The recent installation and unveiling of the larger-than-life Pieta sculpture at The Cloister at St. Patrick’s in Anchorage reflects a deep appreciation for the place of sacred art.
World-class sacred art is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the Catholic Church in Alaska. The Archdiocese of Anchorage is still considered a frontier church — sparsely populated and spread across 138,000 square miles, including a number of remote parishes only accessible by boat or plane.
Some of our churches are only slightly bigger than a large shed and struggle just to keep the lights on and the heat running. Many living in these outposts are without priests and must wait, sometimes months at a time, to have Mass celebrated or give their confessions.
Under these conditions it’s understandable if the idea of installing sacred art and statuary is a low priority and perhaps not on the radar at all.
But given that the mission of the Catholic Church is to inspire and invite people into a deeper love of God in all his beauty and splendor, perhaps even frontier churches should reconsider ways to foster the vital role that sacred art has played since the earliest days of Christianity.
After all, the places in Alaska that have erected significant artworks are considered treasures for the faithful, often serving as pilgrimage destinations and places of meditation, prayer and spiritual retreat. Think of the small mission church of St. John Neumann in Cooper Landing, south of Anchorage. It’s home to an elegant stained-glass shrine to the Blessed Virgin — “Our Caring Mother of the Handicapped.” Inspired by a young parishioner who was dependent on a wheelchair, the shrine is an official pilgrimage site for Catholics in Alaska.
In Wasilla there is the massive, wood-carved crucifix hanging in Sacred Heart Church. Its extraordinarily life-like corpus looks like those on the great crucifixes in Rome’s venerable cathedrals. But it was carved by a local parishioner who wanted to give the church an enduring physical reminder of the love of Christ for the world.
There are other examples of parishes all across Alaska — a shrine to Saint Peter in Ninilchik; the impressive outdoor Stations of the Cross in the Chugach mountains at Holy Spirit Center; a shrine honoring Saint Peregrine, the patron of cancer patients, at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River; and the “Garden of Angels” in Wasilla where miscarried babies can be laid to rest next to a statue of the Old Testament figure Rachel, who mourned the loss of her own children. There is also a monument in the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery to the unborn, commemorating babies who have died in abortion.
These are just some of the ways local Catholics have marshaled their resources, most often through parishioner donations of time, talent and treasure, to create sacred spaces that are now enjoyed by visitors from around the world.
While these undertakings may be more feasible for larger, wealthier parishes, smaller communities can find ways, within their means, to physically reflect the faith too.
Artistic depiction of our faith is a task the church has long prioritized. Recent popes, too, have encouraged this work, including Pope Francis who said that, “In every age the church has called upon the arts to give expression to the beauty of her faith and to proclaim the Gospel message of the grandeur of God’s creation, the dignity of human beings made in his image and likeness, and the power of Christ’s death and Resurrection to bring redemption and rebirth to a world touched by the tragedy of sin and death.”
In an address to supporters of the Vatican Museums in 2013 the pope noted that promotion of sacred art is no less than a “participation in the spiritual life and mission of the church” and “an expression of our hope in the coming of that Kingdom whose beauty, harmony and peace are the expectation of every human heart and the inspiration of mankind’s highest artistic aspirations.”
It will certainly require brainstorming and strategy, but in a world longing for truth and beauty the Catholic Church in Alaska has the high calling and privilege of sharing the Gospel not only in word and deed, but also in physical form.
The writer is editor of the Catholic Anchor, the newspaper and news website for the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.