In a letter announcing the changes, Bishop Chad W. Zielinski of Fairbanks asked the dioceses of Fairbanks, Dallas and Lincoln to continue to pray for vocations in the Diocese of Fairbanks.
“As our priest shortage continues in the Diocese of Fairbanks,” he wrote, “I ask for your patience, prayers and support as I shepherd our faithful flock in my best efforts to cover your pastoral care.”
The website of the Diocese of Fairbanks calls the Catholic Church in Alaska “a vast vineyard.” The enormous state is divided into only three dioceses, and the Diocese of Fairbanks is by far the largest of the three, covering nearly 410,000 square miles, about two thirds of the entire state. The diocese includes 46 parishes – 37 of which are located in areas without road access – with only 15 priests serving the entire territory. By comparison, the entire state of Nebraska is less than 77,500 square miles, and the Diocese of Lincoln, which includes 134 parishes over more than 23,000 square miles, is served by more than 140 active priests.
Geographically, the Diocese of Fairbanks is the largest in the entire United States and is designated by the Vatican’s “Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples” department as the only remaining fully missionary Catholic diocese in the United States.
The people of the Diocese of Fairbanks are diverse. Across the great expanse that comprises the missionary Diocese of Fairbanks, there are profound differences between urban “road system” parishes and those lying in remote regions. The diocese embraces many cultures, including Athabaskan, Yup’ik, Čup’ik, Inupiat, Filipino and Latino. Among non-Native Alaskans are many “transplanted” Alaskans, Alaskan residents from far and wide.
“Those who serve (the diocese) do so at tremendous cost, both to body and budget,” the website reads. “Priests and sisters must cover great distances and endure harsh environmental conditions, difficult terrain, and extreme poverty to do their work. Most cover multiple parishes, traveling via small plane, or via boat or snow machine depending on the season.”
Travel among these missionaries is at great monetary expense, one of the drawbacks of ministering in such a huge mission field. It is often dangerous, due to harsh weather conditions, and not uncommon for missionaries to be “stuck” in bush villages for days while waiting for blizzards to abate or flights to resume. Many parishioners consider themselves fortunate to receive sacraments from a priest every two or three months.