By Father Steve Gallagher
The North Star Catholic
If you’re flying the “milk run,” Wrangell is the second northbound stop in the panhandle – after Ketchikan. The actual town of Wrangell is located on the northwest coast of Wrangell Island, accessible only by water or air.
Saint Rose of Lima is the center of the Catholic presence on the island and is widely recognized as the first Catholic church built in Alaska. On May 3rd, 1879, Archbishop Charles Seghers and Fr. John Althoff arrived in Wrangell from Victoria, B.C. The next day was a Sunday and they celebrated the first Mass – in a dance hall. A notation from a written history says, “Many whites and 120 Indians attended.” On that same day, Archbishop Seghers appointed Fr. John Althoff as the first resident pastor of St. Rose parish.
The original church was torn down in 1898 and the current, standing church was rebuilt from donations in approximately 1908. Sometime between 1924 and 1939, the then pastor, Fr. Francis M. Monroe, S.J., not only built St. Catherine of Siena in Petersburg, but he also was able to add a rectory to St. Rose. He was serving both parishes. A large parish hall was built next to the Wrangell church in 1968-69.
Since January 2016, the pastor has been Fr. Steve Gallagher. During his time, the church has undergone some major interior work. The church community turned out and repainted the entire interior of the church, replaced the red carpet which was installed in 1961, refinished all the pews, and refurbished the sanctuary with new altars. There is a lot more to do, but with only about 65 families, it takes a lot of time and resources.
Petersburg and Wrangell have shared a priest for well over fifty years now with different scheduling accommodations. Currently, Fr. Gallagher says a Saturday evening Mass and an 8:30 AM Mass on Sunday in Petersburg. He then goes to the airport for a short 17-minute flight with Sunrise Aviation to Wrangell, where he celebrates an 11:00 AM and 5:30 PM Mass.