Heroic faith of Alaskan Catholics chronicled in new book

By KENNY GERLING
CatholicAnchor.org

The Archdiocese of Anchorage has released a new book documenting the history of Catholicism within its boundaries. “Alaska’s Archdiocese: Faith in the Far North” is a 255-page historic account that is, in some sense, 40 years in the making.

In the late 1970s, Sister Margaret Cantwell, a Sister of St. Ann then stationed in the archdiocese, was tasked by outgoing Archbishop Joseph Ryan to compose a history to give to the incoming Archbishop Francis Hurley. Sister Cantwell devoted a year to visiting different archives around the Northwest and piecing together Catholicism’s history in Alaska from the first Mass celebrated by priests aboard Spanish exploration ships in 1779 to the arrival of Archbishop Hurley in 1976.

Despite all her efforts, the work was never published. Her thorough research, taking up multiple filing cabinets in the archdiocesan archive and containing rare photographs and written correspondence, sat virtually forgotten in the chancery for decades.

Then in 2014, a Season of Blessings committee was organized by Archbishop Roger Schwietz to plan celebrations for a series of upcoming milestones in the archdiocese, including the 25th anniversary of Archbishop Schwietz’s ordination as a bishop and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the archdiocese. During those early meetings the idea of a general readership history documenting the development of the archdiocese was proposed.

The task fell to Laurie Evans-Dinneen, director of The Office of Stewardship and Development, and myself. Together we were directed to Sister Cantwell’s voluminous manuscript and went about systematically digitizing thousands of pages of her text and photos, editing her work down to the 136 pages that compose sections one and two of “Alaska’s Archdiocese.”

Once completed, we picked up the history where Sister Cantwell left off. Months were spent flipping through crumbling newspapers in the Archdiocesan basement and interviewing key parishioners. Parishes were also asked to submit information and photos documenting their histories. These were thoroughly incorporated and allowed for many of the personal stories that color the text throughout. Altogether, the writing, researching and editing of the book took us almost three years.

After spending this much time immersed in history, there is a danger of thinking you actually know the people who populate it. I can name you nuns famous for their skills in the classroom and on the trail skinning moose. I am on a first-name basis with bishops I never met and fluent in the geographies of places I’ll never visit. I can dig out a black and white photo of an old priest with his little dog; both, as any writer of history can become spontaneously and painfully aware, gone now for a very long time.

One thing I will take away from this process is that the story recounted is almost never one of loss; it is of growth, tinged with disappointment and occasional tragedy, but suffused with faith and hope, nonetheless. When viewed as a whole, the church in Alaska seems at times wonderfully human, at other times, mysteriously divine — the heroic efforts and serendipitous fortunes of Providence Hospital after the Good Friday Earthquake seem good examples of both.

No matter how long you have been a member of the archdiocese or how close or distant you feel to its ministries, I hope you will take a look at “Alaska’s Archdiocese: Faith in the Far North.” I think you will be surprised, as I was, at how the chronicles of those people from the past continue to impact (and resemble) the church we know today.

To order the book, call (907) 297-7790 or email kgerling@caa-ak.org. Collector’s edition hardcover copies are available as well as paperback editions.


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