The Little Sisters of Jesus took Christ’s directive to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth quite literally when they began their mission in rural Northwestern Alaska in 1952. The history of their work in the state is the topic of a book recently published by Sister Alice Ann Sullivan.
“Our Story: History of the Little Sisters of Jesus in Alaska” is a self-published chronicle of the arrival in Alaska of the order’s founder, Sister Magdeleine of Jesus, and the adventures of a handful of faithful sisters who served mostly Native Catholic populations for more than 60 years.
Inspired by the life and writings of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, the order was established in 1939. With a particular charism for serving the poorest and most forgotten, the Little Sisters worked with diverse populations throughout the world, on six continents. Sister Magdeleine instructed her associates, “Look at the map of the world and see if you can find a handful of people scattered over a large territory and difficult to reach…You must really choose to go there, otherwise no one else may ever come to tell them that Jesus loves them, that he suffered and died for them.”
When she looked at the map of Alaska, she was particularly concerned with the Inupiaq village of Inalik, located on the west side of Little Diomede Island, 25 miles west of the North American coast. Nome is the jumping off point to travel to the remote, barren, windswept island in the Bering Strait, which is separated by less than two and a half miles from Big Diomede Island, a part of Russia.
“Our Story” is a testimony to the tenacity, adaptability, and faith of a dozen or so women who, against tremendous odds and numerous challenges, eventually built a house on the obscure and forbidding island. During the winter months, the sisters lived, learned and shared life with the 100 or so residents, for approximately 40 years. Two of those women, Sister Damiene, and Sister Nobu served the Alaska Natives of Little Diomede for 17 winters, as did Sister Odette and others for many years as well.
Sister Alice, who spent two winters on Little Diomede, and also lived and worked in Nome and Fairbanks, was fascinated and inspired by the intrepid sisters who established a life with residents of the island. Having read the diaries of her forbearers, she felt compelled to share the story of what she described as an “extraordinary feat.”
“It was not so much a sense of urgency, but this whole happening … establishing a foothold, building a house, was such a unique part of Alaskan history. It needed to be told,” she said in an interview with the Catholic Anchor. She began “Our Story” several years ago, while serving in Nome — writing whenever the demands of her vocation permitted a little time. With the help of several others, especially her editor and friend, Laura Samuelson, Sister Alice completed the story she so desired to tell.
For two winters, Sister Alice immersed herself in the life of the people of Diomede.
“It was a totally new experience for me, living in a wilderness setting, on a barren rock in the middle of an ocean,” she said. “The people are so nice, so good — the women and the men. They made sure we had meat. We would go outside and there would be a seal in front of our door.”
The island was replete with marine life, with excellent hunting in the winter. Animals had to pass through the narrow Bering Strait, making it an ideal place to harvest an abundance of food, necessary to endure the cold, harsh conditions. During the summer, many residents relocated to Nome as there was no drinking water available on Little Diomede. In the winter the water source was melted snow, she said.
“Living on the island entailed a lot of physically hard work — especially for the women. There were no material resources. They were still using seal oil lamps,” Sister Alice recalled.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs eventually built a school, but the girls had to start young, learning the ways of subsistence, she added. The Little Sisters, too, learned these ways, from how to prepare a walrus skin to making a boat, to ice fishing, net setting, and learning how to prepare, cook and enjoy Alaska Native foods. Immersed in the lives of those they served, they preached a gospel of presence.
“We were the first religious community to start the ministry of presence,” Sister Alice said. “We live with the people as they are — people who are despised, looked down upon. We live the way they do to absorb their values, their songs, their dance, their culture — and validate that. We incorporate that into the church.”
This ministry of presence is becoming more relevant in Africa and in Europe, where Muslims have recently chosen to live. There, cultures are antagonistic to each other, she said, adding, “We deliberately choose to go to places where the church has had a minimal presence.” She noted a significant ministry to Arabic speaking Muslims in the Middle East.
Thrilled that she finally completed the book, Sister Alice hopes that readers will become aware of the accomplishments of her peers. In recalling the years of preparation, the setbacks, the challenges to sustain themselves by paid labor in the communities, and the eventual success of their mission, a look of amazement lingers on her face as she sits in her room at the Anchorage Pioneer Home. Sisters Damiene, Nobu and Odette, who spent dozens of winters on Little Diomede, join her in ministering to the home’s elderly residents.
Their frailty and age belie these dynamos of strength and endurance, living testimonies to a kind of faith that answered the call to bring the Gospel to the far reaches of Alaska.