Return to Home 
Research Center Directory 





Prior to the cession of Alaska to the United States, no Catholic priest had sojourned in the territory. In 1872, Francis Mercier, chief agent of the Alaska Commercial Company at Nuklukhoyit, alarmed at the constantly threatening of the Ten'a on the Yukon and Tanana, took steps to introduce Catholic missionaries among them. He invited the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to take up the work. In the autumn of 1871, Bishop Clut, of the Athabascan-MacKenzie district, with two companions, Father Lecorre and an Indian interpreter named Silvar, crossed over the mountains and wintered at Fort Yukon. The following spring the three sailed down the Yukon river to Nuklukhoyit, where they met a large number of natives from Tanana and Koyokuk districts. They then continued their journey down the river, instructing both Ten'a and Eskimo adults and baptizing their children.

Notwithstanding the opposition shown by the Shamans and the Russianized natives, the Oblates considered the prospects so bright that they decided to establish stations on the Yukon. After spending a year in reconnoitering, Bishop Clut returned to his own missions, leaving Father Lecorre in residence at St. Michael at the mouth of the river. The missionary stayed there until 1874, when the news came to him that the spiritual jurisdiction of the Alaskan territory had been entrusted to the Bishop of Victoria, the saintly Charles John Seghers, who ultimately gave up his life in the work.

In July, 1877, this prelate, with one companion, Father Mandart, made a preliminary voyage to St. Michael, and went up the river as far as Nulato. During the following winter he visited many native villages, and in doing so underwent severe privations. Before his return to civilization, he promised the Ten'a that he would establish missions among them. In the interval, Bishop Seghers was transferred to Oregon City as Coadjutor to Archbishop Blanchet. However, his first visit to Alaska produced immediate results.

In 1878, Father Althoff went to reside at Wrangel, in southeastern Alaska, from which he visited the Cassiar country and the coast. He was transferred to Juneau in 1885, were he was joined by Father Heynen, who was sent to aid him in his labours at Sitka. These two apostolic men were the pioneers of the Church in southeastern Alaska. They lived in a log cabin, in the utter isolation of primitive missionary life, preaching the gospel to Thlinket and white man alike. In September, 1886, Father Althoff brought to Juneau the Sisters of St. Ann, for the service of the new hospital, and thenceforth always ascribed his success to their faithful co-operation. The names of those devoted women — Sister M. Zeno, Sister M. Bonsecours, and Sister M. Victor — deserve to be recorded.

Bishop Seghers had meanwhile secured his reappointment to the See of Victoria, and resumed his plans, long delayed, for the conversion of the Alaskan tribes. He invited the Society of Jesus to undertake the work of evangelizing the territory. In July of that year, the prelate — now Archbishop Seghers — accompanied by two Jesuits, Father Pascal Tosi and Aloysius Robaut, and a hired man named Fuller, started over the Chilcoot Pass for the headwaters of the Yukon.

It was decided that the two Jesuits should remain for the winter at the mouth of the Stewart river, while the Bishop, with the servant Fuller, should proceed in haste to Nulato, not only to keep the promise he had made to the Ten'a six years previously, but to forestall the members of a sect who contemplated establishing themselves at that spot. During the 1,100-mile journey, Fuller developed symptoms of insanity, and at times threatened the Archbishop insolently. At Yessetlatoh, near the mouth of the Koyukuk, they took up quarters in an abandoned fishing cabin. On the morning of 25 November Fuller aroused the prelate from his sleep, pointed a rifle at him and shot him through the heart. Death was instantaneous. The remains of the murdered Archbishop were taken down the Yukon river to St. Michael, whence, two years later, they were transferred to the crypt of the cathedral in Victoria, B.C. The murderer was subsequently tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. This tragedy changed the condition of mission work in Alaska; new and complicated problems presented themselves to the Jesuits.

Father Tosi went to Europe, where he met the President of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith at Lyons, who contributed $4,000 towards the support of the Alaskan missions. A decree of the Propaganda, dated 17 July, 1894, raised Alaska to a Prefecture Apostolic, with Father Tosi, S.J. as the first incumbent of the office. He exercised his duties as prefect Apostolic until March, 1897, when he resigned, owing to failing health, and died, at the age of 51, at Juneau, 14 January, 1898. The Very Rev. John B. René, S. J., was appointed to his place. He resigned in March, 1904, and was succeeded by the present incumbent, the Very Rev. Joseph R. Crimont. The conditions of the Alaskan mission have changed greatly since the advent of the first missionaries.

The discovery of placer-gold mines, and the influx of miners into Alaska robbed Alaska of much of its primitive isolation. There are resident Jesuit priests at Juneau, Douglas, Fairbanks, Nome, Skagway, St. Michael and Seward. From these centers, white missions are attended at Ketchikan, Wrangel, Eagle City, Circle City, Forty Mile Post, Golden City, Council City, Sitka, Haines, Valdez, Chenilia, Kliketari, Pastolic, Picmetallic, Steben, etc. Among the native tribes there have also been missions, exclusively Ten'a, on the Yukon at Koserefsky and Nulato.  The Eskimos in the Nome district on the Kuskokwim and in the Yukon Delta are also attended by Jesuit Fathers and Brothers. In southeastern Alaska, owing to lack of men and means, no Catholic mission among the Thlinkets have yet been established. A training-school for boys and girls exists at Holy Cross mission near Koserefsky. The girls are under the care of the Sisters of St. Ann. These native children are taught the arts of cooking, sewing, etc., the boys, with the Jesuit lay brothers as instructors, are taught gardening, carpentry, and smithing of various kinds. The lives of the missionaries who are devoting themselves exclusively to the native population are lives of intense isolation, but their personal sufferings and inconveniences count for little when there are souls to be saved.

Source:  Crimont, Joseph. "Alaska." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.




©Copyright 2014 Alaska Trails to the Past All Rights Reserved
For more information contact the Webmistress