In the immediate aftermath of a contentious national election, hundreds of Alaskans packed into Anchorage’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral to welcome the new spiritual leader of Catholics across Southcentral Alaska.
On Nov. 9, Archbishop Paul Etienne was installed as the fourth archbishop of the Anchorage Archdiocese, succeeding retired Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz. This transfer of power occurred amid sacred song and expressions of hope and deep affection.
The co-cathedral overflowed with lay Catholics, priests, bishops, invited guests and friends and family members of the new archbishop.
Before the solemn liturgy began, the incoming archbishop was escorted through the church sanctuary to pray quietly for a few moments in the Blessed Sacrament chapel. The assembled faithful joined him in prayer for his ministry and in silent anticipation of what soon transpired.
A few moments later, a joyful crescendo of 800 voices, led by more than 50 musicians, filled the church as the Knights of Columbus honor guard led a cadre of altar servers, deacons, over 50 priests and a dozen bishops to their places in the sanctuary. Archbishop Etienne was escorted to a pew at the front of the church, while Archbishop Schwietz, for the last time as head of the archdiocese, sat in the cathedra — or bishop’s chair — from which the word “cathedral” is derived.
Just moments before handing over the spiritual leadership of the archdiocese, Archbishop Schwietz welcomed all to the historic Mass, which, he said, “we celebrate with great gratitude.”
Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre — Pope Francis’ ambassador to the United States — then approached the ambo to read the mandate from Pope Francis appointing Archbishop Etienne as the new archbishop of Anchorage.
“I am very happy to be here,” Archbishop Pierre said as he unfurled the papal scroll. The French-born prelate then proceeded to read the letter, which noted that Anchorage is a “city of lights and flowers.” In relaying Pope Francis’ words, he expressed a hope that Archbishop Etienne would be warmly welcomed to this “beautiful northern part of America.” The congregation responded with rousing applause.
The scroll was then formally presented to the archdiocesan leaders — the college of consultors — who examined it. After their perusal, Archbishop Etienne held aloft and showcased the document to all in attendance.
In one of the more solemn moments of the installation ritual, the apostolic nuncio faced the incoming archbishop and inquired of his willingness to accept the Pope Francis’ call that he serve the people of the Anchorage Archdiocese.
“With faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and with the love of God in my heart, I do accept the pastoral care of the people of God in the Archdiocese of Anchorage,” Archbishop Etienne responded. “I resolve to serve faithfully the spiritual needs of this local church.”
At those words, Archbishop Schwietz vacated the bishop’s chair and escorted his successor to take his place in the symbolic cathedra.
Archbishop Etienne took up his crosier — the bishop’s staff — and assumed his place of leadership. Led by Archbishop Schwietz, the assembly erupted in thunderous and extended applause, followed by exuberant singing of the “Gloria.”
Benedictine Sister Mary Nicolette Etienne, sister of the newly installed archbishop, read the day’s first Scripture reading from Ezekiel. It spoke of the water that flowed from the threshold of the temple, freshening the sea and giving life to every creature.
The second reading was from the First Letter to the Corinthians. In it, Saint Paul affirms that the faithful are God’s building — the temple in which the Spirit of God dwells. We must be careful to lay our foundations on Jesus Christ, for there is no other way, the Apostle warns. Such a temple cannot be destroyed, for it is holy.
The reading from the Gospel of Saint John recalled Jesus’ encountering the merchants and money changers who defiled his Father’s house, and purging it of ill commerce with a whip made of cords. His declaration when asked for a sign, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” was recalled by his disciples after his resurrection.
Archbishop Etienne began his homily by welcoming the papal nuncio. He noted that there is a new sign in the parking lot of the Anchorage archdiocese downtown offices. “It simply reads, ‘Archbishop Emeritus’” (referencing the new title for Archbishop Schwietz).
Archbishop Etienne then thanked his predecessor for his years of service and added, “His smile is bigger than mine today.” When his words were met with laughter, he added, “You’re an easy crowd,” garnering more laughter.
He greeted all those in attendance and all watching via television and internet. A special welcome was extended to family and friends from the Diocese of Cheyenne, his previous appointment.
In his homily, Archbishop Etienne noted two ways of understanding God’s temple — the earthly worship space worthy of respect, and the temple of the human person.
“In a world that is increasingly more concerned with ‘things’ rather than persons, our celebration today helps to reorient us to just how important it is for us as church to rebuild our culture’s understanding of the sacredness of human life,” he said. It is not the prerogative of anyone to define the parameters of human dignity, he continued, no one person’s dignity is greater than another’s “because each person is a temple of the Lord, and therefore holy, all violence towards any human person, whether born or unborn, is unacceptable to God,” he said.
The first reading reminded him of a recent prayerful moment in his home parish of St. Paul in Tell City, Indiana.
“I was overwhelmed with the grace that has poured from that sanctuary into my life,” he said, and added, “The Prophet Ezekiel speaks volumes today of the grace that flows from the sanctuary to make all things new.”
He concluded with a challenge to all assembled that they be a people of faith and good works.
Let us become “the waters of the river which gladden the city of God, making the world around us a dwelling place for the Most High,” he said.
Following the Mass, attendees flowed into the nearby Lunney Center for a catered reception with their new archbishop.
Here, Archbishop Schwietz presented Archbishop Etienne with a newly commissioned painting of Saint Therese of Lisieux, patron saint of Alaska, by renowned Alaskan artist Byron Birdsall.
At the reception, attendees expressed gratitude and great hopes for their new archbishop.
Gemma Gaudio, from the Catholic Native Ministry, spoke of the pride she felt the previous night during the vespers service with Archbishop Etienne at Holy Family Cathedral.
“It was an honor for me to go up and welcome him on behalf of the Native community,” she said.
“The archdiocese is getting a real personal leader who has young ideas, he has tremendous presence in the pulpit,” said St. Benedict’s parishioner Terry Tutor.
Peggy Bergsrud, longtime parishioner of St. Anthony Church, was impressed by the installation liturgy and what it represents for area Catholics embracing their new leader.
“The symbolism and teaching moment started right there,” she said. “We are the people of God.”