Tag Archives: All Saints Episcopal

Remembering Father Norman H.V. Elliott

As the hearse pulled away from All Saints Episcopal Church Sept. 19, I finally realized I’d no longer be seeing my friend the Rev. Norman Elliott; I’d seen him for the last time. His service was attended by a wide range of friends and family. All Saints Rector David Terwilliger, the Rev. Katherine Hunt of Christ Church Episcopal, the Rev. Susan Halvorson,  a Providence Alaska Medical Center chaplain, and Bishop Mark Lattime led the service with Catholic Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz in attendance on the platform. The entire service, which included the Eucharist, was a wondrous blend of music, liturgy and reminiscences.

During his homily, Terwilliger talked of Elliott’s passing on the morning of Sept. 9. For this column, he recounted that time to me: “I went into pray the prayers of the Ministration at the Time of Death,” he said. “The title of the rite sounds more solemn than it is in form — at least to my mind.

The words are words of comfort and mercy but given under the sober petition for God’s grace for the dying and for their spirit to be received into heaven. Like Roman Catholics, Episcopalians are instructed to call a priest for the dying and the prayers are meant to commit the dying person into God’s hands. Often, Episcopalians call these prayers at the time of death ‘Last Rites.'”

The Rev. Norman Elliott delivers the invocation at a ceremony honoring 50 heroes for their efforts to rescue victims from a June 1, 2010 plane crash in Fairview Thursday evening September 9, 2010 at Central Middle School. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)
The Rev. Norman Elliott delivers the invocation at a ceremony honoring 50 heroes for their efforts to rescue victims from a June 1, 2010 plane crash in Fairview Thursday evening September 9, 2010 at Central Middle School. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

With Halvorson at his side, Terwilliger continued: He “announced to Norm that I was there to ‘pray the Litany’ and Norm motioned with his hand, touched his fingers to his forehead as if to say — I took it to mean — ‘OK, let’s do it.'” During the litany, Terwilliger observed, “Father Elliott became very peaceful, calm and relaxed, which up to that point he had not been; due to coughing and physical discomfort.” Elliott passed within minutes.

For more than 26 years after his retirement in 1990, Elliott had been visiting patients at Providence. Stories of those visits are the stuff of legend. The Rev. Michael Burke of St. Mary’s, recalling one humorous moment, said, “Once a man called me to tell me he had just been admitted to the hospital, and I rushed right over. Upon entering his hospital room, I went right up to the bedside to pray. I said, ‘I’m so pleased that I made it here before Father Elliott. That might be a historic first.’ ‘Ah, you only beat me by 30 seconds,’ he said, appearing in the doorway behind me.”

The Rev. Scott Medlock of St. Patrick’s Parish calls him “a living saint” who, when his son was seriously injured in a plane crash in which another person died, was attended by Elliott on a daily basis. His presence in hospitals will be missed by patients and staff.

Elliott joined many Alaskans in marriage. Julie Fate Sullivan, wife of Sen. Dan Sullivan, shared the heartwarming story of her parents and Elliott. “In 1954, my mother – Mary Jane Evans, a Koyukon Athabaskan from the Yukon River village of Rampart, and my father, Hugh Fate, a cowboy from Eastern Oregon who had worked the first oil rig in Umiat in 1950 – fell deeply in love. They wanted to get married, and according to my Mom, that was the time in our country when some clergy didn’t encourage ‘mixed-marriages.’ Father Elliott was not one of those clergy.”

“When my parents asked him to officiate their wedding, he welcomed them with open arms. At their first meeting, Father Elliott saw the deep love, respect and substance between them, and he blessed their union. My dad always says from that moment on, he knew Father Elliott was a “truly and deeply caring” individual, and they became friends after that.

“Father Elliott married my parents 62 years ago, on Oct. 29, 1954 at the little log cabin church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Fairbanks. They are still married today. Forty years later in August 1994, Dan and I were married at the same church in Fairbanks, with the same wonderful Father Norman Elliott as the priest who blessed our union.

“We were so honored to have him officiate. He was always considered a hero in our family because of the kind way he accepted my parents so long ago. In typical Father Elliott style, I remember some good-natured ribbing between Dan and Father Elliott – Dan was on active duty and wore his Marine Corps uniform at the wedding, and with Father Elliott being a WWII Army veteran, they had a lot of fun interservice rivalry joking going around.”

Elliott was ecumenical to the core. He treasured his friendship with recently deceased Archbishop Francis Hurley. His story of the two waters, recounted in a previous column, was one symbol of that all-embracing character.

Art Goldberg, Congregation Beth Sholom member, recounts how Father Elliott offered them the use of All Saints as a meeting place for about a year. Previously, the congregation had met in Goldberg’s parents’ home. Father Elliott felt the Jewish community needed to be represented in Anchorage and helped make that possible until they could build their own synagogue. Goldberg said, “Father Elliott was one of those people who helped the religious community in Anchorage.”

The same attitude extended to Russian Orthodox congregations. The Rev. Nicholas-Molodyko Harris, a retired Russian Orthodox (now simply Orthodox) priest, told me of being sent to Anchorage in September 1967 for the purpose of organizing a mission to develop into a parish.

That mission ultimately became Saint Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which was consecrated in 1994. He tells of meeting Elliott in 1967. Having no suitable place to hold their first diocesan assembly in 1968, he asked Elliott if it would be possible to hold it at All Saints. Elliott said, “Of course!” The assembly was presided over by Bishop Theodosius, the Orthodox bishop of Alaska, who later became the Orthodox Church of America’s Metropolitan.

Harris and his wife Matushka Anastasia continued their friendship with Elliott during the remainder of his life.

Harris remembered Elliott’s tremendous love for his wife Stella, saying “She was comical with a sense of humor. They blended together.” He offered a tribute to Elliott saying, “In being a clergy brother of Father Elliott, he was an inspiration to me in the love and caring to everyone he met. His legacy is that he was never absent from someone who was ill as long as it was in his power, especially at Providence Hospital.”

At the funeral, lines were read from Elliott’s favorite poet, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, a WWI British army chaplain. Later, retired Juneau Episcopal priest, the Rev. Mark Boesser a former Virginia Theological Seminary classmate of Elliott’s, shared with me the commendation that accompanied  the awarding of the Military Cross to Studdert Kennedy:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, he showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front-line trenches which he constantly visited.”

Those lines remind me so strongly of the Rev. Norman H.V. Elliott too: friend, husband, father, pastor, and humanitarian. The stories of marriages, funerals, connecting and reconnecting with God, and hospital memories will continue to be shared. There are so many.

You will be missed dear friend.

Visiting Anchorage? There’s a plethora of worship services to sample and savor in our diverse city

Alaska receives more than 1 million visitors each summer. If you are a person of faith, you can locate many worship options in our community. All major religions are represented. Our churches meet in places ranging from beautiful cathedrals to school facilities and shopping malls. There are many ways to locate interesting churches here. In this column I’m sharing a few of these ways and offering pointers for enriching your stay in our beautiful city.

Finding a Church:

The internet is usually the easiest way to find a church. Leaning toward a particular denomination? Search for the denomination and Anchorage. You will find many choices. Be cautious about selecting churches where the pastor and church’s pictures are the main pictures shown. Unfortunately, some of those church pastors and members seem to be prouder of themselves and the church building, than of their  members’ hard work exercising their faith in the community. Conversely, pictures of church members at worship, play and community service speak volumes compared to sermons or grand church buildings.

Beware of church websites showing only pictures of the splendors of Alaska’s mountains, lakes, rivers and other vistas. From my extensive church visiting experience, many of these churches have forgotten their mission. Some churches mistakenly believe Facebook is their new webpage. If you encounter one of those listings, move on, as they’re out of touch with the purpose of social media; it’s not intended to replace church websites; both are important.

The Matters of Faith page in Alaska Dispatch News, on which you find this article, contains notices of various church offerings, often not just those pertaining to the Christian faith. You may be able to find a special event or service of note by perusing the listings of this community service. I’ve often found a service there of which I’d not been aware.

On my blog, churchvisits.com I’ve posted a list of 10 local churches I consider to be safe choices for first-time visitors seeking warm, welcoming worship services. In that list, I evaluate various service aspects to help you choose a great church. During many years of visiting churches, I’ve looked for and evaluated churches by four distinct criteria. First, I look for a warm and friendly greeting. Next, I quickly determine if this church was hospitable or not. Was the sermon delivered in a “listenable” manner and did I learn some new truth from it? Finally, was the music a big show or entertainment, or did it appropriately support the sermon theme? Too often, many modern churches present 30-45 minutes of earsplitting, high-decibel music that jangle eardrums and senses. On the other end of the musical spectrum, Alaska’s Orthodox  churches pleasingly incorporate music and liturgy for the entirety of their service.

Churches worthy of visits for outstanding features

All of the churches listed below have an unusual feature or two worth going out of the way for. Check with the church office to inquire if they’re accessible for viewing outside of worship hours; many also have explanatory pamphlets.

Holy Family Cathedral

This downtown Roman Catholic cathedral was the site of a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1989 during his trip to Anchorage. They recently installed six beautiful stained glass windows made in Bavaria in 1889 and rescued from a shuttered church. An instant local treasure, they’re a tribute to congregation and clergy desiring to place beautiful reminders of the Gospel story into their worship space. Newly restored Stations of the Cross are also now in place.

First Presbyterian Church

The modern architecture of this downtown church houses a fantastic wall of stained glass. Composed of dalle, or slab glass panels, this wall of light and color is filled with spiritual themes; a wonder to behold.

All Saints Episcopal Church

Sited among the high-rises of downtown, this small church houses beautiful stained glass panels on three of the four sanctuary walls. Sen. Ted Stevens lay in repose here before his funeral.

Resurrection Chapel – Holy Spirit Center

This upper Hillside Catholic chapel offers 180-degree views of the mountains to the west and north of Anchorage. The view of Denali, North America’s tallest peak, is breathtaking here.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Sweeping vistas of the Chugach and Kenai mountains are offered from their east and south facing sanctuary windows. A wonderful Bach-type organ in the sanctuary is used on Sundays.

St. John United Methodist Church

The Rev. David Fison at United Methodist carved two totems, representing several Christian traditions, during his pastorate in Southeast Alaska. One, a replica erected outside, depicts the Christmas story. The other, also in replica outside, depicts the Easter story, while the original, more than 20 feet tall, is inside the sanctuary of this lower Hillside church.

United Methodist Church of Chugiak

If you’d like to see Denali through a church window, there’s no better place to see it than in this church. With floor to ceiling glass facing Denali, it’s a delightful way to worship God, bringing nature right into the church.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church – Eklutna

A short drive north of Anchorage is the small Alaska Native village of Eklutna where you’ll find an old log Russian Orthodox Church, a graveyard with traditional native spirit houses, and a new Orthodox church. Guided tours are available, and donations are requested for maintenance and upkeep.

St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral

This Russian style cathedral contains beautiful iconography and is a delight to visit.

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church

Housing a diverse congregation, this new basilica style church contains icons that are a part of this ancient faith. If you are here during August, the congregation’s  Alaska Greek Festival, with music, food, and dancing, is not to be missed.

St. John Orthodox Cathedral – Eagle River

Located in a quiet area north of Anchorage, this striking Antiochian Orthodox cathedral is a beautiful site for pictures externally, and internally a feast for the eyes of architecture and icons. While there, look for the small chapel, St. Sergius of Radonezh Chapel, a short hike away from the main cathedral.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

How local churches use — or don’t use — traditional Christian creeds

Christian creeds, developed during the early days of the church, are summary statements of Christian belief.

One of the earliest, the Apostles’ Creed, had developed by the fourth century from predecessors that may date as far back as the first or second century. In its current form it reads: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.”

A number of creeds have developed over the course of church history. The Nicene Creed resulted from the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.). Athanasius, the fourth century bishop of Alexandria, has a creed named after him, the Athanasian Creed (500 A.D.), which clearly distinguishes the doctrine of the Trinity.

Visiting local churches, I find creeds commonly used in liturgically oriented churches such as Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Orthodox. Most evangelical churches that don’t use creeds tend to have statements of belief, sometimes quite lengthy ones. The Seventh-day Adventist church, one of the fastest growing evangelical denominations in the U.S., uses “28 Fundamental Beliefs” as its core statement and test of fellowship.

A local evangelical exception is ChangePoint.

“We do believe in and express the Apostles’ Creed in its original form without the statement ‘He descended into hell,’”  says teaching pastor Dan Jarrell. “We do it because we agree with its theology and believe it has been a unifying creed in the church for almost 2,000 years. It is a ‘focal statement’ of orthodox theology, and singing it and reciting it are ‘focal practices.’”

Southern Baptists comprise the largest evangelical Protestant denomination in the U.S.

“Southern Baptists do not subscribe to a creed and firmly believe in the Priesthood of the Believer,” says Dr. David George, director of missions for the Chugach Baptist Association. “This means that we do not rely on any hierarchy to decree how we are to interpret scripture, but it is left up to the individual, his church, and the Holy Spirit.”

Evangelical pastor Mike Merriner of Clear Water Church says his congregation occasionally recites the Apostles’ Creed as they sometimes borrow material from the Book of Common Prayer.

“I like the idea of creeds, because a community of faith should share core beliefs,” he said. “In fact, it would concern me if a member of our church was not in agreement with the Apostles’ Creed.”

Episcopal churches generally use the Nicene Creed before the Eucharist and the Apostles’ Creed before baptisms.

“The Apostles’ Creed is probably the least controversial creed of the Christian faith since it does not contain the Filioque clause that the Nicene Creed in the West has — a point of continued difference between the Church of the East (Orthodox) and the Latin Church(es),” says All Saints Episcopal Church’s pastor David Terwilliger. “Filioque” is a Latin phrase added to the Nicene Creed essentially indicating that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father “and Son.”

“At various seasons of the church year, we also use the ‘Jesus Creed’ in worship, a devotional prayer first shared by Brian McLaren at a conference in Nashville in 2004,” says Rector Michael Burke of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. “It has evoked strong feelings and some deep thought among participants in worship, as evidenced by many follow-up conversations with people and in small groups. Because of this experience, I believe that people are also interacting with the traditional Nicene Creed in a new way, and not just reciting it in an unreflective or rote way.”

“The ancient creeds are still relevant today in a world where new and old Christian denominations invent and rearrange their understanding of the faith,” says pastor Rick Cavens of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wasilla.”They fought for a common understanding of the faith around 300 A.D.; we still do, and need to.” He notes they use the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday, and, “once a year we may use the Athanasian Creed; which means you get a long service. It’s all about the Trinity and the historical tie to the early church.”

Rev. Anthony Patalano, pastor of Holy Family Cathedral, says the Nicene Creed is basically the only one used at that congregation, where it is said by the priest and congregation after the homily.

“When I got to Anchorage in 2011, the translation of the Nicene Creed was changed to be more faithful to the Latin text,” he added.

For an Eastern Orthodox view of creedal use I turned to Rev Marc Dunaway, pastor of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River.

“We say the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed every Sunday as part of our Liturgy,” Dunaway said. “It is sometimes called just the Nicene Creed or commonly in Orthodox Churches simply the Symbol of Faith. We recite the Creed in the original form it was written by the first and second Ecumenical Councils, that is, without the phrase which was later added in the western Church, known in Latin as the ‘filioque.’ Orthodox hold it was wrong to unilaterally change a Creed written by Ecumenical Councils, and also this change diminishes the understanding of the role of Holy Spirit in the Church.”

“More importantly, we use this Creed first of all as a profession of faith when one prepares for Baptism. Within the Divine Liturgy, it is also an ongoing affirmation of what we believe about certain essential doctrines.”

I like creeds and choke up sometimes when I repeat them. They are meaningful expressions of what one believes. Too many churches and denominations use hundreds or even thousands of words to be explicit about their beliefs. I enjoy hearing and saying core Christian beliefs expressed in minimal words.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any Web browser.

If you don’t already observe Lent, consider giving traditions a try

Two and a half weeks ago, Lent began for a large portion of Christianity with Ash Wednesday (Orthodox churches begin observing Lent on March 13). Some local Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopal clergy brought “ashes to the people” in downtown Anchorage that day. I applaud this approach because it brings clergy to the people, instead of people expecting to have to go to clergy. This may be Christianity at its best.

“Sharing ashes on the street is an opportunity for Christians to practice very public theology, said participant Nico Romeijn-Stout, pastor of discipleship and social justice at St. John United Methodist Church and one of those clergy. “Our practice was to take a moment with each person asking their name and how we can be in prayer with and for them. Even in a short moment a relationship was formed. What was striking for me was that the only people who received ashes from me were a couple of homeless men. One said that he hadn’t been ‘blessed’ in years. When we take the risk to do ministry with people where they are, we meet Christ in profound ways.”

Taking “ashes to the street” did not substitute for the Ash Wednesday services those clergy later held in their own churches.

Many Catholic clergy feel ashes should be applied in the church as a rite.

“We take ashes to the homebound, but the distribution of ashes is best done in the sacred assembly at Mass,” said St. Benedict’s Rev. Leo Walsh. “Catholics understand Lent, and all the associated rites, as a communal act of penance by the whole believing community. “It’s possible those attitudes may change over time, as I’m noticing an increasing numbers of news stories of Catholic and Episcopal clergy taking ashes to the street.

Regardless of how one receives their ashes, on the street, in bed, or at church, this rite is an awe-inspiring moment in which one can take stock and recognize we’re mortal and will return to dust.

During my personal preparation for Lent I came across an excellent guide prepared by the Society of St. Andrew, which sponsors a gleaning ministry for food rescue and feeding the hungry. The society’s 44-page downloadable PDF guide offers a wealth of Scripture, reflections, and prayers for Lent.

During Lent many churches host extra evening services or other activities.

First Congregational Church is conducting Tuesday evening Taizé-style services at 5:30 p.m. through March 22. The services will include music, chants, times of silence and readings from the Bible and other sources, but no sermons or discussion.

Many more churches’ Lent activities are offered on Wednesday evenings. Central Lutheran Church has soup suppers, study, and a service through March 16. All Saints Episcopal Church offers a soup supper at 6 p.m. followed by a lesson on spiritual gifts. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is having Lenten soup suppers at 6 p.m. followed by a discussion on the intersection of Lenten themes and immigration. First United Methodist Church is serving Lenten suppers through March 30 at 6 p.m. with a Lenten study following. Anchorage Lutheran Church offers Lenten worship at 7 p.m. with supper at 6 p.m. Gloria Dei Lutheran Church provides a soup supper and fellowship at 5:45 p.m. followed by Holden Evening Prayer worship at 6:30 p.m. Joy Lutheran in Eagle River serves a soup supper at 6:15 p.m. followed by Lenten worship at 7 p.m. Much can be learned from partaking of these simple suppers, and the brief services connected with them. It’s a time for personal growth.

Instead of Lenten suppers and services, local Catholics, focus on the exercising what the Rev. Tom Lily calls the three Ts: “Time, talent, and treasure are common terms we use when talking about being good stewards of all God has entrusted to us. How do we generously give a proportionate amount of our time, talent and material resources back to glorify God through serving our neighbor?”

For example, Lent projects in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, where Lily is the pastor, address all three T’s by supporting Catholic Social Services’ St. Francis Food Pantry. Each member is encouraged to participate in the Knights of Columbus’ “40 Cans 4 Lent” campaign, where 40 cans of food, one for each day of Lent, are donated. Members also donate funds for perishable dairy, fruits and vegetables. parish members also provide hands-on assistance at St. Francis house, as well as actively advocate support for the federal SNAP program through after-church letter-writing efforts.

Local pastor, the Rev. Rick Benjamin, raised in a Protestant/Evangelical/Pentecostal tradition that didn’t observe Lent calls himself a non-Lenter but connects with the custom of fasting and prayer as performed as Lenten tradition.

“Many important decisions in our church’s history, and in my own life, came out of times of dedicated prayer and fasting,” he said. Rick’s local relationships made him aware of the liturgical calendar and Lent. He became intrigued, saying, “Lent was similar to fasting, sort of an extended semifast, and a time of self-denial and preparation for Resurrection Sunday.” His experience with Lent has been positive. He points out, “I have benefited from Lent, even though my understanding and observance are admittedly incomplete. And to all the other ‘non-Lenters’ like me out there, I suggest you give Lent a try.”

My tradition was also a non-Lent observing one. Over the years, as I’ve matured in my faith, I’ve been exposed to this meaningful time of the church year dedicated to self-examination and rethinking one’s relationship with God. The music I hear in Lent-observing churches during this time becomes more thoughtful and intense. Like Benjamin, I encourage you to explore Lent, by attending any of the church activities I’ve noted above. I think you’ll be glad you went.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Longtime Alaska priest Norman Elliott turns 97

Well, it’s happening again. The Rev. Norman Elliott of All Saints Episcopal Church will celebrate another birthday Feb. 2, his 97th. It’s extremely rare to find clergy still active at his age. Elliott’s ministry and friendships have touched thousands of Alaskans and beg recognition while he’s still with us. Elliott retired in 1990 at age 70, a church requirement then, but came out of retirement two years ago to act as “priest-in-charge” at All Saints when their previous rector departed with little notice. The Rev. David Terwilliger has been selected as All Saints’ new rector and will be installed by the Right Rev. Mark Lattime, bishop of Alaska, at Easter.

Recently Elliott was hospitalized with pneumonia. Still recovering, he maintains an active schedule of worship and hospital visits. While he was in the hospital, Sen. Lisa Murkowski visited him. She told me: “He is a guy that’s not going to let things pass him by. A couple of weeks ago when I visited him in the hospital at Providence, he was sitting there in the hospital bed grumping about the fact that he had places to go. I think with Father Elliott, he lives every day to the fullest, from the time that he wakes up in the morning to the time that he goes to bed at night. He is living every day, and that’s living a life well.”

Elliott regularly visits patients at Anchorage hospitals.

“Father Elliott is famous for visiting sick people in our local hospitals, somehow knowing exactly when someone is admitted,” says the Rev. Michael Burke, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. “In all my years of ministry, it was rare I got to the hospital before him. Once, when visiting a parishioner who both he and I had connections with, I was astounded I’d arrived at the patient’s bedside before Father Elliott. I remarked about this to the parishioner. The patient broke into a huge grin. ‘Look behind you,’ he said, just as Father Elliott arrived in the doorway. I had beaten him there by a full two minutes!”

At last Friday’s funeral for former Anchorage Archbishop Francis T. Hurley, Elliott reflected on his longtime personal friendship with the archbishop in a story about two bottles of water. The story began with Pope John Paul II inviting the choir that sang when he celebrated Mass on the Delaney Park Strip in 1981 to Rome to sing at the Vatican. Two months later, a group of 250 departed Anchorage for Europe.

At the direction of Hurley, who envisioned the church as ecumenical, the group was not limited to Roman Catholics. Elliott and his wife were part of the group, which stopped in London for the weekend. While there, Hurley celebrated Mass at a large Catholic cathedral and invited Elliott to vest. In his homily, Hurley noted that at one point, Roman Catholics and Anglicans had been one church but centuries earlier the Church of England (which in U.S. is the Episcopal Church) split off, and said that at some point down the road maybe the two churches would be unified again. Several days later, the same thing happened: At a Mass at the Vatican, the Catholic archbishop — with the vested Episcopal priest by his side — gave the same homily.

How did the bottles of water fit in? After Mass in London, Elliott went to the River Thames and filled a bottle of water there. After Mass in Rome, he filled a second bottle from the Tiber River. At one of Hurley’s birthday parties, Elliott presented him with the two bottles, saying it was his wish that one day both would stand unified at Ship Creek pouring both bottles of water into the river to celebrate a united church.

The archbishop held on to the bottles and had a case built for them. When Elliott retired, Hurley presented him with both bottles. Elliott concluded that he would most likely not be around to see that unification happen but hoped it would happen and that the waters from the Tiber and Thames would be poured into Ship Creek.

“I had the privilege of meeting Father Norman Elliott when I first arrived at the Archdiocese of Anchorage as the newly appointed archbishop,” recalls Roger L. Schwietz recalls. “It was shortly after Father Norm’s 81st birthday.  He had supposedly retired 12 years earlier. I would have never known. I have great admiration for Father Elliott for his continued dedication to ministry, his deep love of Christ and his longing for the unity of the Christian family.  May God continue to bless him in his life of service to the greater Anchorage community.”

Sen. Ted Stevens was a close friend of Elliott’s. Whenever Stevens was in Anchorage, he worshipped at All Saints. When, in 1978, a Learjet with Stevens and his wife, Ann, aboard crashed at Anchorage International Airport, Elliott was alerted that Stevens was in serious condition at Providence Alaska Medical Center and was provided a police escort to quickly reach him. It fell to Elliott to break the sad news to Ted that Ann had died in the crash. Later, when Stevens married his second wife, Catherine, he chose Elliott to perform the marriage.

Former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan first met Elliott in the early 1950s in Nenana, where his dad was a U.S. marshal and his mom commissioner, a judicial position. He has fond memories of Elliott’s care for his family, even though they weren’t Episcopalian. When Sullivan’s dad and mom were in hospital prior to their deaths, Elliott provided warm spiritual care for them.

I deeply enjoy my conversations and relationship with Elliott. He’s a real Christian in every sense of the word, and I wish him many more happy and healthy years.

All Saints Episcopal Church invites friends of the Rev. Norman Elliott to an early birthday party at McGinley’s Pub in downtown Anchorage from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any Web browser.

A fresh look at the ancient tradition of Epiphany

As I write this column, it’s Epiphany, a holiday on traditional church calendars that I’d never previously observed — though for most of my life I understood its meaning. Epiphany celebrates the visit by the Magi, or wise men, to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, a story told in Matthew 2.

Although the gifts of the Magi tend to be linked by popular custom to Christmas, it has little to do with that tradition. The Magi traveled to Jerusalem led by a star. Seeking King Herod, they asked (as rendered the New International Version): “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Herod did not know to whom they were referring and inquired of the Jewish chief priests and teachers of the law what this meant. He was told the Messiah was foretold to be born in Bethlehem. Asking when they first saw the star, he was told the exact time. The Magi were asked to report back to Herod after finding the child. The star led them to Jesus’ house, where they bestowed upon him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh they’d brought him. Not returning to Herod, they returned home by another way after being warned in a dream.

Searching for Anchorage Epiphany services, I located only two references, both Episcopalian. When I asked the Rev. Leo Walsh of St. Benedict’s Parish about Roman Catholic Epiphany services, he replied, “Epiphany is celebrated in varying ways in various places. In the western states, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord on the second Sunday after Christmas. In other, less secular places, it is celebrated on Jan. 6, the traditional 12th Day of Christmas. In the Eastern Church, its celebration corresponds with our celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.”

I attended two Epiphany services Wednesday, a personally enriching experience. The first service was held at noon at All Saints’ Episcopal Church downtown. Though sparsely attended, it offered a rich liturgy. It seemed strange to be attending church on a midweek day. The liturgy, primarily spoken without singing was led by the Rev. Katherine Hunt from Christ Church Episcopal. Her brief extemporaneous homily underscored the meaning of the arrival of the Magi and its significance for Christians, mentioning that many of us go home another way after meeting Jesus. The Eucharist service followed, after which a healing prayer was individually offered by her for those remaining at the communion rail to receive it, a Wednesday tradition at All Saints.

An evening service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church capped my Epiphany day. The service was more heavily attended than I anticipated. From beginning to end, the service was warm and welcoming. Rector Michael Burke explained various aspects of the service to keep all worshippers, especially guests, comfortable. Few local churches exhibit the practical hospitality I’ve observed at this fine church. Burke made sure members from another church that use St. Mary’s facilities weekly were welcome, along with other guests.

I was surprised to find the Rev. Martin Eldred — who pastors Joy Lutheran Church in Eagle River — had been invited to deliver the homily. (Lutheran and Episcopal churches enjoy a full communion relationship, where each can officiate in the other’s churches.) Martin’s extemporaneous homily began in Old Testament times when, post-exile, Jews rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and created purity laws that were driving people away. He fast-forwarded to the New Testament, which found the people of Israel under the yoke of Roman oppression, yearning for the king foretold in Isaiah. Eldred described the shepherds, who celebrated the birth of Jesus, as being social outcasts. Later, the Magi came, found the young Jesus, and brought him their gifts. The embracing message of these foreigners visiting Jesus was that other cultures recognized the significance of his birth, coming to pay royal homage to him.

Walsh says we can draw two lessons from the visitation of the Magi: “First, like the Magi, one has to be looking for Christ in order to perceive him. Faith is about relationships. When our relationships are rightly ordered, then we can see God is at work. If not, then it is unlikely that we ever will. Second, we often want to understand everything all at once. But life and God’s plans unfold slowly. Life is a journey, and one for which we don’t have a map. Rather, the spirit is more like a GPS, which barks out one instruction at a time.”

Celebrating Epiphany, I found new meaning in the gospel narrative of the Magi. Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his poem Epiphany, writes in part, “Give us the imagination like theirs to go home by another route on the path where foolishness is wisdom and weakness is strength and poverty is wealth. Make our new foolishness specific that the world might become — through us — new.”

It’s unfortunate that more local churches, which tend to pull out the stops for Christmas, don’t incorporate the lessons of Epiphany at this time of year, underscoring the universality of the gospel.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Six inspiring things from Anchorage faith organizations in 2015

During my forays into the local faith community in 2015 I experienced an intriguing mix of sights, sounds, venues and celebrations. This week I’ll briefly describe some that made lasting impressions. Next week I focus on my perennial quest regarding what I’d like to see churches tackle in 2016.

These impressions are mine alone, and omission isn’t intended as a slight to any faith-based organization in Anchorage.

Faith community support of social causes

As the years go by, I’m increasingly enthusiastic when local faith organizations and their members go out of their way supporting charitable causes such as Thanksgiving Blessing, Crop Hunger Walk, food banks and food distribution programs, kids programs, etc. There is sufficient need in our community, and these efforts show that, for the most part, Christian organizations walk the talk. When Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church periodically holds two-hour Beer and Hymns events, more than $5,000 is raised for Lutheran Social Services of Alaska. Church food drives are incredibly successful too, such as when St. Mary’s Episcopal Church collects donations of more than 4,000 jars of peanut butter plus other food items during the year.

Catholic celebrations mark years of progress

The Archdiocese of Anchorage held several important celebrations this year. One marked the 100th anniversary of Holy Family Cathedral, and the 50th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Anchorage. Many artifacts of local church history were on display, accompanied by colorful presentations by many local Catholic leaders. The ceremonial Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe marking Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz’s 75th birthday (and 25th anniversary of his ordination as bishop) was full of music, co-celebrating archbishops and bishops, and many priests. The investiture ceremony of the Royal Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, presided over by a cardinal, was a spectacular peek into church history.

Orthodox visits impressed me deeply

The Eagle River Institute at St. John Orthodox Cathedral during August afforded opportunities to learn about orthodoxy, and its history, especially Syrian-born Rev. George Shaloub’s lectures on Middle Eastern Christianity. With the Syrian refugee crisis in the headlines at the moment, it’s too bad more local Christians did not hear his messages. Vespers, held after supper each day, provided music and liturgy harking back to apostolic times. A recent visit to St. Tikhon Orthodox Church delighted me. The hour and a half liturgy was supported by an all-male choir singing in four-part harmony. The Russian Christmas celebration at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral was filled with music and liturgy, my first experience with starring, a beautiful Orthodox tradition brought from Ukraine.

Church worship experiences in middle schools

New churches (church plants) meeting in middle schools were a pleasant visit focus. Clark, Begich, Wendler, and Hanshew middle schools were the focus of those visits. They pay a standard Anchorage School District rental rate for use of the multi-purpose room for adult meetings and classrooms for the younger kids. Churches must bring everything needed and set up every Sunday, taking it all down after, but it works beautifully. Many of these locations provide better settings than some of our local churches. In each of these services, the proportion of millennials was greater than in an average church. I’ve been personally blessed by the number of these services I’ve attended, never feeling the absence of a dedicated brick-and-mortar church as a disadvantage.

AFACT support of Medicaid expansion

Earlier this year, Anchorage Faith and Action Congregations Together challenged the state Legislature with words and prayer at the Legislative Information Office to expand the Medicaid system on behalf of the working poor who slip through the cracks. AFACT, a local coalition of 14 local congregations, worked tirelessly on behalf of expansion. In the end, expansion of the health-care program did happen. When I attended the AFACT celebration at St. Anthony Catholic church in early fall, I was impressed with the passion this dedicated group expressed. I was especially taken with Pastor Julia Seymour’s remarks referring to “social junk.” She’s right. It’s so easy to criticize and ignore those among us we regard as not worthy of our consideration. However, everyone counts in our society, or it begins to rot from the center.

Longevity of senior pastors in our community

My interview with All Saints Episcopal’s Rev. Norman Elliott as he reached his 96th birthday was a true delight. His tireless devotion to his church, and the spiritual lives of those in our hospitals, should be an inspiration to us all. It’s not often we get to know a living church legend; Elliott certainly fits the bill. His stories of pastoring and teaching in the villages, coupled with flights of daring in the parish airplane, are fascinating. Whenever he digresses into the poetry of Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy, which he manages to slip into most sermons, he becomes a different man. Elliott is devoted to God and to his church. Retired Archbishop Francis T. Hurley celebrated his 45th year as bishop this year. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing him several times, and like Elliott, he was a flying priest who ministered to a far-flung area. Both have interesting tales of serving God by airplane. The Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church celebration of Pastor Alonzo Patterson’s 45th anniversary as their pastor and 66th anniversary of being a pastor was a warm and effusive display of love for their pastor. Many guest pastors were on hand to add their congratulations and thanks to God for Patterson’s many years of service. The musical tributes were warm and from the heart. It was an exceptional event to have experienced.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

A visitor’s guide to worshipping in Anchorage (originally published 5/23/15)

If you are visiting Anchorage or moving here, we have many religious worship options. Muslims will find a mosque. Jews can find two synagogues, Reform and Lubavitcher, with Friday and Saturday services. The northernmost Hindu temple in the world is within five minutes of the airport terminal. All major religions in America are represented with convenient and often beautiful worship places, close to major hotels, many within walking distance. Three Orthodox groups in Alaska are very prominent in Anchorage. Formerly called Russian Orthodox — now simply Orthodox — one of our earliest religious groups arrived here 200 years ago. Its bishop lives in Anchorage. Several spectacular churches and a cathedral here are affiliated with them. The Greek Orthodox Church has a beautiful place of worship on the lower Hillside where their Metropolitan performed a Thyranoixia (Opening of the Doors) ceremony last fall. Rounding out the orthodox list is an Eastern Orthodox cathedral in Eagle River just north of town.

Catholics are plentiful in Anchorage. It’s home to many parishes and is the seat of an archdiocese, so the archbishop is very active in the faith community. Recently, Holy Family Cathedral downtown officially shared, with papal approval, co-cathedral status with Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral in West Anchorage. There are many independent churches in town, including Alaska’s largest megachurch, ChangePoint. Baptists have numerous churches in Anchorage, including Alaska’s other megachurch, Anchorage Baptist Temple on the east side of town.

I’ve been writing about Anchorage’s church community in blog posts and newspaper columns for seven years. Those weekly columns, published in each Saturday’s Alaska Dispatch News, are available online at adn.com/churchvisits, stretching back to January 2014. My blogging, current and past, and these columns are available at churchvisits.com. Blog entries on this website are being transferred from ADN and reach back into 2012 at the moment. My writing covers every facet of church life in town. Primarily, I focus on Christian churches. When visiting them, I look for warm greetings, a genuine sense of hospitality, well-delivered biblical sermons, and music that’s not merely for entertainment.

Churches are now shifting to summer service hours, so check service times on the Internet first. It’s also worth calling the church to ensure website details are accurate.

Church stops worth making

Several local churches offer more than services. I suggest including them in your itinerary:

Holy Family Cathedral

Located in downtown Anchorage, this church is nearing its 100th year. It was the scene of a papal visit by Pope John Paul II in 1981, who conducted several papal audiences there and celebrated a huge Mass a few blocks away on the Delaney Park Strip, attended by over 50,000 people.

First Presbyterian Church

This large church is on the south side of the Delaney Park Strip. Inside is a spectacular floor-to-ceiling stained glass wall with embedded religious motifs.

St. John United Methodist Church

On the south side of Anchorage, this large, modern Methodist church contains a large totem pole carved in the Tsimshian tradition by a retired UMC pastor, the Rev. David Frison. Called the Easter Totem, it depicts the last events in the life of Christ. Frison also carved a smaller totem called the Christmas Totem. The large totem is inside the sanctuary and copies of both totems are standing outside.

St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral

This large cathedral in Northeast Anchorage is home to a beautiful congregation. Attending services there is always a joy for me. They have a wonderful choir and inspiring liturgy. It is beautifully decorated and sports the onion domes we associate with Russian Orthodox churches.

St. John Orthodox Cathedral

Found in Eagle River, this large cathedral is a labor of love. Many of its icons were beautifully created by a congregation member. Their choir accompanies all services. I’ve been privileged to sing with them several times.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral

This Roman Catholic cathedral is fairly close to the airport but was selected for co-cathedral status because its size, parking, and interior arrangement lend itself to large gatherings. Its beautiful interior has hosted many significant events in its comparatively brief period of existence.

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church

The northernmost parish of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, this distinctive church is the only Greek Orthodox Church in Alaska. Its striking interior takes you into another realm of worship uncommon in many contemporary houses of worship.

All Saints’ Episcopal Church

A small but beautiful church in the heart of downtown Anchorage, All Saints’ offers beautifully wrought stained glass windows on three sides. Before his death, Sen. Ted Stevens made All Saints’ his church home,when in town.

Resurrection Chapel

Located at Holy Spirit Center, a Catholic retreat center on the Hillside, this beautiful chapel has a 180-degree view of Cook Inlet to the west, the Alaska Range to the north and the nearby Chugach mountains to the east.

Central Lutheran Church

Sited immediately south of downtown, this church has a beautiful sanctuary containing a wonderfully carved wooden altarpiece. I marvel every time I see it.

While churches are used for congregational worship and teaching, underlying the churches I’ve mentioned is a solid sense of caring for others. Many Anchorage churches reach out to the poor, downtrodden, and hungry. There’s more to churches than bricks and mortar. People come to learn more about their faith, and often come away infused with a desire to serve. If you are looking for a church home, email me at churchvisits@gmail.com for a more detailed listing of some churches I recommend for a first visit.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

The Rev. Norman Elliott, an Alaska clergy legend, turns 96 on Monday – 1/31/15

National data indicate the average tenure of a pastor is between three and four years. Many pastors retire in their 60s and 70s. One local pastor clearly beats these norms. The Rev. Norman Elliott, who is still going strong, turns 96 on Monday.

During my first 10 years in Anchorage, I didn’t know of Elliott. This changed in 2010, when Mark Lattime was consecrated as the eighth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska. A clergy friend invited me to the post-consecration banquet that evening. The Rev. Norman Elliott was the master of ceremonies, regaling attendees with humor, narratives of the history and growth of the Episcopal Church in Alaska and many introductions. Since then, I’ve talked with him after services at All Saints Episcopal Church in downtown Anchorage. Each time, he shared thoughts about religion and insights into the history of this wonderful church. Recently he gave insights about the wonderful Kimura-designed stained glass in All Saints.

In 2013, 25 years after his official retirement from All Saints, he was thrust back into a leadership role when their rector abruptly left. Currently he serves as priest-in-charge until a new rector is selected. But that’s not all. He is a volunteer chaplain, making almost daily visits to all local hospitals, some resulting in long stints through the night. Elliott is regularly asked to speak to civic groups about his life and experiences in Alaska.

Born in England, he and his family moved to Detroit when he was four. A lifelong Anglican, he made a momentous decision when a middle school teacher pressed him to make a career choice so he could guided into the appropriate high, commercial or technical school. Indecisive, but pressured to decide quickly, he decided one night to choose the ministry. At once he was at peace. After serving as a commissioned officer during World War II, another source of marvelous stories, Elliott finished college. Then it was on to Virginia Theological Seminary, an Episcopal institution, whose primary focus then was training missionaries.

During his final year, his VTS homiletics professor assigned a project researching the life of a famous preacher. Uncharacteristically, for that professor, he suggested Elliott write about World War I English chaplain Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy. Elliott feels this was a life-changing experience, especially Studdert-Kennedy’s poetry, which he often recites while telling this story and in his homilies. Elliott is especially taken with “Indifference,” “Woodbine Willie” and “The Sorrow of God.” He credits Studdert-Kennedy with shaping his theology and approaches to people. Graduating in 1951 from VTS with a master of divinity degree, Elliott was ordained a deacon of the Episcopal faith.

Elliott had a burning desire to go to India to serve as a missionary, but no positions were open. Consequently, he accepted a position to go to Alaska, arriving in 1951. Initially serving at St. Mark’s Church in Nenana, he was ordained a priest in 1952, and has served as a priest, rector or archdeacon since.

Dr. Loren Jensen, a longtime member of All Saints, gives the Rev. Elliott this tribute: “I am more than a little biased toward the guy. He is as unique as Alaska itself. Where else would you find a priest that used to fly his bush plane and run a dog sled team to minister to congregations in the villages? He then settled down in Anchorage to be the rector of the oldest Episcopal church in Anchorage, and served his congregation for 27 years until he reached mandatory retirement at age 70. That was 25 years ago.

“Unable to do something as quotidian as retirement, he felt the call to step back into the pulpit when an interim leader was needed for All Saints. That was a year and a half ago. He has been our full-time pastor since then.”

One cannot talk about Elliott’s ministry long without hearing flying stories. In order to get around in the territory he served, he learned to fly and flew until he was transferred to Ketchikan in 1958. The airplane was a tremendous asset to his work. Elliott has pastored at St. Mark’s Church in Nenana, St. Stephen’s Church in Fort Yukon, St. Matthew’s Church in Fairbanks, St. John’s Church in Ketchikan and All Saints Church in Anchorage. He also served as archdeacon of the Interior Deanery in Fairbanks, and currently serves as archdeacon of the South Central Alaska Deanery.

As he is a volunteer hospital chaplain, I was curious as to his experience with death. Elliott says dying people he’s been with have settled faiths and are ready for the next phase of their journey. Deathbed confessions? No, he’s never heard one.

Asked about major village issues, Elliott feels key ones are suicide, alcohol and bringing people to faith. He recounted a village story in which a wife shot her husband. He was taken to the airport to be medevacked to Fairbanks. The Wien plane was in, unloading a major shipment of alcohol. It wouldn’t leave until the alcohol was all unloaded. The man died on the runway.

Asked when Jesus will return, he responded, “Jesus talked of an immediate return. So did the apostle Paul. All I know, it’s in God’s hands.” Asked about changes he’d like to see in religion, he said, “I’d like to see more witness of the faith by clergy and parishioners.”

The Rev. Leo Walsh, pastor of St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, offered an explanation of Elliott’s secret. “Father Elliott is one of those unique pastoral personalities that, when he speaks to you, makes you feel like you are the most important person in the world at that time. He gives you all of his attention, not just part of it. In this way, he is a perfect reflection of the God who calls us each by name and loves us individually. You don’t just know Father Elliott, you are known by him, and that makes all the difference.”

Elliott is a major spiritual force in our community. The Episcopal Church today has its critics, but All Saints’ members and its leaders, Elliott and the Rev. David Terwilliger, are jewels in our community. I praise God for Elliott’s service. If you’re a person of faith, pray that God will strengthen him and keep him in the palm of His hand. Thank you for your 64 years of godly service, Elliott.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.