Missionaries on the last frontier

| Jessica Weinberger | October 12, 2016 | 0 Comments
In this photo from 2008, Lucy James, a Yup’ik Eskimo from the bush village of Tununak, Alaska, fishes for smelt in her favorite spot in front of her house. The bank where her house sits is part of the narrow peninsula that separates the river from the Bering Sea. Courtesy Jesuit Father Thomas Provinsal

Father Roman Caly blesses the boats of parishioners during an annual procession in the Yup’ik village of Emmonak, Alaska. The village sustains itself through fishing. Courtesy Franciscan Sister Marian Leaf

Contributions on World Mission Sunday Oct. 23 benefit Diocese of Fairbanks, the only fully missionary Catholic diocese in the U.S.

On the shortest day of the year, Dec. 21, the sun shines for less than four hours in Fairbanks, Alaska. But while darkness overcomes the region for much of the winter months, the light of the Catholic Church shines year-round through the faithful in the Diocese of Fairbanks, 3,000 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.

It’s a place where nuns ride snowmobiles, priests travel by plane from parish to parish, and a dedicated group of diocesan leaders and lay ministers work to meet the needs of the nearly 12,500 Catholics situated throughout the nearly 410,000-square-mile diocese — more than 66 times the size of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Forty-six parishes dot this expansive geographic area, with only nine accessible by an official road system. It’s truly the last frontier, where temperatures can dip well below zero degrees, and whipping winds, dense fog and lengthy periods of darkness are routine.

Officially formed in 1962, the Diocese of Fairbanks is both the nation’s largest diocese by size and the only remaining fully missionary Catholic diocese in the United States as designated by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. On
Oct. 23, when Catholics worldwide celebrate World Mission Sunday, proceeds will benefit the Pontifical Mission Societies, which triages support to the 1,150 mission dioceses around the world.

“Since only about eight of our communities can support themselves, we must subsidize the rest,” Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski said. “We are grateful for the assistance we receive from the Pontifical Mission Society, Catholic Extension, Catholic Home Mission, Black and Indian Missions and the thousands of faithful who support our diocese with their donations. Without these benefactors, we could not carry on our work.”

Deacon Mickey Friesen, director of the Center for Mission that serves the archdiocese, is organizing a trip to the diocese in 2017 so that local Catholics can build on the message of World Mission Sunday and witness the missionary Church in action. (See box.)

“The hope of World Mission Sunday is to remember that we’re all called to be witnesses to our faith, but we’re also all connected to one other,” he said. “We have this worldwide connection of faith as Catholics worldwide, and we have an opportunity to support one another.”

Father Roman Caly blesses the boats of parishioners during an annual procession in the Yup’ik village of Emmonak, Alaska. The village sustains itself through fishing. Courtesy Franciscan Sister Marian Leaf

In this photo from 2008, Lucy James, a Yup’ik Eskimo from the bush village of Tununak, Alaska, fishes for smelt in her favorite spot in front of her house. The bank where her house sits is part of the narrow peninsula that separates the river from the Bering Sea. Courtesy Jesuit Father Thomas Provinsal

Ongoing financial needs

The harsh winds, blizzards and ice have kept Cindy Jacobson, the diocese’s facilities and construction manager, busy for her four years on the job. She oversees the maintenance of more than 75 buildings, which must be handled through volunteer labor in the villages unless she can raise money to fund a specific project.

She coordinates each group of workers, shipping or barging in the necessary tools to address the exterior and foundational needs of the buildings and replace outdated light fixtures. Plumbing is a complicated task, as she must keep the buildings warm enough to prevent the pipes from freezing.

Each project requires Jacobson to communicate with many residents who continue to speak in their native Alaskan languages, while also overseeing many projects, depending on the time of the year, in the dark.

“That’s why those light fixtures are so important,” she joked.

Deacon George Bowder, who served as the diocese’s director of finance for 35 years, noted that the conditions, along with the cultural make-up of the region, have contributed to the unique financial needs of the diocese.

“The biggest roadblock is that the cultural lifestyle is one of subsistence, which is hunting and gathering,” he explained. “They do a lot of gathering, but that doesn’t create a cash economy where you could take that and pay for the maintenance on the church or help with the fuel that goes into the tank or pay the electric bill.”

Native ministry

Catholic missionaries have ministered to indigenous groups such as the Athabaskan, Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Inupiat native Alaskans since 1862, before the United States purchased the land from Russia in 1867.

Franciscan Sister Kathy Radich has carried on that tradition for the last 30 years in ministering to the spiritual needs of the Yup’ik Eskimo people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta region. From her home base of St. Mary’s, a village of 600 residents, she serves as the diocese’s coordinator of rural ministries, supporting 24 villages on the far western coast of the state.

Living among the Yup’ik people, she works to establish a Yup’ik-Catholic community that is both true to Catholic teaching and meaningful to the local people. Sister Kathy has helped incorporate Yup’ik customs into sacraments like the baptismal rite, where parents and sponsors will say both the child’s baptismal name and Yup’ik name.

“The Yup’ik had a spiritual life long before the missionaries came,” she said. “Now they’re drawing parallels between what Jesus taught and what their ancestors taught. Our mission out here is to empower these people to continue to spread their spirituality.”

Malora Hunt, a Yup’ik mother of five, appreciates how she can blend her heritage with her Catholic faith, singing Yup’ik songs and pieces from the Catholic hymnal at Mass. With limited volunteers serving in her parish in Emmonak, a village of 900 people, she has held a wide-ranging set of leadership roles, while also overseeing baptismal and marriage preparation with her husband, Dominic.

There are more than 300 baptisms in the diocese each year, and Hunt helps plan the baptisms within her parish mostly between October and June, as residents spend the busy summer months salmon fishing and gathering. Each year, fewer than 40 couples enter into the sacrament of marriage in the diocese, which Hunt attributes to the younger generations losing their connection to traditional Yup’ik values and beliefs, as well as influences from the mainstream culture.

During their marriage preparation sessions, the Hunts work to share the wisdom and knowledge of their Yup’ik spirituality and traditional parenting.

“We try to inspire young people to rely on the teachings of our ancestors and to build their families together with our Catholic faith and practices,” she said.

About the Pontifical Mission Societies

The Pontifical Mission Societies represents a group of four Catholic missionary societies, governed by the pope, that work to promote a universal missionary spirit within the Church. Together, they help bring the messages of Christ to the world, especially in countries where Christianity is new, young or poor.

World Mission Sunday, organized by the Propagation of the Faith, one of the mission societies, is celebrated by Catholics worldwide and invites them to recommit themselves to the Church’s missionary activity through prayer and sacrifice. Proceeds from World Mission Sunday support the more than 1,100 mission dioceses around the world by supplying Bibles for catechists, supporting a struggling parish, caring for orphans, helping priests travel between remote villages and more.

Each year, Catholics in the U.S. donate about $50 million to the Propagation of the Faith to support this important evangelization work. — Jessica Weinberger

Support for vocations

With limited financial resources and personnel, Patrick Tam, the director of adult faith formation and a parish facilitator for Sacred Heart Church in Emmonak, splits his time between coordinating retreats, Bible studies and groups for adults in the Yukon–Kuskokwim region and maintaining the spiritual life of his parish with Sunday services, sacramental preparation and more.

Without a designated pastor, a native deacon or lay eucharistic minister is left to lead Sunday services until a priest visits every two months.

“Sometimes it’s very frustrating when you see people really needing the sacraments, whether it’s reconciliation or anointing or the Eucharist, and you can’t just do those things until we get a priest out here,” Tam said.

Only 18 priests and 26 deacons serve the 46 parishes in the Diocese of Fairbanks, forcing priests to split time between multiple parishes. They face unpredictable weather and costly transportation, leading many of them to ride snowmobiles or travel by river barge between parishes when travel by small plane is too costly.

At the end of each visit, parishioners ensure the traveling priest stocks the tabernacle with enough hosts to last until the next visit, and they continue to pray for indigenous men, especially, to answer the call to the priesthood or deaconate.

Father Robert Fath, the Diocese of Fairbanks’ vocations director, is both the youngest priest in the diocese at 38 and the only current homegrown priest. In his newly expanded role within the Office of Faith and Family Formation, he plans to travel extensively between the villages to increase awareness and support for vocations from residents who might only interact with a priest a handful of times each year.

He admits that ministering in northern Alaska is not for the faint of heart. Priests must be willing to accept the extreme temperatures, light-dark cycles and remote settings that characterize the region. But these dedicated missionaries are crucial to spreading the good news on American soil.

“When we think of mission dioceses, we often think of foreign lands,” he said. “But there’s still mission territories here in our own country. … We have faith-filled individuals who are hungry for the Lord here in northern Alaska, and just because of the vast expanse of the area and the lack of easy transportation, we need all of the help we can get to bring the faith and the sacraments to the people.”

Travel to Fairbanks

The Center for Mission is planning a trip to the Diocese of Fairbanks in northern Alaska in mid-June 2017.

See how the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and other grants sustain and nurture the spiritual health of mission dioceses. Share in their faith, culture, joys and struggles.

For more information, contact Eric Simon at 651-291-4446 or simone@archspm.org.

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Category: World Mission Sunday