Inspired archivists relive decades of Alaska’s Catholic history

Deep in the basement of the Catholic Archdiocese of Anchorage’s Pastoral Center office building in downtown Anchorage, a true labor of love has been underway for months. For decades, various filing cabinets, boxes and tables stored in the dusty basement served as the archdiocese’s official “archives.” Stacks of photos, old parish bulletins and other documents were strewn about, often with no reference or apparent organization.

As the archdiocese began preparations for its 50th anniversary, church leaders and staff quickly realized the official “archives” were nothing more than a pile of boxes and other items.

“There were piles of photos in the back of filing cabinets, random photos in file folders, photos that had been framed but were piled in the basement, with no thought to preservation,” said Father Steven Moore, who launched the archive project.

He added: “As well, some of the photos, some of which dated back to the early 1900s, were becoming quite fragile. If we wanted to find something, there was no way to find it.”

After a retired archivist volunteered to do a brief study of the archives and made some recommendations, and another expert with a master’s degree in library science did some initial work, the archive project arose.

Enter Sister Patricia Magee, a religious sister of the Adrian Dominicans, and Brenda Stratton, an associate with the sisters. These two women, both from out of state, offered their assistance to organize and properly store the archives. In Sister Magee’s case, a prior, one-year period working for the Archdiocese of Anchorage exposed her to the archiving opportunity through word-of-mouth. Stratton heard about the project through an email asking for help, and jumped at the chance after her elderly mother, for whom she cares, advised her to go for it. Of the work the women have been doing since June 1, the photo project has been the most rewarding and time-consuming.

During a recent visit, Sister Magee pulled off a dust mask to elaborate on the project she and Stratton have been working on almost daily all summer long.

“Thus far, there are 5,624 photos scanned, numbered and copies filed in labeled folders and boxes,” Sister Magee observed with precision. “Five hundred remain to be scanned. Each is described in an Excel spreadsheet for retrieval.”

Impressive numbers, but both women feel compelled to emphasize the spiritual and emotional joy of the project.

“The history of growth in faith in this part of the United States has been amazing to witness,” Sister Magee said. “This project allowed us to see beautiful glimpses into all the activities that make up the church — joyful priests, children’s programs, liturgies, church dedications, and most evident, the sacraments, all truly told by the people of God.”

Stratton, a history major in college and admitted history buff, expressed similar joy at being involved in the photo archiving project.

“It has been a true journey of faith,” said Stratton, whose main tasks involved scanning the photos, naming the files, and transferring them to a centralized location.

“The faith of all Alaskan people is on full display in these photos, including the various ethnic and cultural groups that have made up the Catholic Archdiocese of Anchorage over the years,” she said.

A casual scan of some of the newly digitized images reveals historically important moments. In one folder, the venerable Holy Spirit Retreat House, which sits atop the Anchorage Hillside, is under construction, the foundation being poured. In other images, Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Francis Hurley celebrates Mass in Korea. Saint Pope John Paul II’s famous visit to Alaska is well documented. Some images, like a priest leading a donkey through a crowd on Palm Sunday, are unique. In others, countless unnamed children smile through veils at their First Communions, some standing outside churches that look like log cabins. Some people in older photos are identified — many others are not.

Such was the case in one photo of a little girl in full Communion regalia. She appeared to be receiving the sacrament in the 1960s or 1970s but seemed much too young for such an occasion. She looked to be about four years old, but was clearly wearing a white Communion gown. Sister Magee and Stratton asked around and a long-time archdiocese volunteer knew the story. The girl in the picture was indeed young and terminally ill at the time. She received First Holy Communion early given her illness, and eventually died when she was about nine years old. Now, her image and her story are secured safely for generations to come.

Despite the challenges associated with such a daunting project, Sister Magee and Stratton say the project has expanded their view of the church.

“The faith journey is so much broader when viewed on a large scale over the course of decades, instead of just in one person’s own small piece of it,” Stratton noted. “In these images, I see the church stretch and grow, and expand beyond borders.”

Father Moore hopes eventually to make the photos available on the archdiocese’s website as a “window into the history of the church in Alaska,” he said.

Software for such an online tool is expensive, but the intent is there. Regardless of when the images become available online, Father Moore is satisfied with seeing history preserved.

“We now have a searchable database for photos,” he said. “They have been preserved electronically, the photos themselves are properly stored or conserved and they, too, are easily findable. It has been a wonderful project.”

Sister Magee agrees.

“Picture after picture gives witness to the Catholic faith continuing to be alive and taking in the breath of the Spirit year after year after year,” she said. “While we have worked, we have felt God present in those places with us.”

'Inspired archivists relive decades of Alaska’s Catholic history'
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