“We lost Grandfather.” Those were the words some of our parishioners here in Magadan, Russia, used when they heard about the death of Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley. All felt his presence and love for our parish.
In a homily some years ago the archbishop said, “Father Michael is your spiritual father so that must make me your spiritual grandfather.”
For me, how do I measure this man’s influence in my life? He ordained me. He assigned me to various parishes in the Anchorage Archdiocese. He came to help me in some moments of crisis, which all priests go through. And he eventually blessed “the call within the call” of my priesthood to come here to Far East Siberia and pray in the former Communist prison camps.
I remember the two years of discernment we had together when I came back from a retreat in California and told him I was called to go to Russia for the rest of my life. He said, “No, but let’s talk.”
This was one of archbishop’s great gifts, to be able to keep open a conversation and together figure out a plan. During this time of discernment we grew closer than ever before. It was a strengthening of the relationship between bishop and priest — I might even say father and son.
He would invite me to his cabin in Big Lake to talk and pray together as we tried to figure out what I should do next. I loved those times. I must say I loved this man. I loved my bishop.
I always said it was his fault I ended up in Russia, because in 1989 he chose me to go there with him for the first publicly celebrated Mass in Magadan, a former gulag prison camp city. He opened this door for me. I can say it has been the greatest, most joyous time of my priesthood, as well as the most difficult and trying.
He was there for me when he blessed the mission and in his regular visits to Magadan to check on me and the parish. I think he felt free here. He felt the love of the people for him and the excitement to build something so new out from the destructive wasteland of Communism. He was not afraid to try something to see if it worked for the faith. I have received that gift from him. To this day I will try anything to help foster a relationship with God and his church.
One time he visited — in fact it was his last visit because he had a minor heart attack on the altar. He turned pale and almost lost consciousness. Panic was there but the people spontaneously fell to their knees and began the rosary for him amidst tears. They loved this man, their grandfather bishop. Of course five grandmothers all came rushing foreword to give the bishop the pill they had for heart attacks. We had to convince them it was not the best idea. He later said if he’d taken all those pills he would have certainly died — not from the heart attack but from an overdose.
That was his last time in Magadan. His doctors said he couldn’t take the chance again. So I would come to Anchorage and report all the stories of all the people, parishioners he remembered by name. He would make suggestions about the mission but mostly he wanted everyone to know that he missed Magadan.
We in Magadan miss him too. One of his close friends and actually our translator for the first Mass is Alvina Verapiva. She became Catholic and was a special friend to the archbishop and so I share part of a letter she wrote to me: “Archbishop Hurley came a few more times — even when Father Michael Shields became our pastor. I remember his last words to me pronounced in a solid voice: ‘You are my friend!’ Isn’t that something? I am sorry not to have written the words of love to him that I have in my heart. So not to repeat this mistake, I say these words to Father Mike with whom we had so many talks, so many hours, days and years together when I translated your sermons in Magadan. Father Mike, I love you! You are a great homilist and man who serves Jesus in such rigorous conditions in Russia instead of your comfortable America. I wish you lots of blessings and the best of health.”
Archbishop Hurley’s gift to me is a letter of love and the support of one of his good friends. He would be happy with this. I am so grateful for his openness to let me go and pursue this missionary life. He knew this was for me and eventually said so in so many ways. With his usual Irish wit, a twinkle in his eye and some fatherly pride he would say in conversations with others: “Oh Father Mike, I sent him to Siberia to get rid of him.”
You did send me. I thank you dear father bishop for the gift of priesthood given me 36 years ago and for this call to be given here until I die to this people. I love you, bishop.
The writer is pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia.