Since ordination to the permanent diaconate last May, Deacon Daniel Winters has increased what was already a passion of his — serving Catholics in Alaska’s far-flung Aleutian Islands.
His work entails working with some 120 registered parishioners at St. Christopher by the Sea Church in Unalaska. There Deacon Winters, his wife, Roxanna, and traveling priest Father Dan Hebert partner with two parishioners to direct day-to-day affairs of the small church.
Unalaska consists of two islands, connected by a bridge. Located 800 air miles from Anchorage, the town can only be reached by plane or boat, weather permitting. The waters of Dutch Harbor are rich in seafood species. In fact, it’s the number one fishing port in the U.S. and is famously known for its crabbing fleet featured in the television show, “Deadliest Catch.” Local Catholics include dozens of seasonal workers in the fishing industry.
Deacon Winters, who converted to Catholicism and was baptized in Kenai in 1993, was raised in eastern Washington, but has been in Alaska since 1976. He and Roxanna have a grown daughter and son. Along with his parish duties, Deacon Winters is the Director of Public Utilities in Unalaska. Roxanna works as an assistant city clerk. He is the first ordained deacon to serve at St. Christopher by the Sea.
“As a layperson, I was involved in ministries, helping when a priest wasn’t available,” Deacon Winters said. “I was pretty much doing everything.”
Father Hebert, who asked him several years ago to seriously consider the diaconate, generally visits the parish for a week once a month. In his absence, trained eucharistic ministers offer Communion services, but cannot perform the duties of a deacon.
Deacon Winters’ diverse experience gave him a bit of an advantage over his brother deacon candidates.
“When he was studying to be a deacon, he was already doing things the others hadn’t done,” Father Hebert said.
Winters and his family have lived in Unalaska since 2005. The permanent population of 4,500 people burgeons to 11,000 during fish processing season, which often means 12-hour days for the busy deacon. In addition to two weekend services, a regularly scheduled Sunday Mass or eucharistic service is offered at the employee break room of the UniSea building. UniSea processes pollock, halibut, cod, snow crab, Alaska king crab and fish oil. Seasonal workers come from all over the world, many from the Philippines, Mexico, Somalia and across the United States.
“I meet people where they are, physically and time-wise,” Deacon Winters said. People have someone to call when they are at the clinic, or in jail, he added. “We minister to those who are bereaved, or just want to talk.”
Since his ordination, Winters has seen a slight uptick in baptisms at the parish, though he has yet to preside at a wedding or funeral. Now that he is ordained, Deacon Winters said he sees ordained clergy in a new light.
“I have profound respect for the long hours and dedication they have,” he said. “I didn’t know it would be this much work.”
His partner in these labors is his wife.
“She has been on board the whole time,” Deacon Winters said. From editing his homilies to running the faith formation program and music ministry, Roxanna has been a big part of the equation. “She’s kind of like that angel sitting on my shoulder,” he said.
While Deacon Winters’ responsibilities have increased since his ordination, his service has been a great help to Father Hebert.
“Since Dan was ordained, even in the absence of a priest, attendance has gone up,” Father Hebert noted. “This parish has really come alive.”
Father Hebert, who began coming to the island community in 2000, has worked with several parish life directors, eucharistic ministers and others. “As soon as the wheels of the plane touch the ground, I am running,” he said of his monthly visits.
He continues his work on behalf of the parish while in Anchorage, where he serves as parochial vicar at St. Patrick Church. He has developed a collaborative style of leadership.
“We make decisions together for the good of the people,” Father Hebert said. “The secret of the success of the parish is consistency. [The people] can count on there being a priest here on the fourth Sunday.” The rest of the time, they can count on Deacon Winters, he added.
Father Hebert described the newly ordained deacon as a “great family man,” who is well respected in the community and among the parishioners of St. Christopher. Deacon Winters brings more than just his winning personality to the table, according to Father Hebert. He brings the authority of his office as an ordained minister of the Catholic Church.
“He is a man of God, who has truly been called — I love working with him,” Father Hebert said.
Father Hebert recalled that when Deacon Winters returned to Unalaska after his ordination, the parish rented a hall for a huge celebration.
“The whole city was invited,” Father Hebert said. “The town now knows that Dan Winters is an ordained Catholic deacon. We didn’t want to keep him to ourselves; he belongs to the whole town.”