Missionary to Alaska | An Interview with Fr. Louis L. Renner, S.J., author of A Kindly Providence: An Alaskan Missionary's Story | October 14, 2008
Jesuit Father Louis L. Renner spent forty years of his priesthood as a missionary in Alaska. His autobiography, A Kindly Providence, recently published by Ignatius Press, is a beautifully written and captivating account of his years there. Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, interviewed Fr. Renner about his book, his life as a priest, and his time in Alaska.
Ignatius Insight: In the opening chapter, "Childhood on a North Dakota Farm," you write: "Religion was a major, an essential, part of our family life." In what ways did those early experiences prepare you to discern your vocation? When did you recognize that you wanted to be a priest? A Jesuit?
Fr. Renner: I can only say that the religious practices of my childhood on that North Dakota farm and the basic teachings of the catechism drilled into me at that time led to my eventually becoming a Jesuit and a priest in only a very general, seminal kind of way. They were the sowing of the seed that, under God's divine providence, was eventually to come to maturity in the form of a genuine vocation to Jesuit life and the priesthood. It was not until I was well into my junior year of high school, that I recognized, beyond a doubt, my call to be a Jesuit and a priest. For me, the two, while one is not the other, the two are inseparable.
Ignatius Insight: You developed a fascination with Alaska at a young age. How did that come about?
Fr. Renner: My interest in far-off places and adventure was awakened in me already in grade school by the study of geography. My interest in Alaska specifically was aroused, when I began attending Bellarmine High School in Tacoma, Washington, where I had classmates whose fathers and older brothers fished commercially in Alaskan waters during summers. Talking with these classmates got me thinking about fishing commercially in Alaska. I even made a bus trip to Seattle in hopes of getting a job on a fishing boat getting ready to sail for Alaska. To my disappointment, I found no skipper in need of my services. One day, in my sophomore year, in the Bellarmine library, I read an article by a Jesuit Alaskan missionary about his work in Alaska. That really got me thinking about Alaska, and even of going there as a missionary, if that were the only way for me to get there.
Ignatius Insight: You studied at several different universities around the world. What academic disciplines did you focus on in your studies and where did you pursue and obtain degrees?
Fr. Renner: In 1951, I received a master's degree in philosophy from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. By 1958, I had a licentiate degree and a master of Sacred Theology degree from Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California. To prepare myself linguistically to make my tertianship (the final year of Jesuit training) in Paray-le-Monial, France, I took an intensive six-week course in the French language at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
In August 1961, I took an intensive course in the German language at the University of Vienna. Late that fall, I began doctoral studies in philosophy at the University of Munich. By the summer of 1965, I had earned a doctorate in philosophy. Dogmatic theology and rational psychology were my minors on the doctoral level. (Did I meet future Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Munich? No! He received his doctorate from there a few years ahead of me.)
Why was I assigned to make my tertianship in Europe and to get that doctorate in philosophy? I was sent to Europe to complete my formal training as a Jesuit and to get that doctorate, so as to be better prepared to be a faculty member of the University of Fairbanks-Alaska. As it turned out, I taught little philosophy as such at the UA-F. For 15 years, I taught German, ending my career at the university as a Professor of German, Emeritus. My five years in Europe prepared me very well for that 15-year career at the UA-F. Just being in Europe, living in its major cities, seeing its major attractions, visiting its art galleries, attending its dramas and operas, praying at some of major shrines, hiking in its high country, sharing in everyday European life: all served to deepen my spiritual life and to broaden my cultural, academic, and intellectual horizons.
Ignatius Insight: How and when did you finally end up in Alaska? For how long did you live there?
Fr. Renner: When I entered the Society of Jesus in March 1944, I made it clearly known to Jesuit superiors that I hoped one day to serve as a missionary priest in Alaska—intending by "Alaska" the great northern part of the state, that 409,849 square mile area that comprises the Missionary Diocese of Fairbanks. Sometime after the school year 1957-58, it became known that Father Gordon L. Keys, S.J., who had taught at Monroe High School in Fairbanks, would no longer be available as a teacher at Monroe. By this time, my trunk was already packed and addressed to Port Townsend, Washington, where I was scheduled to make my tertianship.
On the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, July 31, I learned that I was to replace Father Keys at Monroe. The third week of August, in a four-motor, DC-6 piston engine Alaska Airlines plane, I was on my way to Fairbanks. This was my one and only non-jet flight to Alaska. The fact that that flight, a nonstop flight, took seven and a half hours made Alaska seem all the more remote, all the more exotic, to me. Alaska became the forty-ninth state of the union in January 1959. During my four decades in Alaska, it often gave me a degree of smug satisfaction to remind people, "latecomers," that I first came to Alaska "back in Territorial days, before statehood."
Ignatius Insight: What about Alaska surprised you? What about the people and culture of Alaska might surprise those who have never been there?
Fr. Renner: Again, Alaska is a very vast landmass. In my answers and comments, I refer only to that part of Alaska that today is coterminous with the Missionary Diocese of Fairbanks.
In reality, not all that much about Alaska surprised me. By the time I first arrived there, I had read a great deal about many aspects of Alaska, especially about the Catholic missions of northern Alaska. I must say, however, that I was impressed by the vastness of it all. I was impressed, too, by the weather extremes I encountered in Fairbanks (variations from the plus 90s in the summer to the minus 60s in the winter), and by the shortness of the winter days (less than three hours of sun above the horizon on the shortest days) versus the long summer days (less than three hours of sun below the horizon on the longest days).
I never ceased to be awed by the brilliance, the motion, the great variety of the northern lights. The wilderness and wildlife almost out the backdoor helped spell the Alaska I had dreamt off. The mosquitoes—legion and legendary—I soon learned to live with. As for the people and the culture of Alaska: Alaska has many peoples and many cultures. I found the Fairbanks community and its culture not all that different from that of any frontier white community of similar size. There were Alaska Natives, Indians and Eskimos, living in Fairbanks at the time I first came there, but, more or less, only on the fringes of society. I had contact with only a very few.
My first meetings with Eskimo communities—those of Bethel, Mountain Village, the King Islanders in Nome—gave me a feeling of "now I am in the real, genuine Alaska!" The first Eskimo dancing I witnessed, in Mountain Village, made a lasting impression on me. I am sure that what first impressed me, registered with me, as truly Alaskan, when I first went north, would be pretty much what would impress—surprise, if they knew very little about Alaska—any newcomer to Alaska, even today.
Ignatius Insight: What is the state of Catholicism in Alaska today? What are some of the unique challenges of being a priest and missionary in Alaska?
Fr. Renner: And again, we are speaking here only of Catholicism in the Missionary Diocese of Fairbanks. In terms of numbers: the diocese has 46 parishes served by 17 priests, 19 Eskimo deacons, and 7 urban deacons. The large majority of the parishes are "bush parishes," parish scattered far and wide among Alaska's indigenous peoples, Indians and Eskimos.
Only 8 parishes are accessible by road. Only 9 parishes have a resident pastor. Women religious, 14 sisters, too, minister in the diocese. The diocese has one K-12 Catholic school complex, that in Fairbanks. The vastness of the diocese, the widely scattered condition of the parishes, the fewness of priests means that the priests, even the resident priests, have to do a great deal of traveling—in most cases, now by bush plane, now by boat, now by snow machine. They have to be flexible, ready to move on short notice. And they have to be able to adjust to widely varying cultural situations.
Ignatius Insight: How did the writing and publication of your history of the Catholic Church in Alaska, Alaskana Catholica, come about?
Fr. Renner: In 1972, I solicited "memoirs, recollections, and reflections" from fellow Alaskan Jesuits with a view to helping someone write a history of the Jesuits in Alaska on the occasion of their century of service there, 1887-1987. By 1978, I had come to the conclusion that what was really needed was some kind of a general, comprehensive history of the Catholic Church in Alaska.
From a considerable number of people, mainly priests—diocesan and religious—I then solicited autobiographical sketches and materials I thought would be helpful to some historian undertaking the writing of such a history. The response was quite generous. I myself began producing mini biographies of prominent deceased Jesuit Alaska missionaries, but did not see myself yet as the one to write a general history of the Catholic Church in Alaska. However, people kept urging me to do just that, arguing that if I did not do it, it would never get done. In the latter 1970s, I was still a fulltime faculty member at the University of Alaska. In 1981, I was appointed head of the Alaskan Shepherd fundraising program and editor of the Alaskan Shepherd. From 1983-87, I had the pastoral care of the Indian village of Ruby; then, from 1987-92, that of the Indian village of Tanana. My Alaskan Shepherd work, however, continued to be my main work.
For several years during the earlier 1990s, I devoted a limited amount of time to prison ministry. In spite of these preoccupations, throughout most of the 1990s, I kept roughing out entries for a projected history of the Catholic Church in Alaska. I envisioned this from the outset as a book in the format of an encyclopedia and was already, tentatively, calling it Alaskana Catholica. All the while, it was evident to me and to my Father Provincial at the time, Robert B. Grimm, that for me to produce a full-fledged publishable work, I would need to devote fulltime to it and would need to do rather extensive research in the Jesuit Oregon Province Archives in Spokane.
On February 26, 2002, Father Grimm wrote to me: "Now is the time for you to take up a new mission. I mission you to continue your work of writing a history of the Catholic Church in Alaska, and ask you to go to Gonzaga University Jesuit Community as a scholar in residence to carry out this ministry." Alaskana Catholica—a volume of over 700 pages, richly illustrated—was designed and produced by The Arthur H. Clark Company in 2005. Father Francis Paul Prucha, S.J., Professor of History, Emeritus, of Marquette University, found Alaskana Catholica "a fascinating volume, a fact-filled account of people and places with a wonderful array of characters, a valuable work." Donald J. Kettler, Bishop of Fairbanks, described Alaskana Catholica, as "a succinct, yet comprehensive guide detailing in total clarity and conciseness the history of the Catholic Church in Alaska."
In my Preface to the book I wrote: "One of the main intents of this volume is to keep alive for posterity the memory of many major Catholic Alaskan figures—clerical and lay, Native and non-Native, living and deceased—by the recording of their lives and deeds." The Preface ends: "Alaskana Catholica reflects my esteem and respect for people and matters both Catholic and Alaskan. In keeping with my intentions and hopes, may it inform, interest, and inspire the living, while it, at the same time, keeps alive and honors the memory of the dead."
Ignatius Insight: What are some of the things that you learned about missions and missionary work from your time in Alaska?
Fr. Renner: One could write a great deal by way of an answer to this question. Very briefly, I learned that the missionary to the indigenous peoples in Alaska needs, above all else, to know them: to know something about their origins, to know and have some understanding of their traditional cultures, to know and have some understanding of them in their present circumstances. Unless he has a genuine respect for them, treats them as he himself would be treated, he cannot hope even to begin to "to proclaim the good news to all Alaskan peoples and make disciples of all Alaskan nations."
Ignatius Insight: What kind of readers do you think will find your autobiography interesting reading?
Fr. Renner: Given that the contents of the book are really of broad, general human interest, I am confident that it will appeal to quite a wide general readership.
Inasmuch as it is the story of a priest, of a Jesuit priest, of a Jesuit priest missionary in Alaska, it is to be expected that it will appeal in particular to priests, to Jesuits, to missionary-minded people, and to any and all people interested in the great land that is Alaska.
However, in general, it will appeal also, for example, to teenagers working to earn money to help with their schooling. They will relate to me, as I, while a teenager, worked for that same purpose as a newspaper boy, as a Western Union messenger boy, as a lumberyard crane crew member on the Northern Pacific Railway, as a general laborer in a meat-packing plant, as a deckhand on tugboats, and as a bonded postal clerk.
Athletes will understand my proudly sporting that chenille letter I earned as a sophomore playing varsity football. Young people struggling to find their vocation in life will relate to me, as I struggled to find my vocation in life. People working toward advanced academic degrees will be in sympathy with me, as I anguished along the road that finally ended with my having a doctoral degree in hand. Teachers and academics will easily identify with me as a classroom teacher, teaching first in an all-boys high school, then in a coed high school, then, for 15 years, in a state university. As they read about my post-university career, fundraisers, and editors of periodicals, as well as writers of articles and of books, will be able to see themselves sitting in a little office at a desk bent over a keyboard. People who have traveled in Europe will recall with delight many of the wonders of Europe that they themselves experienced.
Alaska and genuine adventure are virtually inseparable. Reading through A Kindly Providence, readers will find themselves accompanying the author, as he hikes the historic Chilkoot Trail, travels with Eskimos in their skin boats to King Island and Little Diomede Island in Bering Strait, flies countless hours in small planes to various Alaskan "bush" villages, drives the wilderness roads of the North, solo climbs the highest peak on the Seward Peninsula, rubber rafts the Copper River from Chitina to Cordova, goes on sheep hunts in the high country, and fishes commercially for salmon in Bristol Bay. The adventures, especially, are so written up, as to give the reader a sense of actually being a part of a given adventure. St. Therese, the patroness of the Alaska missions, wrote her Story of a Soul. While A Kindly Providence does have much of soul in it, it, being an Alaskan missionary's story, has also much of adventure in it.
Ignatius Insight: You've been at Gonzaga since 2002, and have completed two books there. Do you plan on writing more books?
Fr. Renner: At present, October 2008, I have no book-writing project in mind. But, one never knows. As I dig around in the Jesuit Oregon Province Archives, I may find material motivating me to write another book. More likely I will produce some more publishable articles. I might mention here, that Alaska History has accepted for publication my article about the early-day Alaska Catholic mission boats.
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