The downtrodden and often forgotten souls of Anchorage roam within earshot of Anchorage’s 101-year-old Holy Family Cathedral. Stationed on the far western point of downtown and bordered by Cook Inlet, the city’s oldest church is surrounded by tourist shops, downtown bars and the public transit system. Within these few dozen blocks are hints of every social ill, which business and bureaucracy work to contain by day.
Four Dominican friars have risen from their slumber and tended to private and public worship before Teri Perez clocks in for her weekday job at the cathedral. Hired by the late Deacon Gerry Grewe in 2005, Perez is as robust as she is unassuming. Multiple holy medals dangle from silver chains around her neck, mirroring streaks of grey in her long, brown hair. She possesses a near-photographic memory for dates and dialogue, a must in her role as parish receptionist. She laughed heartily when describing her first day on the job, as staff members came popping out of their offices to see who was conversing loudly in Spanish over the telephone. It was Perez, of course, who during the interview process had neglected to mention her bilingual comfort. For a parish with a vibrant Hispanic population, this was an immediate boon, which has only grown in significance.
She rapidly learned the ropes. Her first month on the job she had to remove about a dozen people from the front office. The foot traffic teeming along Sixth Avenue is filled with the transient, mentally ill and chronically addicted. They’re frequently belligerent or lonesome, and the cathedral office is an established pit stop. Perez or other staff acknowledge patrons at the locked door and buzz them in, which helps to buffer the deluge. Before the demolition of a neighboring motel four years ago, Perez said it was much busier. Simultaneously, the renewal of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership’s Ambassadors program has increased visible security guards and reduced risks for worshippers at the cathedral.
Still, Perez greets the doorway to her office most mornings by waking up huddled figures up and urging them along. She’s been hailed by the street widows, as she calls them, to intervene with suspected drug overdoses, and she has interrupted crude sexual encounters just by trying to cross the parking lot. On the eve of her patron Saint Teresa of Avila’s feast day, Perez sat down with the Catholic Anchor to demystify life on the fringes of downtown.
Considering the factors surrounding the cathedral, Perez has found herself bemused by the approaches offered to church secretaries for coping with stress. She recalled a workshop held years ago that featured New Age tactics such as crystal chakra ‘resets’ meant to soothe a harried soul. Add to that various saccharine or legalistic strategies, which she said don’t apply to the demands she meets. Perez described a theoretical but typical office scene: “I might have this guy threatening me from arms’ length away, a suicidal person asking for a priest over the phone, happy engaged couple here to plan a wedding, business calls waiting and the mailman needing to get in. There’s no time for anything except, ‘Come, Holy Spirit,’ a prayer which she said anchors her work throughout the day.
She would be similarly out of place with her geographical co-workers, if not for her verve. Late this summer, a law enforcement conference was held to equip those affected by the ‘spice’ drug epidemic, centered downtown and taxing emergency personnel to its breaking point for months. Then-pastor of the Cathedral Father Anthony Patalano sent Perez. As attendees’ introductions were made around the room, Perez decided to have some characteristic fun. Among federal agents, political heavyweights and local financial interests, she presented herself. “My name is Teri, and I’m the bouncer at Holy Family Cathedral.” Perez welcomes the well-heeled and the homeless with equal fervor. As she described it, her approach is not so much a shifting of gears as remaining authentic. This innate centering is renewed each morning in her Spenard studio apartment, where she begins the Divine Office, the church’s rhythm of daily prayers.
A native of Chicago raised in an outdoorsy family, Perez recalled a fascination ever-stoked by reading Alaskan adventure stories as a child — particularly Reader’s Digest tales of traversing the Al-Can Highway. Her interest became a dedication to make the trek herself before turning 30. “I made it at 28,” she smiles broadly. Trained at Fort Dix as a truck driver for the Army and bolstered by profound personal suffering, God led her north. Her Catholic faith came along but wasn’t much of a presence in daily life, said Perez, until the death of her grandmother in 1994. She then began attending daily Mass at the Anchorage cathedral, where the Legion of Mary invited her deeper into church life. “They taught me to pray the rosary, and from there it’s just been yes to the Lord, I am so blessed.”
She responded to the ad for a receptionist but insisted on keeping her bartending job — 26 years with a local Mexican restaurant — where she still serves on Sundays. Perez summarizes both of her jobs as listening ministries. “You just help as much as you can.”
Perez does not manage the priests’ calendars, as their pastoral work is confidential. Her duties are clerical, receiving and directing inquiries. She also hands out small pamphlets, candies and sacramentals to regular visitor stopping by for free stuff.
Then there’s the ever-present phone. She describes diffusing one recent angry call to the point of sharing laughter and assigning the caller hagiography reading, to find comfort with the saints who might best understand his specific frustration.
As of October, she has joined the lay Order of Discalced Carmelites, Our Lady of the Midnight Sun. While yet to make formal vows, connection to the religious order strengthens her ties with fiery mystics she has long prayed with: Edith Stein, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross. Its community, structure, study and prayer are elements she finds deeply gratifying.
Previously, Perez spent over two years at a Dominican monastery, but returned to her desk at Holy Family Cathedral. For Perez, this is where it all intersects: a tapestry of messy, knotted saints in formation, trudging in and out. “You just help as much as you can,” she repeated with gravity. She asks God simply for the gift of understanding, citing Solomon’s request for wisdom as inspiration.
As a woman who rebuffs dysfunction and darkness in the world each day, Perez seems drawn to remain at her post by a steely warmth for whatever shows up next. Most poignant for her has been the grieving families, making funeral plans for young adult members who died violently. Perez has declined job offers considered more prestigious within the diocese over the years, and makes no plans beyond her current joys: her vows as a Secular Carmelite, playing guitar in her leisure at home, and semi-annual travel to spend time with family and friends in the Midwest.
She attends midday Mass at the cathedral, and relishes the protection of the priests from anyone who seems aggressive. When asked by a newly-appointed priest why she didn’t holler for help with a combative visitor, she explained the approach of the cathedral’s administrative and maintenance staff: “We’re all very protective of the priests. Until they have me down on the ground, beating on me, they’re not getting past me.”