The Central Yup'ik Eskimo town of Bethel is located on the northwestern bank of the Kuskokwim River, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. It lies approximately 40 miles inland from the Bering Sea but is nonetheless accessible to ocean going vessels; it is also an airline hub, serving 48 villages in the Delta.
Bethel was first established by Yup'ik Eskimos, who called the village "Mumtrekhlagamute," meaning "Smokehouse People," named for the nearby fish smokehouse. There were 41 people in Bethel during the 1880 U.S. Census. At that time, it was an Alaska Commercial Company Trading Post. A post office was opened in 1905.
Before long, Bethel was serving as a trading, transportation, and distribution center for the region, which attracted Natives from surrounding villages. A federally-recognized tribe is located in the community, the Orutsararmuit Native Village. The city was incorporated in 1957. Over time, federal and state agencies established regional offices in Bethel. The 2011 population was 6,228 according to 2011 Alaska Department of Labor Estimates.
The region is fortunate in that rapid development did not occur before the importance of protecting Native culture was realized. The traditional Yup'ik Eskimo practices and language remain predominant in the area. Subsistence activities and commercial fishing are major contributors to residents' livelihoods.
The Yup'ik people of the Bethel region were first Christianized by Moravian Missionaries in 1885.
Roman Catholic presence began in the 1890's when Jesuit missionaries stopped in Bethel while traveling between Holy Cross and Tununak, but no permanent mission station was established there until the early 1940's. In 1943, the first Catholic Church, Immaculate Conception, was built. It was a small church next to what is commonly referred to as "Honey Bucket Lake." During the years from 1956 -59, the old church building was replaced by another structure. Finally, in the early 1990's the third Immaculate Conception Church was built at Bethel. The new church design tastefully incorporated the stained glass windows from the old church in the shape of a cross with lovely effect, favorably creating a sense of continuity. Immaculate Conception Church was dedicated on April 5, 1995.
Over the course of time many members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps also served the church in various capacities. Among them was Rosalie Elaine L'Ecuyer who served as a JVC member for two years, then continued serving as a “diocesan volunteer” from 1982 to 1988. Though no longer in Bethel, L'Ecuyer is still an active diocesan volunteer.
Currently, four Jesuit priests make Bethel their home base while working in team ministry in the surrounding Yukon-Kuskokwim region.