Little Flowers of faith in Alaska

In the strictest sense of the word, it’s a coincidence that the diminutive forget-me-not is Alaska’s state flower and Alaska’s patron saint is St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Yet, both the emblem and the patroness are rather fitting.

For such a large state, the largest in fact, Alaska is quite small when you look closely. There are no skyscrapers here or millions of people clogging sprawling, labyrinthine freeways. Instead, the communities are few, far-flung, and close-knit. As such, there’s a widespread acceptance of a deeply biblical truth: Like the hearty forget-me-not, David before Goliath, and St. Thérèse’s Little Way, Alaskans have embraced the strength in littleness.

Catholic Schools of Fairbanks (CSF), much like the city it calls home, is small: A single building contains Immaculate Conception School and Monroe Catholic Junior and Senior High. Enrollment ebbs and flows around 400 students total, but to paraphrase St. Thérèse, in spite of the school’s littleness, it seeks to enlighten souls. CSF is the only Catholic school in a diocese twice the size of Texas, making its charge to “enlighten souls” all the more pressing.

Moreover, Fairbanks is the lone missionary diocese in the nation. The priests and bishop travel on a regular basis to remote Northern Alaska villages to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments. Unable to make the trips themselves, CSF students, faculty, and staff are called into the villages via prayer. They model their missionary efforts after St. Thérèse who, through fervent intercession, spread the Gospel as effectively from her Carmelite convent as if she’d walked beside St. Francis Xavier himself.

On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Bishop Chad Zielinski stood to offer the final blessing in CSF’s chapel. Before he did so, he listed several villages he’d be visiting in the coming weeks, their Yup’ik names rolling off his tongue.

“These communities are part of our diocese,” he said to the students. “Please keep them and me in prayer as we keep you in ours.” It is a familiar message to those gathered.

If verbal reminders aren’t enough, though, a visual one hangs outside the chapel: A large map of Alaska with pictures of the diocese’s rural parishes scattered throughout the Northern Region. However, one mission is not depicted on the map: Catholic Schools of Fairbanks, itself.

“The Jesuits talk a lot about bringing Christ to the margins,” said Amanda Angaiak, Immaculate Conception’s principal. “I don’t want to say we’re a marginalized population in Alaska, but we are on the margins. And I think that is something that is really unique to us as the only Catholic school in the diocese. We are set apart and holy. This is a holy place. We want our school to be life-giving for people.”

To which Kathleen Balko, CSF’s religion coordinator, added: “The kids can make a difference, we all can. We’re missionaries to each other.” With a student body split almost 50/50 between Catholic and non-Catholic, Balko’s statement could not ring truer.

“From an evangelization perspective,” Fr. Robert Fath, CSF’s chaplain, explained, “we are exposing a number of individuals to the Catholic faith.” All students attend weekly Mass; during Reconciliation services, non-Catholic students are encouraged to ask a priest for a blessing, and religion classes are fundamental to the curriculum. “It’s an opportunity for us to be a bridge.”

Sitting in the chapel before Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I watched the bridge at work. Despite the predawn darkness outside, the school’s chapel was bright like high noon. One student hurried past me lugging a cello to the far wall where the choir assembled; an array of instruments gleamed under the lights. A few parents sat in the back as lines of students trickled down the aisle like tributaries into a river, flooding the chapel.

One of the last groups to enter was Monroe’s senior class, most of whom were dressed in tie-dyed polos (the rest of the students wore solid-colored uniforms). Alongside them walked their
“kindergarten buddies,” also in tie-dye. It’s a rare blessing to have high school seniors and kindergarteners under one roof, and CSF has turned the blessing into a mentorship program. Throughout the year the buddies get together to work on fun projects and activities, attend Masses, read together—in short, they build a bridge.

Throughout Mass, I watched with unmasked interest the interactions between these almost-adults and their pint-sized companions. Every so often a kindergartener would whisper something to a senior who would smile, or bend down and explain something. Between the students’ electric ebullience and the multicolored shirts, one did not miss the absence of stained glass windows.

When it came time for Communion, the seniors ushered their young charges up to Father Fath, who bent to give them a blessing. “We’re missionaries to each other,” Balko had said, and in that moment her words materialized. The seniors literally steered the kindergarteners towards Christ. Or was it the kindergarteners leading the seniors to Him?

Everyone from the Pre-K students to the staff recognizes there is something different about Catholic Schools of Fairbanks. Like Angaiak said, the school is set apart—as set apart from secular society as Alaska is from the rest of the United States—but not closed off. The hearts and minds that pass through the halls seek to be bridges that stretch to call wanderers from the fringe into the fold.

At CSF, there is no exclusion; every child, regardless of race or creed is embraced and known by name. Yet, there is no apology needed for teaching the Catholic faith in its fullness. No apology needed for calling the students to be more than just “nice people.” No apology needed for creating an environment that does not kowtow to the zeitgeist.

“There are so many sacramental moments at our school,” Angaiak said around a broad smile, “and it is just so great to be able to say, ‘Wow, this is a tangible experience of God’s love.’ We love our school.”

St. Thérèse once said that nothing is small in the eyes of God, so do all that you do with love. If she’s right—and who am I to argue with a Doctor of the Church—then I retract an earlier statement. There is at least one skyscraper in Alaska.

SAMANTHA REYNOLDS is a Colorado native currently living in Fairbanks, Alaska. A product of Catholic education from kindergarten through college, she has witnessed the transformative power teachers in love with Christ have on our world.

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