269 miles southwest of Fairbanks in Interior Alaska, the town of McGrath lies adjacent to the Kuskokwim River, directly south of its confluence with the Takotna River. Because of the town's location and accessibility to large river boats it has always served as a transportation, communication and supply hub.
The Old Town site was across the river from McGrath's present setting. It was a seasonal Athabaskan trading and gathering place for residents of Big River, Nikolai, Telida, and Lake Minchumina. In 1904, a trading post was established, and two years later gold was discovered nearby. McGrath quickly grew into a regional supply center. By 1907, a town was established and named for Peter McGrath. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race contributed to McGrath's supply center role. From 1911 to 1920, hundreds of people walked and mushed over the trail on their way to the Ophir gold districts.
The town saw a temporary setback in the 1920's when mining sharply declined. A major flood followed in 1933, after which foresighted residents began moving across the river to the present site. Erosion and changes in the course of the river eventually left the old site on a slough, useless as a river stop. McGrath rebounded on the opposite shore. In 1937, the Alaska Commercial Company opened a store at the new site. In the 1940's, an airstrip was cleared, the FAA built a communications complex, a school was opened, and McGrath once again became an important supply point.
Today McGrath still serves as an economic center for the area; and as a checkpoint for both the Iditarod Sled Dog Race and the Iron Dog Snow Machine Race. Alaska Department of Labor Estimates put McGrath's population at 341 in 2011. Regional employment opportunities are augmented by subsistence lifestyles, which remain an important part of the local culture. Salmon, moose, caribou, bear, and rabbit are favorites.
The earliest known Catholic presence in McGrath was in the 1940's, when it was visited by a priest of the Society of Jesus. He bought a military surplus quonset hut and had it moved near "Aviation Field" and converted into a chapel. The "chapel" was later moved to another location and eventually replaced by the present log church. The new church was dedicated to St. Michael in 1960.
Since its Catholic beginnings, McGrath has had few resident priests, but Jesuit and Diocesan priests have visited it over the years from Bethel, Galena and Fairbanks. St. Michael has also been served by a Xaverian Brother , and by various Orders of Religious Sisters including Sisters of St. Joseph, and Sisters of Notre Dame. Parish administrators currently oversee the day to day activities of parish life. They are supported by visiting ministers from Fairbanks.