July 14, 2017

Archbishop Etienne finds pioneer spirit, deep faith in Alaska

Msgr. William F. Stumpf, archdiocesan administrator, left, Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, and Father Joseph Newton, left, archdiocesan vicar judicial, pose for a photo before the start of the spring meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Indianapolis on June 14. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Msgr. William F. Stumpf, archdiocesan administrator, left, Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, and Father Joseph Newton, left, archdiocesan vicar judicial, pose for a photo before the start of the spring meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Indianapolis on June 14. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: During the national conference of U.S. bishops in Indianapolis in mid-June, The Criterion did one-on-one interviews with Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, and Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vt., prelates who all have strong ties to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The conversations with them are being featured, continuing this week with Archbishop Etienne.)

By John Shaughnessy

The laugh flows easily from Archbishop Paul D. Etienne as he talks about the one question he has been asked frequently since becoming the spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Anchorage in November.

Familiar with the fact that his new archdiocese in Alaska spans 140,000 square miles, Alaskans have kept asking the Indiana native if he plans to get his pilot’s license.

“There are lots of people who fly in Alaska,” says Archbishop Etienne, a former priest in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and a former bishop of Cheyenne, Wyo. “And that’s one of the first questions I get asked by everybody. I tell them, ‘I’m pro-life. I’m not going to learn to fly.’ ”

He punctuates that remark with a laugh—an expression that turns to a smile when he is asked about the blessings he has experienced so far as archbishop of an area known for its cold, its beauty and the independence of its inhabitants.

“Part of it is an opportunity to experience a whole different part of God’s family in the Church,” he says. “Anchorage is a very diverse community. They claim to have over 100 languages spoken in the local school system. There are numerous native Alaskan groups there. Lots of Islanders, Samoans, Filipinos, Asians and all kinds of Anglos. So it’s a very diverse community. And the liturgy of course takes on a little different flair wherever you go in Alaska.

“People sing like I haven’t experienced in other parts of the country. There’s a great joy in these people. I thought Wyoming people had an independent streak. It’s even more independent in Alaska, complemented by a lack of desire to belong to anything. It touches even their ideas of Church and organized religion. Not to say that people don’t go to church, but it’s a different kind of attachment.”

Archbishop Etienne shared his insights and experiences of Alaska in a conversation with The Criterion during his return to Indianapolis for the national conference of U.S. bishops in mid‑June. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Q. As someone who appreciates the outdoors, what has been your impression of the Alaskan weather and landscape during your first winter and first spring there?

A. “Alaskans don’t count years. They just count winters. So I’ve been in Alaska for one winter now. And everybody said this was the kind of winter they like. We had lots of snow. I think we had about 90 inches in Anchorage, and of course a lot more in the higher elevations. It’s got a rugged beauty to it. The city is surrounded by mountains and the inlet. They just dropped this huge city in the middle of the wilderness basically. So we’ve got moose around. I just bought a house. I’ll get moved into a new residence in July. It had moose droppings and bear scat in the backyard.”

Q. Talk about the transition you’re making to living in Alaska and leading the Church there.

A. “I’m just trying to enjoy the experience. The people have been wonderful. Someone asked me in the opening press conference how I felt about living in Alaska. I said, ‘You know folks, the Church is my home. If this is where the Lord has called and led me, then I’m following. I’m in. I’m yours.’ That doesn’t make it easy. It’s been a challenging transition, but I’m just doing my best to give myself over to it. Now that those long, dark days of winter are over, all the Alaskans say, ‘This is why we live here.’ And it is stunning. It’s beautiful.”

Q. In the Archdiocese of Anchorage, there are about 40,000 Catholics spread out across 140,000 square miles. Talk about the challenge of connecting them, and any other challenges that you have faced so far.

A. “When I’m in Anchorage, it’s no problem to stay connected to people. I only have about 30 parishes, and 12 of them are in the Anchorage bowl or nearby.

“By the end of the summer to early fall, my hope is that I will have been to all of the parishes. I’m going to start getting in the planes now and flying out. I’ve got one parish that’s four hours out in the Hawaiian time zone, at the end of the Aleutian Islands. It’s a 3 1/2 hour plane ride from Anchorage. It’s out below Russia.

“In August, I will be in a western parish called Dillingham. And then we’re going to fly into villages over five days. This is what they call the real bush territory, going into those native Alaskan villages, and just seeing how they live, meeting the people, celebrating Mass with them, and doing some fishing with them.

“There’s this pioneer spirit about Alaskans—that we’re here to help people. They know that if you’re going to survive in Alaska, you can’t survive on your own. You need the help of your neighborhood. You need the help of your community. That’s the upside of people not wanting to belong to anything. It is complemented on the other side by this Alaskan spirit that we know we rely on each other.”

Q. Any defining experiences for you so far in Alaska?

A. “Certainly my installation. There was a moment at the end of that Mass where I just didn’t want it to end. It was such a lovely celebration of that local Church. Even before I was installed, I got there about five days early, I went out to the native Alaskan hospital and celebrated Mass there, and it was just with the local natives. That too was just a beautiful experience for me. They’re just a beautiful people. They love their faith. There have been a number of those moments in different parishes. That’s the heart of it—praying and leading people in faith. And preaching has always been the core of my ministry.”

Q. What’s your focus during the national conference of bishops?

A. “One of my goals would be to help our conference even more closely reflect the priorities of Pope Francis. We want to make sure we are following the successor of St. Peter as closely as we can, and the priorities he is setting for the universal Church. I’m listening to see how best we can serve our people. I’m very interested in knowing what I can do better to reach my young Church. We know we have some work to do to more effectively accompany this young Church, and to help them to walk closer with Christ through the Church.”

Q. You’re in the same group of bishops with Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, the new archbishop of Indianapolis, who lend support to each other. Talk about the gifts that you think he will bring to the archdiocese.

A. “I’ve known him since he was ordained a bishop six years ago. He’s obviously got a deep faith. He’s a very gifted administrator, and he’s got a lot of energy. I think the combination of his personal gifts—with his faith and his love for the Church and his youth—are going to bring some great stability and leadership to the archdiocese.”

Q. Talk about what it means to you to be back home in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

A. “I still have a very deep love for this local Church of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. These are the people who gave me my faith. This is where I discovered my vocation. And I will always carry this archdiocese in the depths of my heart. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with people I’ve known over the years in the parishes. And when we’re done with our meetings, my sister, [Benedictine] Sister Nicolette, will pick me up, and we’re going to drive to Evansville where dad now lives. Dad is 83 now. I cherish any chance I get to spend time with my family.”

(A conversation with Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark was featured in the July 7 issue of The Criterion.)

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