I first met Archbishop Francis T. Hurley at the installation of Lutheran Bishop Shelley Wickstrom. Surprised to see him there in a Protestant church along with many other clergy, I introduced myself to him as ADN’s community church blogger and asked if we might meet. When we met at his residence he was cordial and conversational with me, a non-Catholic. I’d researched the proper terms with which to address him — finding “your excellency,” “monsignor,” “your grace” and “the most reverend.” Asking Archbishop Hurley which term would be appropriate, he said, “Just call me Father.” Recently, I arranged another interview on his completion of 45 years as bishop in Alaska this week. That interview further enlightened me about significant events occurring during his career in Alaska.
Road to bishop
Born in 1927, Archbishop Hurley graduated from St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California. He was ordained as priest in 1951. After serving as a priest in the San Francisco Archdiocese, primarily at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, he was asked in the early 1960s to join the staff of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. He first worked in the office of Catholic education and then as associate general secretary for the United States Catholic Conference. In 1968, the first bishop of Juneau had retired. The diocese was vacant and under the administration of Archbishop Ryan, the first archbishop of Anchorage. In early 1970 Monsignor Hurley was asked by Pope Paul VI to become a bishop and serve as auxiliary to Archbishop Ryan in his role as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Juneau. Archbishop Hurley likes to tell of calling his mother about the Alaska appointment. She responded, “Did you turn it down?” His episcopal consecration as bishop was on March 19, 1970, at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, with his brother, Bishop Mark Hurley, as principal consecrator.
First Juneau, then Anchorage
When Bishop Hurley discovered the size of the territory the seven parishes his Juneau Diocese covered, he decided to become licensed to fly. With a diocesan airplane, he could fly to outlying parishes quickly, celebrating the sacraments and ministering to people as necessary.
After nine years in Juneau, Bishop Hurley was appointed Archbishop of Anchorage by Pope Paul VI, moving here to succeed Archbishop Ryan in 1976. Retaining his pilot’s license, he continued to fly to hard-to-reach parishes such as Dillingham, Bristol Bay and some on the Kenai Peninsula. Over the years Archbishop Hurley accumulated over 5,000 hours of flying.
Pope John Paul II’s 1981 visit to Anchorage
A high point in Archbishop Hurley’s years in Anchorage was Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1981. The pope would be returning from a papal trip to Japan. Archbishop Hurley was given just five weeks to put it all together. Local Catholics created a “popemobile,” built an altar on the western end of the Delaney Park Strip, and diligently prepared all the details. When Pope John Paul II arrived, he went first to Holy Family Cathedral for an audience with local Catholics, then to the cathedral ‘s basement to meet disabled people. From there, he traveled to the Park Strip for Mass. Secret Service and other local law enforcement provided security for the event. Archbishop Hurley gave a welcoming address at the Mass and Pope John Paul II preached. The Mass was celebrated by 50 bishops and cardinals who had traveled for the occasion. Attendance estimates ranged from 50,000 to 65,000 people. Hurley called the occasion “a strong interreligious event, where we wanted to show respect for the pope, not overwhelm him.”
A significant event in Archbishop Hurley’s life came when Holy Family Cathedral helped Ted Mala, a Yupik-Russian doctor, facilitate medical exchanges after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Archbishop Hurley was invited to return with medical personnel to Russia. He discovered interest in establishing a Catholic presence in the Magadan area — something accomplished in 1991 when the Holy See established a Catholic parish there in response to Archbishop Hurley’s request. In 1994, Hurley recruited a Palmer priest, the Rev. Michael Shields, who built a church there and still serves that area. Hurley encouraged this development with multiple trips there.
Hurley’s driving force
Archbishop Hurley says his ministry was driven by a key principle of Vatican II: “The Church is all of the people.” Under his direction, the archdiocese blossomed and grew rapidly. When I asked him what he’d like as an epitaph, he laughed and pointed me to a nearby book. Picking it up, I noted the title on the cover: “Pastoral Insights from 15 Years as a Bishop in Alaska.” Upon opening it, I discovered it was blank. When I asked what happens after his last breath, he responded, “That’s His job.” Again he laughed.
A tribute from the Rev. Elliott
The Rev. Norman Elliott, acting rector of All Saints Episcopal, offered this tribute to Archbishop Hurley:
“Of all the clergy in Alaska Archbishop Francis T. Hurley is surely one of the most ecumenical. An example: In 1982, following Pope John Paul’s visit to Anchorage in 1981, the Archbishop led a pilgrimage of over 250 people to Rome for a private meeting with the Pope. He invited me, my wife and members of the Episcopal Church to join. Eighteen did. The pilgrimage included a weekend stop in London. On Sunday he celebrated Mass at Westminster Catholic Cathedral and asked me to vest and stand with him at the altar. He began his sermon with the words, ‘Many years ago there was one river — the Catholic Church it split and became two rivers: Catholic and Church of England (in the U.S. it is the Episcopal Church). This morning, Father Elliott and members of the Episcopal Church are worshipping with us. Perhaps we can show you that the two rivers may one day flow together.’ We were then presented to the Pope. In Rome this was repeated at a Mass in the Basilica.
“I was privileged to be invited by him to preach at his retirement and he accepted my invitation to preach at mine. He is a close and valued friend.”