Saint Therese of Lisieux wasn’t yet recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint when Alaska’s very first bishop “made a rather hasty move,” in selecting her as the patron saint of Alaska.
One hundred years ago this December, the Vatican raised the Alaska missionary lands to the level of a Vicariate Apostolic, meaning Alaska would need a bishop to shepherd America’s northernmost Catholics.
That task fell to Jesuit missionary Father Joseph Crimont. In 1917 he was consecrated in Seattle as Alaska’s first bishop. This was before the state was divided into three separate dioceses.
Humbled by the appointment, the newly consecrated Bishop Crimont chose to place on his bishop’s coat of arms the words, “la rose effeuillée,” (the rose unpetaled).
“This he did to honor, and to thank for many personal favors received, Sister Therese of Lisieux, who, in 1919, was still four years from being beatified and six from being canonized,” wrote late Alaska church historian Father Luis Renner in his book “Alaskana Catholica.”
The bishop’s choosing of a patron saint, who wasn’t formally recognized as such by the Holy See, struck fellow Alaskan Jesuit missionary Father Julius Jetté as an overly hasty move. Writing in late 1919 to another Alaskan missionary, Father Jetté said of Sister Therese, “Though I admire her virtues and holiness, I cannot help thinking that our good bishop has made a rather hasty move in selecting a ‘patron saint’ that is not yet beatified.”
Father Jetté’s concerns were resolved in 1925 when Bishop Crimont traveled to Rome to see Sister Therese canonized and to hear her decreed by the Sacred Congregation for Missions “Queen and Patroness of Alaska.”
According to Alaskana Catholica, on Bishop Crimont’s Rome trip he also led a pilgrimage to Lisieux. Saint Therese, “the Little Flower,” has been the official patron saint of the Alaska missions ever since, and the rose has appeared on the coats of arms of all subsequent bishops of northern Alaska, an area which is now covered by the Diocese of Fairbanks.