One of the best-known photos of Father Scott Garrett shows the priest baptizing a baby at a dining room table. Sunlight from a nearby window illuminates only three people: the priest and a young mother holding a tiny baby over a large bowl of water. A collection of coffee mugs hangs on the wall behind the table, and a crisp tablecloth adds a formal note.
While those who live in urban areas and towns along the road system are used to baptisms and other sacraments taking place in a crowded church, the sacramental life in Saint Paul Mission, which encompasses the parishes of Holy Rosary in Dillingham, St. Theresa in Naknek, St. Peter in Clarks Point, and numerous tiny villages, can be much different.
Although the Catholic Church is a communal faith, life in the Bush can sometimes be solitary, even for those preparing for and receiving the sacraments. It’s a ministry ideally suited to the self-described “kind of introverted self-starter” Father Garrett, who was ordained for the Archdiocese of Anchorage in 2003.
This means that preparation for First Communion or Confirmation is often one on one. However, in light of the clergy abuse scandal, Father Garrett is careful never to instruct a juvenile without another present. The process can take as long as needed and can be done at the age the priest deems appropriate for the individual.
“Some take longer than others,” Father Garrett said. “I generally work with them before or after Mass. I have a seven-year-old in preparation for First Communion now, and I decide when I feel they have reached the age of reason.”
Confirmation is done case by case as well, and even though some dioceses confirm only teenagers, Father Garrett again takes the pastoral approach and has confirmed a child as young as ten.
“As the priest, you decide when they’re ready to be confirmed, “ he said. “Large parish practices sometimes don’t apply in the missions and they go out the window in the Bush.”
Sometimes, the Archbishop comes for confirmation, but often Father Garrett asks for delegation to confer the sacrament himself.
When possible, baptisms are done in church if they occur in a village with a church.
“You bring a lot of people into the church when you do a baptism,” said Father Garrett, and in an area with a declining population and where many people have children outside of marriage, he tries to make it an experience that will encourage further involvement with the faith.
“When a person comes to you to baptize their child, there are so many different circumstances. None of it is the child’s doing. If the family wants baptism, I’m going to get it done.”
When Father Garrett does visit one of the neighboring 21 villages like Egegik, Koliganek, or Igiugig, many of which are mainly Russian Orthodox, it’s often because a new Catholic teacher or other employee has moved to town.
At the same time, when the priest does offer Mass in a small village, many of the attendees are of other faiths, “just dying for something” in the form of formal worship, he said.
Unofficially, the area of southwestern Alaska where Father Garrett ministers is called “the largest parish in the world,” even though the number of Catholic families in the far-flung area numbers under 150.
The priest is on his second tour of duty there. He served as pastor from 2005 to 2011, then spent five years as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Wasilla. He returned to Dillingham in 2016. In addition to personality traits that make him well-suited to life in Alaska’s Bush, he has another important qualification: in a vast area entirely off the road system, he’s a pilot.
Father Garrett flies a Piper Cherokee Warrior 2 and recently was required by the FAA to make a system update requiring $8,000 for the part alone. Contributions came to the rescue, especially from his former parish in Wasilla, where he remains popular.
In addition to First Communions, First Reconciliations and Confirmations often done one on one, Father Garrett performs many marriages. Still, they are “mostly convalidations,” which means the couple has been married civilly and desires a marriage in the Catholic church. First-time marriages are “rather sparse,” he said, a Bush phenomenon that’s a growing national trend.
Anointing the sick and administering last rites for the dying, also solitary ventures by their nature, fit into the job description of someone who must land on narrow dirt runways in sometimes questionable weather to perform this needed service.
Father Garrett is a native of Oregon who came to Alaska after serving four years in the Air Force. He learned to fly at Merrill Field and was himself a non-Catholic searching for spiritual answers when two young Mormon missionaries knocked at his door one day. He spent six months as a Mormon and laughed that the clean living and no alcohol were good for him. Nevertheless, when he enrolled at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a friend invited him to Mass and that changed everything. He was already into his late thirties when he began studies for the priesthood.
Being a priest in the Bush means being self-reliant. “I’ve fixed the furnace, the hot water heater, and installed new flooring,” Father Garrett said. “Right now, I’m working on the septic system.”
The rectory at Holy Rosary, he said, is too big as it was built to house several Jesuits in the 1960s (the parish once had a school). However, parishioners always answer the call when he needs help.
“After Mass one day, I said I needed help tearing up the carpet, and within twenty minutes, the carpet was torn out and rolled up.”
But for the priest, who has twice hiked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, once after a partial knee replacement, “getting it done” is often a solitary pursuit. So helping lone individuals reach the grace of the Church’s sacraments is a good fit for his priestly vocation.