Snowmobiling across 46 parishes and 410,000 square miles?
Winters at minus 65 degrees?
No problem at all for four intrepid
religious from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who are helping spread the faith in the Alaska-Yukon Delta.

By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

FAIRBANKS – The Diocese of Fairbanks (also known as the Diocese of Northern Alaska) covers the upper two thirds of the State of Alaska, with a vast expanse of 410,000 square miles. To put that into perspective the diocese is roughly equal in size to France, Germany, and Italy combined. There is just one bishop, 17 active priests, two brothers and 13 sisters to serve the 14,500 Catholics who worship at its mostly very small 46 parishes and missions. It is the last remaining officially mission diocese in all of the United States.

What are the odds that three of Fairbanks’ 13 religious sisters would be from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and another from our neighboring diocese, Wilmington?

Sisters Dorothy Giloley and Maggie Butler are Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill; Sisters Ellen Callaghan and Marian Leaf are Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.

Missioned as they are to a diocese with virtually no roads, their schedules are every bit as challenging as that of 18th-century circuit-riding missionaries in colonial Pennsylvania, but with far harsher weather.

Sister Dorothy is from St. Rose of Lima Parish and a graduate of West Philadelphia Catholic High School. At first she considered entering the Maryknoll order as a missionary, but because they had a waiting list, she opted for the St. Joseph Sisters. She served in a variety of assignments including 18 years in the inner city before volunteering for the Alaskan missions in 2001.

For the first two years she worked as a director or religious education in the Diocese of Anchorage in Southern Alaska. She came to Fairbanks in 2003 and worked in two very remote mission parishes. This was spiritually satisfying, but solitude and lack of opportunities for a community life of prayer and sharing with other religious was difficult.

After time away for nine months of cancer treatment, in 2005 she returned to Fairbanks and was appointed diocesan director of religious education.

Sister Dorothy is based in Fairbanks itself, where there are opportunities for community life, but much of her time is spent in very remote areas, including Kotzebue and Barrow above the Arctic Circle, and Little Diomede Island two miles from Siberia. Travel to many of these stations is by small plane, and in the case of Little Diomede, by helicopter.

Some of these stations might be visited by a priest every six weeks or so, which means Sunday services are conducted by deacons or lay volunteers.

” I love working with the catechists and other volunteers who keep and spread the faith,” Sister Dorothy said. “Our lay people have stepped up and minister in their parishes and missions. The parish administrators keep our missions and parishes functioning. All of us work as a team to live and spread the Gospel in this mission land.”

Sister Marian is originally from St. Laurence Parish, Highland Park, Delaware County and SS. Peter and Paul Parish, West Chester. A graduate of Archbishop Prendergast High School and Neumann College, she is a born missionary. She served in Zambia, Africa, for 12 years before volunteering for Alaska three years ago.

The most startling change for her, coming from a tropical climate, was the amount of clothing and layers she would have to wear in the very frigid North. This was offset by the incredible beauty surrounding the Alaskan villages.

Based in Aniak, a village on the Yukon, she is parish facilitator for five parishes, the nearest 35 miles away, the farthest 130 miles away. Travel, again, is usually by plane and the round trip cost is $200 to the nearest village and $750 to the most distant. Sometimes in winter, she’ll go by snowmobile along the river.

Her main task is not to take on ministries unless absolutely necessary but to connect with and support the various lay ministries, although some of the villages are too small to have all of the ministries normally associated with a parish.

Villages are visited perhaps every four to five weeks, and practically every Sunday she is at a different village. To her sorrow it is rarely the same week as a priest is visiting, so she cannot attend Mass. However, there is a Eucharistic service conducted by lay ministers.

“I receive far more from my relationship with the Yup’ik and Athabascan people than I could ever give. …As I minister here I am pulled to conversion and a deepening of faith,” Sister Marian said. “What I enjoy most is sharing the life of rural Alaskan villages.”

She is struck by the traditions of the native cultures, and the people’s connection with the land and the sea. The subsistence hunters and fishers respect the animals that provide for their needs.

There is a spirit of sharing perhaps exemplified by a young hunter who makes his first kill. He does not himself take any of the food. This signifies his adult role to take care of the needs of others, she noted.

Sister Maggie, who is from the former St. Gregory Parish, Philadelphia, graduated from West Catholic before entering the St. Joseph Sisters. She had a varied teaching career before going to Sitka in Alaska’s Diocese of Juneau as a pastoral associate. After seven years in Sitka she returned to Philadelphia and to West Catholic as coordinator of the school’s RCIA program.

Perhaps “the Call of the Wild” was too much. In 2005, she heard the position of pastoral administrator was open at Holy Rosary Parish, Tok, in the Fairbanks Diocese. She knew enough about Northern Alaska to wonder if it was within her comfort zone. As in much of Northern Alaska, the temperature usually hits a comfortable mid-50s this time of the year.
Wait until mid-January. Tok’s average mean temperature (not the low) will be minus 15, and in the past records have seen the thermometer drop to as low as 65 below zero. But in spite of this, she accepted the challenge.

As a plus, Holy Rosary is only a half mile from the Alaskan Highway which connects to Fairbanks 210 miles away. But the nearest Alaskan village is farther than the Canadian border, 90 miles away.

As administrator, Sister Maggie stays full-time at Holy Rosary, but the pastor who has several parishes, lives 108 miles away in Delta Junction and comes one Sunday a month for Mass. Other Sundays the parish has a well-attended liturgy of the Word and Eucharist Service.

“We work together to create faith community and to learn by having intergenerational CCD classes,” Sister Maggie said. “One of the most difficult things being here is the cold, dark winters, which begin in October and sometimes don’t end until April. I love the people and the work, so that makes up for the isolation.”

Sister Ellen, who grew up in St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, Wilmington, and graduated from Padua Academy, taught for 33 years before volunteering for the Alaskan Missions.

In her 13th year, she is the director of the Native Ministry Training Program for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Region of Western Alaska. Her ministry, which is based in the Eskimo village of St. Marys, prepares culturally sensitive catechetical and sacramental materials, conducts training sessions for the various lay ministries and produces DVD home study packets for ongoing education for those who cannot attend, among other things.

She also visits the 24 villages in her region, more often than not by small plane. Even if a village is relatively close, this may be the only practical way to visit because of the lack of roads. Winter blizzards may close even this avenue of travel, leaving the villages totally isolated.

Sister Ellen finds it sad that people are so often deprived of the full liturgy because of the lack of priests, but nevertheless finds it inspiring to witness the reverence of the deacons, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and prayer leaders who minister to their own people on a regular basis.

Most impressive to her are the Yup’ik Eskimo people themselves.

“They still live a subsistence lifestyle which means their basic food comes from the tundra, the sea, the rivers and the air of their own region of the state,” Sister Ellen said. “Their traditional values, including hospitality, respect for the person and all gifts of creation, are very Franciscan. They believe the animals and berries give life to the people for their survival.

“Faith in life after death and God as the Creator and Provider is very strong. Life is very simple but happy. Family bonds are of great importance,” she said.

The life these four sisters have chosen is obviously not an easy one, yet none have expressed an intention of leaving.
Sister Dorothy could be speaking for many missionaries when she said, “I hope to serve here as long as I am healthy and able to do this, probably into my 70s!”

The Diocese of Fairbanks is a missionary diocese dependent on outside support. Because of the rugged conditions and enormous distances, the work of the priests, deacons, sisters, brothers and lay ministers can only be accomplished at great financial cost. Donations may be sent to Catholic Bishop of Northern Alaska, 1312 Peger Road, Fairbanks, Alaska 99709.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.