Father Nelson Marilag, age 55, died suddenly and unexpectedly on Sept. 20 while serving as a priest in the Diocese of Fairbanks.
A native of the Philippines, he served in the Archdiocese of Anchorage after arriving from the Diocese of Butuan in 2002. After eight years with the archdiocese, in 2010 he began traveling between Anchorage and the Diocese of Fairbanks as part of an innovative program to share priests across Alaska’s three Catholic dioceses.
In 2012, he officially transferred to the Diocese of Fairbanks to better serve the Filipino communities there.
Upon Father Marilag’s death, Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski issued a statement describing the priest as “a quiet and reserved man who exemplified a genuine gentleness of spirit, and a kindness and charity that knew no bounds. He fully embraced a true virtue of poverty as his room appeared to be that of a man who lived an ascetical life. May his living witness be a reminder to us all to embrace the simple life, show a deep care and concern for others through our generosity by serving the Body of Christ.”
In a 2009 interview with the Catholic Anchor, Father Marilag said he was initially spurred to become a priest by a former pastor who he said “really inspired me to serve the church.”
His favorite saint was Saint Joseph who he said “bears the name of being a foster father of Jesus and a great worker, too. It is my confirmation name given by my parents.”
While serving in the Anchorage Archdiocese, Father Marilag ministered to far-flung Catholic communities and missions.
He helped celebrate many colorful Catholic Filipino traditions in places like Unalaska along the Aleutian Islands.
Speaking on the unique aspects of being a priest in Alaska, Father Marilag said the remote places and inspiring people stand out.
“Aside from the resourcefulness of the people, there are various ways of culture that one will encounter in serving the church,” he said in 2009. “There is much to learn and to adjust to, in so many ways. But with this, it gives a sense of courage to be more independent.”
Father Marilag also served as needed in other parishes across the archdiocese. One of his last assignments, before transferring to Fairbanks, was at St. Michael Church in Palmer, where he assisted Father Tom Brundage. There he worked in prison ministry, celebrating Masses for inmates and helping with an evening study group on Saint John Paul II’s theological work on the human person, “Theology of the Body.”
In 2010, due to an acute shortage of priests in Alaska, Father Marilag became the vanguard for a new program of sharing clergy across the boundaries of Alaska’s three dioceses.
He traveled to serve Catholics in Barrow — the northernmost city in the United States and part of the Diocese of Fairbanks. In Barrow, the Catholic population is about 80 percent Filipino, making the ministry of a Filipino priest all the more relevant for the community.
In a 2010 interview from Barrow, Father Marilag told the Catholic Anchor that he was happy to minister there, despite the fact that the thermometer had dipped below zero and the sun was hidden for most of the day.
But most unusual was his discovery of so many fellow countrymen, he said.
“I was surprised to find the large number of Filipinos,” Father Marilag said, “and I could feel that sacramental need.”
In just a couple of days in the remote village, he had performed a baptism with more than 100 people attending and celebrated two weekend Masses, which drew about 150 people.
Upon request he also blessed many objects, heard confessions and blessed family homes.
Father Marilag’s final assignment began in 2015, when Fairbanks Bishop Zielinski appointed him parochial vicar of Saint Raphael Church in Fairbanks. At the time of his death he was also assigned as the visiting priest to parishes in Barrow, Holy Cross, Aniak and Kalskag.
Father Marilag’s funeral Mass was scheduled for Oct. 1 at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Fairbanks. He will be buried in the Philippines near his family.
A memorial service will be scheduled in Anchorage at a later date.