Big Lake parish celebrates life as a Catholic community

Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Big Lake has roots as deep as the archdiocese. 

Its first church building was completed and dedicated in 1966, the same year that Pope Paul VI established the Archdiocese of Anchorage and appointed Archbishop Joseph Ryan as its first archbishop.

It was to be a baptism of fire for the little mission church near one of Alaska’s premier recreational lakes. Within two weeks of the dedication, the church burned to the ground. Although rumors swirled, including one that a person experiencing homelessness was camping nearby with a faulty wood stove, the cause was never determined. 

“The structure was a total loss,” said pastoral associate Carol Hepler. And for the next almost thirteen years parishioners met at other facilities, including at Big Lake’s Elementary school, then just a three-room facility. Worshippers remember squeezing into seats at tiny desks.

Tim Geiermann, an active parish volunteer, was six years old when the first church burned.

“My dad helped build that church in less than a week,” Geiermann remembers. 

The present structure wasn’t completed until 1979. A man named Bud Beech was heavily involved in its construction. 

 “Bud said how good it felt to be involved in constructing the new church,” Geiermann remembers. “Then he sat down and died.”

Beech’s funeral was the first celebrated in the new church. He is still remembered with memorial Masses.

In June of 1979, the new building was dedicated. By then, Archbishop Francis Hurley had succeeded Archbishop Ryan, and he conducted the first confirmations at the Big Lake church. The church remained a mission and its sacramental records were maintained at St. Bernard’s Parish in Talkeetna.

Today, Our Lady of the Lake is a thriving parish on its own, made official in 2007 by the archdiocese’s third leader, Archbishop Roger Schwietz.

“It had become clear that Our Lady of the Lake was a growing parish,” said Archbishop Schwietz. “More people were moving out that way, and the parish was capable of taking care of itself.”

It was also in 2007 that Archbishop Schwietz gave his blessing to the creation of a new elementary school, Our Lady of the Valley, which would serve St. Michael’s in Palmer, Sacred Heart in Wasilla, and Our Lady of the Lake. The school is located on Sacred Heart’s campus.

Our Lady of the Lake’s current pastor is Father Joseph McGilloway. He also serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Wasilla, and is the canonical pastor of three missions, St. Bernard in Talkeetna, St. Philip Benizi in Trapper Creek, and St. Christopher in Willow.

“I love it here,” said the native of Derry, Ireland, who was incardinated into the Archdiocese of Anchorage in 2016, and now serves the new Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau. 

“The community here is very gentle, very welcoming. It’s a lovely, friendly atmosphere.”

A former Benedictine monk, Father McGilloway served at two Irish abbeys renowned for their history and beauty, Glenstal Abbey in Murroe, County Limerick, and Kylemore Abbey in County Galway.

How does a Benedictine monk in a remote Irish abbey end up in Alaska?

 He told the Catholic Anchor newspaper in 2016 that when planning his sabbatical, he jokingly made a comment about “going to Alaska to sit in the snow.”

Someone who overheard the remark knew Father Leo Walsh from Anchorage and put the Irish priest in touch with him.

The rest, as they say, is history. Like many people who come to Alaska for a quick visit, Father McGilloway came to help out for a time, fell in love with the state and came back permanently in 2014. He holds a green card, or permanent resident status, and can apply for citizenship after the green card is in effect for five years. 

Today, he even has a burial plot picked out at the Catholic cemetery in Wasilla.

“When my mom came to visit three years ago, I showed her,” he told the North Star Catholic. “I didn’t want to freak her out, but actually it gave her a lot of consolation.”

A small rectory that could accommodate two priests was completed at Our Lady of the Lake in 1981, but at this time Father McGilloway and his parochial vicar, Father Armand Dice, reside at Sacred Heart in Wasilla and the Big Lake rectory is used by occasional visiting priests.

Father Dice, who is from the Philippines, currently has an expired visa, and is not allowed to work until his visa is renewed, hopefully, this fall. He will be staying in Wasilla.

According to Hepler, who with her husband Don moved from Bethel to Big Lake in 1992, there are 95 registered families in the parish. Not surprisingly, attendance jumps in the summer when more people access the recreational cabins that dot the lake. 

Hepler, who was an active volunteer at the parish, was given her present position by Father Scott Garrett when he was pastor.

She’s seen the parish face some big challenges, including the historic Miller Reach Fire in 1996. 

One of the most devastating fires in Alaskan history, it grew from a seven-acre wildfire to a 37,000-acre conflagration in a few short days, threatening the Big Lake and Houston area. It destroyed over 450 structures, cost millions in both property damage and fire abatement, and prompted a federal disaster declaration from President Bill Clinton.

Although the fire did not damage the church, the parish became a major relief center for the area. 

“Catholic Social Services donated Arctic military shelters,” said Hepler, “and our parish set them up for anyone needing shelter.” 

At the time, the parish had a thrift store, and Hepler said it received semi-truckloads of supplies – tools, food, clothing – which it handed out to the community in need. Today, the parish still assists anyone suffering from sporadic wildfires in the area.

More recently, Our Lady of the Lake faced the Covid pandemic and nearly two years of disruption.  Like parishes throughout the U.S., the church totally closed for a time, then opened with distanced spacing and masks. 

“It’s only starting to seem normal now,” Hepler said, although because the parish has large numbers of retired people, some were reluctant to come back too soon. Father McGilloway offers a Mass at Sacred Heart that is streamed.

The priest said he was diligent in adhering to archdiocesan COVID-19 guidelines during the crisis, despite some pushback. 

“The archbishop is our pastor,” he said. “He’s the father of our archdiocese.“

Nevertheless, the priest said it was a long siege and “sometimes it’s hard to remember what was normal.”

For a small parish, Our Lady of the Lake is very active. Masses are held at 6 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. on Sunday when both priests are available. With Father Armand out of commission for most of the summer, some weekends will see Communion Services, said Hepler.

The parish brought back its annual Vacation Bible school this past summer, presented by a team from California. It was open to all, and some families came by in motorhomes to attend and then enjoy the lake afterward.

The parish also has an active Legion of Mary, an emergency food bank, and a St. Vincent de Paul Society that assists with emergency financial problems. And they are returning to that fixture of Catholic community life — coffee and donuts after Sunday morning Masses.

“And people are starting to stay for that,” Hepler said.

Hepler, who plays the piano for Mass, said the parish is “very vibrant and people sing a lot. Our Masses have a definite family feel.”

And this year, they once again held their annual parish celebration, complete with a potluck and games, on the Sunday closest to August 15, the date on which they were created a parish. This year’s celebration was on August 14.


'Big Lake parish celebrates life as a Catholic community'
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