“The Alaska today is a far cry from the Alaska the first missionaries saw…” – P. Llorente
Dear Religious Family,
We would like to share with you all our recent experience of the Alaskan Adventure. We set out on our excursion to the Great North prepared to encounter the long, cold, and dark days of the Alaskan winters and we have returned filled with the warmth that radiates from the hearts of the faithful whose ceaseless prayer is the hope of future missionaries and vocations.
Alaska is a territory that is not new to the missionary adventure. As many of us know the missionaries of the past have done great works through their prayers, sacrifices and apostolic zeal to bring the light of Christ into the most remote parts of this land and to begin the great work of evangelizing the culture. One of the greatest treasures brought by the missionaries is the image of Our Lady of the Artic Snows. The Jesuit missionaries who spent many years in service of the church in Alaska desired to create this image in order to draw the natives into a deeper and more personal relationship with our Lord and His Blessed Mother. There is a visible debt of gratitude that the people have for the work that these past missionaries have done and it is accompanied by a great desire for missionary activity to return to their land as they watch the beauty of their faith and culture slowly begin to drift away, a culture which had been evangelized and transformed through the work of past missionaries teaching the faith, the dignity of the human person, the value and the virtues of hard manual labor, and the necessity of family life.
During our time in Alaska and through many conversations with the people, we heard, saw and experienced the reality of this rapid change in culture. In the diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, which geographically is almost the same size as all of Europe, there are over 40 Catholic Churches (7 of them are accessible by the “road system” – meaning by car, while all of the rest are only accessible by helicopter, small plane, snowmobile, or boat). There are only 14 priests and 3 religious (2 male, 1 female) who are attending to all of the needs of the diocese. A large percentage of Alaskan children go in and out of the foster care system due to the fact that their parents are unable to care for them. Many times this is because they have fallen into a lifestyle that is dependent on the vices and pleasures of this world. There is a rapid and ever-growing increase in drug and alcohol addictions which is one of the main causes of the large homeless population in the area. But above all, one of the greatest obstacles that has brought forth the decline of culture and even been a determent to the dignity of the natives is the increase in the dependency on the government. The native eskimos are people who culturally live off of the land and are very self-sufficient people. Traditionally they work as a family unit – the men are the hunters and the builders of the community, while the women and children tend to the household tasks of sewing, and food preservation. But now that the government is able to provide for the natives in a monetary way and the western culture of technology is increasing in their villages, so the people are becoming more dependent on the things that are provided for them and are slowly losing their traditional vision of the dignity and the value of manual labor and the strength which comes from living united as a family unit. All of these elements lead to an ever more widespread lifestyle of apathy and avarice among the people.
One of the great beacons of light in the diocese is that of their Bishop, Rev, Chad Zielinski. During our visit we shared many meals with Bishop Chad which were accompanied by stories of the history and culture of the state and his many travels to the remote villages in the “bush” of Alaska. Bishop Chad personally goes out to the villages – taking helicopters, small planes, snow mobiles and boats – in order to reach his flock and many times it is only for a handful of people. It took Bishop Chad 5 years to visit all of the villages within the diocese. There are many villages that have not had the Holy Mass for over a year and typically it can be months in-between visits from the priests. When he is able to reach the remote villages Bishop Chad makes sure to take time to be with the people and many times that means going hunting or fishing with them! Bishop Chad truly is an Alaskan Shepherd who is diligently attentive and works untiringly to fulfill the needs of his flock. He spoke to us of the great need of missionaries who are able to discern the culture well, to assume what is good, and to elevate the culture of the natives while being careful not to destroy it.
Another beautiful aspect of this diocese is the sacrifice of many missionary diocesan priests. We learned that many of the priests in the diocese are on “loan” from other dioceses. These priests have either offered themselves because they recognize the great need for clergy in Alaska or their own bishop has asked them to go there to help for some time. While we were in Alaska, we were able to attend the Deaconate ordination of 2 Polish seminarians. These two new deacons are truly diocesan missionaries. The have offered themselves to study to be permanent priests of the diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska. This ordination was the first ordination in 12 years for the diocese of Fairbanks and the first time ever that there has been more than one seminarian/deacon being ordained.
In our brief time in Alaska, we were able to visit 4 of the parishes along the road system and share with them about our Religious Family and our desire to hopefully found a mission in their diocese soon. Three of the highlights from our trip were serving in the parish soup kitchen, having a Marian day at the Cathedral, and gathering with the young adults.
The soup kitchen opened our eyes to the harsh reality of the homeless community in Alaska. Despite living outside in the frigid winters and not having sufficient clothing, they humbly come to receive some of the basic necessities that the church can provide. Two of the most memorable people we met that day were Ricardo – an elderly man who entertained us and brought great joy to our day by singing us songs and Roxanne – a young woman who shared with us some of her story and taught us some simple phrases in the Yupik language: ‘Quyana’ which means “thank you” and a phrase which sounds like “Quin cum quim chuck nuck” that means “I love you very much”
On the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, we were able to host a Marian day at the Sacred Heart Cathedral. Father Javier Ibarra, IVE gave a formation talk to the adults on the importance of devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary, while the sisters spoke to the children on how to Marianize their lives. To the great surprise of all those present, following the talk we invited them all to join us in praying the rosary in a Marian Procession outside. The people were very happy to join us and to experience a Marian Procession (many of them had never done one before, especially not in the middle of winter in Alaska!) Following the procession, we were able to greet and meet the people and to put on a small fogon for them. Several of the women present were so happy about the fogon that they were looking up the lyrics of the songs on their phones so they could sing along with us!
The last highlight we would like to share is our meeting with the young adults of the diocese. About 25 young adults gathered to meet us and to hear more about vocations and the call to holiness. It was a beautiful witness to see so many young people seeking the truth and striving to live a life of perfection in imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If there was anything so clear to us on our trip, it was the readiness, enthusiasm and great abundance of vocations that will come forth from Alaska. The faithful in the diocese have been praying and sacrificing for vocations. For example, each parish that we visited had a personalized prayer for vocations which was prayed after each Mass. One parish even knelt after mass to make this humble supplication “to chose men and women from our families” to be workers in the Lord’s vineyard. The soil on which future missionaries will find their work in the vast lands of Alaska has been prepared and nurtured through the prayers of the faithful and is bound to bear many fruits.
We entrust the fruits of our Religious Family’s visit to Alaska into the hands of our Blessed Mother.
Viva la aventura misionera!
United in the Incarnate Word,
Religious Family of the Incarnate Word, Province of the Immaculate Conception, USA