For millions of Christians, including those in Alaska, summer is spiritual pilgrimage time. But if Alaskan pilgrims can’t make the long journey to Lourdes or the Holy Land, they can still make little pilgrimages — in the Far North.
Here, the Catholic Anchor lists a few holy sites in Alaska ripe for spiritual venturing.
The church teaches that earthly pilgrimages — whether to St. John Neumann in Cooper Landing or St. Rose of Lima in Wrangell — reflect a lifelong pilgrimage.
“We are all pilgrims,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has explained. And that pilgrimage is a “journey to Heaven,” he added – one in which the faithful are on a “perennial mission of proclaiming before the world the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
PRAYING FOR ALASKA’S FAITHFUL DEPARTED
In downtown Anchorage, Christians may visit the serene Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery – and pray for the “Church Expectant” — souls whose outstanding venial sins are being purged in purgatory. The tradition of visiting cemeteries to pray for the souls of the faithful departed is a longstanding Christian tradition and a spiritual work of mercy. Established in 1915, the 22-acre Anchorage cemetery has public and private tracts, including a Catholic section where priests and pioneers await resurrection. Also at the cemetery is a monument to the unborn commemorating the smallest members of the human family who have died in abortion. It is near the cemetery’s Cordova and 9th Street corner.
Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery
535 East 9th Avenue
WHERE SAINT JOHN PAUL II PRAYED IN ALASKA
The first pope to travel to Alaska was Pope John Paul II. During his 1981 visit to Anchorage, the pontiff prayed at Holy Family Cathedral, the oldest Catholic parish in Anchorage. The pope also celebrated an outdoor Mass on the Delaney Park Strip for Alaskans who had come from around the state to greet him. There is a bronze plaque on the park strip marking the celebration. That papal Mass remains the largest, single gathering of people in the history of Alaska.
Holy Family Cathedral
818 West 5th at H Street
MIRACULOUS TILMA REPLICA
In the Spanish adobe-styled Catholic Co-cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, visitors may pray before a full-size replica of the famous cactus-cloth tilma on which the Mother of God miraculously left her image during her appearance to Blessed Juan Diego in Mexico in 1531. In the image, the Blessed Mother wears native dress and appears pregnant with her divine, unborn child, Jesus. Under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mary is considered to have inspired the conversion to Christianity of about nine million indigenous people in a short time after her appearance — and put an end to the human sacrifices conducted in the native religion. Since then, numerous miracles and cures have been attributed to her intercession. Every year, about 20 million pilgrims visit the basilica in Mexico City where the original tilma is enshrined — undecayed after nearly 500 years. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of the Americas and of the unborn.
While at the co-cathedral in Anchorage, visitors can see a relic of another intercessor. A chair used by Saint Pope John Paul II during his 1981 Anchorage visit is now in permanent residence as the cathedral’s “cathedra” or bishop’s chair, just behind the altar.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-cathedral
3900 Wisconsin Street
MOUNTAINSIDE PASSION SCENES
At Holy Spirit Center — a mountainside retreat facility near the Chugach State Park — the faithful may walk the Way of the Cross, as pilgrims in Jerusalem do along the Via Dolorosa. In intervals along a half-mile loop trail that winds through lush woods overlooking Anchorage, there are 14 Stations of the Cross — artistic representations of certain scenes of the Passion of Christ, such as the condemnation of Christ to death and Christ’s meeting his Blessed Mother on the way to Calvary. Passing from station to station, the faithful pray and meditate on the event each station marks. In doing so, a person can make a spiritual pilgrimage to the principal scenes of the Passion of the Lord.
Holy Spirit Center
10980 Hillside Drive
ICONS OF THE NORTH
Amid the incense and gilded icons inside the dome-topped Byzantine Catholic church on Arctic Boulevard, western pilgrims can catch the spirit of the far-away Eastern church. At St. Nicholas of Myra, the Byzantine rite is celebrated. It is one of several principal church traditions by which the Mass and the sacraments of the universal Catholic Church are celebrated in the context of a particular culture. Most U.S. Catholics are familiar with the Latin rite which blossomed in Rome, where Saints Peter and Paul were martyred. The Byzantine rite arose in Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey. Around 325, the city became the center for Catholics in the eastern parts of Roman Empire.
St. Nicholas of Myra’s traditional icons and altars were crafted by Alaskan artists. And the dome over the main entrance to the church is the only interiorly lit dome in the United States and possibly the world.
St. Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church
2200 Arctic Blvd.
ALASKA’S CLOISTER FOR MODERN WORLD
In the tranquil courtyard of St. Patrick Church one transcends the bustle of busy Muldoon Road. In the church’s new garden — The Cloister at St. Patrick’s — pilgrims may amble and pray along quiet walkways, gently flowing water fountains, and large-as-life, Renaissance-style statuary. Set in a grotto, against the backdrop of a sea-blue, translucent glass wall is an ethereal statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with a delicate, youthful face. Midway through the courtyard is the “Pieta for the Modern World” – wherein the Blessed Mother holds the crucified body of her Divine Son. The sculpture movingly recalls Michelangelo’s masterwork at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The cloister’s original masterpieces were sculpted by renowned artist Roberto Santo, and St. Patrick’s is raising funds for others.
Inside the church, visitors can pray before the Blessed Sacrament, and further reflect on the mysteries of faith. On the main wall above the altar is a large crucifix with a corpus of Christ, carved in Lindenwood by Italian sculptor Edmund Rabanser. The crucifix is the principal symbol of Christianity — a sign of the redemptive Passion of the Lord.
The main altar below is made of hualien jade marble, an indigenous stone of Alaska. The stone altar hearkens back to the tradition begun in the catacombs of Rome, where priests of the persecuted church celebrated Mass on the tombs of martyrs.
Adjacent to the sanctuary is a rare, almost life-size sculpture of the Holy Family — the Child Jesus with his mother Mary and foster father Joseph.
Down the hall in the church building is a small chapel whose walls are adorned with Stations of the Cross painted in an iconographic style by famous Alaskan artist, Byron Birdsall.
St. Patrick Church
2111 Muldoon Road
FISHERMEN & “FISHERS OF MEN”
The village of Cooper Landing on the emerald green Kenai Lake attracts fishing aficionados every summer, but its tiny mission church of St. John Neumann on Snug Harbor Road has plenty for the fishers of men, too. There, pilgrims may visit a shrine to the Blessed Virgin as “Our Caring Mother of the Handicapped,” inspired by a young parishioner who was ill and dependent on a wheelchair. Dedicated in 2000 by now retired Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley, the shrine is an official pilgrimage site for Catholics in the Anchorage Archdiocese. Also, the church is home to a little cemetery and outdoor Stations of the Cross. The stations are situated along a path leading to the peak of a mountain foothill. At the top, there is a six-foot-tall white cross and a breathtaking view of the Kenai River valley.
The mission of St. John Neumann is reportedly the first church in the world to be named for the 19th-century Redemptorist and first American bishop to be canonized. He was declared a saint by Pope Paul VI in 1977.
St. John Neumann Mission
1 mile off the Sterling Highway at Mile 47.9 (Snug Harbor Road)
FOUNTAIN OF MERCY OVERLOOKS EAGLE RIVER
Visitors to the sweeping, 26,000-square-foot St. Andrew Church in Eagle River can taste the depth and breadth of Catholicism — the fountain of mercy for every person in every age.
Light streams into the church from above through stained glass windows depicting the Four Evangelists — Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — who under the direction of the Holy Spirit put in writing the four Gospels for the sake of all through the ages.
Along the church walls below are Stations of the Cross — scenes of Jesus Christ’s salvific Passion and death are shown in mosaics of Italian glass tile against royal gold.
Elsewhere is a large oil painting of Jesus, under the title of the Divine Mercy. Devotion to the Divine Mercy originated in the early 1900s, when Christ appeared to Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, a nun and former peasant girl in Poland. He presented himself as the Divine Mercy and asked Sister Kowalska to have the image drawn and then promulgate devotion to him under that title. He told her that “humanity will not find peace until it turns trustfully to divine mercy.” The reproduction at St. Andrew came from the Plock Convent in Poland where Saint Faustina witnessed those apparitions.
Jesus’ merciful mother Mary, under the title of Our Lady of Fatima, is depicted in a statue carved at the site in Portugal where in 1917 the Blessed Mother appeared to three shepherd children with a message for all to pray and to make amends for sin — to help sinners reach heaven.
Meanwhile, there is also a little shrine honoring Saint Peregrine, the patron of cancer patients. Peregrine Laziosi was born into wealth in 1260. As a youth, he was involved in an anti-Catholic political party. During an uprising, Peregrine struck Saint Philip Benizi, who had been sent by the pope to mediate. When Saint Philip offered the other cheek, Peregrine was overcome. He repented, converted to Catholicism and soon became a priest himself. Peregrine strove to help others return to God — especially through the sacrament of confession. When afflicted with cancer that required his foot be amputated, Peregrine prayed through the night. In the morning, he was cured. He died in 1345 and was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726.
St. Andrew Church
16300 Domain Lane
SAINTHOOD WITHIN REACH OF GOLD MINERS
Built in 1904 to care for gold miners and their families, Immaculate Conception Church was the first Catholic parish in Fairbanks. But the church’s relics inside span 2,000 years of Christianity. Its reliquary contains the relics of 102 saints, including Saint Andrew the Apostle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Cecilia and the first North American martyrs.
A relic is an object such as a tiny fragment of bone or a piece of clothing that remains as a memorial of a saint to be venerated. Honoring relics is a long-standing Christian tradition. According to the Council of Trent, relics of saints are physical avenues of grace for the Christian and an important reminder that their bodies were “living members of Christ and ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’ (1 Cor 6:19)” which are to be raised by Him to eternal life and glory.
Immaculate Conception Church
115 North Cushman Street
OUR LADY OF GRACE ON ROAD TO HOMER
Spiritual trekkers will find Our Lady of Grace and a chance to secure a special indulgence outside St. Peter the Apostle Church in Ninilchik, right along Sterling Highway. There, a life-size statue of Mary gazes gracefully from a gazebo open to visitors year round. The Marian shrine is one of just three official shrines of the Archdiocese of Anchorage at which the faithful, under certain circumstances, may obtain an indulgence, the remission of punishment due to sin. Rosaries and pamphlet guides are free in the gazebo. On Marian feast days the shrine is adorned with flowers honoring Jesus’ beloved Mother.
Crafted overseas, the statue was shipped to the U.S. on a cargo ship, as it turned out, that was also carrying contraband. The government seized and searched everything, including the wholly innocent statue. Mary was “in jail” for over a year before she arrived in Ninilchik.
On the grounds behind the shrine is a display depicting the salvific scene at Calvary, where Mary’s Divine Son Jesus died on the first Good Friday 2,000 years ago. There are three large crosses rising from the ground, representing those on which Christ was crucified alongside two thieves.
North of fairgrounds on Sterling Hwy., Ninilchik
MYSTICAL MARY AT FOOT OF “THE MOUNTAIN”
In tiny Talkeetna, pilgrims will find a mysterious statue of Mary, Our Lady of Beauraing.
From 1932 to 1933, the Blessed Virgin appeared in a hawthorn tree to five Belgian children in Beauraing, Belgium. In 1949, the Catholic Church officially recognized the Marian apparitions.
During World War II, U.S. soldier George Herter served in Belgium and brought a piece of the hawthorn tree from Beauraing back with his wife and son. On the journey home, his son became deathly ill from typhoid. The soldier placed a piece of the tree under his son’s pillow and his son was healed.
In thanksgiving, Herter had 50 statues of the Virgin cast, placing a splinter of the hawthorn tree in each statue, and distributed them around the U.S.
The whereabouts of only seven are known today, including the one in Talkeetna. But how it ended up at the Alaskan mission, no one knows.
St. Bernard Church
George Parks Highway
‘LITTLE WAY’ FOR ALASKA
The Shrine of St. Therese, dedicated to the patron saint of missions and of Alaska, sits on Shrine Island — just 33 miles from downtown Juneau. At its center is an old stone chapel completed in 1938, in large part by volunteers — including school children from St. Ann’s Catholic School, the Boy Scouts and unemployed men — who little by little toted rocks from the shores around the island to the construction site. The shrine’s namesake, Saint Therese of Lisieux, was a cloistered French Carmelite nun who died at the age of 24. She is considered one of the greatest saints of modern time and “Doctor of the Church” for her “little way of spiritual childhood” — by which holiness can be achieved through ordinary deeds done with great love. Before Saint Therese was canonized in 1925, Jesuit Bishop Joseph Crimont placed the entire Alaskan Territory under her spiritual protection. St. Therese Shrine welcomes day and overnight visitors who may stay in a lodge — or even a hermit’s cabin — on the shrine’s grounds.
Shrine of St. Therese
Mile 23 Glacier Highway
CHRISTMAS IN JULY?
Where does jolly Saint Nick live? Naturally, the search might start on St. Nicholas Drive in North Pole! There, sits a little Catholic church named for the universally loved saint — the 4th-century Catholic archbishop of Myra, Lycia. Much honored in the Eastern and Latin rites, Saint Nicholas was known for his piety, zeal and miracles. One famous example of his charity involved three poor young women who could not be married without a dowry. Across three successive nights, Saint Nicholas threw into their window enough money for a dowry for them all. Saint Nicholas is a patron of children because he was, from his own infancy, a model of innocence and virtue. His feast day is December 6, but he is honored year-round by people of all ages in North Pole.
St. Nicholas Church
707 St. Nicholas Drive
YUKON BISHOP FORGED FAITH IN THE NORTH
Those Yukon-bound will drive through Catholic history in Tok. In September 1949, 13 years before northern Alaska became the Diocese of Fairbanks, Father John Buchanan came to Tok, under the direction of Jesuit Bishop Francis Gleeson, Vicar Apostolic at the time for all of Alaska. Father Buchanan was charged with building chapels and establishing a priestly ministry in the area, a first for the region. The lone, courageous and tireless priest helped cradle Catholics return to the practice of their faith and converted new ones in places including 10 Alaska Road Commission camps, two army camps and in numerous small Native and white settlements along the highway. Father Buchanan celebrated the first Mass at Tok in 1949 at the old Tok Road Commission Building.
Holy Rosary Church
Mile 125.5 Tok Cutoff
(Milepost 1314.2 along the Alcan Highway)
MAT-SU’S “GARDEN OF ANGELS”
Against the dramatic backdrop of the Chugach Mountains, Sacred Heart Catholic Cemetery lies in the lush Matanuska Valley. There, visitors may honor and pray for the dead. The cemetery is home to a “Garden of Angels” — a children’s columbarium where a number of miscarried babies are interred. It is located near a statue of the Old Testament figure Rachel, who mourned the loss of her own children.
Sacred Heart Cemetery
Old Matanuska Road
LIGHT IN TONGASS RAIN FOREST
Along the winding waterways of Southeastern Alaska and next to the Tongass National Forest is the gleaming, little church on the hill — St. Rose of Lima — the oldest Catholic parish in Alaska. Founded on May 3, 1879, St. Rose of Lima was named for the first American ever canonized. Born in the mountainous South American nation of Peru, Saint Rose of Lima lived a quiet life of prayer, penance and daily communion. But since her death in 1617, many miracles have been attributed to her intercession.
St. Rose of Lima Church
120 Church Street