‘The Flying Archbishop’ was a man of vision

Anchor LogoCatholicAnchor.org


In 1975 I served as a pilot instructor and examiner on the 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron at Elmendorf AFB. There I met Father Jerry Frister, who was a chaplain in the reserves. He told me about his bishop in Juneau who flew floatplanes into logging camps and villages around the Juneau Diocese. Later, in 1976, it was announced that this bishop was being assigned to Anchorage to replace Archbishop Ryan, who was leaving to become the archbishop of the Military Archdiocese.

Father Jerry told me that the incoming bishop had a twin engine Piper Seneca, 771SH, but needed an instructor to teach him how to fly it. That’s how I met Archbishop Francis T. Hurley.

A few weeks after his installation, the archbishop called and we met at Merrill Field for the first flight. I was pleasantly surprised to find him such a normal, down-to-earth person who had a natural ability for flying. We hit it off immediately. Me being born in Ireland, like the archbishop’s mother, helped.

After our first few lessons, he asked if I was free the following weekend to fly to Juneau. I was and asked what was going on there. He said he was still responsible for the Juneau Diocese and was scheduled to ordain a permanent deacon. “What’s a permanent deacon,” I asked, not fully understanding the implications of his reply at the time. “Come and see,” he said.

On the return journey, we talked about our lives and about the permanent diaconate that he had introduced in the Juneau Diocese. He said he had another ordination the following month in Sitka so we planned another weekend flight. There I met Sisters Angelina and Marie Ann Brent. On the flight back to Anchorage, Archbishop Hurley said he was starting a program for the permanent diaconate in Anchorage and I should consider joining. I shared this with my Air Force friend Dennis Foreman and his wife Sandy.

In late 1977, the archbishop held a meeting at his home and invited 12 men and their wives. A monsignor, who was the chair of the Permanent Diaconate Committee for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gave the presentation and answered questions. There I met Ken and Miriam Donohue who became great fiends. At the end of the evening, the archbishop asked us to write him a note if we were interested. I wrote on a napkin, “I am interested,” and signed it. Ken Donohue and Dennis Foreman also signed up. So it began for all of us, the vocation to the permanent diaconate.

On Dec. 6, 1981, the first five men were ordained at Holy Family Cathedral and the four other members were ordained in February 1982. Ordinations continued down through subsequent years under Archbishop Hurley and his successor, Archbishop Roger Schwietz. The blessings have enriched the archdiocese wherever permanent deacons have served.

During this time other important events were developing. In 1978 the archbishop received a letter from the school principal in Unalaska, asking why no priest had been there since the 1940s, at the end of World War II. Not one to shirk from a challenge, the archbishop called me and we set off on another adventure. We stopped at Illiamna and Naknek before overnighting in Dillingham. The next day we flew to Cold Bay, walked about and came across the community chapel. We introduced ourselves and asked the resident minister if there were any Catholics in Cold Bay. He did not know of any. Eventually, we returned to the airport to refuel for our flight to Dutch Harbor. When the archbishop went to pay for the fuel, the young lady read the credit card and inquired about the name on the card: “The Corporation of the Catholic Archdiocese of Anchorage.” When he said he was the archbishop, she said she was Catholic. Some 30 minutes later, after several phone calls, we returned to the community chapel and asked if we could celebrate Mass. That was the start of having a local extraordinary eucharistic minister in Cold Bay who, in the absence of a priest, would have a communion service in a home.

Later, as we set off for Dutch Harbor, I remember the archbishop making a reference to Saint Paul who had made a similar journey westward to Crete and Malta across the Mediterranean Sea. On arrival we met by the school principal and the local Congregational minister. We took the small ferry to Unalaska and settled into a room at the fish cannery for the night. After evening prayer, I remarked that most archbishops would be staying in a nice hotel with plush carpets, not a smelly fish cannery, sleeping in an iron bed on a linoleum floor. He chuckled and said, “What a shame.” He loved it.

Next day we met the Russian Orthodox priest and his family and then headed to the school for a town meeting. After the meeting, we negotiated with two teachers to rent their home for two months of the summer, while they were on vacation. On our return to Anchorage, the archbishop arranged for Sister Marie Ann Brent and Sister Angelina, the ones from Sitka, to go to Unalaska for the summer. When we flew back to Dutch Harbor, six weeks later, the sisters had several children ready for First Communion and some for confirmation. We used the community chapel and Sister Marie Ann told us that the community chapel had an extra apartment. It was graciously offered to Sister Marie Ann and that was the groundwork for the birth of St. Christopher Church in Unalaska.

In the meantime, “The Flying Archbishop” as an article in the Extension Society magazine dubbed him, continued to use aircraft to get around his vast archdiocese. There were flights to Valdez, Cordova, Kodiak, the Kenai Peninsula and Bristol Bay. There were regular flights, with Sister Ida and Sister Margaret, to Dillingham. On one flight, the weather was marginal so the archbishop offered to let the sisters fly to Anchorage on Alaska Airlines. Sister Margaret immediately rejected the idea saying, “If we go down on the Alaska jet we will only be a footnote, but if we crash with the archbishop we will get lots of recognition.”

There was never a flight where we did not pray the rosary. Eventually the 771SH was replaced by the Cessna 182 and later the Mooney 20J. The archbishop used them as to get around the archdiocese until his retirement.

He received many accolades, even “Alaskan of the Year,” but deep down he was a shepherd who loved and served his flock. Generous and approachable, he was a man of vision who was unafraid to think and act outside the box. A bishop for the people, he loved Alaska and the call of the wild. He also listened to his own advice — “Come and see” — and encouraged others to likewise. Now that he has his “angel’s wings,” may he rest in peace.

The writer is a permanent deacon for the Anchorage Archdiocese.

'‘The Flying Archbishop’ was a man of vision'
has no comments

Be the first to comment on this post!

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

Copyright © 2021 Catholic Anchor Online - All Rights Reserved