Samoan bishop visits Anchorage parishes

Editor’s note: This article was published in the May 2023 issue of the North Star Catholic. 

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Father Kolio Etuale, bishop of the Diocese of Samoa-Pago Pago, traveled to Alaska between March 22-27 to visit Catholic Samoan communities at St. Benedict’s and St. Anthony’s Catholic churches.

The visit provided an opportunity to celebrate Etuale as the first native Samoan priest to be named a bishop. On Aug. 4. 2022, Pope Francis named him coadjutor bishop for the Diocese of Samoa-Pago Pago. He assumed the full role this year, upon the retirement of coadjutor Bishop Peter Hugh Brown on April 29.

Some 12,700 Pacific Islanders live in Alaska, according to 2022 census counts. The Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau is home to a substantial number of people who moved to Alaska from the Samoan islands.

The meetings with the bishop began at St. Anthony’s Church on March 22 in a listening seminar conducted entirely in the Samoan language. Elders sat in a traditional ceremonial circle and spoke of the challenges they faced as Catholics.

“They talked about the need for a Samoan priest in Alaska, but there is a process that would need to be worked through before we can sacrifice sending one of our priests here,” Bishop Etuale said in an interview with the North Star Catholic. “This is the universal church, and all decisions need to be made with that in mind, I told them.”

Language needs came to the heart of some of the talks. Local Samoan culture is not losing its language — even children speak and understand Samoan.

“The elders talked about prayer, and the liturgy: how they are not really participating in the liturgy because of language barriers,” he said. “The way they do their own Mass in Samoan is different. Something is missing (in English) where they open totally and completely to God. They are struggling.”

One of the challenges is that Anchorage’s multicultural city holds other options for Samoan people.

“They can attend other denominations’ churches where the pastors speak Samoan, where they sing in the language, worship in Samoan and a preacher preaches in Samoan,” Bishop Etuale said.

The elders lamented losing certain members of their culture to other churches, which is a loss for the Catholic Samoan community.

The bishop said he took the opportunity to visit Alaska to thank the people for their support as he completes his transition to bishop. He wanted to particularly thank Fr. Tom Lilly, who attended the Mount Angel Seminary of St. Benedict, Oregon, with him 20 years ago.

Before his stop in Alaska, the bishop was at Mount Angel defending his dissertation toward his doctorate. In his dissertation, Bishop Etuale said he’s exploring the importance of Catholic education as a mission and evangelization. His theory is that if young people fully understand their faith through Catholic education, the Church is less likely to lose them.

Bishop Etuale was born in a tiny village, Lotofago, Samoa, on March 17, 1973. He is the son of Tumanuvao Etuale Felise and Maniva Palala (deceased). His adopted parents in American Samoa are Tumanuvao Kelekolio Tumanuvao and Monika Etuale of Iliili. He said he knew since age 14 that he wanted to devote himself to God as a priest. He spent his youth as an altar boy and joined an apostolic Marist volunteer crew who painted churches and did other good works.

He graduated from Marist Brothers High School and obtained a bachelor of arts in philosophy and a Master of Divinity degree from Mount Angel Seminary. He served American Samoa parishes of Leone, Iliili, Futiga, and Asili. He held positions of leadership like the director of religious vocations. At the time of the bishop’s appointment from Pope Francis, he was serving as chancellor and parish priest of Holy Family Parish in Tafuna, American Samoa.

“One of the things that influenced, when I was an altar boy, to become a priest is that very often they would say, ‘We have no priest this Sunday to serve the Mass,’” he recalled. “That happened a lot. ‘We have no priest this Sunday.’”

He made up his mind to become a diocesan priest, meaning one tied to a parish. At Mount Angel Seminary, a Benedictine monastery, he was invited to become a Benedictine priest. To join an order would mean a different kind of service in the church, one that would likely take him far from the Samoan people he hoped to serve. “I said, ‘No, I need to get back to Samoa and serve my people.’”

One solution the bishop offered regarding the language needs of Samoan-Alaskan Catholics is to be served by catechists. The bishop said fully trained men and women act as go-betweens or mediators for priests and the people they serve, as well as for anyone who participates in the liturgy. He said this is a custom observed in Samoa and New Zealand. It’s a long-held tradition where those in that position help on many levels.

Bishop Etuale’s visit was deeply appreciated by parishioners. Many Anchorage-based Samoans were determined to reconnect or meet him for the first time. One woman who attended the bishop’s seminar at St. Benedict Parish hadn’t seen the bishop for decades; she wept as the two reconnected for a short while.

“His visit was definitely beautiful,” said Fuimaono Palesitina, chief of the Samoan community at St. Anthony Parish. “We were grateful for the opportunity to have him visit us there. It was amazing. We were able to talk about the ongoing needs of the Samoan community and that he was able to address them. We’re grateful and thankful for his visit.”

One of the bishop’s messages was about how joyful it is to become a priest.

“It’s not a sacrifice. Where there is God, there is joy,” he said. “He will make your shoulders stronger when you feel you can’t continue to carry your cross. It’s a joyful vocation. God is joy and love. There’s not the feeling of sacrifice; it’s great happiness.”

Palesitina said the Samoan community is working on recruits for the priesthood.

Fr. Vince Blanco said he appreciated the bishop’s visit.

“It was confirmation that the Samoan community here are being taken care of, that this is truly the universal church. He has the heart of the pastor and the heart of the bishop. He was very compassionate and informal,” Blanco said.

Fr. Tom Lilly recalls his years at the Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon from 1996 to 2003; he said he knew the bishop well.

“He was and is very gentle, very focused on his faith, and very focused on helping people,” he said about his friend. “He’s the first native-born Samoan to be named bishop — it’s a huge event.”

Fr. Lilly said he and Bishop Etuale have discussed recruiting a Samoan priest for decades now.

“We’ve been talking about that for more than 20 years,” Fr. Lilly said. “We only partially joked when I said, ‘Please bring a priest with you to carry your luggage. Then leave the priest here when you come to Alaska.’”

At Lumen Christi Catholic High School in Anchorage, Bishop Etuale sang a song for the students. He sang “It’s Now or Never.”

“He has a fantastic singing voice,” Fr. Lilly said. “He celebrated Mass for our students and sang the song. His homily was you have to choose Christ, it’s now or never. We look forward to the recruits from his visit.”


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