In 2015 our city and municipality of Anchorage will be celebrating 100 years! Our Holy Family Cathedral will be celebrating 100 years as well. Below you will see a wonderful and colorful history collected and narrated by John Bagoy. For more information about our centennial, to contribute your our pictures and
stories and to keep abreast of the latest information please see our website dedicated to this and visit us on Facebook
The First Church Edifice
Chapter 1 by John Bagoy
The City, first known as Ship Creek, was established as a tent city in 1913-14. As early as 1910, there were three homesteaders on Ship Creek Flats, who were primarily trappers, prospectors and others. From the areas of Knik, Hope, Sunrise and Matanuska, the people established themselves into what is now Anchorage.
With the railroad construction almost complete, a townsite of 347 acres was laid out on the south side and on top of the hill from Ship Creek. The lots of 50 feet by 140 feet were offered for sale at auction on July 10, 1915.
Among the many workmen in Anchorage, there were about thirty Catholic men. They formed a group in the new community and a gentleman named Thomas McLaughlin wrote a letter to the Bishop of Seattle requesting that a priest be sent to Anchorage. Fr. Crimont, who was the Prefect Apostolic of Alaska, sent Fr. John Vander Pol, S.J. to Anchorage to check out the story of need for a priest. Fr. Vander Pol was living in Valdez. He however, sent Fr. William Shepherd in his place. Fr. Shepherd spent two weeks in the Anchorage townsite and offered Mass on Sundays in the Robarts Hall and also in the Crist House, a hotel located on the corner of 4th and K streets, later known as the Inlet Hotel.
With a favorable report sent by Fr. Shepherd, Fr. Vander Pol authorized an old friend, formerly of Valdez, A. J. Tony Wendler, to act on his behalf and to purchase property for the construction of a church.
The First Church Edifice
Chapter 2 by John Bagoy
A. J. “Tony” Wendler, with the blessing of Fr. Vander Pol, bid on two lots, namely Lots 11 and 12, Block 54, Original Townsite. This would be the northwest corner of 6th and H street.
There being no minimum bid called for, Tony opened the bidding with a price of $175.00, as this was all of the cash he had available on his person. As soon as the auctioneer, Andrew Christenson, acknowledged the bid, and before he could ask for another bid, Tony bellowed out, “These lots are for a church and a hospital.” Christenson in turn, dropped the gavel and closed the bidding and awarded the bid to Wendler.
Tony immediately contacted Fr. Vander Pol, advising him of the good fortune and “luck.” Fr. Vander Pol immediately repaid Tony and received the deed to the property.
Fr. Vander Pol was an amateur designer, and came up with a simple design of wood frame construction, 24′ by 48′ feet. A veneer of ornamental cement block was chosen for the siding. The design had three pews, and the outside of the church had an identity as being a house of worship, however with the limited funds available, Fr. Vander Pol pushed ahead and completed the first basic construction at the rock bottom price of $1400.00
The First Church Edifice
Chapter 3 by John Bagoy
The story that Holy Family Church was the first church edifice in Anchorage is somewhat open to conjecture. The Christian Science Church and the Episcopal Church were both in operation prior to the Catholic Church, but not in a church, so to speak. They both had been holding services in Robarts Hall, the Empress Theater and other locations, as had Holy Family. However on the 15th of December, 1915, the Blessed Sacrament was tabernacled in the new church, thus making it the first church edifice in Anchorage with Mass being held prior to any other church being occupied.
Money was extremely tight for Fr. Vander Pol with income at around ten to twelve dollars per week. Help came from the Catholic Extension Service, who donated $550.00 for the cause. This helped relieve the payment for the lots and construction. The donation was from Frances Drymalle, who designated that the premise of the gift was that the church be named Holy Family. It was and still is.
Ground was broken for the new church on the 14th of September, 1915 and must have caused a great celebration, especially among the thirty men who wrote that first letter to the bishop. Many of these men still reside in Anchorage at the Anchorage Memorial Cemetery, Catholic Tract #5. Some of them are Mike Babich, James Byer, C. H. Murphy, Dan McGinnis, Jim Ryan, Dan Kelleher, William Misich, Tony Martinovich and Mike Hegarty. We can only speculate as to who all of them are, however death records indicate they had Extreme Unction and Confession prior to death. Many causes of death were listed: accidental, natural, cancer, diabetes, blood poisoning, etc. However all of them were devout in their beliefs and kept the faith.
The first priest assigned to the new parish was Father Shepherd. He was born in Oakland, California in 1874 and at the time of his assignment to Anchorage he was 41 years old and had been assisting Fr. Vander Pol for three years.
Chapter 4 by John Bagoy
On October 6, 1915, the local newspaper announced that Fr. Shepherd would be holding Mass in the new church on the 17th. Fr. Shepherd was having many problems in getting the new church opened, mainly financial problems. The original amount of money allocated was already exceeded by at least $150.00. This was a huge amount in those trying days. Even with the help of the Extension Society, it was a struggle to get the church out of debt.
The Catholic ladies started fundraising by having bakes sales every Saturday, raffles, and dances. They had planned a huge barn dance in Robart’s Hall during November to try and raise funds to make a few additions and changes to the church. The barn dance produced some income by charging 75 cents for admission, which also included a fine dinner.
Some of the improvements included the installation of a cross in the front gable of the church and increasing the size of church with an addition in front, closer to the sidewalk. The belfry was added as well as the choir loft, which was large enough for the soloist and a small organ. Mrs. Margaret Abercrombie held reign here for many years.
Fr. Shepherd was evidently not too sharp in keeping records and accounting for the funds. His monthly reports to Fr. Vander Pol and also to Bishop Crimont showed a mere ten to twelve dollars per week income. This did not help his cause to increase the income level. During his tenure however, the parish did grow to represent a fair amount of the local populace.
On Easter Sunday, in 1916, two Masses filled the church, Sunday School was held and even some daily Masses were held when the Father was in town.
In 1919 Fr. Shepherd reported that there were 29 Catholic children, 24 in Anchorage and 5 in Girdwood, who needed spiritual guidance with Sunday School studies. An unknown woman volunteered to teach and did a fine job. This relieved Fr. Shepherd’s worries as the children’s instruction was most important to Bishop Crimont.
Fr. Shepherd was transferred to southeast Alaska after four years in Anchorage. While he traveled to Knik and other areas and was absent from the Anchorage parish, Fr. Markham from Seward would come up and substitute for him. It was Fr. Markham who replaced Fr. Shepherd in 1919. He was the first secular priest of Holy Family.
Fr. Eline and Fr. Turnell
Chapter 5 by John Bagoy
During the years that Fr. Markham was ill, Fr. Eline would come down from Fairbanks on the train to fill in for Fr. Markham on various Sundays and Holy Days.
Fr. Eline was a twin, and both became Jesuit priests, each going to different places. Fr. Aloysius Eline, S.J. arrived in Alaska in 1920. He spent most of his time in Fairbanks. He had a reputation of being a most friendly and sympathetic priest and person. He carried this attitude with him wherever he went. He passed away in 1943 in Fairbanks after serving for 23 years in Alaska.
Fr. Philiberto Tornielli, S.J. followed Fr. Markham and Fr. Eline. He was born in Venice, Italy in 1850 and was remotely related to Pope Gregory XVI. His father was a lawyer and Philiberto followed his father in the profession. After his father’s death, Philiberto thought of becoming a priest. He did not like the Jesuits, however his father did, so he decided to join the Jesuit Society.
He immigrated to the United States in about 1897 and first taught at Santa Clara University and the University of San Francisco. He was having trouble with people pronouncing his name so he Americanized it to Philip Turnell, S.J.
While working in the Indian Missions in California, he heard about the degradation of morals in Skagway, Alaska, the Gateway to the Dawson Gold Fields. He asked for this assignment and was the first priest to be established in Skagway.
In April of 1922, he was assigned to Anchorage to replace Fr. Markham and Fr. Eline. At that time he was already 72 years old. He recalled the Easter Week celebrations in 1922 at Holy Family as being one of the highlights of his Alaska adventure, in that communion was given to some 80 people and the collection for Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday came to the huge amount of $62.90. That allowed him to add a bathroom to the rectory.
He served Holy Family for 4 years and then spent some time in Ketchikan until 1935. He left Alaska in 1936 and passed away in 1938.
Serving Mass for Fr. Dane and Fr. Woodley
Chapter 6 by John Bagoy
In 1925, the Extension magazine ran advertising asking for help in the propagation of the faith in Alaska. The ad was sponsored by Bishop Crimont in his quest to get more missionaries and priests to work in Alaska. He had set up quasi-parishes to try and reach all towns and cities in the territory. Anchorage covered the rail belt, Seward, Kenai, the area westward from Seward plus all of Cook Inlet.
In 1928, a priest from the east coast answered the call. Fr. George Woodley came to Anchorage from New York City and became pastor of Holy Family for the succeeding two years. In 1930 he requested leave of absence to move back to his native New York to learn to fly. His brother, Arthur Woodley, also wanted to learn to fly. The Woodleys were so impressed with Alaska that they were convinced that this would solve all transport problems in tending the flock.
Fr. Godfrey Dane, a priest from southeast Alaska, was sent to Anchorage as acting pastor until Fr. Woodley returned. Fr. Dane was a man in his sixties who had spent most of his life in other parts of Alaska. He had no sense of security as he was constantly on temporary assignments. He made his feelings known to Bishop Crimont, however to no avail.
Soon after his arrival in Anchorage, he had to recruit new altar boys, as Fred and Dan Kraft had outgrown the ministry. They had served Fr. Eline and Fr. Turnell faithfully. Now it was the time for a younger group to move up. Little did he know, that when he recruited John Bagoy and Gene Pastro, his life would be most interesting in Anchorage.
In those days the Mass was all in Latin, including the priest’s ritual. The altar boys answered rather than the parishioners. The altar faced the front which had the parish looking at the priest’s back, except when he gave the homily. The altar boys moved the book from right to left and left to right on the altar. Each time the priest had to traverse the three steps up and down and genuflect. There was considerable movement by the altar boys, requiring some agility and the ability to get the signals from the priest.
In those days there was a communion rail where you kneeled to take the host, and always on the tongue. The altar boy would hold the paten, a brass plate, under the chin of the communicant to prevent the host from falling on the floor. If it did fall, according to Fr. Dane, the ceiling of the church would come down.
The priest always wore a five pointed black hat with a tassel on the top when he entered and left the altar area. The Biretta, as it was called, was handed to one of the altar boys prior to the priest stepping up to the altar. The altar boy would place it on a side table next to the wine and water. The priest would not step up the steps until the Biretta was stored. This sometimes caused confusion at the end of the Mass, depending upon which altar boy took the hat, as to who was supposed to get it and hand it to the priest. This was changed later to put the hat on the second step on the right side of the altar, where whichever altar boy was there would hand it to the priest.
Fr. Dane was a taskmaster and put up with no “funny business,” as he put it. Gene Pastro was fluent in Italian and could handle Latin with ease. I had nothing but problems, primarily remembering the Confiteor and other prayers. As we progressed through the Mass, in answering the priest, I would forget a word or a line and we would wind up answering one line ahead or behind and nothing but gibberish. What looks I got from Fr. Dane.
The cassock that I had was much too long and too narrow at the bottom. I kept complaining about it but received no help. When I mounted the altar steps I had to take mini-steps or I would catch my heel or toe and stumble. Every time I kneeled or genuflected was the same problem. On more than one occasion I would pop some buttons, which at times, would fly out as far as the first pew. This caused more than a glare from Fr. Dane. You could hear him grumble under his breath, English mixed with Latin.
The cassock problem was finally solved when my mother completely altered it, no more heel and toe stumbles and no more popping buttons. Gene Pastro decided his needed some work also, and his mother worked over his cassock. Things now started to look pretty good as far as Fr. Dane was concerned.
In fact, his attitude towards me changed completely when he finally decided I was not a “clumsy Klutz”. I still however was having Latin problems but it was improving. At our Christmas party that year, he asked me to take the part of Santa and hand out the gifts to the kids. I finally had it made.
In the fall of 1931, Fr. George Woodley, his brother, Arthur and his father, George senior, returned from New York, flying all of the way in a brand new Bellanca aircraft. It was a gift to the church and was to be used for church and diocese purposes only. The senior Woodley left for New York and left his sons to do their thing in Alaska.
Arthur Woodley organized Woodley Airways, a bush line flying Bristol Bay and both Yukon and Kuskowin River villages. He had two Travel-air monoplanes and a Waco A. Besides himself, he had two pilots, Don Glass and Murrel Sasseen. In later years he added Roy Holm and Roy Dickson.
Art and his airline business flourished, and he met the jet age with a new Boeing 720, under the name of Pacific Northern Airlines. Pacific Northern eventually went with Western Airlines and then into what is now Delta airlines.
Fr. Woodley, after returning from New York, wanted to take one more sheep hunt at Chickaloon. He and Art and Dan O. Kennedy packed in with horses and got their game. On the last day out, Fr. Woodley, who was hunting alone, did not return to camp. A search found him at the bottom of a gorge where he had fallen after bagging a sheep.
A huge funeral cortege took place when Fr. Woodley’s body was put on the train bound for Seward and then to New York for burial in a family plot. As the train pulled out from the Anchorage depot, a flyover of planes by some of Alaska’s greatest bush pilots followed the train. The pilots were Al Monsen, Harvey W. Barnhill, Harold Gillam and Harry Blunt.
Fr. Dane now knew what his tenure was to be in Anchorage, which was longer than he had anticipated. Consequently his presence during those next two years bode well for Holy Family. He was responsible for putting on the addition at the rear of the church, which was designated as the parish center. He also instigated the first fund raiser on behalf of the construction of a new church.
The old priest, wearing a long black coat almost to his ankles, could be seen almost daily walking down 4th Avenue, greeting people he knew and strangers as well. He was getting more feeble as time went on. On more than one occasion, Gene and I had to escort him off the altar when he had attacks of dizziness. He really enjoyed walking down to Bagoy’s Greenhouse on Saturday afternoon to collect a huge bouquet of flowers to be placed on the altar for Sunday’s Masses.
With his health constantly getting worse he decided to leave and seek retirement at one of the priests’ retirement centers. He left Anchorage in 1933. It is unknown where or when he passed away.
He left Anchorage Holy Family Church better than when he came here. He was not a well man when he came, however, he did not let his poor health interfere with his duty to his parishioners and his God.
Chapter 7 by John Bagoy
An interesting story came out, written by Sister Cantwell of the Sisters of St. Ann, depicting these first priests of Holy Family Church. “The parish priests in Anchorage for the first twenty years suggests that Ship Creek was like a bookshelf on which four old priests, Fr. Markham, Fr. Eline, Fr. Turnell, and Fr. Dane, are like four first editions held up by two “sturdy book ends” bowed down and hunched over – the one by misunderstanding and the other by a sportsman’s fall; Fr. Shepherd and Fr. Woodley. Fr. Markham reeks of medicine, Fr. Eline has a jovial luster, Fr. Turnell has the feel of Italian leather and Fr. Dane has an air of musty clothing. The shelf of books and book ends provides the story of the beginning of the Church in Anchorage.”
Fr. Dermot O’Flanagan and Holy Family Church
Chapter 8 by John Bagoy
In 1933, the most remembered of all priests in early Anchorage appeared on the local scene. He was Rev. Robert Dermot O’Flanagan. Fr. O, as he was reverently called, was born in Ireland. He came to Anchorage on a temporary basis, and little did he know that his temporary status would turn into eighteen years.
Fr. O accepted the Vocation of a Jesuit Priest, and studied in Valkenberg, Holland. He was ordained a priest on August 27, 1929. After two years he returned to Ireland and taught at the Jesuit School, Clongowes Wood College. In 1932 he made the decision that the Jesuit life style was not for him, and decided to leave the order.
During this time, a Eucharistic Congress was being held in Dublin and one of the attendees was Fr. Patrick J. O’Reilly, a missionary of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. He interested Fr. O in becoming involved and as a result Fr. O volunteered for Alaska.
In January of 1933 he arrived in Juneau, and there Bishop Crimont asked him to accept as a first temporary mission, the parish of Seward. When he arrived there the people of Seward went out of their way to welcome him, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike. He was made so welcome that he wrote to Bishop Crimont that it was worthwhile to leave Ireland for that alone.
From Seward Fr. O went to Anchorage to assist Fr. Dane with Holy Week services. The regular pastor at Seward was Fr. Merrill Sulzman who had been on leave and absent from Seward for some time and had now returned to his post. When Fr. O was assisting Fr. Dane, Fr. Dane asked the Bishop for a few months rest in a warmer clime, and an opportunity for some specialized medical help. When Fr. Dane left, this was the beginning of the 18 year stint of Fr. O in Anchorage.
His first altar servers were Gene Pastro and John Bagoy. With his thick Irish brogue and his outgoing personality, he soon became wholeheartedly accepted, not only in the parish but in the community as well. He was especially well accepted by the altar servers, who never heard a harsh word from him.
During his early years he could be seen shoveling snow off the walks in the winter and in the summer cleaning up trash in the yard. He wore a pair of coveralls when he was doing his work stoking a wood burning furnace in the cellar of the church and raking up the yard. The ladies of the parish were worried about him not getting enough to eat or eating the right food. They soon organized a system wherein he would have dinner on Sunday with Charlie Diamond’s family, on Monday with the Abercrombies, Tuesday with the Seeleys, Wednesday with the Boudreaus and so on.
The next project was Holy Family Cathedral. The basic same committees were used and fund raising began in earnest with the existing bake sales and other functions. Nellie Cronin was the grand leader in fundraising and it was not long before the funds raised were within $5,000 of their goal.
Fr. “O” was walking down 4th Avenue rather glumly, when a stranger stopped him, asked how the church collections were going and how much money was needed. Fr. “O” said they needed another $5,000 to get off the ground. The man wrote out a check and gave it to him right there on the sidewalk.
Augustine A Porreca of Seattle was hired as architect and C. W. Hufieson was the general contractor. Finally on December 14, 1947 the first Mass was held in the unfinished basement. It was packed with over 200 attendants for the first Mass.
Just prior to the start of work on the church, in 1946, Fr. Harley Baker was sent to Anchorage to assist Fr. “O”. Fr. Baker was born in Skagway and was the first Alaska born priest ordained. In 1948 the walls and roof were finally installed and by the end of the year the church was deemed usable for all.
The plans for the little old church were decided by the ladies and it became The Little Flower Gift Shop. It was a successful venture that benefited the church with a reasonable income.
In 1951 Father O’Flanagan was installed as bishop of Juneau, the first local priest to achieve this position. He was credited as the driving force to get Providence Hospital and the new Holy Family Church built.
The Diocese of Alaska had four bishops ruling over a period of a few short years. Bishop Crimont passed in 1945, Bishop Fitzgerald passed in 1947, Bishop Gleeson passed in 1948 and Bishop O’Flanagan passed in 1972. He is buried in the Catholic Tract in Angelus Memorial Park in Anchorage.
The Church of today
Chapter 9 by John Bagoy
The Church grew along with Alaska and in 1951 the Vicariate Bishopric in Juneau became a full diocese, followed by the Diocese of Fairbanks in 1962. It was Anchorage, the youngest of Alaska’s major cities that saw the most phenomenal growth of all.
On March 28, 1964, the second largest earthquake ever recorded struck the heart of Anchorage. The quake measured 9.2 on the Richter scale and shattered the city streets of Anchorage and the surrounding areas. Though nearby Fourth Avenue dropped 15 feet, Holy Family Church survived – almost without a scratch. Immediately after the quake, the priests of Holy Family were quickly at work rushing to the aid of people trapped in downtown buildings such as JC Penney’s.
The Archdiocese of Anchorage was established on February 9, 1966 and its first Archbishop, Joseph T Ryan, was installed on April 14, 1966. All of a sudden, Holy Family Church became Holy Family Cathedral.
In 1974 the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, were invited by Archbishop Ryan to staff the Cathedral. This allowed the Archdiocese to develop its former mission stations in the greater Anchorage area into vibrant self-supporting parishes. Fr. Paul Scanlon, OP, the Dominican provincial at the time, wrote “The greatest need in Anchorage is for a stable religious community that would offer not only effective leadership in ministry, but also the example of a healthy religious life and stability in that way of life.”
As the Western Dominican Province assumed this new ministry at Holy Family, Fr. Bede Wilkes, OP became its first Dominican pastor. The Dominicans brought their evangelical preaching and the presence of a religious community of men that live the common life.
Anchorage’s second archbishop, Francis T Hurley was installed on July 8, 1976 and on February 26, 1981 Pope John Paul II, visited Holy Family Cathedral on his return from a tour of Guam, Japan and the Philippines. After praying before the Blessed Sacrament within the Cathedral and blessing religious and clergy from around Alaska, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass before 40,000 faithful in Delaney Park. His words that day spoke for so many who dedicated and often sacrificed their lives to spread the faith to all corners of Alaska.
From the first Orthodox monks, to the martyred Archbishop Seghers, to the hundreds of Sisters of St. Anne, all might well have joined their hearts with the Holy Father that day as he shared his own soul saying “being here in Alaska, so richly endowed with the beauties of nature, at once so rugged, and yet so splendid, we sense the presence of God’s spirit in the manifold handiwork of creation.”
The Jubilee Year 2000 marked a significant year in the Church’s history. As the Universal Church celebrated 2000 years of Christianity, the Catholics of Alaska also celebrated that special year by having a Mass for all those confirmed in the State of Alaska. It was celebrated at Sullivan Arena on April 30, 2000. Almost 7,000 people attended the Mass. That same year, Archbishop Roger L Schwietz, OMI, was named the Coadjutor Archbishop of Anchorage. He later became the third Archbishop of Anchorage on March 3, 2001.
From 2002 to 2007 various repairs and updates were added to the Cathedral, including the elevator tower, with gratitude to Kathy & Ed Rasmuson, and Wilma & Larry Carr. The three manual, Allen digital organ was given in memory of Carol Treadwell. Carpeting was provided by the Knights of Columbus. Many repairs were provided by the outstanding generosity of the parishioners in the Continue the Mission Campaign 2006-7. Fr. Donald Bramble, OP, was pastor during these efforts. Under Fr. Francis Le, OP the renovation to the Holy Family Center finished and includes now St. Paul’s Corner Catholic Book and Gift Store and Aquinas Square, a wonderful reminder of the Little Flower Gift Shop.
As the Church in Alaska looks to its future, we recognize all those who have gone before us, spreading the faith throughout this vast land with all of its challenges of climate, mountains, frozen tundra and wilderness. Yet, we also see the beauty of the native peoples, the land, the wild and all those who continue to come here, and it is to them that we continue to bring the Gospel to the ends of the Last Frontier.