Tuesday, September 9, 2008

History: Saint Theresa Catholic Church

By Gig Currier
Naknek, South Naknek, and King Salmon, Alaska

In 1948 Father George Endal, S.J., traveled from the Lower Yukon to Naknek Army Air Field (now King Salmon Air Station) to establish a Catholic mission.

Father Endal traveled to this area from his Dillingham station as time and weather permitted. CB Radios, telephones and word of mouth provided Mass location and time. Naknek Army Air Field had an interdenominational chapel and provided lodging for visiting celery.

In the Village of Naknek, Mass was celebrated in homes with the priest often spending the night with the host family.

On September 17, 1953, 8 people were confirmed by Bishop Francis Gleenson, S.J., at Naknek Army Air Field.

In the early 1950s, A.W. “Winn” Brindle, owner of Wards Cove and superintendent of Red Salmon Cannery, donated a small building and land to the Catholic Naknek community.

The little building had been used as Red Salmon’s radio/telegraphic office. As the years went by devoted parishioners made many repairs, built pews, painted the little building its recognizable blue and added a bell tower. There was small loft for the priest if he got weathered in Naknek.



During the winter months the oil stove would be put into service the night before Mass in hopes of warming the Church enough not to freeze the wine or parishioners. Often however, the stove just couldn’t keep up with winds and below zero temperatures so coats, hats, sweaters, sweatshirts, ear-muffs, scarves, gloves, mittens and warm boots were Sunday Mass attire.

Visiting and stationed priests from Dillingham’s Holy Rosary Church came to minister to Naknek, South Naknek & King Salmon’s St. Theresa’s Catholic Mission.

Over the years many priests and sisters served the area, contributing and encouraging the Catholic community’s continuity and growth. Father Harold Greif, S.J., 1952-1967; Father Bill Dibb, S.J., 1962-64, 1966-1968 & 1998 to late 1990s; Father Norman Donohue, S.J.,1964-66.

The last years of the 1960s and through the 1970s: Father Richard Smith, O.S.A., priest-pilot, 1978-83; AFB Chaplin Father Dennis Cox 1977-79; Father John Tyma, O.S.A., priest-pilot, 1983-86. Father James (Jim) Kelley, 1991-2002; Father LeRoy “Clem” Clementich, C.S.C., 2002-05; Father Scott Garrett, 2005 to present.

In the 1970s Sisters of St. Ann, Ida Braasseur and Margaret Cantwell and starting 1986, Sister Marie Ann Brent, S.H.F. would fly to St. Theresa’s offering Liturgy of the Word with Communion Service, religious education classes, Bible study, support and encouragement. Lay Presider, Barbara Jane (B.J.) Hill, provided Communion Services when sisters or priests were not able to travel to the area.

In the early 1990s parishioners’ hard work, determination, perseverance, foresight and commitment, with Joann Bradford as a driving force, built St. Theresa’s Catholic Church located mid-way between Naknek and King Salmon.

Construction, along with many generous and valued caring contributions, was by Clinton “Bud” Woodard. Dedicated with pride on June 5, 1994, the beautifully designed Church, with awe inspiring views, has a downstairs gathering area with all amenities and dependable heat.


Thanks to Father Jim Kelley’s “outside” connections and appeals, St. Theresa’s is furnished with comfortable pews, priest vestments, altar cloths, Tabernacle, candle-holders, Blessed Virgin Mary statue, and even seasonal decorations.

Parishioner Pat Krepel skillfully crafted the ambo and the Krepel family donated the tall candle holders beside the altar. Father LeRoy Clementich’s Seward family donated the hymn board and ambry for the holy oils.

Area History

The original Village named “Kinuyak” was spelled “Naknek” by the Russian Navy occupying a Fort near the Village. With the Homestead Act of 1862 the Russian Orthodox Church acquired land on the north bank of the river and a Village developed around the Church.

The first salmon cannery opened on the Naknek River in 1890 and by 1900 there were +-12 canneries in Bristol Bay. Naknek and South Naknek, south bank of the river, developed into major fisheries. Naknek’s U.S. Post office was established in 1907.

Built near the Naknek River and 15 miles upstream from the Village, the Naknek Army Air Field began as a satellite field for the Army Air Forces in World War II. Construction began on July 1, 1942. Naknek Army Air Field supported operations throughout Alaska, especially the Alaska-Siberia aircraft ferry route.

Over the years the Naknek Army Air Field expanded with 8,500 ft. runway, numerous buildings, military operations, installations, personnel, businesses, and established post office in 1949. The Airfield was renamed King Salmon Air Station in 1954-55.

A “pioneer” road linked Naknek Village to the Army Air Field for many years. In 1949 to the early 1950s the U.S. Corps of Engineers, using the existing road bed, constructed the 15 mile Alaska Peninsula Highway between King Salmon and Naknek.

In 1962 Bristol Bay Borough, encompassing Naknek, South Naknek and King Salmon, was formed becoming the State of Alaska’s first Borough. The School District was established in 1968.

The Archdiocese of Anchorage was established February 9, 1966 with Dillingham, Naknek, South Naknek and King Salmon in Anchorage’s boundaries. Bishop Francis Hurley was named Archbishop of Anchorage in May 1996.

Archbishop Hurley, a pilot, encouraged and supported Catholic ministry in the smaller and more remote communities of the Diocese. As he implemented the reforms of Vatican II, he realized the value and promoted more active roles for lay people in the Church.

Improved air travel allowed priests and sisters, based in larger communities, to schedule visits on a regular basis to support and minister to small groups of Catholics in remote areas.

In March of 1991, in keeping with his on-going commitment to expand Catholic ministries in remote communities, now retired Archbishop Francis Hurley invited retired Navy chaplain Father James Kelley, priest-pilot, to serve in Alaska. Father Kelley, as an Archdiocese “supply priest”, served St. Theresa’s and Holy Rosary Church.

In 1993 Father Kelley became pastor of Holy Rosary Parish, which encompassed many villages, and St. Theresa’s Mission. His piloting skills were put to use flying Diocesan planes, “St. Paul and St. Peter.” His parish was the “largest in the world, and he enjoyed serving people from one end to the other, all 33,000 miles.”


Dillingham, Clarks Point, Naknek, South Naknek,
King Salmon, Igiugig, Levelock, Iliamna, Togiak, Sand Point

On March 23, 2002, while flying to celebrate Palm Sunday Masses in the Togiak area, Father Kelley tragically perished in a plane crash.

Father LeRoy, “Clem” Clementich, C.S.C, Anchorage supply priest, began serving the area April 6, 2002.

In August 2005 Father Scott Garrett was appointed pastor of Holy Rosary Parish and St. Theresa’s Mission. He is currently Bristol Bay’s circuit-riding priest.

3 comments:

Sandy Alvarez said...

Very nice history information. Lots of things I didn't know even after living around here for almost thirty years.
Sandy Alvarez

Holy Rosary Mission said...

Sandy, Gig did a great job with this history, we really miss her around St. Theresa, she moved away last month...Fr. Scott

mcckelly16 said...

I'm so glad to see that Katmai has a Catholic presence. My dear daughter and her new husband (getting married 4/18/09) will be park rangers there this May and I was concerned that she'd go all summer without the sacraments. Praise be Jesus Christ and his holy Mother for answering this Mom's prayer. And thanks for this lovely site. Mary Kelly, Jerome MI