Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Alaskan Catholics in remote villages share special bond during Lent

By Effie Caldarola
Catholic News Service

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CNS) -- Two full days after Ash Wednesday this year, Catholics in remote Alaskan villages were walking around with freshly drawn ashen crosses on their foreheads.

Receiving the traditional Ash Wednesday ashes on Friday might seem odd to those who have never experienced being a Catholic in the far reaches of the Anchorage Archdiocese.

In the frontiers of Alaska, however, the simple presence of a priest on Sunday can be cause for celebration and Catholics have to be willing to adapt to the unusual realities of rural Alaska.

Father Scott Garrett is a pilot who serves all of southwest Alaska -- one of the largest parish boundary areas in the world. It is a region that encompasses more than a dozen tiny villages and fishing outposts that stretch across the long reach of Alaska's Aleutian Islands.

Only parishioners at Father Garrett's "big" church, Holy Rosary in Dillingham, had an Ash Wednesday service on Wednesday, Feb. 25.

Others in villages such as Clark's Point received ashes two days later, and little Levelock -- which only has 70 people in the entire village and only a handful of them are Catholic -- received the symbolic black marks three days later.

And those are the larger areas. Another 15 locations, like Cold Bay and Chignik Bay, are accessible only by air.

All these parishioners share a special common bond during Lent -- "the little black book" of Lenten meditations that Father Garrett distributes wherever his plane touches down.

But these Catholic outposts also have other religious acts that bind them together.

B.J. Hill, who helps administer St. Therese Church in the fishing village of Naknek, said that "Father Scott has us pretty well covered," as the priest flies the 64 air miles from Dillingham on most Sundays.

Hill said about seven families make up the core of the St. Therese Catholic community.

Like most of the little communities, parishioners at St. Therese take advantage of services that can be celebrated while they wait for a priest.

"We have a really nice church with hand-carved Stations of the Cross," and someone from the parish will lead the stations each Friday in Naknek, Hill told the Catholic Anchor, newspaper of the Anchorage Archdiocese.

South of Anchorage lies sparsely populated Cooper Landing, the site of many great sport fishing adventures. For Tom and Chris Farrington, it has been home since they moved there from Anchorage several years ago.

Someone from the little parish of St. John Neumann takes a turn leading the Stations of the Cross each Friday during Lent, said Chris Farrington, and often there's a Bible study in someone's home. The congregation is so small that "everyone has a key to the church," she said, "and a lot of people make a visit every day."

Cooper Landing is served by Father Richard Tero from Sacred Heart Parish in Seward, with help from a retired priest. The assistance allows the parish to have Mass every Sunday, although there won't be a Holy Thursday or Good Friday service.

Down in the most southern reaches of the archdiocese, a team of Oblates of Mary Immaculate regularly provide the sacraments for people on the Kenai Peninsula.

But Mercy Sister Carol Aldrich at St. John the Baptist in Homer said that on Lenten Fridays parishioners plan and carry out a soup and bread supper following the Stations of the Cross, which they lead.

In Homer, and farther north in Talkeetna, Catholics celebrate a Lenten tradition that larger parishes often do not -- each offers a Passover Seder dinner during Holy Week, with advice and help in Homer offered by a Jewish neighbor.

In St. Bernard Church in Talkeetna, Renamary Rauchenstein has been the pastoral leader for 12 years, and she said the parish sees a priest about twice a month, although they do expect a visiting priest for Holy Week.

Despite the lack of a resident pastor, St. Bernard remains an active parish during Lent, with soup suppers, Stations of the Cross and a Good Friday "faith walk."

The solemnity of the season is affected by Talkeetna's proximity to Mount McKinley, said Rauchenstein, as people come to town about that time to set up medical camps and other mountain-related activity to prepare for the approaching climbing season.

Three new Catholics will enter the church during the St. Bernard Easter Vigil, two of them from nearby Trapper Creek, where St. Philip Benizi Church can hold about 30 worshippers.