The reach of our missionary assistance now extends to one of our own country’s 50 states—the outlying and isolated native settlements scattered throughout the Alaskan bush wilderness.
On a visit to Alaska, Pope John Paul II waxed poetic: “Being here in Alaska, so richly endowed with the beauties of nature, at once so rugged, and yet so splendid, we sense the presence of God’s spirit in the manifold handiwork of creation.” Sadly, however, the state’s dioceses had long been unable to supply resident priests to many villages that remain underdeveloped and unconnected by roads due to their rugged, icy terrain and almost perpetually foul weather. The sun sets there on November 18 or 19 and does not rise again for at least 65 days, during which its population of more than 4,000 live in total darkness. 60% native Inupiaq survive largely by hunting, fishing, and foraging. where nothing grows, and what is sold at grocery stores must be flown in from great distances and so is inordinately expensive. The people have always gone for long periods of time without Mass, the sacraments, or the counseling of a priest in time of need, and have felt quite abandoned by the Church.
In the late 1800’s, courageous Jesuit missionaries traversed that vast, rugged terrain by dog sleds under unceasingly adverse conditions to spread the faith to all corners of Alaska. Diocesan priests gradually took over from the Jesuits, but, overextended, invited our Western Dominican Province to assume administration of the Holy Family Old Cathedral in Anchorage, where our friars have now served since 1974. But due to the time demands of the local parish, the shortage of priests, and the expense of safely traveling to the remote fishing villages or rugged, isolated interior towns, we have always been frustrated in our attempts to branch outside of Anchorage and serve those Yupik and Inupiaq native communities.
In 2015 the Dominicans at Holy Family made the commitment to help fulfill this troubling need. They began by freeing up at least one priest a week to journey to many of the outlying towns on a rotating basis to celebrate weekend Masses. Soon they implemented an outreach program to extend their ministry, with the help of visiting friars, to as many of the isolated Catholic communities as possible, as often as possible, and in 2020 our Dominican Mission Foundation pledged its support in their struggle to fill this great gap. Largely through our support, they now make over 65 annual mission trips to 20 different isolated communities, from the northernmost point of the U.S., Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), to Dutch Harbor/Unalaska in the south. To a person, our visiting missionaries have always commented on how very generous the native people are, readily sharing what little they have with each other. Let us share what we have with them.