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Priests of the Last Frontier: Thoughts on the Alaska Priests Convocation

By: Father Dwight Hoeberechts, OMI

During the Fall of 2009 I was asked by Brother Craig Bonham, OMI, who worked with Archbishop Roger Schwietz, OMI, the Archbishop of Anchorage, if I was interested in helping the archdiocese to do Christmas Masses at the parishes in Talkeetna and Trapper Creek, Alaska. I was surprised that I was asked, but Brother Craig was aware that my ministry as a vocation director had some flexibility for this type of request. I told Brother Craig I would be interested and asked if there was a possibility to stay in Alaska at those parishes a little longer, since it was a long way to travel from Boston, MA to just do Christmas Masses. I was told by my provincial, who was with Brother Craig at the time that I had permission as long as I came back to Boston to continue my ministry!

Well, I took up the offer and ended up visiting Talkeetna and Trapper Creek for over three weeks, celebrating Christmas Masses and staying into the New Year 2010. What an experience I had during that short amount of time doing ministry in the State of Alaska: The Last Frontier.

When I arrived at the Anchorage Airport late at night in December, Fr. Leo Walsh, Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Eagle River, picked me up to bring me to the rectory. Before we got out of the parking garage, Fr. Walsh advised me that someday I would probably be back to serve God’s People in the State of Alaska. I laughed a lot, asking Fr. Walsh if this is what happens to most priests who do supply work at Christmas time. Fr. Walsh said that you never know where God could call you to serve. The next morning, I saw Archbishop Roger Schwietz at his office and he told me my return ticket back to Boston was canceled, so it looked like I would be staying a lot longer in Alaska. Archbishop Schwietz than said, “I think your Provincial has more say power to get you back than I have to keep you.”

My initial thoughts about being in Alaska for less than 12 hours was very favorable, and I was excited to see what God would do with me in these next few weeks and try to learn more about the priests and ministry in Alaska.

One of the things I learned about very soon after arriving in the Archdiocese of Anchorage was the Convocation of Priests from the three dioceses of Alaska. I was told how the priests get together once a year for some workshops and to be together and learn about their lives as priests and ministries throughout this vast territory of Alaska. I wondered what that experience would be like if I ever served in Alaska.

On July 12, 2018, I arrived in Sitka, Alaska to serve as the new Pastor of St. Gregory Nazianzen in the Diocese of Juneau. As the new Pastor, I was excited about the reality that I would be able to attend the Alaska Priest Convocation in Anchorage from February 18-22, 2019.
I arrived in Anchorage on February 18th with Fr. Peter Gorges. As soon as we got out of the airport and to the hotel, I met the four bishops and the 54 priests who were in attendance. I was telling the priests that this was my first time at the convocation and that I was very excited to be with everyone.

We gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Anchorage for daily Mass, prayer time, workshops and meals. It was time to begin talking with priests who have served in Alaska for so many years, as well as time to meet up with the other members of my Missionary Oblate congregation. I felt very welcomed by everyone who thanked me for coming to Alaska to serve God’s People in Sitka.

The time we had during the workshops helped give us information for the different ministerial realities we can encounter in our dioceses. I loved the sharing and the questions which were asked, by so many of the priests and bishops so that we can be better priests to our people. I felt as an Alaskan Presbyterate, we were challenged to bring the Good News of Jesus in some of the most remote regions of Alaska with great love.

Our time together at daily Mass was an opportunity to listen to our Bishops and Shepherds of Alaska who encouraged us, but also called us to be men of prayer and great service. During our mealtimes, I was able to learn so much from the priests and how they minister to Alaska Natives, and the other cultural groups who have made Alaska their home and now practice their Catholic faith here.

As I left the convocation on February 21st, I felt so thankful for this opportunity to be with my brother priests from around Alaska. The fraternity we experienced gave us new energy and new hope to continue being servants of Jesus Christ. I was challenged to continue to grow in holiness, to be a man of prayer and the Eucharist and to be present to God’s People. I will continue to pray for my brother priests in a new way, and I look forward to next year’s Alaska Priest Convocation.

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