Nearly 12 years after sending three priests and a religious brother to establish a religious community to provide sacraments for Catholics living on the Kenai Peninsula, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate are withdrawing from Alaska.
Due to a growing shortage of vocations to the order, the Oblates are being forced to cease certain missions across the country. They leave Alaska July 1.
“They are departing because the shortage of vocations has meant a limited number of Oblates to staff the many works that they do in different parts of the country,” Oblate Father Tom Rush told the Catholic Anchor on Jan. 27.
Father Rush, Father Roger Bergkamp and Father Ron Meyer currently serve Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Soldotna, Our Lady of the Angels Church in Kenai, St. John the Baptist Church in Homer and St. Peter the Apostle Mission in Ninilchik.
“Our prayers and best wishes are with the people affected by this decision — one that has resulted from the limits of our personnel resources as they continue to shrink,” said a statement from the priests released over the weekend Masses, Jan. 26-27. “With gratitude to the people of the parishes where we have served, we assure you of our prayers as we go into the future.”
As of July 1 the Anchorage Archdiocese will assume direct responsibility for the parishes. Father Rush said he and his fellow Oblates have not yet received their new assignment, but they will be sent to other parts of the country.
“At this point it is not known who will be taking over for the Oblates,” Father Rush said.
The Oblates first assumed responsibility for the parishes of the Kenai Peninsula in the summer of 2007 when then-Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz, also an Oblate, asked his order to send men north to serve parishes that did not have resident priests.
At the time the Oblates national province was keenly interested in the new Alaska mission with hopes that it would be the first of similar ventures across the country.
The four original Oblates were Father Joe Dowling from Texas, Father Tony Dummer from Juneau, Father Andy Sensenig from Massachusetts and Brother Craig Bonham from Anchorage.
Over the past 12 years, various Oblates have come to Alaska, living together in a house remodeled and upgraded by parishioners in Soldotna. During the week the men live in religious community. On weekends, they split up and celebrate Masses and other sacraments at the four parishes.
The Anchorage Archdiocese is expected to announce a new plan for the effected parishes, along with other clergy assignments, this spring.