Kotzebue is an Inupiat Eskimo village on the northwest shore of the Baldwin Peninsula in Kotzebue Sound 26 miles above the Arctic Circle. Due to its coastal location near a number of rivers, the area was a hub of ancient Arctic trading routes long before the German Lt. Otto Von Kotzebue "discovered" Kotzebue Sound in 1818 for Russia.
The settlement that grew into the village of Kotzebue was originally a summer fish camp. It became a permanent settlement in 1897 when a reindeer station was located there, then was named after the Kotzebue Sound when a post office was established in 1899.
Since the turn of the century, expansion of economic activities and services in the area has enabled Kotzebue to develop rapidly. It is now the largest town in northwest Alaska and serves as a transportation hub for all villages in the northwest region. Due to its location at the confluence of three river drainages, the Kobuk, Noatak, and Selawick Rivers, Kotzebue is the transfer point between ocean and inland shipping. It is also the air transport center for the region. The population has grown from 291 in 1930 to 3,224 in 2011, according to Alaska Department of Labor Estimates. Although Catholic priests from the Society of Jesus visited Kotzebue in the late 1800's, it was the Society of Friends (Quakers) that founded the first Christian mission there. They did so in 1899.
Thirty years later, a Jesuit priest and a diocesan priest from Oakland, California, arrived and built Saint Francis Xavier. The year was 1929. On October 12, 1930, both priests were killed in an airplane crash along with pilot Ralph Wien. Kotzebue's state-owned airport was accordingly called the Ralph Wien Memorial Airport. The airplane, dubbed the "Marquette Missionary," had been donated to the Alaska missions by the Marquette League of New York.
The church the deceased priests built --complete with spire and bronze bell--still stands, but has been in need of remodeling from time to time. Finally renovations were done and a large addition added on in the 1960's, thanks in large part to the assistance of lay volunteers from the Jesuit Volunteer Corp.
The Catholic Community of Kotzebue was served by priests of the Society of Jesus, sometimes in residence, often visiting from other villages, into the 1990's. Diocesan priests then took over the task.
In recent years, due to priest shortages, Saint Francis Xavier has been served by parish administrators who have taken charge of the day to day activities of parish life; and by diocesan priests who have visited from Nome and other villages. The parish has also been blessed with the service of the Catholic Sisters of Providence.