ANCHORAGE -- The bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Fairbanks died of an apparent heart attack Sunday, minutes before he was to celebrate a confirmation Mass in the western Alaska village of Emmonak.
Bishop Michael Kaniecki was 65.
``He had complained of a headache, took some aspirin and went for a short walk outside the church,'' said the Rev. Pat Bergquist of the Fairbanks Diocese.
Kaniecki collapsed at 11:45 a.m. outside the Sacred Heart Catholic Church and was pronounced dead by a village health aide.
``A lot of people are going to be in shock and mourning his loss. He made a big difference in Alaska,'' said the Rev. Joseph Sergott, pastor of Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage. ``His motto was to love and serve, and he did that well.''
Kaniecki was born in Detroit in 1935 and spent his entire career in Alaska.
``I remember him telling me that when he was thinking about becoming a priest he said he wanted to come to Alaska,'' said the Rev. Francis Hurley, the Anchorage archbishop, who knew Kaniecki for many years.
Hurley described Kaniecki as having determination and a good sense of humor. He was an effective bishop, Hurley said, ministering to Catholics in 47 parishes in an area that covered almost 410,000 square miles.
``The Native people know him very well,'' said Hurley.
Kaniecki studied for the priesthood at St. Michael's Seminary in Spokane, Wash. While still a seminarian, he traveled to Alaska to teach English, Latin, religion, creative writing and to coach basketball at the Copper Valley School in Glennallen.
He left Alaska in 1962 to complete his theological studies at Regis College in Willowdale, Ontario, and was ordained as priest in 1965.
His first assignment was at the church's mission in the Yukon River village of Holy Cross. He later served at the church's school for Alaska Native children in St. Marys. He also ministered Catholics in nearby Mountain Village, Marshall and Russian Mission.
He served as pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church in Kotzebue from 1967 to 1975. Kaniecki was then assigned pastor in the village of Holy Cross and served the surrounding villages of Aniak and Kalsag.
In 1985 he was installed as the third bishop of the Diocese of Fairbanks.
Kaniecki was a 35-year pilot who flew his plane to visit the many remote communities in his diocese.
``He was always one very committed to getting out to the people wherever they were,'' said Hurley. ``From a very human point of view he was doing two things he loved best -- serving the people and flying his airplane.''