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.
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.
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.
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