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Priests’ presence makes Mass, sacraments more accessible for Kenai Peninsula Catholics

By Naomi Klouda
January 1st, 2008
Catholic Anchor (www.catholicanchor.org)

HOMER, Alaska (Catholic Anchor) - Homer Catholics have celebrated more Masses in the last few weeks than they normally see for months on end. For the first time in about a decade, the Kenai Peninsula communities are noticing a new reality of regular priests, more Masses and greater opportunities for sacramental life.

In the past, Friday night gatherings at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church were a bit unusual for a couple of reasons. To begin with, there wasn’t usually a Friday night service at all. Secondly, if there was a service, such as during Lent, it likely wasn’t a Mass and didn’t include the services of a priest.

But things have changed lately. Earlier this month, Father Tony Dummer, OMI, arrived from Soldotna on a Friday and stayed till Tuesday. During that time, he celebrated Mass every day. That’s the new routine. Each week, one of three new priests on the Kenai Peninsula rotate in for a five-day stay.

The three priests from the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate are part of a new mission on the Kenai that aims to provide greater sacramental and pastoral care to the area’s Catholic communities.

“I think this is great,” said Sister Carol Ann Aldrich, who has run St. John’s for more than a decade on her own with only occasional visits from traveling priests. The lack of regular priests in the past meant that Sister Aldrich had to take on many extra duties.

“I am really happy about it,” she said, of the arrival of the new clergy.

To serve three communities, Sister Carol Ann used to get up early on Sunday mornings, and drive to Ninilchik, no matter the weather. The twisty 40-mile stretch of road glazes with ice as it ascends and descends ocean-side bluffs and frequently clouds in blizzard conditions. Then, she would get back on the road after a 9 a.m. Communion service, and head for Homer for the 11:30 a.m. service. At 2 p.m., she used to fly to Seldovia.

But times are different now.

Father Tony is joined by fellow Oblate priests, Fathers Andy Sensenig from Massachusetts and Joe Dowling from Texas. Oblate Brother Craig Bonham will assist in the spiritual needs and outreach of the western Peninsula.

The additional resident staff represents an opportunity to better serve the Catholic population, Father Tony said. By offering more Mass times, the church is better able to serve more people. In Homer, the Monday and Tuesday morning Masses were added to make it possible for the elderly and others to attend church during daylight hours. New hours are also being posted in Soldotna, Ninilchik and Kenai.

Getting to know the people

The Western Peninsula — from Soldotna south to Homer — has about 50,000 people. An estimated 20 percent of those are Catholics, some devout and others who have gradually drifted from the faith.

“This is a chance to find these people and serve their needs. We want people to know we are here for them,” Father Tony said.

In one such effort, they arranged a special Hispanic Mass celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast Day Dec. 12, in Spanish.

Beth Pullen, a long-time St. John parishioner, said she has already noticed some differences in having a priest. “Though I really liked the way Sister Carol Ann ran things, I think this is more traditional.”

At age 24, she grew up in the church, which means that for much of her life it’s been Sister Carol Ann rather than a priest helping her with her faith.

One of the more important tasks is to make sure parishioners get to know their priests, Father Dummer said. Familiarity is important when a priest is called upon to anoint the sick, visit the homebound and perform baptism and funeral services, he added.

“We decided that it is most important for them to get to know us, so they feel comfortable,” Father Dummer said. “It’s hard on people when they don’t know us.”

The new priests welcome invitations to parishioners’ homes for dinner. Church socials can only go so far in fostering genuine relationships between priests and parishioners. Being able to visit each family in a more leisurely way is one of the priests’ goals, Father Dummer said.

Founded in 1816 by St. Eugene de Mazenod, a French nobleman, the Oblates go where people’s needs are greatest. In Alaska, they were asked to go to the Peninsula and serve three-year terms in order to fill a severe priest shortage. The 4,500 Missionary Oblates reach out to the poor in the U.S. and 70 other countries worldwide as specialists in some of the world’s most difficult missions.

As for what he hopes parishioners come to learn about him, Father Dummer said he has a simple agenda.

“I want to help people to enflesh the Gospel, to make it real so God’s presence and the forgiveness of Jesus are in their lives,” he said.

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