Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - Last June, Father Thomas Kuffel began a three-year assignment as a missionary priest for the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska.
In that diocese, there are only 15 priests serving a territory of about 410,000 square miles. By contrast, the entire state of Nebraska is less than 77,500 square miles. The Diocese of Lincoln, which spans 23,844 square miles, is served by more than 140 active priests.
While primarily located at St. Joseph Parish in Nome, Father Kuffel is responsible for four to seven different parishes, each with about 50-60 faithful laity. These include St. Francis Xavier in Kotzebue (180 miles away), Saint Ann in Teller (70 miles away), and three parishes in the Yukon River Delta that require transportation by air.
Father Kuffel also goes to Little Diomede, an island on the Bering Sea, to offer the Mass of Christian Burial for Catholics there. However, he can only travel there during the summer. Little Diomede Island, Alaska, lies just 3 miles from Russia’s Big Diomede Island, across the International Date Line.
Anyone who has read “Memories of a Yukon Priest” by Father Llorente Segundo may recognize the name Kotzebue: he was stationed at that church for year. Father Kuffel called the book “an excellent read.”
“Bishop Conley gave me a copy of the book as a going away gift… or maybe to deter me from coming up here, as it describes the real challenges of Arctic life,” he said.
An avid outdoorsman, Father Kuffel welcomed the opportunity to spend time in a state he had never been to before. Bishop Conley asked him to visit before accepting the assignment, so Father Kuffel journeyed there once in the winter and once in the summer before saying yes.
Though it’s currently the dead of winter in Alaska, and he’s been told not to expect a serious thaw until after Mother’s Day, Father Kuffel hasn’t found the weather to be a problem.
“The climate is not all that much different than when I grew up,” the Wisconsin native said.
The sun shines for as little as five hours a day, so he uses special blue lighting to get enough light. He’s also maintained a good exercise program.
“One day it was so nice out I went for a walk on the Bering Sea in the afternoon, but did not realize it was -35,” he admitted. “I really did not feel the cold, but I was dressed for it.”
Interestingly, it’s the summers that pose more of a challenge to him.
“There is 24-hour daylight and people are always up at any hour,” he said.
Father Kuffel said expenses and transportation have been big adjustments.
“Everything needs to be flown in or put on a barge,” Father Kuffel said. “Gas is about $5.00 a gallon…. Everything is close to double or triple the cost here.”
He has now learned to take advantage of his flights to Anchorage, where groceries and other necessities are a bit cheaper. He stuffs his three allotted bags as full as he can to save money.
As for transportation, he reported that only about one-fourth of Alaska is connected by a road system. Most residents rely on snow machines or quad runners made for off-road travel. Since some towns and villages can only be accessed by boat or plane, Father Kuffel has learned to look at these other modes of transportation as taxis.
He has also adapted to the Native culture, which includes a slower pace, a constant eye on the weather, and an unique creative outlook.
“The Alaskan Natives are very artistic and many of the buildings have museum quality art that is so impressive,” Father Kuffel said.
His time is spent traveling from parish to parish and doing what he can. With so few priests in the area, he has found that many of the church buildings have not been kept up as well as their counterparts in Nebraska. He is now working on two building projects.
“In Nome, we remodeled the interior of the parish with new LED lights to save money and installed ceiling fans to efficiently heat the church and hall,” he said. “We also did a lot of cleaning and painting.”
The 1929 church in Kotzebue, which Father Segundo wrote about, will have to be replaced. Built with 6x6 timbers and insulated with newspaper and rope, it is in dire need of the arctic engineering quality that is available today.
“We are planning a new church that doubles as a church hall and rectory,” Father Kuffel said. “We think it will be about five years” before construction can start, particularly because it’s difficult to find architects and builders who can work in the arctic circle’s short construction season.
Father Kuffel’s role in Alaska is truly that of a missionary.
“People here are less well-read about their faith,” he said. “Most of the parishes don’t have a full-time pastor or religious.”
To compensate, his homilies are very basic and instructional. He is also conscious of ministering more by presence than works.
“Being present to comfort the people and being kind is very critical,” Father Kuffel said. “You truly are doing God’s will and you don’t expect anything in return, other than the fact you had the opportunity to serve.”
Finances are always a problem, as many of the people he ministers to do not have any resources to give back to the Church.
Father Kuffel begs all faithful laity to pray for more vocations to the priesthood and the religious life in Fairbanks. They are needed to help evangelize the untold number of Catholics who do not practice their faith due to lack of catechesis, as well as non-Catholics.
He added, “If a parish group or parishioner would like to come up for a few weeks to help with either evangelization, building projects, or parish missions it would be greatly appreciated.”
Father Jay Buhman has already worked with Father Kuffel to arrange for a FOCUS mission trip next July.
“Please pray that we have safe travels and ignite the people with the Spirit and keep the Catholic Faith alive,” Father Kuffel said.