A Bishop's Perspective Bishop Burns

Why a town in Italy is interested in Juneau

By BISHOP EDWARD J. BURNSBurns jpeg for web
A Bishop’s Perspective — Column in the Juneau Empire
May 26, 2013

Ever since my installation as Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska, I have been aware of the important role played by Father Pasquale Tosi in planting the Catholic faith in this Great Land. Father Tosi was a priest of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, who traveled from his native land of Italy first to the Jesuit missions in the Rocky Mountains and then, starting in 1886, to establish new missions in Alaska. He became the first “Prefect Apostolic” or head of the Catholic Church in Alaska in 1894, with almost all the powers of a bishop, although he was too humble to assume the title. He died suddenly in Juneau in January 1898, and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Juneau, near the graves of founders Joe Juneau and Dick Harris.

I have discovered, however, that Father Tosi is also greatly revered and widely commemorated in his native province of Rimini, Italy, especially in his home town and Parish of San Vito. When I was installed as Bishop of Juneau in April 2009, the late Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican Ambassador to the United States, attended my installation and expressed an interest in visiting Father Tosi’s grave and the Cathedral rectory where he died. Archbishop Sambi came from the same part of Italy as Father Tosi, and learned of his good work in the great state of Alaska.

This past January I learned that Father Tosi’s life and ministry have inspired large numbers of people in his homeland. I received a letter from Mr. Piero Ricci of San Vito di Rimini, Father Tosi’s hometown, informing me that, on a visit to Italy, Archbishop Sambi had offered a conference on the life and ministry of Father Tosi. In fact, two books in Italian had recently been published about Father Tosi, and several monuments in his honor and memory were located at the places associated with his early life. This past April 28, the anniversary of Father Tosi’s baptism in 1835, a new memorial was dedicated in the local Church of San Vito, as part of the Holy Year proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI. Father Tosi is a legendary figure in his home town of San Vito.

The two books published in Italy offer wonderful details and many pictures concerning Father Tosi’s ministry in North America. When he arrived in Alaska in 1886, he thought, like many Alaskans after him, that it would only be a short-term visit. He accompanied Archbishop Charles John Seghers of Vancouver Island, Canada, on a trip to the Yukon River to scout out some possible sites for new missions. When Archbishop Seghers was martyred, Father Tosi and his fellow Jesuits suddenly found themselves in charge of a vast new mission. As the Prefect Apostolic, Father Tosi spent twelve years working tirelessly for the spiritual and material well-being of the Alaska Natives of the Interior and the Bering Sea coast, and establishing dozens of churches, schools, convents, and other religious institutions.

In February 1893, Father Tosi met with Pope Leo XIII at the Vatican to report on the activities of the Alaska Catholic missions. Pope Leo was deeply moved by Father Tosi’s account of the successes and challenges that he had experienced. He decided to appoint Father Tosi as a bishop — offering him the chance to return to Alaska with this new office and title, however, Father Tosi humbly turned down the offer. Instead, Fr. Tosi returned to Alaska as a humble priest continuing to serve the people as a man of God.

In 1897, as his health rapidly failed, Father Tosi retired from the leadership of the Alaskan Catholic Church and moved to Juneau, hoping that the milder climate would help him recover for further missionary efforts. This was not to be, however. On January 14, 1898, Father Tosi died suddenly of a heart attack in what is now the rectory of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in downtown Juneau. He was only 62 years old, but had accomplished much in the service of God and of others. Although he had been in Juneau only a short time, a large group of people accompanied his body from the Church to Evergreen Cemetery, taking turns carrying his coffin.

The story of Father Tosi’s life and ministry reminds us of the close relationships that so many of us in Alaska have with communities in other parts of our country and of the world. He brought to Alaska the gifts and talents that had been so carefully nurtured in his Italian homeland. In turn, his Italian community is now inspired by the ways in which God has worked in their favorite son. As Fr. Tosi’s hometown continues to revere him for his good work, they have asked that I send them soil from his grave as a symbol of connection to this Alaskan shepherd. It is my hope to one day visit the town in Italy that gave this man of faith who paved a way for spiritual growth in our land. I am pleased to celebrate the legacy of this true pioneer who has made Juneau a place of intrigue because of his presence.

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