In some of Alaska’s most remote villages are Catholics who long to experience a deeper connection to the universal Catholic Church. Isolated by violent waves, Pacific storms or frozen tundra these Catholics can go months without ever seeing a priest or celebrating Mass.
This stark reality inspires Jesuit Father John Rose’s regular volunteer trips north to minister to these Catholics — communities that can only celebrate the sacraments when visiting priests come through.
The 49-year-old Father Rose hails from India, where he is a member of the Bombay Jesuit Province. He has spent most of his priesthood teaching in educational institutions and is currently a Ph.D. student at Santa Clara University in Calif. But he treasures his short-term missions in Alaska and is quick to volunteer when superiors send out emails asking for priest volunteers to serve in the north.
Since 2010 he has flown to Alaska on four occasions, spending 10-12 days each time in isolated villages.
The three Catholic dioceses in Alaska rely heavily on such volunteers to ensure that far-flung Catholics are able to celebrate the high holy days of the church, especially at Christmas and Easter when Alaska priests are in high demand and unable to travel from their home parishes.
Father Rose was in Alaska most recently from Dec. 19-29, celebrating the end of Advent and the beginning of Christmas in Naknek, a small fishing town in southwest Alaska.
“I always had wonderful experiences in the villages of Alaska,” he told the Catholic Anchor. “I learn a lot from people. Since I have been working in the educational institutions, I had no pastoral experiences of being with the people. So I take this opportunity to witness how people practice Catholicism and enjoy being with them.”
Last year, Father Rose spent 12 days, spanning Holy Week and Easter, in the western Alaska village of Emmonak — population just over 700.
“In Emmonak, practically the whole village came for confession — I was humbled,” he recalled. “I was alone, so I had to spend more than 12 hours at the confessional. On Good Friday I was hearing confessions till 11 pm. It was a grace-filled experience.”
When visiting Alaska, Father Rose said he tries to “reach out to old and sick people in the villages, and give them communion.” He also takes time to pray in individual homes when invited over for meals.
Basically, he does what is requested and that often entails meeting needs that a priest is uniquely trained for. Most recently in Naknek his outreach included baptizing four children.
“I say daily Mass and invite them to the church and I tell them that I am always available for spiritual ministry and they could knock at my door at any time of the day and night,” he said in describing his work.
“In all the villages I hear from people that they want to interact with the priests and get guidance for some their moral and faith issues they face,” he said.
Emails he received after departing back to California this year suggest that villagers long for more such visits.
“We very much enjoyed your homilies. I would love it if you came up again,” wrote one parishioner. “I could take you in my plane and share the villages with you. May God bless you in this year and always.”
Another thanked Father Rose for sharing a photo of the recent baptisms in Naknek.
“We love the picture — it fills us with hope for the future. Thanks to God for blessing us with your friendship. May you live long and bless many with love and service.”
But Father Rose said the blessings flow both ways when he comes to Alaska.
“One day while I was thinking about what should I prepare for dinner, there was a knock on my door” where a parishioner stood with a gift of pizza. “God never let me down and always overfed me.”
“I am also thankful to the people of Naknek and I can never forget their hospitality and love,” he said of his recent trip.
Father Rose will complete his studies in California this summer and doesn’t know if he will be able to return to Alaska again, but he said his visits over the past four years have fulfilled a childhood dream.
As a young school boy an elderly missionary to India gave him a book, “Memoirs of a Yukon Priest,” by Jesuit Father Segundo Llorente.
“As usual I glanced at the last chapter, not expecting much, but there was something in it which gripped me immediately,” Father Rose recalled. “So, after supper, I began at the very beginning and it kept me fully awake, well beyond midnight.”
The book is an autobiography of Father Segundo Llorente (1906-1989) who was the first-ever Spanish Jesuit missionary to Alaska. The chapters relate Father Llorente’s experiences ministering to Alaska Natives.
“Though the geography and place names were not familiar to me, his reflections and hilarious narration of experiences swept me along completely enthralled,” Father Rose said of Father Llorente’s memoirs. “While I was reading about his experiences, I also began to dream that one day I would also be where he had been: to meet with Eskimos, especially the ones he had baptized and taught catechism, to see the aurora borealis and the sun at midnight, to ride on the frozen Yukon river.”
Father Rose noted that Father Llorente came to “feel that Alaska was like a mother to him, a fact that he movingly describes in his memoir. He had good rapport with the people and made it a point to visit every home at least twice a week.”
To finally be able to minister in Alaska himself is a dream come true, Father Rose added.
“I believe it was God who planted that dream in my heart and I pondered over it,” he said. “God made it happen.”