunset every day,” he noted.  “And the stars, they are ‘planetarium’ clear.  In the summer, it’s so light until so late that you don’t get to see the stars.”

Bethel, like other communities in Alaska, is dealing with serious social issues – high rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, Justin explained.  “We do a lot of counseling,” he said, noting it took six months for the kids to open up to him.  Fr. Chuck Peterson and Susan Murphy, parish administrator of Immaculate Conception Parish, here, are so well-known and respected in the community that much of their time is spent providing counseling.

Immaculate Conception, which was built by Catholic Extension donors, is a hub of activity in the area and it does everything it possibly can to sustain itself.  As we arrive, we view an entire building – one of its former church buildings – filled with tables of paperback and hardcover books, meticulously sorted by type and in alphabetical order.  The book sale took days of sorting to set up, Susan explained.  It looks to me that it would have taken months.  In the next building an entire “rummage” sale is set up, providing more income for the church and clothing and supplies needed by the people.

Fr. Chuck Peterson in Immaculate Conception, a church built by Catholic Extension donors.

Under Fr. Chuck’s direction, Immaculate Conception is a very inclusive parish community, celebrating the cultural heritage of the people with the richness of the faith.  Ten languages are spoken in the parish and for Pentecost Fr. Chuck had parishioners create banners with the “Our Father” in their native tongue.  Thirty line the walls.

Fr. Chuck and the diocese are intent on training the Yu-pic people to take leadership positions in the church and they have successfully embraced a diaconate training program that “blends Roman Catholicism with the gifts of the Native culture.”

Catholicism is strong and vibrant in Bethel, nurtured by caring people who have a great respect for the people they serve.  It is a privilege to witness the church in its many forms, but true to its adoration of the Word and the Eucharist.

— Kathy Handelman, Director of Marketing Communications

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Nobody Solves a Problem Like Sr. Marie (Alaska Part 2)

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.

In Valdez, most travel is "by boat or plane."

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).

St Francis Xavier shares Fr. Frank with another parish 118 miles away.

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

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

No Catholic Left Behind (Alaska Part 1)

Ever since Fr. Wall joined Catholic Extension as president in 2007, the dioceses of Alaska – Juneau and Fairbanks along with the Archdiocese of Anchorage – have been encouraging him to visit,  to experience this unique expression of the Church that is supported by Catholic Extension donors.  This week we landed in Juneau, the smallest diocese in the country in terms of population, but one in which nine priests and one bishop “shepherd a flock” spread out over 700 miles, the size of Florida, and much of it navigable only by boat or plane.  The severe weather, vast distances and time it takes to travel are mind-boggling.  The spirit and faith of these Catholics is awe-inspiring.  The needs are great.

Bishop Burns of Juneau welcomes Fr. Wall to Shrine of St. Terese, a Catholic landmark on SE AK coastline.

According to locals, Alaska has the highest rate of suicide in the entire U.S, double the rest of the country.  It also has the highest rate of domestic violence.  The sheer beauty of southeast Alaska – snow-capped mountains and pristine glacial waters – can overshadow these tough realities. Yet, one becomes inspired by the faith and tenacity of the people coming together at the church even when they can’t have a priest on a regular basis.  (Catholics comprise about 10 percent of the population; more staggering is that approximately 60 percent of Alaskan’s are “unchurched.”)

We traveled by boat to Tenakee Springs (pop 131) where parishioners start pouring into the newly renovated St. Francis Chapel the minute the boat docks.  One parishioner has renovated the chapel with his own hands; another’s son-in-law has built the beautiful, rustic altar; another has  painstakingly repaired the broken pieces of the crucifix.  These are hands-on Catholics ready to celebrate the Eucharist any time a priest comes.  Catholic Extension has built or helped renovate nearly every church in Alaska and these parishioners – a faithful, outspoken bunch – are grateful for any chance to receive the Word or the Eucharist.  They are hungry for more.

Karla Donaghey of Diocese of Juneau restored the broken, worn crucifix for St. Francis Chapel in Tenakee Springs, AK (pop 104).

The next stop is Hoonah, a predominantly Native American community of 700 nearly two hours from Juneau.  Tragedy struck here last summer when two local policemen were gunned down for no apparent reason by a citizen.  The diocese is still trying to support the parishioners of Sacred Heart and the community as they recover from their shock and grief.

We celebrate Mass with Bishop Burns and Fr. Wall, among others.  One parishioner arrives in a wheelchair, delighted with the opportunity to experience the liturgy.  He prays a special intention “for those suffering from drug and alcohol abuse.”  He is accompanied by his friend, a woman, and they clutch hands as the Mass unfolds.  She has designed and painted Sacred Heart’s nameplate – another sign of the love and care these parishioners pour into their churches.

Back in Juneau, we learn that 32 young Catholics have worked tirelessly to raise the funds to attend World Youth Day in Madrid this summer.  Spaghetti suppers, car washes, raffle tickets, “chorebusters,” movie nights, and the presence of “kids at the church all the time running fundraisers” – coupled with funds from Catholic Extension donors – are making the trip possible.  It’s so important for these kids “to see and experience the universal church firsthand,” explained John, their youth ministry director.

Bishop Burns celebrating Mass in Juneau at the Catheral of the Nativity of the BVM.

With a diocese this vast, investing in technology is top of mind, explained Bishop Burns.  He’s already using Skype to communicate with youth groups too far away to reach.  It will be critical for adult faith formation as well as lay leader training.

We often hear that it’s our duty to ensure “no child is left behind.”  Visiting the Diocese of Juneau makes you realize that it’s also imperative to make sure “no Catholic is left behind.”  Thanks to Catholic Extension donors, and the work of some very determined, dedicated people, it’s working.

— Kathy Handelman, Director of Marketing Communications