Nearly 230 years ago, three Roman Catholic priests sailed from Mexico to Alaska where they would celebrate the first Catholic Mass in the state and bring the Body and Blood of Christ to the Last Frontier.
According to the Catholic Anchor, by the year 1779, the race to explore and claim rights to the far north had already reached Alaska. During the previous year, the English Captain Cook had sailed into the inlet that now bears his name, and the Russians were already trading furs with Native Alaskans.
The Spanish were sailing with a two-fold mission: to claim territory for their Catholic king and to spread the faith.
According to Father Richard Tero, a church historian and pastor at Sacred Heart Church in the city of Seward, taking possession of new land involved erecting a cross at each site and, if a priest was present, celebrating Mass.
In 1774, Spain’s first expedition to Alaska fell short – landing in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands.
The next year, part of a Spanish contingent arrived in what is now Sitka and Bucareli Bay (named after the Spanish Viceroy of Mexico Don Antonio María Bucarelí). But the ship carrying priests was forced to turn back with a crew suffering from scurvy. Those who landed in Alaska claimed territory for Spain and erected crosses. But without a priest, there was no Mass.
Only the crosses remain
Franciscan Father Junípero Serra, the beatified former head of the Californian missions, was undaunted by the challenges of evangelizing Alaska. Desiring to bring the Gospel to Natives in the north, he had been assigning chaplains to travel with the Spanish missions.
After the disappointment of the1775 trip, he wrote to Bucarelí. “There the crosses remain but … there are lacking those who can explain their meaning to those poor natives,” he said.
In 1779, Bucarelí sent another crew north, as he described, to “contain the plans of the Russians to establish themselves” in Alaska. Three chaplains accompanied them: Father Juan Antonió Garcia Riobó and Father Matiás de Santa Catalina Noriega, Franciscans from Mexico, and Father Cristóbal Antonio Díaz, a secular priest from Peru.
Sailing in Divine Providence
The explorers headed north with 15 months of supplies and an indefatigable faith. Two months in, a tremendous storm arose and the ships lost sight of each other. On one ship, the Princesa, Father Riobó recounted in his journal how the crew and priests begged help from heaven.
“I went with the commandant to the quarterdeck, and in the name of all the crew on the frigate he made a vow to Our Lady of the Rosary, patroness of the frigate,” Father Riobó wrote. “He promised the foresail as an offering at her shrine and likewise that he would carry, barefooted, the mast in procession to the church at San Blas, if the Blessed Virgin would obtain our delivery from this and other dangers which we might encounter and should we return safely to harbor.”
“As if a reward of this promise,” Father Riobó explained, “Our Lady favored us with her powerful protection.” The winds turned favorable. And despite the “annoying” rain and cold, Father Riobó later remarked, “it would be difficult to find another example of a voyage of discovery fraught with so many dangers and so happily ended.”
All of the explorers – but two – eventually, safely returned home.
On May 3, the Princesa sailed into Bucareli Harbor. The second ship, the Favorita, had arrived ten hours earlier – after two weeks of separation.
On the Spanish feast honoring the Holy Cross, the explorers found a small port on the east side of the bay and named it “Santa Cruz.”
There again, said Father Riobó, “we experienced the effects of Divine Providence which guided us.” At night, they dropped anchor. The next morning, they discovered an enormous rock jutting out, exposed in the low tide. They had been saved from shipwreck, wrote Father Riobó.
The Spanish disembarked on Suemez Island, where Father Riobó said they greeted the Natives, who appeared with “signs and tokens of peace, some throwing white feathers in the air from a promontory on the sea.” Father Riobó added, “We gave gifts to each of them and they in turn gave us fish.”
“With all reverence”
Then on May 13, 1779 (the feast of the Ascension), the first Roman Catholic Mass was celebrated on Alaska soil.
In his journal, Lieutenant Don Ignacio Arteaga, commander of the expedition and captain of the Princesa, described the scene of the first Mass.
On “the 13th I descended to land with my Second in Command, and the Captain of the Favorita, with all the officers of both ships, carrying in the launch with all reverence the (statue of the) Virgin of the Rosary, and having disembarked on the beach … the Sovereign Lady was placed upon an altar which I ordered to be set up under a large tent.”
Mass was sung by the three chaplains. Just outside the tent, stood a cross made from two “pine” trees.
About 60 natives – men, women and children – attended the Mass, wrote Arteaga. They seemed to show “great devotion,” but he concluded it was merely wonderment over the “ornaments, things never seen among them, as also at the ceremonies of the priests, and the silence which we all kept.”
After Mass, the captains and officers carried the cross to a mountain where it could be seen from the bay.
Having ordered several gun salutes from the ships, Arteaga explained that “the Virgin was saluted from on board as well as on shore.”
The Spanish stayed in Bucareli Bay for 58 days. From the bay, they conducted a small reconnaissance mission. Also, they administered medical care to the natives, helped them in their crafts and farming and baptized several children. On July 1, the Spanish left the area for further exploration, but “not without much regret, of the Indians who had come to settle there in order to be near us,” wrote Father Riobó.
A heritage of faith
Ultimately, the Spanish failed to establish a permanent Catholic settlement in Alaska, and instead founded missions further south across the West Coast of the United States, primarily in California.
It would be another hundred years before the bishop of Vancouver would open the first Roman Catholic parish in Alaska at St. Rose of Lima Church in Wrangell.
But Alaska’s Catholic roots had begun to grow a century before.
In an interview with the Anchor, Father Tero lauded the Spanish explorers for first bringing Catholic faith and devotion to the far north. “The Spanish always had a love for the Blessed Mother,” he said. Their explorers were always saying the Rosary and singing the Salve Regina, he noted.
While the Spanish exploration to Alaska included an official mission to claim lands for Spain, Father Tero was quick to add that there also was a higher motivation at work.
“They were out to win souls, not earn bucks,” he said. “They were there to bring Christ to the Native peoples and to help them.”
“They knew how fragile life was,” he added, “and that Jesus gave life meaning and that his Mother would help” in their trials.
Father Tero urged Catholic Alaskans today to mirror their spiritual forbearers. In good weather and in the midst of storms, he said, let “Jesus and his Mother be the center of their lives.”
Printed with permission by the Catholic Anchor, newspaper from the diocese of Anchorage, Alaska.