On Good Friday 1964, Joanne Hodel attended the noon liturgy at Holy Family Cathedral in downtown Anchorage. When she came home that afternoon, all seemed normal, until at 5:36 p.m. a 9.2 magnitude earthquake struck.
A strange noise was the first indication that something was going terribly wrong.
“It sounded like a plane reversing its engines before there was any movement or shaking,” she told Holy Family Cathedral’s Father Augustine Hilander, who has been gathering first-hand stories about the history of the cathedral. Then came the rolling earth and shattered glass. When she fell down, at eight months pregnant, it proved nearly impossible to get back up again.
“I prayed three times, ‘Dear Lord let this stop.’ Three times, slowly,” she recounted.
The powerful quake lasted four minutes and was felt as far south as Washington State.
While Hodel and her two sons struggled to safety, Anchorage’s 4th Avenue saw the J.C. Penney building collapse, windows shatter in buildings four blocks from it, and a giant fissure brake the streets wide open. Just one street over, 5th Avenue didn’t suffer as much devastation and Holy Family, in its present solid structure at 5th and H Street, came out relatively undamaged.
“Miraculously, the cathedral was barely touched,” said Father Hilander who has been researching the history of the cathedral for its 100th anniversary this year. “One statue, of Jesus, fell over and fingers broke from it.”
The statue was mended and returned to the same location on the left side of the altar, where it stands today.
Former Holy Family parishioner, the late John Bagoy, was a local historian who was born in Anchorage in 1922. He served as an altar boy at Holy Family and compiled a detailed history on the cathedral, including accounts of the area shortly after the earthquake.
“Though nearby 4th Avenue dropped 15 feet, Holy Family Church survived — almost without a scratch,” Bagoy wrote. “Immediately after the quake, the priests of Holy Family were quickly at work rushing to the aid of people trapped in downtown buildings such as J.C. Penney’s.”
In the moments after the quake, priests from throughout the city mobilized to help. The cathedral, however, was closed on Easter Sunday, due to citywide precautions over the structural integrity of the downtown buildings.
As for Mrs. Hodel, her husband Max rushed her out of Alaska on the first plane. She gave birth to daughter Jennifer six days later in Seattle.
ROME’S INTEREST PIQUED
In the wake of the devastation, which led to 139 deaths, massive landslides, homes cut from electricity and others completely destroyed by moving earth, Anchorage drew the attention of Rome.
Archbishop Edigio Vagnozzi, a papal representative, had visited Anchorage before the earthquake to bless the city’s first Catholic school, which was called Catholic Junior High.
“He came back immediately after the earthquake to see the devastation and had seen how large Anchorage was,” Father Hilander said. “He recommended it become its own diocese. The proposal then went to Pope Paul VI who created the archdiocese in 1966.”
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Anchorage Archdiocese.
The pope’s apostolic delegate saw that Anchorage would be the focal point of both state and spiritual growth.
Fairbanks had already been established as a diocese in 1962. Before that the Juneau Diocese was established in 1951. Anchorage had fallen under the Juneau Diocese in the 1950s. But two years after the 1964 earthquake, Anchorage became an independent archdiocese.
In 1966, Archbishop Joseph Ryan was installed as the first archbishop of Anchorage and Holy Family Church became Holy Family Cathedral, the seat of the new archdiocese.
More than 40 years before the quake, in 1915, the first auction in Anchorage took place to sell lots and establish a township. Prior to that, it was a railroad construction camp, with most people living and doing business out of tents.
Eventually, a town site of 347 acres was laid out on the south side and on top of the hill from Ship Creek. The lots of 50 feet by 140 feet were offered for sale at auction on July 10, 1915.
“Among the many workmen in Anchorage, there were about thirty Catholic men. They formed a group in the new community and a gentleman named Thomas McLaughlin wrote a letter to the bishop of Seattle requesting that a priest be sent to Anchorage,” Bagoy wrote.
Since Catholics in Anchorage were officially under the leadership of the prefect apostolic in Juneau at the time, Juneau ultimately sent out Father William Shepherd to check out the request and discover whether the upcoming town could use a priest or not. Father Shepherd sent word back that his Mass services were well attended over the course of a few weeks’ visit.
Shortly thereafter, Holy Family bought two lots downtown, now housing a rectory and other parish buildings. The initial church building was a log structure and Father Shepherd was the first pastor.