Archbishop Francis T. Hurley of Anchorage had a vision.
As the keynote speaker at a Catholic Press Association national conference in 1997, he spoke about how the Catholic press should live out its mission of proclaiming the Church’s social justice message.
In the audience that day was a young University of Portland graduate, John Roscoe, the assistant editor at the Tennessee Register, a Catholic newspaper then edited by Tony Spence. He would later become the executive director of the Catholic News Service.
“I recruited him (Archbishop Hurley) to speak at CPA,” Spence told Roscoe. “You’re going to love this guy.”
At the time, the Archdiocese of Anchorage had no Catholic newspaper, although to bring Catholic news to the community, full-page ad space was purchased on a rotating basis in both the now-defunct Anchorage Times and the Anchorage Daily News.
But, as Archbishop Hurley told Roscoe after his speech, he wanted a newspaper. Getting a paper started was one reason he had come to the Catholic Press Association. And it didn’t take long for the two men to decide they shared the same vision.
“Hurley was such a wonderful mentor,” said Roscoe, who relocated to Anchorage and launched the Anchor’s debut edition on April 30, 1999.
“Archbishop Hurley believed that your salvation is connected to how you treat the poor and the vulnerable, and he wanted to hold the Church accountable to that.”
In the religion section of the May 8, 1999, issue of the Anchorage Daily News, the paper noted that the Anchor “is hot off the presses and on its way to the mailboxes of approximately 11,000 families” in the archdiocese.
“The 12-page bi-monthly publication features a typical newspaper format, with world, national and local news, commentary, letters to the editor, cartoons, columns, notices and ads,” said the Daily News.
The inaugural issue featured a historical piece, “Many Parishes, One Church.”
Writers included columnist Jeannie Bench and freelance feature writer Annette Alleva, who still contributes to the Anchor. Kelly Dufort served as an assistant editor during Roscoe’s tenure.
And Sandy Busch, who volunteered at the beginning to sell ads that would serve as financial support for the paper, was so successful that Roscoe hired her on a commission basis and she’s done it ever since.
“What’s important to remember,” said Busch, “is that Archbishop Hurley wanted a paper that would keep us all connected to each other, and that would serve as a teaching tool.”
Long-time columnist Holy Cross Father Leroy Clementich was an Anchor favorite. Often using his upbringing on a North Dakota farm as background, “Clem,” as he was known to readers, used a gentle style to bring Scripture to life. His column brought home many awards from the Catholic Press Association.
For Roscoe, his most memorable Anchor journalistic experience was his coverage of the Archdiocese’s mission to Magadan. Archbishop Hurley had traveled to the Russian Far East during the period of “glasnost” when the area was open to flights from Alaska, and he brought Father Michael Shields, who soon began a mission there among people who had served in Stalin’s labor camps in the area.
Roscoe traveled there in the heart of winter and got a great shot of Father Shields standing in the middle of the foundation for the planned church. As the priest stretched his arms out, Roscoe took a photo for the Anchor in which the outstretched arms conveyed the shadow of a cross.
Meeting an elderly camp survivor – her hands gnarled from having them broken as punishment – made a deep impression Roscoe said.
“I remember being touched by how powerful people’s faith was,” he remembers.
In so many ways, Roscoe recalls, it was an example of the excitement of working with Archbishop Hurley.
“He led on so many issues,” the editor said, “like the role of women in the church. He was eminently pragmatic and saw a dynamic, evolving Church.”
In 2001, Archbishop Roger Schwietz replaced the retiring Archbishop Hurley and continued the Anchor in much the same format.
“Archbishop Schwietz was a wonderful person to work with,” said Roscoe. “Fair and very straightforward. He was supportive of the communication tool that the Anchor was.”
In 2006, Roscoe relocated to a new position in the Pacific Northwest and Archbishop Schwietz accepted the Anchor editorial board recommendation to move Anchor staff writer, Maia Nolan, into the position as Editor. After a short tenure, Nolan moved on to work at the Alaska Dispatch, and Joel Davidson, who had served very briefly as assistant editor, was named the new editor of the Anchor in late fall. He assumed his duties in January, 2007.
Davidson maintains strong views on the role of the Catholic press.
“The Catholic press is uniquely set to bring a robust Catholic voice into the culture.”
Davidson’s journalistic experience was with the Frontiersman, a secular paper in the Valley. During his tenure at the Anchor, the number of issues was reduced twice due to budgetary constraints, and today the Anchor prints twelve issues a year. The paper also began digital coverage of each issue.
Like Roscoe, Davidson praised the freedom given him by Archbishop Schwietz to run the newsroom.
“What stands out for me,” said Roscoe, “was the journalistic license to go up to anyone – the governor or the person in the pew – and ask questions. I love stories and getting to tell stories.”
Nevertheless, for both editors, there were the inevitable “fights in the newsroom,” as Roscoe called them. How to cover touchy issues? What issues to emphasize? And dealing with the knowledge that you’ll never keep everyone happy as you try to convey the beauty and the challenge of life in the Church.
In 2016, Archbishop Paul Etienne replaced the retiring Archbishop Schwietz. His tenure with the archdiocese was not destined to be nearly as lengthy as his predecessors, however. In 2019, Pope Francis named him the Archbishop of Seattle, and Bishop Andrew Bellisario of Juneau was appointed the administrator.
2019 also saw Davidson resign, and the paper has been run on an interim basis out of Juneau by Dominique Johnson, editor of the Inside Passage, the newspaper for the Diocese of Juneau.
In 2020, Bishop Bellisario was appointed by the Pontiff to be the archbishop of the new Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau. This new merger will bring many changes to the archdiocese, including the future of the newspapers.
Despite the challenges facing all of print journalism, 24% of Catholic households still receive a Catholic print publication, according to J.D. Long-Garcia, president of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Press Association.
Looking back at the Anchor’s history, one thing is true: the hallways outside the Anchor offices are covered by awards that the newspaper won over its two decades. There are multiple first places for feature stories, columns, editorials and even a first-place general excellence award for the Anchor for a paper in its size category.
There are numerous second places, third places and honorable mentions.
So, take a bow Catholic Anchor! You’ve had a good run.