As the cold rushes in this winter, our Pope is asking us to be a church that is capable of warming peoples’ hearts. Francis says in his recent exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, “How I long to find the right words to stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervour, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction! Yet I realize that no words of encouragement will be enough unless the fire of the Holy Spirit burns in our hearts.”
I caught a glimpse of a church in Alaska that is truly warming the hearts of the community around it through the efforts of very faith-filled and engaged lay Catholics.
The original Church of Our Lady of the Angels in Kenai, AK was funded by Catholic Extension.
Three hours and thirty minutes south of Anchorage, you’ll find a handful of Catholic parishes and missions on the Kenai Peninsula that have been modestly supported by Catholic Extension over the years. These parish communities tend to be relatively small, but are impressively strong in living out their Catholic faith.
There is danger of isolation in a place like Alaska because extended periods of cold can sometimes force people indoors and away from each other.
The church, however, helps bring people together, and establish and reinforce the bonds of community. Over the years the Catholic community has grown significantly on the peninsula, which the parishioners attribute to their intentionally welcoming spirit. Youth group numbers are up and there is a growth in families with small children getting involved. “I just love to see so many babies in Church,” said Yasuko Lehtinen, who serves as a greeter for Our Lady of the Angels in Kenai, AK, a parish that started in a log cabin built by Extension, but which has now grown to over 150 families and counting.
Yasuko Lehtinen greets people every Sunday at the doors of the Church.
More than just a welcoming spirit, the Catholics of the Kenai Peninsula are driven by a true sense of mission. The Catholics here support multiple outreach projects that serve the economically disadvantaged including ministry to the homeless, operating a secondhand clothing shop, and offering ministry to the imprisoned.
Dave Carey, a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Soldatna, AK and the former mayor of that city says, “You can’t believe how much people help. People share what they have with other people. There’s a mentality that you don’t pass up a brother or sister in need.”
Fr. Tom Rush of Our Lady of the Angels explained that, “The needs are not always that obvious. They are kind of hidden at first.”
One such “hidden” need is the phenomenon of teenagers that are left behind by their parents, and are now bouncing from home to home. In more extreme circumstances, some of these teens find themselves living in tents and sleeping bags in the cold woods behind the local grocery store. Parishioners in Kenai support ministries that provide meals to these homeless and hungry teens.
Ice forms on the frigid Cook Inlet just steps from the Church.
Alaska is a state with one of the highest percentages of people who declare themselves as unaffiliated with religion. Therefore, the Catholics of the Kenai Peninsula realize that it is incumbent upon them not only to sustain the Catholic faith experience here, but to also extend Christ’s love to the periphery.
They understand that when the Church turns in on itself it gets sick, and so instead of thinking about their own needs over the years, the Catholics in the Kenai Peninsula have been coming up with more and more ways to help others. In their experience I observe elements of what Pope Francis is saying when he says: “I dream of a missionary option, that is, a missionary impulse that is capable of transforming everything, so that the church’s customs and ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”
Our Lady of the Angels Church sits just a stone’s throw from a beach overlooking the vast Cook Inlet. Come summertime, when the ice breaks over the rivers and inlets, many people will flock to this region to catch the world-famous salmon that populate these waters. The lay faithful of this area here have done their part to become “fishers of people” by following Christ’s same instruction to his disciples to cast their net “into the deep.”
Fr. Roger, the pastor of the Kenai parishes, stated that if Extension could do anything for the Church in Alaska, he would request that we focus our support on strengthening the laity in the Church, so that they may continue to find ways to invest their gifts and talents to benefit others. “Work with lay people,” he said, “because that’s where I think the muscle is.”
Fr. Roger, an oblate missionary, was reassigned four years ago from Brazil
to become a pastor in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.