ANCHORAGE - In small Catholic churches miles up the Parks Highway from the hustle and bustle of Wasilla, a do-it-yourself sort of religion is practiced, much different from the priest-led churches of larger communities.
Lay members lead services, take charge of booking activities at the church and meet with one another to discuss the needs of their congregations.
But a few times a year, traveling priests hop from one church to the next, saying Mass, hearing confession and meeting with parishioners.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Anchorage tries to schedule priests to visit the mission churches twice a month. But with a national shortage of priests, it's sometimes three weeks before one stops in.
"We don't have enough priests to have pastors for all of the missions," said Sister Charlotte Davenport, chancellor with the archdiocese.
The church recruits priests to visit Alaska to hold services for Christmas and Easter each year. For the past three years, the Rev. Jim Brobst has made the trip. He's been making the Valley church circuit and occasional trips to Valdez nearly every weekend for the past three months. He brought Christmas Mass to Willow and Talkeetna Saturday, and was back on the road Sunday morning to usher in the holiday in Trapper Creek.
Brobst is on sabbatical from Chicago. He belongs to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a missionary order. Brobst has been ordained 15 years and, for the past eight, has been training seminarians for the Oblates. Brobst this summer took a five-month break from his work to minister in Alaska.
One might say Brobst was in a Christmas marathon last week, but he did much more than don the vestments, read from Scripture and hit the road.
In Willow, at Saint Christopher's Catholic Church, he talked with parishioners before the service and, afterward, spoke to a couple about how to go about joining the church. He joined the community in a potluck supper and made the rounds during the meal, speaking with one parishioner after another.
In Talkeetna, at Saint Bernard's Catholic Church, Brobst carved out time enough to practice a dazzling piano solo for the pre-service caroling. Cookies and coffee and more socializing followed the service, then he spent Christmas Eve with Renamary and Verne Rauchenstein.
He spent the night in a cozy room at the church before driving the next morning to Trapper Creek's Saint Philip Benizi Mission for an 11:30 a.m. service.
"I really enjoy doing this," Brobst said. "I've missed the parish community ... it's like reconnecting to some of my experiences of the parish ministry when I was a younger seminarian."
Brobst is one of four priests handling services in outlying Alaska churches for the holidays. He'll visit the mission parishes once more before he returns to his order in Chicago in mid-January.
For the Susitna Valley churches, a priest's visit is a special treat. A deacon or a parish administrator typically leads their services, with members of the congregation taking turns reading Scriptures and leading prayers.
"We're so thankful for when we have a priest," said Jeannette Keida of Willow.
Keida and Laurie Courtney explained that although Deacon Bill Frost oversees their church, only a priest is allowed to perform certain rituals that are key parts of their faith. Only a priest can say a full Mass, in which the bread and wine of communion is transformed into the blood and body of Jesus Christ. And only a priest can hear confession.
Trigger Twigg, a lector at St. Bernard's, said his church experience is significantly different when a priest is present.
"It brings a shot of adrenaline to the whole church as soon as he comes through the door," Twigg said. "Everybody who's in the congregation carries the load until he shows up."
The small Catholic Church parishes in the northern reaches of the Valley are considered mission churches of the Anchorage Archdiocese. Priests have been assigned to the three-church circuit before, but it's been more than a decade since the last one retired. The congregations in Talkeetna and Willow have grown since then, and both are seeing effects from the Valley's growing popularity among tourists.
Willow's church is home to about 30 families. Many in the congregation are new retirees, like Steven and Mary Saxton, who moved to the area for its recreational opportunities.
The Saxtons, avid snowmachiners, have attended Saint Christopher's for several years but moved this year to Willow. Previously, they were weekenders, another big part of the Willow church population. Weekenders, as the name implies, come to Willow for the weekend and occasionally stop in for the Saturday night services.
A handful of younger families attend church there, too. The Origers, with three children, moved from Anchorage a few years ago to a home less than two miles away from the church. Sara Origer and daughter Jessica, 14, both sang carols in the choir before and during the service. Mackenze, 6, carefully carried the infant Jesus to the manger at the front of the church when the service began. Anthony, 15, was one of three readers during the service.
When Brobst returns to Chicago, the archdiocese will have to search for another priest to travel the circuit. No candidates are lined up, Caldarola said, and it might be Easter before another circuit priest is able to spend more than one Sunday a month at the three churches.