Recently, Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz, who oversees the archdiocese of Anchorage, announced significant changes affecting Roman Catholic clergy and parishes in Alaska. Statewide, about 15 percent of Alaskans identified as Catholic in a recent survey.
The Anchorage archdiocese has needed a canon lawyer since Rev. Tom Brundage, priest at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Eagle River and also judicial vicar, returned to Milwaukee a year ago. He had been on loan from the archdiocese of Milwaukee for about nine years. In the interim, canon lawyer the Rev. Pat Travers from the Juneau diocese has been filling in. Schwietz announced the Rev. Leo Walsh, parish priest at St. Benedict’s Catholic Parish would be returning to Rome to study canon law for the local archdiocese tribunal. Walsh has previously studied in Rome, receiving a doctorate in sacred theology from the Angelicum, the pontifical university there.
“Our God is the God of surprises,” Walsh said, when asked about the change. “Such was the case a few weeks ago when Archbishop Schwietz asked me if I would consider returning to Rome to get a degree in canon law with the intent of returning to the Archdiocese in three years to be the judicial vicar and run the marriage tribunal. Before then, the thought had never crossed my mind. Yet after reflection it made a lot of sense. So I agreed.”
Walsh also noted it would provide a change in direction for him. “It is indeed a career change,” he said. “While the tribunal is not a parochial ministry, it is most definitely a pastoral ministry, and a delicate one at that. People do not petition for a declaration of nullity until after they have already experienced the pain of a civil divorce. Therefore the process requires a very delicate, pastoral approach. Pope Francis has said as much in recent times in this regard.”
After three years of study, Walsh will receive a license in canon law or Juris Canonici Licentia, which is somewhat comparable to a J.D.
The Rev. Tom Lilly, who has been parish priest at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish for 11 years, will replace Walsh at St. Benedict’s, where he will also serve as priest for the parish and Lumen Christi Catholic High School. Lilly is currently the vicar general of the Anchorage archdiocese and will continue in this administrative role. When the archbishop is outside of the diocese, Lilly acts in his behalf and stands in as the bishop would in administrative matters.
“For me, the coming transfer to St. Benedict’s is another opportunity to serve,” he said. “Same church; different part of the vineyard! I begin there on July 1.” He’s looking forward to encouraging spiritual well-being of the youth there in navigating the challenges of acceptance, faith and reason, career path, low self-esteem and our sex-saturated culture.
He will be replaced at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton by Rev. Steven Moore, who’d recently been appointed as parish priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral — “at no small personal sacrifice,” noted Schwietz, “as Father Moore will have physically moved four times in the last three years.”
The Rev. Andrew Bellisario has succeeded Moore at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Bellisario is a senior Vincentian, who was previously the head of the society’s Los Angeles province, and and his move there represents the beginning of a fresh effort to reach Spanish speakers. With few local Spanish-speaking priests, the archdiocese had long sought better ways to serve Hispanic Catholics, even provided language immersion training for some priests.
Meanwhile, several priests from that society who have served briefly at the co-cathedral have noted a need for more Spanish-speaking priests to serve growing Hispanic population in Anchorage and elsewhere in the state, and forwarded those concerns to the head of their order in Rome. The society now plans to “establish an outreach ministry to the Hispanic community throughout the Archdiocese with the expectation of a third Vincentian priest arriving later this year,” Schwietz said.
When I talked to Bellisario , he told me the Vincentians were founded for the specific mission of evangelizing the poor. Talking about their order founder, Bellisario said, “St. Vincent noted ‘reading the signs of the times,’ he talked about not getting ahead of divine providence.” Noting there were 50,000 Hispanics in Alaska, he said the Vincentians’ mandate was of outreach to Hispanics in the archdiocese.
“The Vincentians are making a major commitment to the development of Hispanic ministry within the Archdiocese,” Rev. Scott Medlock, priest at St. Patrick’s Parish and the Anchorage archdiocese’s vicar for clergy said.
The Archbishop also announced that the Rev.. Scott Garrett, from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Wasilla, would “return to serving the people of Bristol Bay as pastor at Holy Rosary in Dillingham, St. Theresa in Naknek, and the mission in King Salmon where he served prior to going to Sacred Heart five years ago. He is a pilot and will be flying to some of the villages that cannot be reached by commercial airplane.”
Replacing Garrett will be the Rev. Joseph McGilloway who will also serve as canonical pastor for Big Lake, Willow, Talkeetna, and Trapper Creek.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Andrew Lee becomes parochial vicar at Holy Cross Parish, and the Rev. Mark Stronach, a Benedictine monk from Oregon’s Mount Angel Abbey, will move to Our Lady of the Lake, and serve as parochial vicar under McGilloway.
These are significant changes for the archdiocese. which appear to strengthen the Catholic Church in Alaska.