Nenana is located at the crossroads of the George Parks Highway and the Alaska Railroad and at the confluence of the Nenana and Tanana Rivers. The location is 58 road miles southwest of Fairbanks. The unique setting makes Nenana "a good place to camp between the rivers," a rough translation for the original Athabaskan Indian name for the settlement now known as Nenana.
Like many towns in Alaska, Nenana began as a traditional gathering place for Native Alaskans. Russian traders and explorers arrived in the 1800's, and the discovery of gold in Fairbanks in the early 1900's brought more people. Construction of the Alaska Railroad spurred continued growth and created a crucial transportation link between Fairbanks and the port of Seward. On July 15, 1923 in Nenana, U.S. President Warren G. Harding drove the "golden spike" that signaled the completion of the 471-mile Alaska Railroad.
Modern Nenana has managed to retain its village ties and subsistence lifestyle. The population of 395, according to 2011 Alaska Department of Labor Estimates, is a diverse mix of non-Natives and Athabaskans.
The Catholic community in Nenana has always been small. Society of Jesus priest built a church at Nenana around 1918. The Nenana mission was listed for the first time in The Official Catholic Directory in 1923 as St. Theresa, the name by which it is still known. It is not clear, however, which Theresa was meant. Nenana Catholics have long considered their patroness to be St. Therese of Lisieux, "the Little Flower," whose name is spelled differently, and who was not canonized until 1925. Some say the original patroness may have been St. Theresa of Avila.
The original church burned to the ground on December 19, 1952. Lost in the fire was a pectoral cross handed down from Archbishop Charles Seghers to Bishop Francis Gleeson, S.J.. By October 1953, the church was replaced with the present one on the same foundation.
The village of Nenana marks the beginning of a string of tiny parishes along the "rail belt," including the communities of Anderson, Cantwell, Clear Air Force Station, Denali National Park, and Healy. After the Parks Highway opened in the 1970's, most priests serving the rail belt parishes used Saint Theresa as their home base. Later the Healy parish took over the role of rail belt headquarters.
St. Theresa has been served by Jesuit, Dominican and Diocesan priests over the years. Religious Sisters also played an important role, including Dominican Sisters and Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary.
Presently, St. Theresa is served by an acting parish administrator who oversees day to day parish life. Priestly visits are made from Healy by a Diocesan priest.