A beloved figure in the Anchorage archdiocese left during July for a new assignment in Northern Arizona.
Sister Mary Peter Diaz, of the Daughters of Charity, has been appointed director of the food bank run by St. Jude Church on the vast Navajo Nation Reservation in the Southwest U.S.
Sister Mary Peter spent 12 years as the director of Hispanic ministry in the Anchorage Archdiocese, and was concurrently the director of Native Ministry for six years. With so many years and so many contacts, Sister Mary Peter said she will miss Anchorage. But the point is, she said, that a religious sister always looks forward. She has a strictly can-do, positive attitude towards her new assignment.
“We are sent. If they need you somewhere, they send you,” she said. “That’s it. You move on.”
Anchorage Deacon Gustavo Azpilcueta, who was ordained in 2018, said Sister Mary Peter is full of joy.
The deacon, a fluent Spanish speaker, worked in Hispanic ministry at Holy Family Cathedral with Sister Mary Peter.
“She is so energetic,” he said. “She is one of the people who encouraged me to continue my vocation to become a deacon. She knows how to develop opportunities to support the Hispanic community.”
These opportunities, he said, included encouraging the Anchorage Archdiocese’s part in the nationwide Encuentro gathering in Texas last year, teaching adult catechesis at Holy Family, and participating in Llamas del Espiritu, the Hispanic charismatic group at Holy Family Cathedral.
“The Hispanic community is very thankful for Sister, and we are already missing her very much,” Deacon Azpilcueta observed.
Although Sister Mary Peter is looking forward to her new assignment, one thing she will miss is the presence of Bishop Andrew Bellisario, C.M., of Juneau, who will be back in Anchorage more frequently following his appointment as apostolic administrator of the Anchorage Archdiocese until a new archbishop is named following the appointment of Archbishop Paul Etienne to Seattle.
As a member of the Vincentian order, Bishop Bellisario is also a member of the same Vincentian family as the Daughters of Charity.
“When Bishop Bellisario was the pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe (in Anchorage), he was also our sisters’ spiritual director,” she said. “Now, I’m leaving and he’ll be around again.”
Sister Mary Peter’s new community in Tuba City is comprised of three sisters.
“We always have at least three sisters in each community,” she said.
Sister Mary Peter’s new environment will be very different from Alaska. She grew up in Southern California, but moving closer geographically won’t mean she will get to see her family more often.
“From Anchorage, I got on a plane and was able to meet my family at the Los Angeles airport,” she laughs. Now, she’s in a remote spot far from any airport and not within easy driving distance.
The Navajo Reservation is the largest land area retained by a Native American tribe. Sitting on over 17,500,000 acres, or over 27,000 square miles, the reservation covers land in northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico.
Sister Mary Peter’s parish is in Tuba City. With more than 8,000 people it is the largest of several towns on the reservation, and lies within the Painted Desert.
Despite the vastness of the reservation, the Catholic population is very small. Sister Mary Peter said a typical Sunday may see only 50 congregants at St. Jude Church. Mormons have had a great deal of influence in the area, she said, and there are many different denominations present, as well as traditional Native faith.
St. Jude, originally founded by Franciscans, is now a Vincentian parish and boasts a multicultural membership that includes Navajo, Hopi, Hispanic, Filipino and Anglo parishioners. Sister Mary Peter said she will probably be helping at the parish, in addition to her food bank responsibilities. Poverty and alcohol abuse are among issues the area faces.
Gemma Gaudio, one of the leaders of the Kateri Prayer Circle at St. Anthony Church which serves the Native community of Anchorage, described Sister Diaz as tireless in her work with Native ministry.
“We already miss her. She did everything,” said Gaudio. “She tried to get younger people involved, and she would drive around and pick up members who needed rides to our meetings. She got us going to where we are now — independent. She was hard-working and generous.”
Gaudio recalled with laughter Sister Mary Peter’s commitment to playing the guitar at Sunday Mass at the Alaska Native Medical Center, where everyone occasionally got off-key but participated faithfully and enthusiastically nonetheless.
In Anchorage, the Daughters of Charity community is now comprised of Sister Francis Vista, who recently returned as the director of Native Ministry, Sister Cecelia Nguyen, a chaplain at Providence Extended Care, and Sister Oanh Tran, a registered nurse at the same facility.