Making a Catholic summer road trip in Alaska

By Scott McMurren

Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are here. But Alaskans are rarely content with just soda and pretzels and beer.

With apologies to Nat King Cole, the standout quality for a great Alaska summer is kicking your travel plans into high gear.

While traveling far and near, it’s always a treat to attend Mass in a foreign land.

Although the pandemic has put a damper on international travel, Alaskans are on the move—visiting other areas around the state. So check out the local parish where you’re going next weekend. You’ll meet new people, including other travelers. In fact, you may recognize some familiar faces.

You’ll find a church in many Alaska communities, including some smaller settlements. Here are some examples:

Our Lady of the Lake in Big Lake

Masses are scheduled on Saturday evenings at 6:00 p.m. and Sundays at 11:00 a.m. When I stopped in on Saturday evening, the priests were busy with a “Solstice Mass” at a nearby cemetery. So Deacon Bill Tunilla led the communion service.

The parish is located at the south end of Big Lake, next to the airport (4275 S. Oscar Anderson Rd. Phone (907) 892-6492).

On arrival, I was greeted warmly by Sara and Jeana, with the Legion of Mary. They invited me to join them in praying the Rosary, which starts at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday. After Mass, they passed out cupcakes for all the dads (I was there on Father’s Day).

“We have about 100 families registered,” said Carol Hepler. “But we have lots of weekend families, especially from Anchorage. We also have summer families—folks who have homes in the Lower 48 but spend summers here,” she said.

The Gospel reading was from Mark (4:35-41), which referred to Jesus going with the apostles across the Sea of Galilee. Deacon Bill, who visited the Holy Land in 2016, referred to it as a “big lake,” although it’s a bit bigger than the lake right outside the front door. On the day he was there at the Sea of Galilee, it was calm, although squalls can pick up with little or no notice because of the wind patterns in the nearby hills.

In the reading, Mark writes that Jesus is asleep on a cushion in the stern as the wind picked up, filling the boat with water. The apostles wake him—and he tells the wind and sea to be calm.

While the apostles were in awe that the wind and sea followed Jesus’s instructions, I agree with Deacon Bill. “How could Jesus really get any sleep in a storm like that?” he asked.

Visitors are not limited to the summer months. Big Lake is a year-round resort. Mike LeNorman, an Alaskan who now lives in Texas, recalls attending Mass on Christmas Eve: “It was so cool to see snowmachines pulled up in the parking lot,” he said. “People were in their full snowsuits and just pulled off their helmets and went inside.”

St. Bernard Parish in Talkeetna

Like Our Lady of the Lake, St. Bernard’s in Talkeetna is located just a stone’s throw from the airport. Masses are held each Sunday at 9:00 a.m. (22136 S. F St. Phone (907) 733-2424.)

On arrival, it’s clear the church is built up a little bit from the parking lot. Longtime parishioner Vern Rauchenstein explains: “After the big flood in 2012, we raised the church by six feet,” he said. “I suppose we’re a little closer to Heaven.”

The church filled up as the clock approached 9:00 a.m. There were visitors from Nebraska, Atlanta, Anchorage and North Pole. Father Andy Opsahl came up from Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage to celebrate Mass. “We haven’t had a resident priest for 30 years,” said Parish Director Renamary Rauchenstein. They did, however, host a priest from Tanzania for five years.

Several long-time Talkeetna families attend each week, including Suzy Kellard and her family. “We were married almost 60 years ago right here,” she said.

On the morning I visited Talkeetna, Denali was out in full view. It was a sunny day and there wasn’t any wind. St. Bernard’s is literally a block away from two popular Talkeetna activities: Mahay’s Riverboat Service for a ride up the Susitna River and K2 Aviation, for a trip up to Denali with a landing on the Ruth Glacier.

After celebrating Mass at St. Bernard’s, Father Andy was headed up to St. Philip Benizi Mission in Trapper Creek. It’s right on the Parks Highway (mile 114). The mission is supported by St. Bernard’s. Further south on the highway in Willow is St. Christopher’s Mission (milepost 67), which is supported by Our Lady of the Lake in Big Lake.

Our Lady of the Snows in Girdwood

If you’re headed south of Anchorage to Girdwood, make time on a Sunday evening to attend Our Lady of the Snows (Mass is Sunday at 6:00 p.m.). It’s near the Hotel Alyeska (370 Northface Rd.). Phone (907)783-1171.

The chapel is tucked away behind Alyeska Resort’s employee housing in a beautiful setting. The A-frame construction affords beautiful windows which open to the mountains on the other side of the valley.

Clay and Katalin Langland were the first to arrive before Mass—and Clay pointed out the big board of donors who contributed to the 2005 construction of the building.

Next to arrive was Father Scott Medlock from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in south Anchorage. Our Lady of the Snows is a mission church that’s supported by St. Elizabeth’s.

Half of the church was filled up with visitors from Texas and Kansas, who were in Girdwood for the wedding of Lori Kautzman and Andy Barrera. The wedding rehearsal was scheduled right after Mass in the church.

Father Scott reflected on the Gospel reading of Jesus asleep in the boat as the storm raged.

“The storms pass through our lives,” said Father Scott. “It’s the reality of life,” he added, looking over at the soon-to-be-married couple. “But the boat represents the church. And Jesus is there.”

There are many other missions and parishes around the archdiocese in places like Kodiak, Cordova and Yakutat. Wherever you’re bound this summer on your great Alaska adventure, join the local community at Mass. You can pray for calm winds and smooth seas and give thanks for living in a Great Land.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel writer. Read more of his work at alaskatravelgram.com . He is a long-time parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage.


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