Golden, late morning light filtered the stained glass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral. In its glow Native American musician Buz Daney drummed and chanted a solemn but joyful opening to the Archdiocese of Anchorage’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Mass on May 14.
The song rose in tempo and intensity as parish representatives bearing signs with the names of the 24 parishes and missions in the 138,000 square mile archdiocese, took their places in a grand procession, led by Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus. As Daney’s voice faded, a solitary organ played a quiet interlude.
Two dozen archdiocesan musicians joined with the nearly full church to sing “For All the Saints.” Altar servers, seminarians, as well as a dozen archdiocesan priests and half that number of deacons made their way to the sanctuary. Archbishop Roger Schwietz followed.
Incense filled the church as the archbishop welcomed all, with a simple, “Happy Anniversary.”
“Thank God for all he has given to us,” he added, “not only in the archdiocese, but in serving the poor through Catholic Social Services.”
Archbishop Schwietz acknowledged the religious sisters who have, over the years, ministered in countless ways. Many of those in attendance traveled long distances from their current assignments to celebrate this milestone.
The first Scripture reading of the Mass was taken from the Acts of the Apostles. It detailed how Saint Matthias, on whose feast day the anniversary Mass fell, was chosen by the 11 apostles to take the place of Judas.
The sacred incensing and procession with the Book of the Gospels preceded its opening to the Gospel of John. Jesus’ familiar words spoke to the source and defining grace of what the sacred liturgy celebrates: God’s love for his people and their love for one another: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.”
Archbishop Schwietz’s homily referenced the first reading of how the apostles chose Saint Matthias by casting lots.
“The choosing of Matthias by lot was the beginning of gambling in the Catholic Church,” he quipped. “We’ve followed through with bingo ever since.”
When laughter subsided, Archbishop Schwietz related that it was necessary, following Jesus’ Ascension, to have a witness to the Lord’s Resurrection. It is equally necessary in the present time, he added, for people of faith to give witness to how God cares for us. We are chosen by God to bear fruit. “This fruit is love,” he said.
The archbishop reflected on what God has done for the people of the Anchorage Archdiocese for 50 years, and how “great feats are accomplished in the name of faith.” He expressed gratitude for those who have worked with the poor and marginalized in a “society more needy than it was 50 years ago.”
“We look back in joy and thanksgiving and give thanks to those who have come and gone and done great good,” Archbishop Schwietz said.
He urged everyone to later peruse the display boards in the vestibule and chapel. Each parish and mission compiled a visual record of its unique spiritual journeys and historical milestones. Following the Mass many enjoyed viewing photographs, mementos and artifacts of the archdiocese’s first 50 years.
Archbishop Schwietz concluded his homily by looking forward to continuing the task of creating a community of love and service in Alaska. He prayed, “that the Lord give us strength and grace to continue what we have done; to put love into the ways in which we care for one another, according to the dignity that God has given us.”
The cultural, linguistic and geographic diversity of Alaska’s Catholic community was partially reflected in the Prayers of the Faithful, proclaimed by native speakers of French, Korean, Tagalog, Yup’ik, Nigerian, Spanish and Samoan. Some wore cultural garb. The diversity of so many cultures encompassed in one church was further celebrated at the picnic following the liturgy; where dancers, entertainers and picnickers from various cultures performed and participated in the daylong celebration.
Father Vincent Blanco, Saint Anthony pastor and former pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, along with parishioners from both churches, identified more than 25 countries of origin of first generation congregants. Additionally, dozens of European countries are the ancestral homes of many English-speaking parishioners. Alaskan Catholics are from the four corners of the earth.
Folks noted this rapidly growing diversity as the most profound change in the archdiocese over the past 50 years.
Anne and Raymond Gauthier of Saint Patrick Church, caught up with Peg and Wes Bergsrud of Saint Anthony parish to reminisce about their early years in Anchorage.
“Anchorage was a frontier town when we came here in the 1960s,” said Anne Gauthier.
Peg Bergsrud recalled one of her children attending public school kindergarten at Saint Anthony Church before Wonder Park Elementary was built to accommodate more of Anchorage’s rapidly growing population.
Sister Mary Clare, the first director of Catholic Social Services, recounted the early years of the organization.
“We did everything,” the Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary said of her work in Alaska from 1967 to 1986. The vivacious octogenarian delightfully recalled how her few workers responded to the pressing needs of the day for the physically challenged and their caregivers, Vietnamese refugees, pregnant women and others.
Father Richard Tero, an archdiocesan priest of 42 years and pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Seward noted the influence of Catholics in Alaska.
“The Catholic Church is a vital part of the state,” he said. “We have only 10 percent of the population, but we have a huge impact.”
He viewed the anniversary gathering as an opportunity to be with the many people he has served in various parish assignments through the years.
“With the exception of funerals, I only see them for big celebrations,” he said.