Akulurak - Saint Marys Mission

1930s akulurak church school convent

In the fall of 1894 a mission with a boarding school was opened on the west bank of the Akulurak River. At that time it was called St. Joseph's Mission, although the name would be changed at a later date. The four Sisters of Saint Ann, who arrived to help the Jesuits staff the school, unwittingly alienated the Native people by their lack of understanding of the Native cultural practices. The shamans played a key role in this collision of cultures, which eventually brought about the closing of the school in the spring of 1898.

Jesuit priests reopened the mission in 1902 and were soon joined by a Jesuit Brother. In 1905 the school was reopened, but this time it was called St. Mary's Mission, as the church in Nome had taken St. Joseph as their patron. The school was staffed and operated by the Ursuline Sisters and the Jesuits, first as a day school and then as a boarding school. Due to the great epidemics of 1900 and 1918, many of the children at the school were orphans. Some of these stayed at the school 10 or more years.

Although St. Mary's was readily accessible to the people it was meant to serve, its location was very poor in other respects. Heating was a major concern. Fuel for its 14 stoves was driftwood gathered along the riverbanks, when the river was open, and then towed by rafts to the mission. Gardening was not productive, because of the poor soil and short growing season. They had to trade salmon for vegetables with Holy Cross Mission, which meant there was an annual need for over 20,000 fish. Getting supplies and log rafts up the Akulurak slough, with its 52 twisting turns, and often low water, was always a formidable challenge. Lakes formed under the buildings as the permafrost thawed. Water had to be carried from the river. Fierce blizzards often swept the area. Buildings hurriedly built to supply a need, soon developed cracks, making it almost impossible to keep out the winds, rains, ice and snow.

By 1918, it was decided that the mission must be moved, but several unforeseen circumstances delayed the move for many years, among these were the Spanish Influenza Epidemic and the Great Depression. In 1925 the Sisters and Girls House was destroyed by fire and had to be rebuilt. Then in 1929 a second fire left the church in ashes. The new church was built and blessed in 1933.

In 1949 an historic meeting took place at St. Mary's. Present were Bishop Francis Gleeson, S.J., the Jesuit Provincial of the Oregon Province, the General Mission Superior and eight other Jesuit missionaries. At this meeting it was decided that the mission should be moved to a new site on the Andreafsky River, the site of the present St. Marys Mission. The move took place on August 2, 1951.