He’s one of 18 priests serving 46 parishes in a land mass the size of “two Texases.” Most of the parishes he serves can only be accessed by air, snow machine or boat, which is one of many reasons this is the last international mission diocese in the United States. If you haven’t guessed by now, we’re talking about a priest serving the Diocese of Fairbanks, which takes up the entire northern section of the great state of Alaska.
The priest who shared these facts is Father Robert Fath, the diocese’s “first homegrown priest” as well as its vocation director, the chaplain for the diocese’s only Catholic school, the director of faith and family formation, and the civilian contract chaplain for the Air Force base. Oh, and in his spare time, he serves as chaplain for the University of Alaska Fire Department and the Alaska State troopers and, of course, in the summer, he works on his canon law degree! And you think you’re busy!
Serving as a priest in Alaska isn’t easy, but as a native Alaskan, who tested the waters in the “lower 48” but returned to his roots, Father Fath, who recently visited EWTN, said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Alaska is a state where you either love it or hate it – no in between. For those who have chosen to live there, you see God in everything. One Christmas, walking out of the church after Midnight Mass, the whole sky was filled with the aurora. You had a sense that this is what the first Christmas must have been like!”
Father lives at the house of vocational discernment on the Cathedral property the city of Fairbanks. He says: “I had five moose living on the property most of the winter. When you leave the house, you look both ways! I’ll pull the shades up and see mama and baby munching on a tree next to the window.”
Fairbanks is one of three dioceses in Alaska. The other two are in Anchorage and Juneau, but unlike Fairbanks, they are not mission dioceses, which presents special challenges.
“When you look at our population (about 14,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Fairbanks) and number of priests (18), on paper it looks like a good number of priests,” Father Fath said.
However, because all but eight parishes are located in native villages, which cannot be accessed by road, it is often only possible to offer Masses, funerals, confessions and other sacraments every four to six weeks.
This means deacons and the laity must be trained to read the liturgy and give out communion with hosts that were consecrated when the priest was in town.
“A lot of people in the villages die without the sacraments,” Father Father said. “Because they are so isolated, even funeral rites are done by laity and deacons.”
While a Memorial Mass will be celebrated when a priest arrives, Father Fath says the body must be buried relatively quickly depending on the time of year.
“The body is laid out in the family home,” Father said. Women clean the body and dress the individual in traditional clothing. The wake lasts for several days depending on the weather. The men build the casket and dig the grave – even in winter at 50 degrees below [zero]. They start a fire, melt the ground, dig until they hit ice. They keep moving the fire to get down to the depth they need.”
Afterwards, the family has a “potlatch,” which Father says is the equivalent of our funeral reception but with native dancing.
Father Fath says there is nothing more exciting to him than listening to the village elders tell stories.
“[A native Alaskan elder named] Benedict Tucker passed way last year. He called himself the last real Eskimo. When I first met him, he told me he was 98 years old. His family said he was probably over 100 because he remembers the missionaries coming to his village.”
Does this mean that Eskimos and other native Alaskans live longer? Father believes the people who have kept to a traditional or semi-traditional lifestyle may live a bit longer. But he says the problems in Alaska are the same as in the lower 48. They are compounded because food costs are astoundingly high.
“I was in a village that had a flood,” Father said. “They were paying $8 for a gallon of water. Surprisingly, a soda only cost a couple bucks. It makes it easy for kids to indulge in that.”
This makes hunting and fishing tremendously important. Father says his seminarians, whose lives have revolved around formal seminary training, vacation bible school, and helping with Masses, frequently ask what they will be doing when they get out into the villages.
Father Fath laughs. “Because of the importance of the subsistence lifestyle, they will have to help hunt and pick berries when those things are around. A couple summers ago, commercial fishing opened right in the middle of Sunday Mass time. We celebrated Mass when it was scheduled, but we got on the CB radios and announced we would do an additional Mass so people had the opportunity to come, but could also make a living.”
While this kind of living is hard, Father said it leads people to be grateful for the earth’s bounty and to an understanding of the necessity of sharing what you have – the most Catholic of virtues.
“It’s not unusual in the fall to see someone get a moose, throw a leg on back of a four wheeler, and take it to a widow’s house. Even our own bishop did that last fall. He got a rather large moose. He left several hundred pounds in the village and personally delivered it to several of the widows.”
Father said he often sees a sealskin hanging in front of a family’s wood stove. The wife uses the skin to make boots for her husband. In another village, he might see someone delivering muktuk, 12×12 chunks of whale skin and blubber in a cardboard box. “People eat it raw.”
The weather can also change a priest’s plans in an instant. Three or four years ago, Father said, one of the diocese’s priests traveled by helicopter to an island in the Bering Sea to celebrate a funeral mass. He planned to be there three days. “But between the weather and a broken helicopter, he was there for 39 days. His personality is such that he adapted and was perfectly content!”
While Father Fath loves the uncrowded beauty of his state, the isolation and poverty by lower 48 standards leads to high rates of suicide, domestic abuse, and alcoholism, which he said is a challenge for the Church.
Many think the solution is technology, but Father says Internet access in the villages is not good enough to stream data, and while cell phone use is growing, the villagers – especially teens who would like to use it – can’t afford the exorbitant cost of even a small amount of data.
“As a mission diocese, over 90 percent of our operating funds come from outside. Of the 46 parishes, only six are self-supporting. A lot of the finances and funding goes towards getting the priests and religious where they need to be and to the basics of keeping the heat and lights on in a parish. It is cheaper for me to fly from Fairbanks to Alabama than from Fairbanks [in the interior of Alaska] to Emmonak [pop. 762], out on the West Coast. So every time a priest goes out to a village, we can expect to pay an average of $1,000 per roundtrip.”
Alaska’s Catholics benefit from three EWTN radio affiliates: 94.1 in Anchorage, 88.3 FM in Kodiak, and (drumroll) 92.7 FM (KQHE) in Fairbanks. Father says the Diocese of Fairbanks is working on getting more local content. To that end, the diocese recently hosted a “Families Fully Alive Conference,” which took two years to plan. They expected 250 to 300 people, but almost 700 showed up.
“We’re hoping to use the talks from that conference, which included Dr. Ray Guarendi, Archbishop Charles Chaput, Dr. Steve Ray, and Fr. Leo Patlinghug, among others,” Father said. “KQHE did interviews with people during the conference. We can forget that the Diocese of Fairbanks isn’t just the city of Fairbanks, but also people in the bush. Hearing stories from each other helps to build the community of faith.”
Curious as to what the parishes in the Diocese of Fairbanks look like? For a bio and photo of all 46 parishes, to donate, and much more, check out the diocese’s website, http://dioceseoffairbanks.org/.
Father’s message to those of us in the lower 48 can be summed up like this: “Pray for us! Support us! Pius XII, the Pope who established Fairbanks as a diocese, said some support the missions by going; others support the missions by giving. That’s WHY we’re there and HOW we’re there.”
Father Fath is one priest who has chosen to live and work in Fairbanks because he (and his parents) love it. “On occasion, we say to people: ‘This is heaven. We know because we can walk on water year round! If you don’t visit in this life, hopefully you’ve been good enough to see it in the next!’”
May the Lord continue to bless Father Fath and the Diocese of Fairbanks!
WATCH: Father Fath on “EWTN Live” with Host Father Mitch Pacwa: http://bit.ly/FairbanksFatherFath.