On the dark winter evening of Nov. 8, Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage was alive and glowing inside. Several hundred Catholics from around the archdiocese anticipated the arrival of their new shepherd — Archbishop Paul Etienne, formerly bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming. He was set to lead vespers — the ancient evening prayer of the church — before his installation as archbishop of Anchorage the next day.
Draped in green and gold, the tabernacle at the front of the church — containing the Blessed Sacrament — gleamed. Animated chatter drifted from the narthex. Seated in the pews were religious sisters in habits and veils, single people, families with young children dressed in Sunday finery.
The ceremonies began. From above in the choir loft, cathedral organist Gavin Duncan played a solemn and prayerful melody. The hum of voices below hushed and the choir began chanting Psalm 24: “O gates lift high your heads, grow higher ancient doors. Let him enter, the King of Glory! Who is the King of Glory? The Lord, the mighty, the valiant, the Lord, the valiant in war.”
Next came a series of loud knocks on the cathedral’s door by Archbishop Etienne who stood outside the church. Everyone turned. The choir again chanted. Another round of knocks and then the door was opened to the incoming archbishop.
“I am Bishop Etienne, your brother Paul. I come as the new archbishop of Anchorage, and I seek to enter this fine cathedral,” Archbishop Etienne announced. It was his formal entrance to the seat of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, a homecoming to the universal church as it is manifest in Anchorage.
“Saint Paul reminds us…we are ‘strangers and aliens no longer. No, you are citizens of the saints and members of the household of God,’” Archbishop Etienne observed in his homily that night. “All are meant to find their true home in the midst of this portion of God’s family.”
Vespers is the evening portion of the Liturgy of the Hours, an ancient Christian practice of praying across the day, to fulfill Jesus’ command to “pray always.” The Nov. 8 service included supplications, praise, hymns, Scripture readings and a blessing for the faithful. It ended with a recessional hymn honoring Mary, the Mother of God – the soaring Latin melody, “Salve Regina” or “Hail, Holy Queen.”
The evening’s theme was the eternal, living “building” of the church — the mystical Body of Christ — “which rises on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone,” as described by Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, which was read during the service.
“Christ built his church upon Rock, the faith of Peter and the Apostles,” Archbishop Etienne explained. “And as the Master Builder, the Lord did the necessary work for laying a foundation for a structure that would eventually become a Kingdom to fill the whole earth. The Lord shows us the way to continue this construction project, and it is his way.”
He continued: “As laborers in this building project, we are to be humble, obedient to the Father’s will, members of the human family, accompany one another with patience, mercy and understanding. We are to be people of faith and hope, willing to make a gift of our lives for the building up of others, and especially of the family of God. …we may even be asked to lay down our lives as the Master Builder incorporates each of us into our rightful place in the structure.”
Archbishop Etienne noted that Jesus’ work carries on “for centuries and millennia” until “all is ready and the work complete. We know that this Kingdom will have no end, and that the jaws of death will never prevail against it.”
As with any “ancient” buildings, he said, there is sometimes need for renovation and repair. “Even in such moments, the Master Builder is always there to help us heal, to forgive, and to restore each member of this Body of Christ to the glimmer that is ours as living stones. We are the church that is ever ancient, and by God’s grace, through our meager efforts, ever new.”
The archbishop observed each has unique work to perform in “this great project of building church.” He noted that God is the “great architect” but the faithful are the material God is using.
“Every building site needs many different crafts and skills, and the more intricate and elegant the design, the need increases for even more and greater craftsmen,” he told the congregation. “My friends, there is nothing more intricate and elegant than the church of God, and all our skills are needed!”
And “when we make a mess of things,” he noted, “we have our Mother, Mary to turn to” for help. Archbishop Etienne spoke of his mother in Indiana, who has been battling Alzheimer’s disease for the last eight years. He recalled a recent visit in which he told his parents of his appointment as archbishop of Anchorage. When he finished telling them the news, “Mom simply looked at me, held out her rosary to me and said: ‘Can you straighten this out for me? It is all in knots.’” Archbishop Etienne paused to compose his emotions in a poignant moment that moved many in attendance.
He then reflected on his mother’s illness and the upheaval his assignment to Anchorage had caused his family. He thought of Mary, under her title of Our Lady, Untier of Knots, who through God’s power can help unravel difficult problems.
“I eventually began to discover that Mary was working to undo these knots,” he said, adding, “I ask Our Lady tonight to continue to accompany this local family of God, to untie the knots that we make along the way, and through her intercession to draw each of us closer to her Son, Jesus Christ.”
The service was attended by Anchorage Archbishop – now Archbishop Emeritus – Roger Schwietz, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio – the pope’s representative – to the United States, several bishops, and about two dozen priests, including the Dominican friars who staff the cathedral. Archbishop Etienne’s father, three brothers (two of whom are priests) and his two sisters (one of whom is a Benedictine nun) were present. Other relatives were also in attendance.
At one point in the service, about two dozen Catholics from around the archdiocese and representatives of several local non-Catholic congregations were invited forward to greet Archbishop Etienne. They included envoys of several ethnic populations and apostolates like the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Daughters of the Americas, as well as delegations from local Russian Orthodox, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Latter Day Saints congregations.
Women of Holy Family Cathedral — a cathedral lay apostolate of hospitality – hosted a reception in the parish hall after the service. Archbishop Etienne mingled with the members of his new flock, blessing children and embracing his fellow Alaskans.
Jim Seeberger, 68, a parishioner of St. Benedict Church in Anchorage, told the Catholic Anchor he was awed by the “beautiful” vespers service, his first.
Regarding Archbishop Etienne, Seeberger said, “I think the world of him.” He said the archbishop in his homily explained “we have to…love our brothers, every brother, on the face of this earth, we’re all together.” He said it’s clear the archbishop wants “to unite Christianity, just unite all of us.”
Nicole Alton, 28, who is preparing to be baptized at Holy Family, was moved by the service.
“It was awesome!” she said, adding that Archbishop Etienne seems a “kind and caring person.”
Janina Chlebowski, 61, a parishioner of Holy Cross Church in Anchorage, also spoke highly of the new archbishop.
“I think he’s very open, a very well-spoken person, and I think he’s very smart,” she said. Dressed in a colorful, traditional dancing ensemble — including a 100-year-old skirt — from Krakow, Chlebowski was part of the Polish contingent who met Archbishop Etienne during the vespers service. She believes he is a “people person” who will be at ease with his new flock. “I think we can all benefit from that relationship,” she said.
To read Archbishop Etienne’s full homily from the Nov. 8 service, go online to catholicanchor.org/alaska-news/archbishop-etienne-alaskans-find-true-home-gods-family.
Photos from this event can be viewed at the Catholic Anchor Facebook page.