Small Alaskan parishes thrive during Lenten season despite priest shortage

Photo Credit: The Catholic Anchor
Photo Credit: The Catholic Anchor


Two full days after Ash Wednesday, Catholics in remote Alaska villages were walking around with freshly drawn ashen crosses on their foreheads.  Receiving the traditional Ash Wednesday ashes on Friday might seem odd to most Catholics, however in the frontiers of Alaska, the simple presence of a priest on Sunday can be cause for celebration.


Father Scott Garrett is a pilot who serves all of Southwest Alaska — one of the largest parish boundary areas in the world. It is a region that encompasses more than a dozen tiny villages and fishing outposts that stretch across the long reach of Alaska’s Aleutian Chain, explains the Catholic Anchor.


Only parishioners at Father Garrett’s “big” church, Holy Rosary in Dillingham, had an Ash Wednesday service on Wednesday.


Other villages such as Clark’s Point received ashes on Friday, and little Levelock — with only 70 people in the entire village and only a handful of those, Catholics — received the symbolic black marks on Saturday.


And those are the larger areas. Another 15 locations, all accessible only by air, bear names like Cold Bay and Chignik Bay.


Connecting to the faith


All these parishioners share a special common bond during Lent — “the little black book” of Lenten meditations which Father Garrett distributes, wherever his plane touches down.


But aside from the common book, these Catholic outposts have myriad other religious acts that bind them together.


B.J. Hill, who helps administer St. Therese in the fishing village of Naknek, said “Father Scott has us pretty well covered,” as the priest flies the 64 air miles from Dillingham, on most Sundays.


Hill said about seven families make up the core of the St. Therese Catholic community.

Like most of the little communities, parishioners at St. Therese take advantage of services that can be celebrated, while they wait for a priest.


“We have a really nice church with hand-carved Stations of the Cross,” and someone from the parish will lead the stations each Friday in Naknek, said Hill.


On the road system south of Anchorage lies sparsely populated Cooper Landing, the site of many great sport fishing adventures. For Tom and Chris Farrington, it has been home since they moved from Anchorage several years ago.


Someone from the little parish of St. John Neumann takes a turn leading the Stations of the Cross each Friday during Lent, said Chris, and often there’s a Bible study in someone’s home. The congregation is so small that “everyone has a key to the church” she said, “and a lot of people make a visit every day.”


Cooper Landing is served by Father Richard Tero from Sacred Heart in Seward, and he receives help from retired associate Father Bill Hanrahan. The extra aid allows the parish to celebrate Mass every Sunday, although they won’t have a Holy Thursday or Good Friday service.


In Homer, and farther north in Talkeetna, Catholics celebrate a Lenten tradition that larger parishes often do not – each offers a Passover Seder dinner (a traditional Jewish meal) during Holy Week, with advice and help in Homer offered by a Jewish neighbor. The meal is slightly modified for Christian use and recognized as a forerunner to the Last Supper, at which Jesus instituted the Eucharist.


In St. Bernard Church in Talkeetna, Renamary Rauchenstein has been the pastoral leader for 12 years, and she said the parish sees a priest about twice a month, although they do expect a visiting priest for Holy Week.


Despite the lack of a resident pastor, St. Bernard remains an active parish during Lent, with soup suppers, Stations of the Cross and a Good Friday “faith walk.”


The solemnity of the season is affected by Talkeetna’s proximity to the 20,000-foot Mount McKinley, said Rauchenstein.


“We’re slammed during the latter part of Lent,” with people coming to town to set up medical camps and other mountain-related activity as the climbing season approaches.


Three new Catholics will enter the church at St. Bernard’s at the Easter Vigil, two of them from nearby Trapper Creek, where St. Philip Benizi’s tiny church can hold about 30 worshippers.


To learn more about rural Catholic life in Alaska, visit Holy Rosary Church’s Web site at:


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