Pioneering Alaskan religious sister dies

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The adventurous and long-serving Sister Marie Ann Brent, of the Sisters of the Holy Family, died last month at the age of 83. According to her religious order, Sister Brent died suddenly on Nov. 22, while living at the order’s motherhouse in Fremont, California. A Mass of Resurrection was held there on Nov. 29 a the Holy Family Motherhouse and her remains were interred at Holy Cross Cemetery.

After nearly 40 years in Alaska, Sister Brent retired in 2011 in Valdez, where she served as parish director at St. Francis Xavier Church for 18 years. In 2014, Sister Brent’s medical and physical conditions forced her to return to California where she could receive the care she needed among her Sisters of the Holy Family.

The slim, grey-haired religious sister may have appeared delicate, but appearances were deceiving.

“She’s the first nun I brought to Alaska,” said late Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley, who spoke at Sister Brent’s 2011 retirement event in Valdez. As the new bishop of Juneau at the time, he assigned Sister Brent, in 1973, to the remote logging camps that dotted his 700-mile long diocese.

It was the beginning of a trusting relationship that eventually found Sister Brent invited by Archbishop Hurley, newly appointed as archbishop in Anchorage, to serve the church in Dutch Harbor, and later Dillingham and Valdez.

Sister Brent entered the California-based religious congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family on January 6, 1953 from the Diocese of Oakland. She was 18 years old.

Founded in San Francisco in the late 1800s, the congregation cared for prostitutes and others who fell prey to bad times in the rush for gold.

Sister Brent once described the Sisters of the Holy Family as independent women “who pray with our boots on.”

Following her service to those working in Southeast lumber camps Sister Brent spent seven years as parish administrator of St. Christopher-by-the-Sea Church in Unalaska – where she became the first parish director of an Alaskan parish without a resident priest. While at Dutch Harbor, she boarded foreign commercial ships in the Bering Sea, climbing swaying chain ladders, to attend to urgent medical needs of sailors.

From 1986 to 1993, she served as pastoral administrator of Holy Rosary Church in Dillingham. From that base, she flew to St. Theresa Mission to encourage Catholics in remote Naknek with Communion services, religion classes and Bible studies.

She interrupted her service to Alaska only once, traveling to Sacramento to spend a year in 1986 obtaining her clinical pastoral education, which allowed her to be a hospital chaplain.

In 1987, she began six years serving the Bristol Bay area during a time when they had no resident priest and were served by traveling clergy.

She served in Valdez from 1993 to 2011. She ran the church, visited homebound parishioners and those in the hospital or jail. She coordinated with local churches, organizing area-wide charitable projects and annual blessings of motorcycles and pets.

She received several honors for her service to the local church, most notably in 2009 then Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz presented her with one of the highest honors awarded to the laity by the pope. The archbishop bestowed the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal – which recognizes service “For Church and Pope.”

A Memorial Mass for Sister Brent will be celebrated at St. Francis Xavier Church in Valdez on Dec. 6 at 6 p.m. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to the Sisters of the Holy Family, PO Box 3248, Fremont, CA 94539.


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