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Although I have never been to Alaska, the Catholic history of the alluring Yukon state holds a special place in my heart since I was a child, when my dad used to tell me the story of the Yukon missionary priest whose brother was a family friend.
The missionary priest’s name was Segundo Llorente, and if you’re not familiar with his story, it’s well worth reading. As a fervent young seminarian in 1920s Spain, Llorente begged his superiors to send him to Alaska, which was considered the most remote, isolating and challenging of Catholic missions.
They relented, and he went on to serve for 40 years as a missionary among the Yup’ik in the most remote parts of Alaska, where he so completely won the hearts and trust of his Alaskan flock that in 1960 they wrote him in as their candidate for the 2nd Alaska State Legislature… and he won!
He became the first Catholic priest ever elected to a U.S. state legislature, and remains the only priest to have held public office in Alaska. If you are interested in reading more about his story, check out his book, Memoirs of a Yukon Priest.
A family tradition
Llorente so inspired his younger brother, Amando, that the latter went on to become a priest, too. This brother, Padre Amando Llorente, was a friend of my parents and grandparents, performing the weddings for both couples and baptizing me as a baby.
Because of the personal connection to the Llorente family, my parents used to tell my siblings and me about the Yukon missions, and about the courage and perseverance of Llorente and his fellow early missionaries. Surely their work and prayers bore fruit, because today, Alaska boasts about 40,000 Catholics, some 16% of the state’s population.
If you’re an Alaska resident, or planning a trip there, don’t miss these significant Catholic sites.
National Shrine of St. Therese, Juneau
Before St. Therese was canonized in 1925, Jesuit Bishop Joseph Crimont placed the entire Alaskan Territory under her spiritual protection. Today, she is the patron saint of Alaska and of missions. Her shrine sits on Shrine Island, 33 miles from downtown Juneau.
At its center is an old stone chapel completed in 1938, in large part by volunteers — including school children from St. Ann’s Catholic School, the Boy Scouts and unemployed men — who little by little toted rocks from the shores around the island to the construction site… St. Therese Shrine welcomes day and overnight visitors who may stay in a lodge — or even a hermit’s cabin — on the shrine’s grounds.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-cathedral, Anchorage
Along with Holy Family Cathedral, Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-cathedral serves as the seat of the Archdiocese of Anchorage. The co-cathedral is a little piece of Mexico in Alaska, with its Spanish adobe-styled construction, brightly colored flower gardens, and full-size replica of the famous tilma on which Our Lady miraculously left her image. You can also see the chair where St. John Paul II sat during his visit to Anchorage in 1981.
St. Nicholas of Myra, Anchorage
Alaskan artists crafted the gorgeous traditional icons and altars that fill this Byzantine Catholic church. One especially notable feature is the beautiful glowing gilded dome over the main entrance, which is the only interiorly lit dome in the United States and possibly the world.
Cloister at St. Patrick’s Parish, Anchorage
World-renowned artist Robert Santo designed this unique sacred space of prayer and reflection, which includes architecture, statuary, fountains, and beautiful gardens.
The garden includes 10 courts designed to inspire meditation and prayer: The Court of the Patriarchs, The Court of Moses, The Court of the Kings, The Court of the Prophets, The Court of Joy, The Court of Light, The Court of Sorrow, The Court of Glory, and The Court of New Creation (including a Marian Shrine).
The Cloister was designed to be a place of pilgrimage for all Christians and for anyone seeking a place of prayer, inspiration, and peace; as well as a place to more deeply encounter the living God.
St. Rose of Lima, Wrangell
The St. Rose of Lima Church is significant to state and local history because it was the first Catholic parish in the state of Alaska. The church was founded when Father John Althoff, a newly ordained priest, accompanied by Charles John Seghers, Bishop of Victoria, Vancouver Island, arrived in Wrangell in the spring of 1879.
Through the years the building has been modified, with major changes taking place in 1926. Since then, the church interior has not been significantly altered. Today, the St. Rose of Lima Church, set back from the street on a large, landscaped lot, contributes to the beauty of the community of Wrangell.
I couldn’t resist sharing these two other rare and significant sites!
St. Nicholas Parish, North Pole
There is a town in Alaska called North Pole, and I would really love to shake hands with whatever long-ago resident of the town had the idea to name their parish church after St. Nicholas, the origin of Santa Claus. It’s just priceless.
St. Patrick Church, Barrow
At the upper tip of Alaska stands the small but mighty church of St. Patrick, which can boast of being the northernmost Catholic church on the planet of Earth. Pretty extraordinary!
Check out this list for many other special sites we weren’t able to include!