By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic
SITKA, Alaska — Getting from one parish to another in the Diocese of Juneau is a feat in itself.
The region’s archipelagic geography and precipitous weather account for two of the biggest challenges Bishop Edward J. Burns had to face as he sought to nurture the vitality and growth of all 10 parishes in the diocese.
“Travel around here is not only a challenge — it’s an adventure,” said Bishop Burns. “You’re actually not quite sure if you’re going to get somewhere.”
Five parishes are on their own island. No roads connect any of the parishes. The only options for travel between cities are by airplane or ferry, which made a visit by the bishop an extra special occasion.
“When Bishop Burns came we had a big blowout potluck dinner at the parish,” said Anne Morris, a member of St. Gregory Nazianzen Catholic Church in Sitka since 1970. “It was really obvious that he was very much interested in listening to what everybody had to say. He was very focused on people.”
St. Gregory Nazianzen serves 300 families, a large parish by Southeastern Alaska standards, and sits on the west coast of Baranof Island looking out into the Gulf of Alaska.
The pastor is Father Andrew Sensenig, OMI, a native of Maine whose order assigned him to St. Gregory two and a half years ago. St. Gregory is almost entirely volunteer-driven and relies on parishioners to run everything from religious education to soup kitchens.
“Our parish life is rather diverse,” Father Sensenig said. “We have a Hispanic community and a large Filipino community. We also have a lot of transients such as Coast Guard personnel and medical personnel. They typically turn over every two or three years.”
Father Sensenig said while the natural beauty of Sitka can leave people speechless, it can also generate a feeling of isolation. As is the case for most of his fellow priests in Alaska, he is the only Catholic priest on the island.
In an effort to keep his priests from feeling isolated, Bishop Burns instituted a regular Monday morning conference call with all of them. The call served as an opportunity to pray the Divine Office and engage in simple conversation with his priests.
“We might’ve been 10 priests on 10 different islands, and yet what he’s done just by adding that conference call is create a sense of community,” Father Sensenig said.
It’s the small personal acts of accompaniment and outreach that have endeared Bishop Burns to people in the Diocese of Juneau.
Parishioner Brian O’Callahan remembers his first encounter with Bishop Burns at a reception for the funeral of the previous pastor of St. Gregory. Bishop Burns was sitting next to him and noticed a woman to O’Callahan’s left who was cowering in fear. It was the closest she had ever gotten to a bishop.
“He immediately got up, went over, sat down next to the woman and leaned in,” O’Callahan said. “They just had a very intimate conversation and the fear dissipated. That’s the Bishop Burns you’re going to get.”