Friday, October 5, 2012

Founder of the Alaska Mission

Last week I was privileged to hear Mr. Mario Bird, an Anchorage local who was a teacher at Holy Rosary Academy here before going to law school at Ave Maria, speak at our monthly Theology and Brew.  The topic was the life of Archbishop Charles Seghers, founder of the Alaska Mission.  If you've never heard of Archbishop Seghers, who was Bishop of Victoria Island (now Diocese of Vancouver) , then Archbishop of Oregon City (now Archdiocese of Portland).  He requested to be transferred back to Victoria Island, despite the move being a demotion in rank as it was not an archdiocese, in order to continue his missionary work to Alaska.  He had also been an attendee at the First Vatican Council and the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, and in Oregon he is remembered for his staunch defense of Catholic education against the encroachment of government schools, and for his invitation to the Benedictines which resulted in the establishment of Mount Angel Abbey.

During his first tenure as Bishop of Victoria Island, he had established a mission at Nulato, AK, called "Our Lady of the Snows." During his second tenure, he established missions at Juneau and Sitka.  He was greatly desirous of returning to Nulato, since he had promised the people there that he would come back, and undertook one more journey into the interior of the territory.  Unfortunately, he chose poorly in the matter of a traveling companion.  He set out with two Jesuits and a layman called Frank Fuller who was well-known to the Jesuits, because he had worked as a teacher and handyman at several of their establishments in the Northwest (including at Gonzaga, my own alma mater).  Fuller had several times requested admittance to the Jesuit Order but had been refused because they thought him unstable.

As winter came on, the Archbishop left the two Jesuits behind and continued on with only Fuller and two native guides.  Fuller's behavior became increasingly erratic, as noted in Seghers's diary, and on November 27, Fuller shot and killed Seghers with the archbishop's own rifle.  Bishop Seghers was only 46 years old at his death (he had been consecrated a bishop at the very early age of 33).

Seghers probably will never be considered a martyr, since the man who killed him was mentally unstable and since the archbishop had chosen him as a traveling companion against the advice of others who knew Fuller.  Nevertheless, the dramatic manner of the archbishop's death stirred up interest in missionary work in Alaska, and mission work is ongoing.

There is a small but growing movement asking that Archbishop Seghers's cause for canonization be opened.  If you want to know more about him, two biographies exist, one of which tends toward the hagiographical and the other which plays a Devil's advocate type of role.  Even the latter acknowledges Seghers's humility and zeal for souls.

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