Mission diocese of Fairbanks: 'A turn up north'
FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- "I was hiking one day and took a turn up north," Bishop Donald "Don" J. Kettler quips.
It is a light joke that speaks about his calm and gentle personality, but it also could be a metaphor describing the journey of most of the people, religious and laity, who have helped build the Diocese of Fairbanks, led by Bishop Kettler, in a state that has one of the nation's lowest rates of attendance at religious services.
When asked what has kept the bishop and other diocesan leaders working for many years with limited resources in difficult conditions, almost in unison they respond, "The warm and welcoming spirit of the people."
That welcoming spirit can be felt throughout the chancery building, the House of Prayer and the Kubok Center, the bishop's residence that keeps its doors open to visiting priests, friends and diocesan personnel.
Surrounded by spruce trees that protect a walking trail, all the buildings are steps away from each other and next to the Sacred Heart Cathedral, a layout that illustrates the "family unity" needed to weather any storm.
Fairbanks is a mission diocese. It is the only U.S. diocese still receiving help from the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, an agency under the jurisdiction of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
The diocese also receives grants from the Catholic Church Extension Society, the U.S. bishops' Catholic Home Mission Appeal and the Black and Indian Mission Collection, established by the U.S. bishops in 1884.
The Fairbanks Diocese is marking several milestones this August: the 10th anniversary of Bishop Kettler's ordination as its shepherd; the 50th anniversary of its founding; and the 125th anniversary of the Society of Jesus in Alaska.
Anniversary celebrations Aug. 11-12 brought together special visitors, including bishops, women religious from various communities, deacons and congregants hailing from remote native communities, popularly known as "bush villages or areas," as well as Msgr. Robert Fuhrman, assistant national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies.
Pope John XXIII officially established Fairbanks as its own diocese Aug. 8, 1962. It covers more than 400,000 square miles. It is home to many Alaska native peoples, including Athabaskan Indians, Yup'ik, Cup'ik and Inupiat Eskimos.
Born in Minneapolis and raised in South Dakota, Bishop Kettler said that after a couple of trips to Fairbanks 10 years before he became its bishop, he was "fascinated with the setting, the immensity of Alaska and its frontier spirit."
He kept in contact and informed about the diocese through his subscription to the newsletter, The Alaskan Shepherd.
In 2002, when he got the call from the apostolic nuncio about his appointment to Fairbanks, it came as "providence, something definitely prepared by God."
Besides being familiar with the territory, he also was a pilot -- a plus for those who work in the "bush" areas where for the most part access is only possible by plane or boat. And he was familiar with the culture of native peoples, having worked with Sioux Indians in South Dakota.
Bishop Kettler, now 67, and the people with whom he has surrounded himself believe in spreading the Gospel and Catholic teaching and values through a strong catechetical program to form adult and youth leaders.
The hope is they in turn will carry out the same catechetical and evangelization programs in the future to continue strengthening the faith of active Catholics and to reach those who have left the Church and those who do not belong to any church.
With a 20-year background as a TV preacher, he also is a firm believer in using media outlets for evangelization. Two such outlets are the award-winning KNOM radio ministry and The Alaska Shepherd, the bimonthly newsletter. Both were started by the Jesuits.
These past three years, Bishop Kettler has committed himself to visiting victims of sexual abuse and providing spiritual counseling through healing sessions and services, traveling to all of the diocese's 45 parishes.
"Pastoral ministry is about healing," he said. "The purpose of the Catholic Church is to be an instrument of healing, that's what Jesus did."
The diocese also offers abuse victims psychological and psychiatric treatment provided by professionals in those fields.
In late 2009, the Fairbanks Diocese and representatives of about 300 people who claimed to have been sexually abused decades earlier by clergy and Church workers in the diocese agreed on a settlement of $9.8 million during a federal bankruptcy court hearing.
Deacon George Bowder, director of finance, is among the diocesan staff members with the most seniority. A math teacher with financial management expertise gained in the Air Force, he was hired 30 years ago by the late Bishop Robert L. Whelan.
"Every day is a new challenge," said the deacon. He has played a key role in helping the diocese under Bishop Kettler's leadership regain its financial footing in the wake of financial settlements with abuse victims.
"Bishop Don is quiet but firm," he said. "He helps us stay on course and draws people to get involved creating a group of life-blood donors."
"God always provides," noted Deacon Bowder, who in October plans to be semi-retired. "He doesn't give us in excess, but supplies what we need."
The diocese in turn is able to help other less fortunate communities in Canada and the Caribbean.
Sister Dorothy Giloley, a Sister of St. Joseph, heads the diocesan religious education office.
Her main goal is to prepare people to become religious educators in their communities. In the past five years, she has certified 250 adults through a basic three-hour program, she said.
She has also developed an advanced certified theology graduate-level course for adults that help people get rooted in the history behind the ritual of the sacraments, among other aspects of the faith.
With fewer priests able to travel to the villages, her main goal is to train the most lay people she can so they can assume leadership roles administering sacraments or as eucharistic ministers.
"I love the beauty of this land," she said. "Cold doesn't bother me, we have a great bishop and people are great.
"To work here you have to be willing to sacrifice some amenities in life and adjust to a simple way of living," she added.
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