Alaska, also known by its nickname, “The Last Frontier,” and by its state motto, “North to the Future,” is a land of great beauty and great size. If you superimpose a map of Alaska over the continental U.S., what Alaskans call the “Lower 48,” you might get a glimpse of just how big this great state really is. It is the largest state in the union and encompasses approximately 600,000 square miles. That makes it about a fifth the size of the contiguous 48 states and two and half times the size of Texas, the next largest state in the Union. Situated in the northwest extremity of the North American continent, and bordering Canada to the east, Alaska looks at the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Alaska west and south, and Russia across the Bering Strait, Inupiat Natives and missionaries on Little Diomede Island can look across the Strait and across the International Date Line to “tomorrow” on Russia’s Big Diomede Island, 3 miles away.
A closer look at the map reveals a snapshot of the Catholic Church in Alaska. It is a vast vineyard. The enormous state is divided into only three dioceses, the Archdiocese of Anchorage in the south central area, the Diocese of Juneau in the southeastern panhandle and the Diocese of Fairbanks. The Diocese of Fairbanks is by far the largest of the three. It covers a massive 409,049 square miles, about two thirds of the entire state. Geographically, the Diocese of Fairbanks is the largest in the entire United States and, of special note; it is designated by the Vatican’s “Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples” department as the only remaining fully missionary Catholic diocese in the United States. It is also among the poorest. Only eight of its 46 parishes and missions are self-supporting. The viability of these parishes and missions depends on the support of grant funding and individual donations from across the country and around the world.
The people of the Diocese of Fairbanks are extraordinary and diverse. Across the great expanse that comprises the missionary Diocese of Fairbanks, there are profound differences between urban “road system” parishes and those lying in remote regions. The diocese embraces many cultures, including Athabaskan, Yup’ik, Čup’ik, Inupiat, Filipino and Latino. Among non-Native Alaskans are many “transplanted” Alaskans, Alaskan residents from far and wide.
“North to the Future” is more than a motto in the Fairbanks Diocese. The Diocese may well provide a paradigm of the future Church in the United States. With too few ordained clergy and religious sisters to go around, the Diocese relies heavily on local lay leadership and ordained deacons to help provide sacraments and leadership, especially in remote areas. Diocesan leaders provide an underpinning of support services and training opportunities for those dedicated deacons and lay faithful who serve.
Those who serve do so at tremendous cost, both to body and budget. Priests and sisters must cover great distances and endure harsh environmental conditions, difficult terrain, and extreme poverty to do their work. Most cover multiple parishes, traveling via small plane, or via boat or snow machine depending on the season. Travel is at great monetary expense, one of the drawbacks of ministering in such a huge mission field. It is often dangerous due to harsh weather conditions. It is not uncommon for missionaries to “get stuck” in bush villages for days while waiting for blizzards to abate or flights to resume. Many parishioners consider themselves fortunate, if they receive sacraments from a priest every two or three months, or longer intervals.
Photo Credit: "Alaska in comparison with the lower 48 States" from USFWS.