Due to unpredictable weather and long distances, it’s rare that Catholics living in the most inaccessible communities of Southcentral Alaska get a chance to personally meet their archbishop.
Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne was installed as archbishop of Anchorage just eight months ago. As part of an ongoing effort to visit parishioners across his 138,000-square-mile archdiocese, he boarded several planes, including a small two-seater, and flew to the hinterlands of North America.
The first two days of his Aug. 2-6 trip were spent in Dillingham, a small fishing community nestled at the mouth of the Nushagak River, some 330 air miles west of Anchorage.
The plan was to fly with bush pilot priest Father Scott Garrett, who is tasked with the duty of celebrating Masses and providing other sacraments in Dillingham and the surrounding fishing communities.
“It was raining and there was a very low cloud cover so we weren’t able to fly out to keep the initial schedule,” Archbishop Etienne said of his visit.
While waiting for the clouds to break, the two men made home visits.
Eventually Father Garrett flew the archbishop to nearby King Salmon and Naknek.
In King Salmon they celebrated a Mass where Archbishop Etienne confirmed two young parishioners with 30 to 40 people in attendance.
“It was a great insight to me in conversation with the people,” Archbishop Etienne said. He spoke with Catholics who spend the summer months commercial fishing and the winters on remote Lake Iliamna.
The flying tour also made a stop at Clarks Point, where, due to road construction, they were unable to do home visits and had to be content with phone conversations with local Catholics. While there Archbishop Etienne saw the tiny church, St. Christopher By the Sea.
“It gave me a lay of the land to see that we have a church there on the lower level of the village that is just abandoned because they moved the entire village up to the hill because of rising sea levels and flooding,” he said. “They had to move their homes and the school and we hope someday to move the church. Right now they have Mass in the community center.”
Visiting Catholics in these far-flung areas allowed the archbishop to experience the challenges of meeting their spiritual needs first hand.
“Father Scott is a one-man band,” Archbishop Etienne said. “He is the sole employee, the sole individual who is formally doing ministry in these small communities.”
While there’s little in the way of Scripture study groups and parish outreaches, Archbishop Etienne is grateful that the communities are able to receive the sacraments on a fairly regular basis due to Father Garrett’s work.
“It makes the point I read this summer from the last encyclical of Pope John Paul II on Eucharist in the life of the church,” Archbishop Etienne emphasized. “His opening line says that the church draws her life from the Eucharist. That is so true.”
Archbishop Etienne noted that when Father Garrett was gone from those communities for the past six years while serving in Wasilla, the Catholic communities suffered.
“When he came back for his second appointment as pastor there, Father Scott noticed that the community had been dispersed,” he said, “because there was no longer a resident priest, no longer the regular offering of the Eucharist.”
“So, they fell away or some of them actively converted to another faith during those years,” Archbishop Etienne added. “He’s literally rebuilding the community. It says a lot about the importance of the Eucharist, the importance of priesthood and the incredible importance of every one of us actively living our faith.”
Despite the challenges, Archbishop Etienne was encouraged by the vibrant faith of parishioners he met. Their joyful witness is needed, he said, in order to attract others to Christ.
“The greatest witness of the church and the greatest mission of the church is the membership living their faith in the midst of the world,” he said. “It is a beautiful thing and I saw it in action there.”
Asked about Catholics who may feel disconnected from the archdiocese and the larger Catholic Church, Archbishop Etienne said it is important to remember that Jesus Christ is “our immediate connection.”
“He is the one who unites us by sharing his life with each of us in a very personal and a very real way,” he observed. “And we all have to commit ourselves to engaging Christ at deeper and deeper levels in our life. We have to realize that the whole role of the church is to make Christ present and to build the community up, one community at a time. Whether you’re in Dutch Harbor or Cordova or Trapper Creek or Clark’s Point, Christ has united all of us.”
Archbishop Etienne said he is “committed as a pastor, as an archbishop, to get out of the chancery as often as I can and visit these people.”
“I am the visible head of the church, but I am one person,” he said. “My priests and deacons are great collaborators. The people here in the chancery are great collaborators. All the various staff and volunteers that we have in our parishes are great collaborators, but people want to see the bishop and I’m as committed as I can be to being out in the parishes and even into the communities of those parishes as often as I can be.”