Pilot priest ministers to parishioners across the state

By Effie Caldarola

Imagine you’ve been assigned to minister as the only priest in one of the world’s most remote spots. There’s no road system, and the only way to serve thenearly thirty villages in what is called, unofficially, the largest parish on earth, is to fly a single-engine plane over rugged terrain to a place where you may findonly one Catholic.

Add to that a pandemic, closing some villages to outsiders and threatening everyone in an area where health care is sparse. Sound like a tough assignment?

If ever one person seemed ideally suited to this task, it’s Father Scott Garrett, the pastor of the vast and remote St. Paul’s Mission, which encompasses the main villages of  Dillingham, King Salmon and Naknek, and Clarks Point, as well as tiny spots like Egegik, Koliganek and Igiugig. His parish serves the huge Bristol Bayarea as well as the Aleutian Chain.

And yet, he counts only about 150 Catholic families in his flock.

Father Garrett loves it. He previously spent five  years  as  pastor  of  St.  Paul’s  Mission,  then served  five  years  at  Sacred  Heart  Parish  in  Wasilla. Now he’sinto his second term in rural Alaska, headquartering at  Holy  Rosary  in  Dillingham,  the  area’s hub. And he hopes to stay.

Not all priests assigned to the Mission in the last few years stayed long, but the 64-year-old priest admits, “I like the quiet time. I’m introverted. I can make thingshappen for myself.”

Since the first Catholic baptism took place in Dillingham in 1946, a long line of priests has served the area. Probably the most well-known was Father James Kelly, aretired Navy pilot and chaplain who spent eleven years there. He died while piloting a single-engine aircraft in a snowstorm on his way to celebrate PalmSunday Masses in the Togiak area in 2002.

“Father Kelly had a passion for flying, I like to fly. It’s not a passion.” said Father Garrett, who flies a single engine Cherokee Warrior II.

It helps to be not only personally self-sufficient, but handy with a toolbox. The priest told the Catholic Anchor in a previous article that he had fixed the furnace,the hot water heater and installed new flooring at Holy Rosary.

“I maintain a routine,” he said. “I have a time to exercise, a time to pray, a time to work on the books. I’m good at keeping busy.”

Father Garrett alternates weekends between King Salmon/Naknek,  and  Dillingham.  Even though the population of Dillingham, the area’s hub,  explodes  to  10,000  during  the  summer  as fishermen come in, Mass attendance is actually higher in the winter.

“All my parishioners fish during the summer,” the priest said, and commercial fishing requirements take them away from the Dillingham area.

A typical winter Mass in Dillingham may see 35-40 attendees; summer perhaps only 10-15.

During a recent weekend in King Salmon and Naknek, where the attractive little church which is St. Theresa Parish sits almost exactly equidistant between the twovillages, about fourteen people came to Mass. Sometimes, there are over 20 and summers can see 40 in attendance.

Father  Garrett’s  work  in  many  villages  depends on who needs him, and sometimes that’s just one person. The area has a large Russian Orthodox population, but if a Catholic school teacher moves in to a village, they may be eager for a priest’s visit.

Sometimes, when the priest offers Mass in a small village, he’ll find people of many faiths, starved for spiritual nourishment, showing up for services.

Covid has changed much of that ministry, however. In Clark’s  Point,  a  village  on  a  spit  on  the  shore  of Nushagak Bay whichthe priest calls “a great little village,” St. Peter the Fisherman’s little church is unusable during the coldest weather. FatherGarrett says a friend, a Yup’ik parishioner with whom he sometimes goes moose hunting, is planning to repair broken win- dows.Meanwhile, the community center, where Mass is often offered, is closed due to Covid.

“Clark’s Point started well during the first round of Covid,” Father Garrett said, “but after the first surge they got lax – no masks. The whole village got Covidand had to shut down.”

Now, many villages require a negative test to enter, and in Dillingham, the priest said the police would be waiting at the airport to make sure you had been tested.

Nevertheless, the priest could name at least three people he knew who were on ventilators.

When the priest spoke to the North Star Catholic in November, Dillingham was still requiring masks and social distancing in public. Both are required at churchservices.

All funerals since Covid have been outdoor events. Everyone meets at graveside where the priest offers prayers. Baptisms, which are normally large communityevents and a good time for evangelization, have been fewer.

Father Garrett conducts sacramental preparation on an individual basis, and takes the time he feels each person needs.

“I fly into a village and if the person is a youth, I work with that person one-on-one with a family member present,” said the priest. “A couple of monthsago, I gave First  Communion  to  Ira,  a  9-year-old  in  King Salmon/Naknek.  I worked with him  for  about  a  year every time I flew to St. Theresa’s.”

Fortunately, the long reach of technology extends to the area.   Recently, officials with the archdiocese met with parish representatives on a Zoom call, whichFather Garrett said went a long way in building trust and letting people know what’s going on.

And Father Garrett’s live-streamed Mass is viewed not just in the area, but by people in other states.

“I live-stream mass at 7 AM and it will be saved for future viewings,” he said. The Saint Paul Mission link is https://m.facebook.com/saintpaulmissionalaska/.

One of Father Garrett’s  passions  is  walking  the Camino de Santiago, which he’s done three times. He plans a fourth trip in 2023. The Camino is a network of walking trails across Europe, all of which lead to the city of Santiago de Compostela where the apostle James is believed to be buried.

The priest chooses a different route each time, al- ways about 500 miles. His next trip will begin in Portugal, and his sister will go with him. However, heemphasized that they will begin each day together, and meet at the end of the day, but walk by themselves.

“Each person makes his own Camino,” said the Alaskan priest who has no problem going it alone.


The writer, formerly from Anchorage, now lives in New Jersey.


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