Alaska, as we know, is a vast territory abundantly blessed by extravagant displays of nature’s beauty. Those living in Alaska never tire from experiencing the beauty of creation, which can be at the same time inspiring as well as dangerous. So it only makes sense that the origin of the Archdiocese of Anchorage is connected with the work of nature.
It was a great earthquake of 1964 — Good Friday — that set in motion the process of establishing the archdiocese. As a railroad center Anchorage was growing in population. After the 9.1 earthquake in 1964 ravaged Anchorage and a great part of the surrounding area, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, who was in charge of the mission efforts of American Catholics, came to personally examine the devastation. The Vatican representative to the United States, the papal nuncio, accompanied him. Seeing the vastness of the area and the growing population they began the process by which the Holy See on Feb. 9, 1966 established the Archdiocese of Anchorage, carving out territory from the dioceses of Fairbanks and Juneau.
Jumping ahead almost 50 years, Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley passed away just as the 50th anniversary of the archdiocese approached. Around this time we witnessed another powerful act of nature. Just hours after his burial on Jan. 28 of this year a second major earthquake, measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale, struck the area. These two earthquakes seem to bookend symbolically the 50 years of struggle and dedication given to establishing this mission church in our vast and challenging territory.
As we celebrated the 50th anniversary Mass this past Feb. 9 — the day of the establishment of the archdiocese — the readings assigned by the liturgical calendar symbolically portrayed what we were marking. In the first reading, we heard King Solomon’s beautiful prayer at the dedication of the temple he had built. His father King David wasn’t allowed to build the temple but he was instructed by God to prepare the way by amassing the materials needed.
There is a similarity to our history. Our first archbishop — Joseph Ryan — had been working in New York as the priest in charge of helping fund the mission activities of the U.S. Catholic Church. He was sent to Alaska as the first archbishop of Anchorage. With great skill and foresight he began structuring the new archdiocese and planning for the future by obtaining properties that would eventually become parishes. He built up support among the people for this new local church and gathered the clergy as his coworkers around him.
Then just as King Solomon followed the preparatory work his father King David had done by actually building the temple, so our second archbishop, Francis T. Hurley, filled in the framework, establishing new parishes, setting up organizations, creating Catholic Social Services and organizing the archdiocesan offices and communication efforts. He brought in priests and religious to lead the communities and established Blessed Sacrament Monastery as our spiritual support. He even established a mission in Russia. Thus, the organized community was in place to welcome the growing numbers of people who came from a rich variety of cultures to expand and mature the archdiocese.
I now see the archdiocese as a community of Catholics moving away from the sense of being a mission, being cared for by others, toward taking on responsibility for caring for its own and assuring the institutions and personnel needed for its own future. Surely Divine Providence has been good to us.
Thus this is truly the time to be grateful for the many people who worked with faith and vision to bring us where we are at today. We thank God for helping us to become a church that seeks to celebrate the goodness of God, the mercy of Jesus, and the joy of the Gospel.
The writer is archbishop of Anchorage.