Alaska, Catholic Church in
ALASKA, CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Evolution of Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction. Alaska (spelled variously during earlier times) is the name the native inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands, the Aleuts, gave to the landmass lying to the east of their ancestral homeland. It translates basically as "the Great Land." Comprising 591,004 square miles, this massive peninsula at the northwestern extremity of the North American continent
is nearly one-fifth the size of the rest of the continental states. "Discovered" in July 1741 by Vitus Bering sailing under the Russian flag, Alaska was known as "Russian America" up to the time of its purchase from Russia by the United States in 1867 for $7,200,000. Organized as a Territory in 1912, Alaska was admitted into the Union in 1959 as the 49th state.
According to reliable records, the first formal act of Christian worship in what is today the State of Alaska took place on Ascension Thursday, May 13, 1779, when the Franciscan priest Juan Riobó—a member of a Spanish exploratory expedition sailing out of San Blas, Mexico—celebrated Mass near present-day Craig in southeastern Alaska. Alaska remained, in terms of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, a "no-man's land" until 1847, when Modest Demers was consecrated the first bishop of Vancouver Island, Canada, and given jurisdiction "over the island of that name and all British and Russian possessions as far north as 'the glacial sea."'
The first Catholic missionary priest to enter Alaska was an oblate of mary immaculate, Jean Séguin, who, coming from Canada, spent a fruitless winter, 1862–63, at Fort Yukon. In 1870 Oblate Father Émile Petitot visited Fort Yukon briefly. Two years later Oblate Bishop Isidore Clut and Auguste Lecorre (still a diocesan priest) traveled to Fort Yukon in hopes of establishing a permanent mission there. Owing to an Anglican presence there, they met with little success. In the summer of 1873, the two went down the Yukon River to St. Michael, where they were favorably received and enjoyed a modest degree of evangelizing success. Lecorre spent the winter 1873–74 at St. Michael. In the summer of 1874, when he learned that Alaska was under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Vancouver Island, he returned to Canada. It was at the invitation of and thanks to the support of Francois X. Mercier, a French-Canadian Catholic from Montréal and agent of the Alaska Commercial Company, that the Oblates entered Alaska from Canada and were able to achieve some positive, if limited, evangelizing results there.
While Oblate missionaries were active in northern Alaska, diocesan priests from Vancouver Island were visiting Alaska's southeastern part and establishing missions there. In 1867 Father Joseph Mandart made a brief
trip to the panhandle, and in 1873 Charles J. seghers— born Ghent, Belgium, Dec. 26, 1839, and newly consecrated bishop of Vancouver Island as of June 29, 1873— made his first of five trips to Alaska, visiting Sitka, Kodiak, and Unalaska. In 1877, accompanied by Mandart, he traveled to the northern interior, arriving at Nulato in August. The two spent the next 12 months there, engaged in missionary activity in Nulato and in the surrounding area. In May 1879 Seghers founded a mission at Wrangell and put Father John Althoff in charge. In 1885 Seghers—now an archbishop—established a mission at Sitka with Father William Heynen in charge.
In 1886 Seghers—rightly honored as "the Apostle of Alaska"—set out for Alaska on what was to be the last journey of his life. He had with him two Jesuits, Paschal Tosi and Aloysius Robaut. The party had as its goal the establishment of missions in Alaska's northern interior, especially at Nulato, which Seghers fondly remembered from his earlier stay there. The archbishop, the two Jesuits, and a Catholic layman, Francis Fuller, left Victoria on July 13, 1886. On September 7, via the Chilkoot Trail, they arrived at the confluence of the Stewart and Yukon Rivers, still in Canada. It was decided that the two Jesuits would spend the winter there, while Seghers and Fuller pushed on downriver toward Nulato. It was getting late in the season for river travel, but Seghers was most eager to get to Nulato, driven, as he was, by the fear that Protestant ministers might get there before him and take over the area.
As Seghers and Fuller—who had already given clear signs of mental instability soon after the party left tidewater—made their way down the Yukon, their boat, traveling conditions, and Fuller's mind deteriorated rapidly. On October 4 they arrived at the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers, where they abandoned their boat and waited for the river to freeze solid enough for sled travel. On November 19 they again set out for Nulato. On November 27, with Nulato still a good distance away and travel difficult because of deep snow, the party camped. Early the next morning, the demented Fuller fired a shot into Seghers as he bent over to pick up his mittens. He died instantly.
The following spring, 1887, Tosi and Robaut came down the Yukon into Alaska, where they learned of Seghers's death. Immediately Tosi sailed for the Pacific Northwest to confer with Rocky Mountain Mission Superior Joseph M. Cataldo, S.J. When Seghers was given Tosi and Robaut for the trip north in 1886, they were intended simply as traveling companions. There was no intention to commit Jesuits to the Alaska Mission. Divine Providence ordained otherwise. Upon Tosi's urging, Cataldo decided then and there that the Jesuits would, for the time being, take charge at least of parts of Alaska. A long-term commitment would need Rome's approval. Armed with all the faculties the Vicar General of Vancouver Island could give him, Tosi returned to Alaska in the summer of 1887 to organize the systematic development of missions in northern Alaska. In 1892, during a private visit with Pope Leo XIII in Rome, Tosi so moved him with his account of Alaska that Leo told him: "Go, and make yourself the pope in those regions!"
Formal ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the whole of Alaska first came about in 1894, when the Holy See separated Alaska from the Diocese of Vancouver Island and made it a prefecture apostolic with Tosi as prefect apostolic. At the same time, Alaska became an independent mission, entrusted to the Jesuits, with Tosi as general superior. Failing health led to his being replaced as prefect apostolic in 1897 by John B. René, S.J. He, in turn, was replaced in 1904 by Joseph R. Crimont, S.J. In 1916 Alaska was raised to the next ecclesiastical level, that of a vicariate apostolic, and the following year Crimont was consecrated a bishop to serve as Alaska's first vicar apostolic. (It was Crimont, who, in 1920, five years before she was declared a saint, placed the whole Alaska Mission under the protection of St. Thérèse.) Upon his death in 1945, he was succeeded by his coadjutor since 1939, Bishop Walter J. Fitzgerald, S.J., who died two years later. He was followed in 1948 by Bishop Francis D. Gleeson, S.J., Alaska's last vicar apostolic.
From time to time—beginning already during the Crimont years—Alaska's vastness and its varied geographic and ethnic makeup prompted those in authority, both in Rome and in Alaska, to consider the desirability of dividing it into several ecclesiastical districts. In 1951 Rome decreed the erection of Alaska's first diocese, the Diocese of Juneau, comprising at the time Alaska's panhandle—a coastal region, consisting in large part of many heavily forested, mist-shrouded islands sculpted by glaciers, and inhabited by a mix of many peoples, including some of Alaska's first people, the Haida and Tlingit—and much of south-central Alaska. Dermot O'Flanagan, a long-time diocesan priest in Alaska, was consecrated its first ordinary. He was the first bishop to be consecrated in Alaska, in Anchorage, by Bishop Gleeson on Oct. 3, 1951.
Up to 1951 all of Alaska's ecclesiastical leaders after Tosi had made Juneau their headquarters. When the Juneau diocese was established, Gleeson moved to Fair banks, where he continued on as vicar apostolic of the rest of Alaska. In 1962, however, the vicariate became the missionary Diocese of Fairbanks (directly under the Propaganda Fidei in Rome) with Gleeson as its ordinary. In 1966 the 138,985-square-mile Archdiocese of Anchorage was established with Joseph T. Ryan as its first archbishop. This left the Juneau diocese with 37,566 square miles and the Fairbanks diocese with 409,849.
O'Flanagan resigned the Juneau See in June 1968, and for two years it was administered by Ryan. Gleeson retired in November 1968, and was succeeded as Bishop of Fairbanks by Robert L. Whelan, S.J. (George T. Boileau, S.J., was consecrated a coadjutor bishop with right of succession on July 31, 1964. However, he died soon thereafter, on Feb. 25, 1965.) In 1970 Francis T. Hurley was named auxiliary bishop for Anchorage and administrator of Juneau (as Ryan's vicar). In 1971 he was appointed ordinary of the Juneau diocese. In December 1975 Ryan became coadjutor military vicar of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the following year Hurley became Archbishop of Anchorage and administrator of Juneau. From 1979 to 1995—the year of his sudden death in Jordan—Michael H. Kenny was Juneau's Ordinary. Michael W. Warfel succeeded him in 1996. When, in 1985, Whelan retired as Bishop of Fairbanks, Michael J. Kaniecki, S.J., began his 15-year term as Bishop of Fairbanks. In the Eskimo village of Emmonak near the mouth of the Yukon River, on August 6, 2000, Kaniecki died suddenly of a massive heart attack. On Jan. 18, 2000, Roger L. Schwietz, O.M.I., was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Anchorage, taking possession of the archdiocese on March 4, 2001.
Apostolic Works. The first Religious women to undertake apostolic works in Alaska were the Sisters of St. Ann. In 1886 they opened a school and a hospital in Juneau. By the time they left Alaska over a century later, they had staffed schools and hospitals in various other places, but it was especially at Holy Cross on the Yukon that they had their greatest impact in Alaska, serving there for decades as teachers—along with Jesuits and, for a few years, with Brothers of Christian Instruction—and nurses. The Holy Cross Mission was founded in 1888 by Father Robaut, who died there in 1930 and lies buried there. In northern Alaska, however, it is Nulato, founded in 1887 by Father Tosi, that rightly claims primacy. Inseparably connected with the name of Nulato is the name of Fr. Julius Jetté, S.J. It was at Nulato that Jetté—who spent over 25 years in northern Alaska and was hailed as "the most distinguished scholar in Alaska"—began, in 1898, work on his monumental dictionary of the Koyukon Athabaskan language. He never lived to see it in print. A century later the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, published it— all 1212 pages of it—under the title of Koyukon Athabascan Dictionary.
Evangelization among the Central Yup’ik people of western Alaska began in 1889 with the founding of the mission on Nelson Island by Joseph M. Tréca, S.J., "the Apostle of the Tundra." The mission and boarding school at Akulurak near the mouth of the Yukon, St. Joseph's, staffed by Sisters of St. Ann and Jesuits, was opened in 1894. It was closed four years later. The mission at St. Michael dates from 1898. (At St. Michael lies buried Jesuit Brother Ulric Paquin, who froze to death on the trail, while bringing building supplies from St. Michael to Stebbins by sled and dogteam.)
The Nome parish was founded in 1901 for the whites and natives of the area. The Sisters of Providence operated a hospital there from 1902 to 1918, and a day school from 1904 to 1918. The Little Sisters of Jesus have been in Nome since 1952. In 1971 Nome's Catholic radio station, KNOM, went on the air. Now the oldest Catholic station in the United States, it has been winning top awards ever since.
The Fairbanks parish was founded in 1904 by Francis M. Monroe, S.J., "the Alaskan Hercules." A hospital followed two years later. This was staffed briefly by Sisters of St. Ann, then by Benedictine Sisters, then, from 1910 to 1968 by the Sisters of Providence. When Immaculate Conception grade school opened in Fairbanks in 1946, it was Sisters of Providence that staffed it; and when Monroe Catholic High opened in 1951, Sisters of Providence—along with Jesuits and lay volunteers— served on the faculty for many years.
In 1905 the boarding school at Akulurak—staffed by Ursuline Sisters and Jesuits—was reopened, and renamed St. Mary's. The school flourished until 1951, when it was moved into new facilities built by James C. Spils, S.J., (known as "God's Builder," who also built Copper Valley School and Fairbanks' Sacred Heart Cathedral) and crew at the site of new St. Mary's on the Andreafsky River. There, still staffed by Ursulines and Jesuits, and assisted by many dedicated members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps—who at the time were serving also in many other places throughout Alaska—it continued to flourish until the 1980s. It graduated its last class of high school seniors and was closed in the spring of 1987.
In Alaska's north, other missions, schools, and programs continued to spring into being. In 1918 the Pilgrim Springs mission and boarding school north of Nome began to care for many children left orphaned by the influenza epidemic of that year. The mission, staffed by Ursuline Sisters and Jesuits, closed in 1941. Frederick A. Ruppert, S.J., lies buried there. He froze to death, in December 1923, while on the trail with sled and dogteam, headed for the mission with oranges for the orphans for Christmas.
The mission on King Island was founded in 1929 by Fr. Bellarmine Lafortune, S.J. It was he who—during the course of his 44 years in the Seward Peninsula area—had founded, among others, the Pilgrim Springs mission. By the time he built the church on the island and spent his first winter there, most of the King Islanders were Catholic, having been received by him into the Church during their summer sojourns in Nome. The Kotzebue Mission—the first Alaskan mission beyond the Arctic Circle—was also founded in 1929, by the diocesan priest William F. Walsh. Walsh, along with Philip I. Delon, S.J., and pilot Ralph Wien, died the following year in an airplane crash at Kotzebue.
The last mission of major importance to be established in northern Alaska is that of St. Patrick's at Barrow, established in 1954 by the legendary Thomas P. Cunningham, S.J. Cunningham, widely known as "Father Tom," also pioneered the mission on Little Diomede Island, and served on King Island. He became a recognized expert on polar pack ice, and the United States Air Force turned to him as its principal adviser, when it set up scientific stations on the polar ice cap.
In 1956 Copper Valley School, near Glennallen, opened. It was staffed by Sisters of St. Ann, Jesuits, and numerous lay volunteers. Its founder, John R. Buchanan, S.J., intended the primary purpose of the school to be that of preparing Alaska Natives for college and for positions of leadership in Alaska. It—as did the other Catholic schools in northern Alaska—had the strong support of Gleeson, a promoter of education on all levels. (For a time he had four different priests on the faculty at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.) Copper Valley School closed in 1971.
Gleeson is given credit not only for supporting a tradition of solid Catholic education in northern Alaska, but also for the restoration of the permanent diaconate in the United States. Upon his urging, the U.S. bishops petitioned Rome in 1968 for approval of the restoration of the permanent diaconate. Approval was given. Under Whelan, Gleeson's successor, the Diocese of Fairbanks's diaconate program came to full flower. In the year 2000 there were 18 native deacons, all Inuit, and seven urban deacons serving in the Fairbanks Diocese. The deacons, a nucleus of diocesan priests, Franciscan Friars (serving in Alaska's northern interior since 1986), and religious men and women of various communities have all served to lessen the long dominance in northern Alaska by Jesuits as apostolic workers and helped the diocese along its road to becoming a diocese of age.
Meanwhile, pioneer parishes and apostolic works were being founded also in Alaska's panhandle. The Wrangell parish dates from 1879, those of Sitka and Juneau from 1885. The Skagway parish was founded in 1898. Skagway's Pius X Mission, a boarding school founded by Father G. Edgar Gallant—the first Catholic priest ordained in Alaska, by Crimont, in Juneau, on March 30, 1918—opened in 1931. The Ketchikan parish was founded in 1903. In 1923 the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace began operating a hospital there.
In Alaska's South-Central area the parishes of Seward and Valdez were established in 1905, that of Cordova in 1908, that of Anchorage in 1915. Anchorage's Providence Hospital under the care of the Sisters of Providence opened in 1939. Parochial schools, a retreat house, and social outreach programs have been part of the Anchorage scene for decades. The parish of Kodiak came into being in 1944. That same year the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart took over the management of the hospital there. A Catholic grade school flourished there for decades. The Dillingham parish dates from 1948. For some years there was also a Catholic day-boarding school in Dillingham.
Needless to say, during the latter half of the 20th century many additional parishes and apostolic works, too numerous to mention, came into being in all three of Alaska's dioceses. While Catholic Alaska is not overly impressive in terms of numbers (according to the 2000 Official Catholic Directory, the Archdiocese of Anchorage had 20 parishes and eight missions serving 31,071 out of a total population of 396,801; Fairbanks had 46 parishes and seven missions serving 17,068 out of total population of 155,224; and Juneau had 10 parishes and 10 missions serving 6,049 out of a total population of 73,302), it has achieved a certain degree of maturity, and its three dioceses resemble for the most part other U.S. dioceses. However, the geographic and ethnic makeup of Alaska gives rise to some major differences. Many communities are "bush" communities—communities widely separated from one another and unconnected by roads. They can be reached only by airplane, boat, or snow machine. At certain times of the year, Little Diomede Island can be reached only by helicopter. To save time and to cut costs several of Alaska's bishops and many of its priests have flown and fly their own airplanes. The Anchorage and Juneau dioceses have relatively few Alaska Native Catholics, while Fairbanks has many—most of them Athabaskan and Central Yup’ik.
From the day they first set foot in Alaska to the present, Catholics have, in all areas of life—whether in academia, in the business world, in the arts—been part of mainstream Alaskan life. This is strikingly evident, above all, in the area of politics. Among the more prominent Catholics in Alaska's political life have been: Mike Stepovich, Alaska's last territorial governor; William A. Egan, the state of Alaska's first governor; Walter J. Hickel, twice Alaska's governor and Secretary of the Interior under President Nixon; Frank Murkowski, U.S. Senator; George Sullivan and Tom Fink, mayors of Anchorage; Edward Merdes, President of the International Junior Chamber of Commerce and Alaska State Senator.
As with the state of Alaska, the Catholic Church in Alaska is still young and still on the road to full maturity.
Bibliography: m. cantwell, North to Share (Victoria, Canada 1992). j.-É. champagne, "First Attempts at the Evangelization of Alaska," Études Oblates 2 (1943) 13–22. p. higgins, Providence in Alaska: Sisters of Providence Education Ministry in Alaska, 1902–1978 (Seattle 1999). s. llorente, Jesuits in Alaska (Portland, Ore. 1969). g. mousseau, "L'Affaire d'Alaska. À propos du Voyage de Msgr. Clut dans l' Amérique Russe en 1872," Études Oblates 5 (1946) 161–88. l. l. renner, Pioneer Missionary to the Bering Strait Eskimos: Bellarmine Lafortune, S.J. (Portland, Ore. 1979); "Fr. Aloysius Robaut, S.J.: Pioneer Missionary in Alaska." Eskimo 37 no. 20, (New Series, 1980–81) 5–16; "Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska: The Eskimo Diaconate Program." Eskimo 37 no. 20 (New Series, 1980–81) 5–16. a. h. savage, Dogsled Apostles (New York 1942). w. p. schoenberg, Paths to the Northwest: A Jesuit History of the Oregon Province (Chicago 1982). j. c. shideler and h. k. rothman, Pioneering Spirit: The Sisters of Providence in Alaska (Anchorage 1987). g. g. steckler, "The Diocese of Juneau, Alaska," Historical Records and Studies 47 (1959) 234–54; "The Foundation of the Alaskan Catholic Missions," Studies in Mediaevalia and Americana: Essays in Honor of William Lyle Davis, S.J. (Spokane, Wash. 1973) 129–50; Charles John Seghers, Priest and Bishop in the Pacific Northwest, 1839–1886: A Biography (Fairfield, Wash. 1986). v. a. yzermans, St. Rose of Wrangell: The Church's Beginning in Southeast Alaska (St. Paul, Minn. 1979).