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Ministering to 5,000 Catholics along a 400-mile coast in Alaskan diocese

Juneau, Alaska

In a contest for most beautiful diocese, Juneau -- with its glaciers, rain forests, fjords, lakes, mountains, rivers, waterfalls and wildlife -- could win, hands down.

But the challenges of ministering to 5,500 Catholics in 11 parishes and 16 missions and stations dispersed over a dozen islands along a 400-mile coastline are formidable.

Isolation characterizes many places in the diocese -- a reason to move to Alaska for many in the “lower 48,” as Alaskans like to call their southern continental cousins. But the remote terrain presents major obstacles when one’s mission is to bring the sacraments and celebrate Mass in these far-flung villages.

Ask Fr. Michael Nash, rector of Juneau’s Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral. He was previously pastor to several small communities along Alaska’s Inside Passage. To reach St. Rose of Lima in Wrangell, 120 miles from Juneau, takes 11 hours by boat.

That’s why Nash still flies some 300 hours per year -- an air shepherd descending to a grateful flock along Alaska’s southern tail. Known as “Crash Nash” to his flying mates, he’s been luckier with the vagaries of the weather -- heavy fog and occasionally blowing snow -- than some.

On March 23 his confrere, Fr. Jim Kelley, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Dillingham in the Anchorage archdiocese, died when his Piper Cherokee 140 crashed into Tuklung Mountain. Kelley, a retired Navy chaplain, who had been a pilot more than 40 years, was en route to the Bristol Bay villages for Palm Sunday services.

Nash told NCR he decided to explore aviation after studying in the high school and college seminary of his native Seattle. His father and grandfather were private pilots; his sister is a commercial pilot.

After meeting Archbishop Francis Hurley of Anchorage, now retired, a veteran pilot, Nash saw how he could link ministry and flying. In 1980 he was ordained for the Juneau diocese and has served here ever since except for three years of study in Louvain, Belgium.

Juneau has both the smallest population and the smallest church staff of any U.S. see. Though a diocese for only a half-century, Juneau Catholics will soon mark 125 years of church life in their environs. Gold and the people who came prospecting for it provided a large vein of early Catholic life here.

Our Lady of the Mines

The discovery of gold in what is today Juneau brought a Dutch missionary from Canada to the area in 1879. When Pope Leo XIII established Alaska as an independent apostolic prefecture in 1894 -- no longer under the jurisdiction of the Vancouver Island diocese -- the Jesuits provided the first prefect and assumed responsibility for the territory. They named their first church and school Our Lady of the Mines.

When thousands of gold seekers rushed in during the Klondike stampede of the late 1890s, docking in Juneau and Skagway, the Jesuits built a parish in Skagway. The town of 800 citizens -- it swells to 3,000 or more with the influx of summer retirees and of people serving the cruise line industry -- sees 750,000 cruise passengers between May and October. Some 300 attend weekend Masses in Skagway.

“There are a lot of people here who would put a big chain across the harbor,” Nash said. Alaskans have mixed feelings about cruise ships and were the first legislators to forbid dumping waste into local waters. But it’s less about pollution than about how tens of thousands of tourists “intrude on the space of the local people,” Nash said.

Still, tourism remains the state’s top industry. In the wake of job shortages and greater restrictions on logging -- not to mention Americans’ increased fear of traveling overseas since 9/11 -- the liners are bound to bring their bounty and their burden to Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka and other ports in the diocese. Not only do Juneau’s 13 priests -- two are Oblates and two African -- minister to thousands of tourists each weekend, they also provide for the spiritual needs of hundreds of cruise ship employees.

What peeves Nash is the sometimes “condescending” attitude some visitors display toward the locals, assuming them to be uneducated, even “backward.” Instead the priest points to local concerts with top-flight performers, to well-schooled, broadly experienced professionals and to fishermen who read Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevski.

People assume that Alaskans are all alike, he said. The diocese offers a good example of the state’s diversity. A quarter of its Catholics are Filipino, another quarter are from other parts of Asia, 40 to 50 percent are Anglos and 5 to 10 percent are native Alaskans. In summer hundreds of Mexicans migrate from Oregon and Washington to work in the fish canneries.

The Alaskan Catholic bishops have addressed one of the most divisive issues between rural and urban residents, namely “subsistence.” The state’s constitution guarantees all Alaskans equal access to fish and game resources, while federal law gives a harvest priority to subsistence users in rural areas. The bishops favor allowing priority to subsistence users and have argued that the constitution “may have created an injustice” for the state’s native peoples by including the equal access provision.

In their April pastoral, “A Catholic Perspective on Subsistence: Our Responsibility Toward Alaska’s Bounty and Our Human Family,” the bishops explore justice questions pertaining to commercial fishermen, native Alaskans, hunters and those -- largely in rural areas -- who depend on wildlife resources for food, shelter, tools and other basic needs. They urged legislators to uphold the needs of the poor and the cultural ties of native Alaskans when resources are scarce.

Although the Legislature was summoned into special session in Juneau, the capital, to act on the subsistence issue, it failed to do so. But the recently formed Alaska Catholic Conference counted other successes in the 2002 session, including passage of a minimum wage increase, funding for the state court to defend the statute requiring minors to get parental consent for abortions and defeat of bills that would have required faith-based institutions to include contraceptive coverage in their health insurance.

Higher cost of living

The fallout of welfare reform legislation was “just about to hit Alaska” when NCR visited in July. A loss of assistance could greatly hurt the native Alaskan population, Nash said. Despite the small number of native Alaskans who are Catholic, the church sees its ministry to native peoples to be around culture and identity issues. Only Ketchikan has a Catholic primary school, so much of the pastoral care comes via classes for adults and youth.

With few Catholics -- many of them poor or jobless -- and with a cost of living 20 percent above the rest of the nation, financial concerns remain the most pressing in the diocese, Nash said. Juneau relies on the Catholic Extension Society, the American Board of Catholic Missions and the Black and Indian Mission Office of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference for a third of its resources.

Msgr. Paul Lenz, executive director of the Black and Indian Mission Office, said that all funds going from his office to Juneau are to be used for evangelization.

Dick Ritter, vice president of the Catholic Extension Society, noted that the organization’s $200,000 a year allotment over a five-year-plan has gone to support diocesan programs, to subsidize priests and religious, underwrite seminary education and help with youth ministry and the marriage tribunal.

For a diocese with only 13 priests, five sisters and one active deacon, education of the laity for ministry has become crucial. Last November, 17 men and women graduated from a Pastoral Leadership Program that began in 1999. The program brought presenters four times a year from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., to workshops alternating between Ketchikan in the southern part of the see and Juneau in the northern part.

Graduates said they developed a deeper relationship with God and became better equipped to minister as a result of the course. More than a dozen other laity are enrolled in ongoing lay formation, a prerequisite for the upcoming deaconate program.

One of the graduates, Charles Rohrbacher, is director of religious education for the diocese. He is also an artist and recently finished a seven-piece icon screen for the newly built St. Paul’s Church in Juneau. With 700 families, St. Paul’s is the largest parish in the diocese.

In Southern Alaska people are “very unchurched,” Rohrbacher told NCR. Catholics comprise 7.4 percent of the population. “We really love and appreciate our priests and don’t take them for granted.” The artist called the Filipino Catholic community “one of our great blessings; they’ve been here for 100 years.”

The shrine on the island

Another jewel in the Juneau setting is the Shrine of St. Therese, located on Shrine Island 23 miles from downtown. Built in 1938 and named for the Little Flower, Alaska’s patroness, the church is surrounded by woods, outdoor stations and a Marian and Holy Land garden. In recent years it has added accommodations for up to 60 people.

“It’s a God-in-nature retreat available to all,” said Thomas Fitterer, a former teacher and school principal, who directs the shrine. Its beauty and peace make it “a soft place of evangelism.” Pilgrims who’ve visited tell him: “There’s something there. I felt it.” Fitterer spoke of life changes and of healings from anger, divorce, addiction and loss that visitors have shared with him.

He also pointed to the shrine’s husband-wife caretakers as “evangelizers by example.” Many who have visited with them say they found their faith deepened, he said. The same is true of Oblate Fr. Jim Blaney, Fitterer added. Blaney, a volunteer fireman in Skagway and Haines, evangelizes by “rubbing elbows with others. It’s his friendship, openness and example that does it,” Fitterer said.

Fitterer and his wife, Carol, moved to Alaska from Minnesota in 1969, raised three children and now have a grandchild. In the early 1980s they went to Spokane for two years so that Fitterer could fulfill a “compelling call. I felt the need to do Christian therapy.” When he is not working full-time at the shrine, he offers spiritual direction to those who seek his counsel.

Addiction is the most common problem he sees among clients -- not just to drugs and alcohol, to work and to gambling, but to sex. “Alaska is going through an epidemic of sexual addiction,” Fitterer said, fueled by pornography on the Internet. “There are 200 to 300 new porno sites each day. It’s astronomical.”

Fitterer said that many move to Alaska to flee problems. “I tell them they can’t run from them, they have to face them.” He finds a lot of broken homes, one-parent families, singles, “a lot of need for support and understanding. People come because they are experiencing tough times that they never expected, never planned for.”

Despite a paucity of pastoral personnel and resources, Nash and others with whom NCR spoke expressed confidence in the Alaskan church. The priest-pilot lauded the “extraordinary group of young people” now active in the diocese. “I’ve found some of the best leadership among them. They’re open, generous and hungry for things spiritual.”

Juneau Bishop Michael Warfel commended the Alaskan contingent as well as many other teens who attended World Youth Day with the pope in Toronto in late July. “For them it was a faith event … not just an event with great music, a lot of song and dance,” he said. “I kept hearing youth refer to themselves as Catholic and to being proud to be Catholic,” said the bishop, who also noted “thousands in line seeking to receive the sacrament of penance.”

“When you have a whole range of pastoral needs and few staff persons, you wind up relying heavily on lay participation,” Nash said. “This diocese has incorporated the teachings of Vatican II. We believe in the priesthood of the baptized. This church will rise or fall -- not with its priests -- but with good lay formation.”

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002