Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Francis Hurley celebrated his 45th anniversary as a bishop on March 19. This came just on the heels of his 88th birthday, Jan. 12.
With nearly nine decades behind him, he still begins each day presiding over Mass in his Anchorage home. Those taking part are friends, visitors and his own care-givers in their uniforms, huddled close in the humble, yet richly symbolic chapel.
The Mass takes place in a side room, down-hall from the kitchen, marked by gifts and symbols of a significant life: a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, his patron saint, stands just to the left of the altar.
“I was named for the saint, and so was Pope Francis,” he points out in simple pride.
The altar, built by a Catholic friend for him of Alaska logs, isn’t what one would expect in most chapels. Polished, it stands on crisscrossed log legs, just right for Archbishop Hurley’s six-foot-plus frame, now bent by his years.
“He has a very deep prayer life. He spends a lot of time in prayer in the morning and he always has,” said Father Scott Medlock, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Anchorage. “It is the foundation of his action. It sustains everything.”
MAN OF ACTION
Archbishop Hurley is best known as a man of action and while he has slowed down, he still surprises friends with his zeal to minister — especially to those in most need.
Father Medlock tells a story about Archbishop Hurley. A few years back, on Thanksgiving day, he swung by to visit Archbishop Hurley at his home.
“I had stopped by after Mass to say ‘Hi,’” Father Medlock said. “There was no chit-chat. He said ‘I want to go to Bean’s Cafe.’“
“We weren’t sure whether or not we should take him,” Father Medlock continued. “He was absolutely insistent. We decided well, we’ll take him over. It took a lot to get him there. He was bound and determined to get there. He said a blessing when Bean’s Cafe was filled with the homeless for their Thanksgiving meal. He had a lot of difficulty walking.”
“Yet he walked the perimeter of the cafe, greeting many who knew him and loved him through the years,” Father Medlock said. “I was worried about him falling.”
When Archbishop Hurley was finished, he said, “Okay, Scott, ready to go home. He’s been doing that for many decades. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t terribly ambulatory. He wanted to get there and see his homeless friends.”
That’s been a hallmark of Archbishop Hurley’s — seeking out the needy, the forgotten and those living in remote areas.
Ordained a priest at age 24 and a bishop at 43, he came to Alaska in 1970, first as the auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and a few years later as the archbishop of Anchorage. He dealt with the challenge of shepherding remote villages across vast distances by employing two main tools: newspapers and airplanes.
He launched Juneau’s diocesan newspaper in the early 1970s and later started the Catholic Anchor in Anchorage. Prior to that he wrote regular columns in the Anchorage Times and the Anchorage Daily News. The goal was always to reach the masses.
“I was never afraid of newspapers,” he said. “A paper gives us a chance to speak to people here in the church and others as well.”
“Through the years, reporters and I got to know one another,” Archbishop Hurley said. “I was never afraid to talk with the press.”
Airplanes provided the other tool. Archbishop Hurley became a licensed pilot so he could travel to places in a state not joined by roads or rail.
“It was a great help in reaching places,” Archbishop Hurley explained.
Since he didn’t have enough priests to station in every remote community, he worked out a system of inviting religious sisters to Alaska for short and long term assignments to keep parishes running. Travel priests visited every few weeks to celebrate Mass and other sacraments. This is still the arrangement in many places across Alaska.
To address poverty and homelessness Archbishop Hurley established Catholic Social Services in Anchorage, shortly after being named archbishop in 1976. Five years later, on Feb. 26, 1981, he hosted Pope John Paul 11, during his visit to Anchorage.
Like the pope, Archbishop Hurley believed in reaching out to those of other faiths and walks of life. His work took him to Magadan, Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, where he founded the Church of the Nativity of Jesus in 1991.
For his many efforts, Hurley was named the 1997 Alaskan of the Year, the first time a religious leader was selected for the honor.
The iconic prelate who led the Catholic Church in Alaska for three decades has slowed but he continues to enjoy visitors and sharing his memories, which he expresses in a customary clearness for details. He also is called on to preside over funerals.
“A lot of the old-timers want me to do their funerals. I’m not as busy as I once was, but it’s time to let others do it now,” he said on a recent Sunday afternoon. Seated in his comfortable chair, surrounded by the art and mementos of a significant life, Archbishop Hurley hasn’t lost his extrovert’s spirit that wrought many changes taken for granted today by Alaskans Catholic and non.
The gift for leading or delegating others helped form more than four decades of Catholic social programs, including establishing the Brother Francis Shelter, Clare House and Covenant House, helping wherever needed from social services to establishing seven new parishes.
While he has long since turned over the reigns of leadership he remains committed to these efforts.
“I can enjoy guiding efforts,” he said, “without being in charge now.”
Looking to the future, Archbishop Hurley believes it will be important to keep social service outreaches strong and vibrant, especially in a changing and often difficult world.
Ministries to the elderly, the poor and those who are alone can redeem difficult life situations, allowing people to “know the blessings” of God, he said.
And young people need to have opportunities to serve others, he emphasized.
“There are a lot of marvelous people here willing to do things,” he said. “Give them a chance and let them.”
Creating these opportunities reflect Archbishop Hurley’s belief that personal human connections are key to strengthening the church.
Reaching across Christian lines of diverse belief is another long-practiced tenant of Archbishop Hurley’s. His long friendship with Anchorage Episcopal Rev. Norman Elliot continues to lend him companionship.
“We don’t argue. We never argue. We explain things to one another,” he said of his 96-year-old friend.
Archbishop Hurley’s life is quieter now and the engagements and interview requests less frequent. But he still welcomes visitors to his home, making himself available as much as possible.
“I tell my caregivers to wake me up if I’m sleeping. If anyone needs me,” he said.