By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic
Editor’s note: Juneau, Alaska and Dallas, Texas. One is home to the smallest Catholic diocese in the United States and the largest rainforest in North America; the other is home to several corporate giants in a sprawling metropolis that also is more than just a foodie and shopping paradise. In mid-January, in preparation to welcome Bishop Edward J. Burns to the Diocese of Dallas as its eighth bishop, The Texas Catholic traveled to the Diocese of Juneau to get a glimpse of our new chief shepherd in his glorious landscaped splendor, the diverse people and cultures he ministered to and the Catholic school students and families who benefited from his commitment to Catholic education. More photos and videos are available on our website, TexasCatholic.com, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
JUNEAU, Alaska — More than 130 years ago, miners from all parts of the United States flocked to Alaska in search of gold. Today, millions visit in search of something perhaps more stunning: the state’s unquestioned natural beauty.
That beauty can be especially striking for visitors from metropolitan areas in the “lower 48”, a phrase Alaskans use when referring to the rest of the United States.
“It’s like being in a whole different world,” said Dallas Auxiliary Bishop Greg Kelly, who recently traveled to the Diocese of Juneau on a visit to newly-named Dallas Bishop Edward J. Burns. “In some ways it’s familiar but in other
Edward J. Burns. “In some ways it’s familiar but in other ways it’s just like being in a whole different world with places only being accessible by air or boat.”
It’s a world where, more often than not, visitors see cars and highways replaced by ferries and float planes; downtown skyscrapers replaced by a forest wilderness; wide-open prairies replaced by snow-capped mountains and age-old glaciers; and people replaced by a vast wildlife in the air, land and sea.
In this natural setting, Pope Pius XII erected the Diocese of Juneau in 1951, even though Catholics had already been living in the region for more than 70 years. Today, an estimated 10,000 Catholics live within its territory, which stretches as far north as Yakutat and as far south as Metlakatia — a distance of roughly 580 miles.
In between are cities like Ketchikan, home to the diocese’s only Catholic school; Sitka, where cruise ships annually flood the coastal city, easily doubling or even tripling its modest population of 9,000 residents; and Juneau, the seat of the diocese where Bishop Burns received the first assignment of his episcopal ministry.
“I absolutely cherish the beauty of God’s creation here in southeast Alaska,” said Bishop Burns in mid-January, as he prepared to move to his next assignment in the Diocese of Dallas. “It is mystical in a way with the light and the darkness, the cloud formation and the sunshine, and with the encounter with all of God’s creatures; to go kayaking with sea lions around you or see a pod of killer whales or humpbacks break the surface. All of that is beautiful to see.”
Every spring and summer, tourists encounter that beauty with cruise ships stopping at cities along the southeast Alaska shoreline. When a ship docks, anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 passengers flood the city. According to the Juneau Economic Development Council, tourism accounted for more than $271 million in revenue in Juneau alone in 2015.
When Charles Horan visited Alaska for the first time, it was love at first sight.
“I felt like Moses coming to the Promised Land,” said Horan, a real estate appraiser and native of Washington D.C. who moved to Alaska in 1976. “When you’re working and want to take a break, you can be in the wilderness in five minutes. I just love getting into the woods. Recess was always my favorite subject in school.”
Two years ago, Steve Hartford relocated to Alaska from Rhode Island to take a job as director of operations at Sitka Community Hospital. He said life in a place like Sitka can feel small and big at the same time.
“You can drive from one end of town to the other in 10 minutes,” Hartford said. “It’s kind of neat to live in such a close community, but also have this vast, wide-open wilderness around you.”
On average, temperatures in Juneau can get as high as 64 degrees during the summer and as low as 20 degrees in the winter. As opposed to the sweltering summers in Texas, Juneau has never topped 90 degrees — a record high temperature back in July of 1975.
On the flip side, Juneau has hit its record low of -22 degrees twice.
When the summer solstice occurs, the city receives 18 hours of sunlight. When the winter solstice arrives, it sees a mere six hours.
With the sun setting on his final days in the Diocese of Juneau, Bishop Burns said he would not soon forget his time in Alaska, but was anxious for what lies ahead in the Lone Star State.
“I will miss the grandeur of God’s creation, but I know that Texas has its own beauty as well,” Bishop Burns said. “For me to shift to that will be yet another adventure in life.”
Find more photos of the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska, in our photo gallery.