In what may come as a surprise to many, late Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley will be buried in a remote Catholic cemetery, about a two-hour drive south of Anchorage.
The humble final resting place for the iconic Alaskan bishop was chosen himself, according to his long-time personal secretary Joann White.
According to White, the idea to be buried at St. John Neumann Mission in Cooper Landing was first expressed several years ago in conversations at a regular Saturday morning coffee gathering with friends. Archbishop Hurley said he could envision being buried in one of four possible locations: Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, Angelus Memorial Park Cemetery in Anchorage, Sacred Heart Cemetery in Wasilla or the little mission cemetery in Cooper Landing.
In the last days before his death, White asked him again where he wanted to be buried. Archbishop Hurley firmly maintained that Cooper Landing was his final choice.
According to White, Archbishop Hurley had a fondness for the remote chapel located some 100 road miles from Anchorage. He had deep friendships there and a fondness for a little shrine which he dedicated a year before his retirement in 2001. The shrine is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin as “Our Caring Mother of the Handicapped.” A young parishioner at the mission who was ill and dependent on a wheelchair inspired it. In 2000 Archbishop Hurley established the shrine is an official pilgrimage site for Catholics in the Anchorage Archdiocese.
“Archbishop used to fly down to Cooper Landing occasionally,” White recalled, and he became good friends with Dodie and Mark Wilson, the owners of Hamilton’s Place, a store, restaurant, gas station, garage and cabin rental on the highway that runs through Cooper Landing.
In the early 1980s the Wilsons expressed to Archbishop Hurley their vision of having a chapel there. It was established in 1984.
“Dodie was a go-getter,” White said. “She did the work on securing the land, building permits, permissions needed, etc.”
“As recently as last summer Archbishop Hurley wanted to visit Cooper Landing again,” White added. “He asked me to drive him there. For a number of reasons — mostly his deteriorating health — that never came about.”
In addition to the cemetery, the chapel mission also contains an outdoor stations of the cross situated along a path leading to the peak of a mountain foothill. At the top, a six-foot-tall white cross overlooks a sweeping view of the Kenai River valley.
The mission of St. John Neumann is reportedly the first church in the world to be named for the 19th-century Redemptorist who is the first American bishop to be recognized as a saint.