Fr. Lies spends Christmas serving the church in Alaska

Joseph and Mary Kunnuk with Fr. David Lies. (Courtesy photos)

By Fr. David Lies

On a crisply cold and snowy Christmas Eve the small parish choir of mostly female voices sang the very familiar tune of “Silent Night” before the 8 p.m. vigil Mass. But, while my ears registered the familiar and peaceful notes of the Christmas carol, they tried to make sense of the foreign language that composed the lyrics: Iñupiat native Alaskan. This new experience of the celebration of Christmas was just one more that was part of my missionary visit to St. Joseph parish in Nome, Alaska, this past Christmas and New Year.

Diocese is huge

Located on the south coast of the Bering Peninsula, Nome is a seaside community of about 3,500 inhabitants within the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska. The diocese covers the top two-thirds of the massive arctic and subarctic state, approximately 410,000 of the total 600,000 square miles.
Within that enormous area are located 46 Catholic churches cared for by only 20 priests, most of whom are foreign missionaries, members of religious orders, or priest volunteers, like me, from the “lower 48.” A few religious sisters and many lay catechists live as missionary disciples to spread the faith among a far-flung and diverse population.

Fr. David Lies and Fr. Alphonsus Afina bundled up for the Alaskan weather.

Of those 46 parishes, only 20 percent can support themselves financially – something foreign to me and us in the premier Stewardship Diocese. One of the two priests stationed in Nome, Fr. Alphonsus Afina, is from Nigeria and in his second of three years of service. I learned much from him about life as a missionary priest in Alaska in the two days we spent together before he flew out on Christmas Eve day to take care of three even smaller churches “in the bush” just on the other side of the Norton Sound, the body of water that extends inland from the Bering Sea.

Second trip for Fr. Lies

This trip was my second one to go and serve in the Fairbanks diocese. Last March and April, I went for the first time to help over Holy Week and Easter in the small villages of Neenana and Healy located southwest of Fairbanks. I offered to assist there after I had learned that the former bishop of Fairbanks, the Most Rev. Chad Zielinski (now bishop of New Ulm, Minnesota), had asked Bishop Kemme in 2021 if he would allow priests from Wichita to discern whether they might serve in northern Alaska as missionaries.

St. Joseph Church was one church Fr. Lies celebrated Mass.

Since I work full time in the Chancery office as vicar general and knew that I would not need to assist in any parishes in our diocese, I prayed and decided, with Bishop Kemme’s permission, to serve for two weeks. After a conversation with Bishop Zielinski about the challenges of priestly ministry and parish life in the depths of winter, the seed was planted in my mind to return to help again in the winter months, and, so, I found myself in Nome.

Served for 10 days

For ten days, I served as the only priest in the small town and, indeed, in the entire region. I celebrated three Christmas Masses at the parish and one Mass on Christmas afternoon at a local retirement center. Attendance at those Masses was far below what we have come to take for granted in the Diocese of Wichita. I think a combination of the growing secularism we are seeing world-wide along with the sparse presence of priests in parishes in northern Alaska has weakened affiliation with and practice of the Catholic faith there.

Mass attendance sparse

At the 10:30 a.m. Christmas Day Mass, only one elderly couple joined me. (Their names were Joseph and Mary Kunnuk.) At all of the weekday Masses, I was the celebrant and only participant. It stretched my own faith and led me to pray the Mass with the awareness of the presence of the saints and angels in the Communion of Saints who are at every Eucharistic liturgy. Only one woman joined me for the vigil Mass of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, on New Year’s Eve. This was a struggling church I had never encountered before beyond the boundaries of our own diocese’s vibrant Catholic culture.

And, yet I experienced the close presence of the Lord in my private times of prayer. As I took walks around town or exercised at the community rec center, I tried to converse with persons I encountered, shared that I was a missionary priest in town for a few days and asked if I could pray for their intentions. As I looked at the arctic sun hovering just above the ice encrusted seaside horizon, I felt awe about the vast and varied world we inhabit and which our loving Father created. I was learning how to live my priesthood in a different way.

Pray for the church

Pray for the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Fairbanks. Pray for the heroic priests, religious, and lay missionaries who seek to keep the name of Jesus sounding out in that remote part of the world. Pray also in gratitude for the “fully alive” faith we enjoy in our diocese and consider how the Lord may be calling you to share that faith in your own way as a missionary disciple!