Adventures in Alaska

Catholic Church Extension Society

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By Julie Rattey


As told by Sister Kathleen Mary Radich, OSF*

My housemate Sister Ellen and I like to say that here at St. Marys village, the only typical things we do are get up in the morning and pray together. After that, the day’s up for grabs.

As a Franciscan Sister working in the remote, rural villages of western Alaska among the Yup’ik Eskimo people, I’ve faced some interesting challenges. It wasn’t all that long ago that about half of the 24 villages I minister to had no running water; there are still seven that don’t. When I first arrived 11 years ago, adjusting to my new life meant not only learning Yup’ik ways (like how to ice fish, dance to the beat of a drum, and get used to seeing dead caribou being cut up on the living room floor); it also meant asking the local priests things like where to get water and how to empty the “honey bucket.”

My ministry calls for both a quiet, introspective nature and an adventuresome spirit — both of which, fortunately, I have. But that doesn’t mean my transition to life out here was a piece of cake. In fact, I hadn’t been here two weeks before I was, at least temporarily, convinced I’d made a mistake. I was staying alone in a house overnight, during one of my first village visits, and was trying to sleep when I suddenly heard loud banging and scratching sounds. With my heart pounding in my chest, I lay there thinking, There’s no way I can do this ministry. I sat up for the rest of the night.

When the local priest arrived the next day, he assured me, “Oh, that banging sound is just the pipes.”

“Well,” I said, “What’s the scratching sound?”

“That’s my pet mouse,” he said, “eating popcorn.”

Needless to say, I quickly learned that I can never predict what’s going to happen on any given day.

***

Often I’m out in the field: I spend anywhere from a third to a half of each month visiting the 24 villages in my area. This would be quicker if we had roads to travel on. I travel by snowmobile over frozen rivers, by boat, even by small plane, always at the mercy of weather. I meet with the local people and lay ministers and hear what their needs are and how I can be of assistance. My goal is to support the good things that are happening and push forward on what’s not. When I’m in my office, I work to fulfill the vision for the region. We’re currently working on a project called Our Children’s Church Tomorrow.

Living in small, remote communities isn’t for everyone; in fact, it’s difficult to get ministers out here. But I grew up in a small fishing town in Oregon of about 10,000 people — the kind of place where everyone knows each other and “the village raises the family.” There’s a friendliness and a safety in small communities that I’ve always loved. So when I saw the ad in our province newsletter for a ministry in the Northwest Territories, it seemed like just what I needed. And the moment I stepped off the plane and saw the green mountains and trees, the deep blue water and sky, and the houses dotting the hillsides, I felt immediately at home.

Despite initially not knowing the culture of the Yup’ik, I quickly felt at home with the people as well. Part of the reason is that I find their values so similar to the ones I practice as a Franciscan Sister: simplicity, a sense of quietness and introspectiveness, reliance on God, respect for the land. They don’t need much to feel content. This is a people living in a very poor economy, with very few jobs, who provide for themselves by living off the land — by fishing in summer, hunting moose and caribou in winter, hunting birds in spring, gathering berries in the fall. They don’t have much in the way of material things. Their families are their treasure.

***

O
ne thing that took a while to adjust to among the Yup’ik, however, was a different rhythm of life. One time I was in a meeting in St. Marys when a woman called and said, “Come and help cut fish.”


“Well,” we said, “we’re in a meeting.”

“Well,” she replied, “the fish are here.”

I’ve also become more attuned to the rhythm of life and death. Here, when someone dies, the family washes the body themselves and lays it out in the home. When you visit to pay your respects, you eat and visit in the presence of the body. This has taught me that death is nothing to be feared; just to be respected and held holy. As a result of adjusting to this new rhythm, I find that my whole being is much more peaceful, much more reflective.

Just as I personally adjust to the culture and customs of the Yup’ik, so do we as a Church. At Baptism, for instance, we incorporate the Yup’ik naming ceremony by asking first, “What Yup’ik name do you give this child?” and then, “What Christian name do you give this child?” We try to bring the Catholic into the Yup’ik and the Yup’ik into the Catholic.

***


L
iving at St. Marys has certainly presented me with many challenges. But the biggest one isn’t hauling water from a nearby river or waiting eight days during bad weather for a plane: It’s how to help people build their faith communities when we have so few sacramental ministers. We can’t celebrate Eucharist without an ordained priest, and the Church definitely has a shortage of those. We pray for native vocations, but within the Yup’ik community, you are considered incomplete if you are not married. So how do you keep the people interested and tied into a sacramental Church when they can’t receive sacraments on a regular basis? How can they pass the faith on to their children if they can’t experience the sacraments on a more regular basis?That becomes very frustrating for them.

What’s encouraging and rewarding, though, is seeing the people taking responsibility for their faith lives, and seeing them step forward to take on the roles they can — whether that be as administrators, deacons, or extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. My hope for the future here is that the people can build life-giving communities that are attractive to their children, that they can pass on their faith.

 

***

 

In the face of these challenges, there are several things that keep me and my ministry going: prayer, community, seeing the honesty and the longing of the people to develop relationship with their God, the support of the diocese, and last but not least, the support we receive from the Catholic Church Extension Society. They’ve done marvels for us. In the 11 years I’ve been here, CCES has helped construct six churches, and there’s one more on the drawing board. They’ve also helped provide us with materials on our wish list: snowmobiles, four-wheelers, and funds for traveling; materials to rebuild churches; Bibles for the people; and grant money to pay our lay ministers.

The people, in turn, are extremely grateful for these gifts. Rita, a church administrator who’s probably in her late 60s, comes to mind. She has cared for the old church building in her village for a long time, but it had no running water and was crumbling down around her. When she heard CCES was providing funds for a new worship space, she got so excited.

She spent time on the project — hammering nails, painting. And when that building was finished and was being dedicated, she stood there with the most radiant smile on her face and said, “See what we’ve done together.”  CD

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.