By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher

This past Monday (Jan. 11th), I will have gone out to the remote community of Pelican to conduct a brief communion service for the small group of faithful in that village (and any crew members of the MV LeConte who might join us) and, if I have time, to bless homes before I get back on the ferry and head back to Juneau. I’m grateful to be headed out there again. The long trip (I’ll be leaving the Auke Bay ferry terminal at 7:00am and getting back in at 2:30am the next morning) is a reminder of just how far-flung our communities are and how important it is to maintain the bonds of fellowship and communion in Christ regardless of time, distance and weather.

Tenakee-281
Tenakee Springs, AK – Home to St. Francis chapel, and a mission of the Diocese of Juneau.

It’s also the welcome beginning of my return to serving in the Northern Missions of our diocese. As you might imagine, the death in early December of our late and much loved Fr. Thomas, left a big hole, not only in our lives (and in our hearts) but in the pastoral work of the diocese as well. So beginning this month, Fr. Steve Gallagher (who has been serving as the priest for the Northern Missions) has been reassigned by Bishop Burns to serve as pastor of the Catholic communities of Petersburg and Wrangell.

With his departure, the Bishop has assigned the deacons of the diocese to take up the work of the missions, which is to say, the pastoral care of St. Ann’s Parish in Yakutat, Sacred Heart Parish in Hoonah, Holy Family Mission in Gustavus, St. Francis Mission in Tenakee Springs and the faithful in Kake, Angoon, Pelican, Elfin Cove and Excursion Inlet, coordinated by yours truly in my role as director of the Office of Ministries and Missions.

Under the direction of the Bishop, and working in collaboration with my brother priests and deacons as well as with religious and lay ministers of the diocese, it will be my task to oversee the various tasks of our work in the missions (such as scheduling of pastoral visitation, Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, provision for Mass and Reconciliation when priests are available, evangelization and catechesis and pastoral and charitable outreach to those who are in spiritual or material need.)

These are the priorities for the Northern Missions (depending, as always on the availability of priests and other pastoral ministers, transportation and, of course, the weather!):

  • Celebration of the Eucharist in each community by a visiting priest every four to eight weeks (depending on the size of the community and priest availability )
  • Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest led by a deacon, religious or lay diocesan minister one Sunday a month in each of the missions.
  • Each of our mission communities gathering weekly for the Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest led by a local lay leader of prayer the other Sundays of the month.
  • A monthly mission schedule published in the Southeast Alaska Catholic and on-line (beginning in February.)
  • Ongoing pastoral outreach by priests, deacons, religious and lay ministers throughout the year.

This will involve a fair amount of travel by the priests, deacons and lay ministers in serving the missions. But that’s a good thing! Although few in number, the people of our outlying communities are an essential part of the life of our diocese and of our Church. Pope Francis has called repeatedly for the Church’s ministers (and all the baptized) to go out to the margins to proclaim in word and action the love, compassion, mercy and presence of Jesus and his Church. But, it’s not going to be easy or inexpensive to do so!

Unfortunately, in the New Year transportation choices in northern Southeast Alaska have become more restricted. With the severe budget crisis faced by the state due to falling oil revenues, the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) has significantly reduced ferry service to outlying communities (which is not news for the folks in the missions) and unfortunately for our pastoral work, weekend service has been curtailed or is quite infrequent. (Because Sunday is the Lord’s Day, it is always preferable to gather on Sunday or on Saturday afternoon or evening.) But, of course, in the missions, that is sometimes impossible, so we do the next best thing, which is gather some other time of the week.

The limited ferry service means we will need to rely more on air travel. The recent sale of Wings of Alaska to Fjord Air Service has resulted in more limited choices of service to Hoonah and Gustavus, and no service to Kake. Alaska Seaplanes continues to provide the most comprehensive service to all of the mission communities but it is (with a couple of exceptions) a more expensive travel option for us. Fortunately, due to the generosity of Catholic Extension, Catholic Home Missions, Black and Indian Missions and the diocesan Faith in Action appeal, we are able to afford to do the necessary travel to the various mission communities.

We are also quite fortunate that in November, Deacon Steve Olmstead was hired by the Diocese for full-time seasonal ministry (October-May) to do pastoral work in the missions, outreach to Alaska Native Catholics throughout the diocese, create an Alaska Native Advisory Board to the Bishop as well as preach missions and engage in the work of missionary evangelization. He has already traveled to Kake and will be going there on a regular basis through May.

As the new year begins, please remember in prayer all of the faithful living in our mission communities, and those, including myself, who are serving them in pastoral ministry.

– Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 x 23.  Email: charlesr@gci.net