Dominican friars answered Alaska call 40 years ago

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The Dominican friars at Holy Family Cathedral are dearly beloved by the parishioners who they have served over the past four decades. It’s a mission that has shaped Catholicism in Alaska and one that continues to impact the city of Anchorage.

This year marks the 40th year since the first Dominicans from the Western Dominican Province initially came to staff and run the flagship church of the Anchorage Archdiocese.

In the annals of history, 40 years may not seem like long. But when the Dominicans first established a community in Alaska, Anchorage was a young city looking to rebuild after a magnitude 9.2 earthquake hit in 1964. The state, too, was about to change drastically as the Trans-Alaska pipeline was being built. In hindsight, 1974 was the beginning of 40 years packed with change and growth.

 

NEW DOMINICAN FRONTIER

Current pastor Dominican Father Anthony Patalano remembers exactly where he was when he heard the news in 1974 that Alaska was going to be a new frontier for the Dominicans.

“I was just completing basic formation, and was a brother at the time,” he said. “I was being sent to teach in one of our schools, and I remember thinking, ‘well, that’s nice, but I’ll never be assigned there.’”

Forty years later, the now grey-bearded Dominican is stationed at the Anchorage cathedral for the third time. His first stint was 1983 to 1984 as a brother, then from 1986 to 1991 he served as an associate priest, and since September 2011 he’s been the pastor.

“It’s a great assignment,” he said of working at the cathedral. “The people are wonderful.”

 

ALASKAN IMPACT

The feeling is mutual. Holy Family parishioners have long been extremely fond of their Dominican connection.

Pam Albrecht has been a member of the parish for about 35 years, and heads the parish pro-life organization.

“They bring another dimension to the archdiocese,” she said. “It’s the community aspect, which provides an example of religious community life.”

Albrecht praises the Dominicans’ high educational standards and their grounding in that famous Dominican philosopher and theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas. She likes their liturgies, especially the old Dominican Rite Mass that has been introduced on Sunday afternoons. She said people appreciate praying in community with the Dominican friars at morning office and evening vespers.

Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz agreed that the Dominicans are a great addition to the archdiocese.

“They have raised the whole quality of preaching in the archdiocese, and effectively raised the bar,” he said. “And they’ve been so helpful in other areas, even going out to Dutch Harbor and Dillingham.”

Archbishop Schwietz also pointed to the sacramental service the Dominicans have long-provided over the years, to parishioners, visitors, tourists and downtown workers who daily visit the cathedral.

“Every day, they make the sacrament of reconciliation available before their noon Mass, and extending as long as they’re needed,” he noted. “That’s a huge contribution.”

Additionally, the archbishop points to speakers, usually Dominicans, who are sponsored by the order for theological forums and public presentations at the cathedral.

The friars also regularly celebrate Masses at local Catholic schools and often present at Theology & Brew events for young adults, along with myriad other outreaches.

“They’ve provided a great background of faith to the people of the archdiocese,” he added.

 

A NEEDED CHANGE

In 1974, the population of Anchorage, on the verge of the oil boom, was about 150,000. The archdiocese of Anchorage had been created in 1966 out of the dioceses of Fairbanks and Juneau, an acknowledgement that the town was the cusp of a population explosion.

The late Archbishop Joseph Ryan had been appointed the first archbishop, and it was he who negotiated with Dominican Provincial Father Paul Scanlon to bring the Dominicans to the small cathedral in the heart of downtown Anchorage where it had been serving Catholics since 1915. Father Scanlon later served as a pastor at the cathedral.

The first Dominican pastor, a man remembered by many in Anchorage, was Father Bede Wilks. He was known for the sneakers he wore under his cassock and for his tireless commitment to the poor.

Living in community is essential to the Dominican way of life, so accompanying Father Wilks were Brother James Kevin, Brother Dominic Bustamante, Father Augustine Hartman and Father Peter Patrick Miles.

Presently, there are four Dominican priests stationed at the cathedral. In addition to Father Patalano, Fathers Augustine Hilander, Paul Raftery and Mark Francis Manzano serve the parish.

 

CAUSE TO CELEBRATE

The cathedral has always drawn parishioners from all over town, and in a reflection of the changing demographics of the city and the congregation, Father Manzano, a fluent Spanish speaker, ministers to the parish’s large and growing Hispanic population.

During the Dominicans’ tenure at Holy Family, perhaps the most memorable event was the 1981 visit of Pope John Paul II. Holy Family Cathedral was the host parish for the momentous occasion, and the pope spent time praying in the cathedral, spoke to parishioners there and visited with the sick and handicapped in the social hall.

Florence Ward remembers the day, and that her mother, Rusty Imlach, received communion from the pope. Ward has been a parishioner at the cathedral since 1940, when her parents brought her as a two-year-old from Cordova. She can’t imagine her parish without Dominicans.

“It’s great to have them. I love their spirituality, their emphasis on the rosary, the habits they wear,” Ward said. “I appreciate that they have started Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on Fridays.”

Father Patalano said the staff has been so busy planning for upcoming anniversaries that they hadn’t, at the time the Catholic Anchor spoke with him, planned a 40th anniversary celebration, an oversight he planned to remedy.

The Dominicans are presently planning for the 100th anniversary of the parish in 2015. That year also marks the 25th anniversary of Archbishop Schwietz being ordained a bishop. The following year, the archdiocese and Catholic Social Services mark their 50th anniversaries, and it’s a big year for the Dominicans: 2016 marks the 800th anniversary of the founding of their order.

With all that to celebrate, no one wants to think that the tenure of the Dominicans at the cathedral will ever end. Archbishop Schwietz said the arrangement is usually discussed with each new Dominican provincial.

Father Patalano said that although the Dominicans are “spread pretty thin” right now, they do enjoy their Alaskan parish.

“But in the 1960s, we gave up two parishes. One we had served for 125 years, another for 99 years,” he explained. “Dominicans place a heavy emphasis on community life. The ideal is at least four people.”

So, as long as there are enough Dominicans to keep the lively, white-robed community going at the picturesque little cathedral, the parishioners of Holy Family will find cause to celebrate.

 


'Dominican friars answered Alaska call 40 years ago'
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