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Eager Alaskans en route to see pope

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Catholic Anchor) - Letha Schwiesow considered taking a paddlewheel trip down the Columbia River for a big celebration of her entrance into the Catholic faith this spring. Then something much bigger came along.

“The Columbia River turned into the pope,” laughed the Anchorage resident, who with her husband Bob Flint will join about 40 others from the Archdiocese of Anchorage in heading for the East Coast this month to see Pope Benedict XVI during his first visit to the United States.

The theme of the April 15-20 visit is “Christ Our Hope,” a reflection of the pope’s recent encyclical, “Spe Salvi” (on Christian hope), which was issued in late 2007 to encourage people to personally encounter Jesus Christ.

It won’t be the first time Schwiesow, a former Lutheran and Episcopalian who now belongs to Holy Family Cathedral, has seen the current pope.

“We read everything he writes, and we saw him in Rome soon after he became pope,” she said. The couple will see Pope Benedict in Washington, D.C., where he will celebrate a public liturgy at National Stadium.

Other Alaskans, like Mary Frances Barnes and her daughter Katey, will see the Holy Father in person for the first time ever.

The mother-daughter duo also changed plans in order to see the pontiff.

“I have felt this ‘calling’ to see Ground Zero in New York,” said Barnes, speaking about the sight of the World Trade Center’s destruction. “And we were planning on doing that during spring break. Then, when I heard about the pope coming, we decided to postpone our trip and combine the two.”

Barnes is traveling with friends John and Judy Hagmeier and Judy’s daughter Shana Goff, all members of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in South Anchorage. They’ll attend the public Mass the pope will celebrate in Yankee Stadium in New York City.

Both Shana Goff and Katey Barnes are high school seniors. Barnes said the families feel it’s a great senior trip and also a great Catholic adventure to end the school year. Sort of “a last dose of Catholicism” before graduation, she said.

‘A delightful moment, a graced moment’

Father Ben Torreto saw Pope John Paul II when he visited the priest’s native Philippines years ago. But he’s never seen Pope Benedict XVI and said he looks forward to hearing what kind of message the pope brings to America. He said he wants to see how the people in the U.S., a more secular society than the Philippines, respond to the pope.

“It will be a delightful moment, a graced moment,” said the priest, who is on loan to the Anchorage Archdiocese from the Archdiocese in Cotobato. “The reality is that the pope is the head of the church, and we need to talk about solidarity, about how we are one church, one Body in Christ.”

Father Torreto is parochial vicar at St. Michael Church in Palmer. He hopes to attend papal Masses in both New York and Washington, D.C.

The archdiocese was able to obtain roughly 50 tickets to the events. Other than obtaining the tickets, the archdiocese has no role in planning transportation or hotel accommodations and participants are largely on their own.

Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, visited the U.S. seven times during his papacy, the last in 1999. But for Alaskans, the most notable papal visit was Pope John Paul II’s stopover in Anchorage on February 27, 1981. Thousands attended a public outdoor Mass held at the Park Strip in Anchorage, and many more lined the streets for a view of the pope, who also met with local church leaders at Holy Family Cathedral.


Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Catholic Anchor (, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.



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