By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic
JUNEAU, Alaska — Twenty years after resettling his family in Juneau, Arnulfo Lamas has grown to love his adopted home — 6,700 miles north of his native city of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico.
Today, Lamas, his wife Elena, and their six children are owners of a Mexican restaurant in Juneau and part of a small, close-knit and steadily growing community of Hispanic Catholics in the Diocese of Juneau who, for a variety of reasons, found their way to the Frontier State.
Among the possessions brought to Alaska: their faith.
“It is very important for me to have Mass celebrated in my own language,” Lamas said. “It makes me feel alive and in contact with my community.”
Lamas first left Mexico for Alaska when he was 18, at the urging of his older brother Juan who already migrated to the state. Three years after returning to Mexico and getting married in 1991, he went to Alaska again, this time to prepare for a permanent move for his family.
“I love the atmosphere,” Lamas said. “It’s relaxing. We don’t see that much crime. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to bring my family.”
According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics accounted for 3 percent of the population of Juneau by the end of 2000. By 2014, it was 7 percent.
As executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation, Bishop Edward J. Burns said he was aware that Hispanics had become a major demographic in the U.S. church. As bishop of Juneau, he was eager to learn more about the Hispanic community and its culture.
“It was paramount to me to be a shepherd to them and in order to do so, I needed to understand their culture and also speak their language,” Bishop Burns said.
After 10 days of intensive language training in Mexico City, Bishop Burns said he was able to celebrate the entire Mass in Spanish, and can even deliver a short homily.
It was Bishop Burns’ willingness to learn and ingratiate himself that won over Elena Lamas and many others in Juneau’s Hispanic Catholic community.
“What I really like is that even when he was at the cathedral, he would finish celebrating the Mass and then would remove his vestments and go out and chat with everyone,” she said. “In Mexico, if you see someone in vestments, you don’t approach them to chit-chat.
This man finishes celebrating the Mass and proceeds to chat and laugh along with us as part of the community. We love him very much.”
At the Lamas’ parish of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Juneau, Father Michael Galbraith leads the Spanish Mass every Sunday. He said while many Hispanic families love what Alaska has afforded them, living there is not cheap.
“The jobs are not real high-paying here and the cost of living is very high in Alaska,” said Father Galbraith, himself a native of Dallas who was ordained by Bishop Burns as a priest for the Diocese of Juneau. “They sometimes have to work two or three jobs almost every day. It’s very difficult for them to get by because of the cost of living.”
That kind of daily toil makes having a Spanish Mass all the more vital for Hispanic Catholics in Juneau, said Gloria Bodron, coordinator of the Hispanic ministry at St. Paul.
“Sometimes, it’s the only time they can all get together and see each other because they work so much,” Bodron said. “It’s good for them to be able to hear the Mass in Spanish. It gives us more of a sense of their heritage.”