Diocese celebrates 50th anniversary

Historical displays, special Mass and picnic mark 50 years in region

Posted: Friday, June 22, 2001

After surviving two attempts to end it, the Diocese of Juneau is celebrating its 50th anniversary Saturday.

When Francis Hurley arrived in 1970, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Juneau was 19 years old and looked like it might not get any older. The archbishop in Anchorage was petitioning to absorb the Juneau diocese into the Anchorage archdiocese.

"There was a discussion, more probably a dispute," said Hurley, who convinced the Catholic church to keep the diocese, then became its second bishop.

Hurley returned to Juneau this week with other bishops and provincial leaders to celebrate the diocese's anniversary. After half a century, the Diocese of Juneau is a solid fixture, overseeing social programs throughout Southeast.

"It won't be challenged again," said Hurley, now retired. "It's well-established now. It has more in a material sense than it did when I was here."

The Juneau Diocese actually predates, and used to encompass, the archdiocese in Anchorage. Pope Pius XII established the Diocese of Juneau on June 23, 1951, and installed the Rev. Dermot O'Flanagan as the first bishop.

"It was a delight and an honor to be recognized as an entity on our own," said Rita Thomas, a Juneau parishioner since 1946.

In the hierarchy of the Catholic church, each bishop reports directly to the pope in Rome, so having a bishop gave Southeast residents a direct line to the top. While priests worked in their individual and often isolated parishes, the bishops were able to consider the needs of the region. After O'Flanagan retired, Hurley took over and oversaw the creation of Catholic Community Service. He also flew to all the smaller, outlying communities, bringing a sense of unity to the sparse and far-flung diocese.

"Southeast Alaska has its own distinct identity, in a way its own culture," Hurley said Thursday. "When people have that sense of identity it makes sense to start a new diocese."

Shortly after Hurley rose to archbishop in Anchorage, another attempt was made to dissolve the Juneau Diocese. Again Hurley argued Southeast Alaska needed the diocese, because it was too far from the bishop in Anchorage.

Having a diocese for Southeast has made a difference, Thomas said. Through the years she's known all four bishops personally, often as good friends. Bishops Hurley and Kenny came to her husband's memorial.

"They were like your family. They were there for you," Thomas said. "You couldn't help but know them. They were part of the people."

For the celebration Saturday each parish has created historical displays, which will be set up in Centennial Hall before the Jubilee Mass at 4 p.m. After the Mass, the celebration will move to Dimond Park at 6:30 p.m. for a community picnic.

Taking place under a blue circus tent, the picnic will include clowns, music, door prizes and a piata. Parishioners are encouraged to wear their national costumes for a panoramic photo. Families also are asked to bring a simple side dish or dessert to share. Hamburgers, hot dogs, corn on the cob and soft drinks will be provided.

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