After eight years of parish work in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Father Joe Classen answered another call in 2011: serving the faithful in Alaska. America’s northernmost state is always in need of priests, so Father Classen, who has enjoyed outdoor adventures his whole life, jumped at the opportunity to voyage north for domestic missionary work. And not just face-to-face, either; soon after his arrival, he helped to launch a local Catholic station that is now broadcasting Seattle-based Sacred Heart Radio to Alaskan listeners.
Father Classen has written four books, the most recent of which is The Essentials of Catholic Spirituality: Living and Breathing Our Faith (Alba House, 2011). Currently on a hiatus from writing, his main hobby now is wildlife photography on Kodiak Island, where he need not travel far for fascinating photos. This is made quite clear with the enormous “St. Mary’s Bear” who visits his parish rather frequently.
Father Classen spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie in time for the Nov. 30 feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle (a patron of fishermen who is popular in Alaska).
When did you first want to become a priest?
The human inspiration for me wanting to become a priest was Msgr. Michael Owens, our parish priest at St. Charles Borromeo parish in St. Charles, Mo. He had been a military chaplain in World War II, which impressed me, but so did his work in our community. He was dedicated first and foremost to the Mass, which influenced me greatly.
I remember as a young boy serving at Mass and knowing that something profound and transcendent was taking place at the altar. The reality present before me blew me away, and it was then that I planned on becoming a priest.
In junior high and high school, I was distracted and drifted a bit. I stopped praying, and doubts entered my mind, not only about my vocation, but about God in general. This lasted even into the first two years of college at Central Missouri State University, but it was there that I started to pray again and really search for what was true.
My search led me back to where I had started: in the Catholic Church. The possibility of my priestly vocation came back, and I entered the Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis. This was a great but challenging time of learning and formation, and it culminated in my 2003 ordination.
What took you from St. Louis to Kodiak Island, Alaska?
Alaska is always in need of priests. Very few of the priests up here are actually from the state of Alaska. There are priests from the lower states, as well as the Philippines, Poland and Africa.
The change in climate and way of life can be very challenging, and in fact, some priests from Africa recently went back home early.
I had been to Alaska many times before my arrival in 2011, so I knew what to expect. As a boy, I thought of living on Kodiak Island as being the ultimate fantasy. Now I’m living that out in reality, at least until 2014, when I’m scheduled to go back to St. Louis.
Because St. Louis has an abundance of priests — relatively speaking — and because of the relationship between Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis and Archbishop Roger Schwietz of Anchorage (they were high-school classmates and remain friends), it was easy for me to volunteer when a letter was sent around asking if any priests would be willing to come up here.
It’s a great way to serve the people of God in a completely different context than most of us are used to.
What are some of the main differences between St. Louis and Kodiak Island?
The surroundings are obviously a lot different. Here on Kodiak Island, we have brown bears, eagles (some of which I can see right now trying to prey on smaller birds) and, of course, many large fish and king crab in the water. There are mountains and forests, and the entire layout is more expansive. The island is almost 3,600 square miles, which is in sharp contrast to the city of St. Louis, which is about 66 square miles. The population density, as you can imagine, is quite different as well.
We have an extremely diverse group of parishioners here at St. Mary’s parish. There are Russians, Poles, Filipinos, Samoans and Mexicans here to work in the fishing industry, which is the major source of jobs on the island. It is a tough industry, with many days and nights spent on fishing boats and in canneries. It’s not only physically demanding, but also mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
That was a major reason you wanted to have Catholic radio up there, right?
Certainly. I had done some radio programs out of St. Louis, in association with Tony Holman of Covenant Network. The immeasurable benefit of Catholic radio was plain as day, so I was thinking of bringing it to Anchorage, which has many more people than we do on the island. However, there was a permit readily available for Kodiak Island, so we pursued that instead.
I knew Sacred Heart Radio began about 11 years previously in Seattle, Wash., and then expanded across the state to Spokane in 2005. Tony contacted Ron Belter, the general manager of Sacred Heart Radio, who was happy as a clam about the possibility of sending the radio signal up here. The whole thing was an idea in my mind for six to nine months, but once Ron was asked about getting it started, it all came about very quickly.
The first day of broadcasting was June 24, 2012, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, also known as “the voice crying out in the wilderness.” Now we are very happy to have a Catholic voice in KBKO 88.3 FM.
You’ve written a book called Hunting for God, Fishing for the Lord (Our Sunday Visitor, 2006). What hunting and fishing adventures have you had in Alaska?
Years ago, I had many hunting and fishing adventures here, but now there’s no need to go on a planned trip to encounter wildlife. I’m actually becoming more and more acquainted with a huge brown bear (he’s 10-feet tall) right here at St. Mary’s. I’ve kept the Fish and Game Department and Wildlife Troopers up to date on the bear’s whereabouts, in part with a trail camera.
One of the challenges with this “St. Mary’s Bear” is that he doesn’t hibernate. There’s no need to do that here, because the bears have a year-round food supply. Even with a bad salmon run this year, bears can still kill a deer or raid a dumpster quite easily.
Despite their imposing appearance and actual ability to harm us, coastal brown bears are generally well-behaved animals, if you don’t get in their personal space or that of their family and if you don’t mess with their food. If you keep your distance, things generally go okay, but sometimes it’s a matter of adjusting to the bear coming into your own space when he’s looking for food.
That’s what has been happening at St. Mary’s, where we’ve had some bear lockdowns in the school. Every couple of years, there’s a mauling on the island, but we’ve only had one bear-related death in the last 90 years.
What can be scarier than bears, though, is the price of goods in some places in Alaska. Although it’s not too bad here, there are some more remote places in Alaska, such as Bethel, where a gallon of milk is $11.
You’ve started a website to showcase photographs you’ve taken of wildlife all over the United States and Canada. How has that been going?
I’ve been taking photos of beautiful scenery and animals for years, and now there’s a special emphasis on what’s found here in Alaska. I put the photos on the new website so people can purchase them. The money raised goes to charities.
It’s an interesting dynamic found in nature around the world, but in a special way up here. On the one hand, there is the indescribable beauty of nature, but on the other hand, there can be the indescribable tragedy that can occur in that very nature.
When I first came up here, I was told that, "Calamities people in the other states face once in a lifetime happen up here every week. If you don’t know someone who’s died a tragic death, you will before the year is out." We have a memorial service every spring for the fishermen who lost their lives the previous year. It’s a very dangerous business, which contrasts with the splendor around us.
It’s also a reminder that you have to be prepared and ready for anything at anytime. A simple outing can turn dangerous or even deadly if you aren’t ready for it. The same is true in the spiritual life: You have to be ready for whatever might happen. Readiness comes from various means, but most especially from prayer. A constant prayer life gives us the grace we need to deal with any undertaking.
You were privileged to bring with you to Alaska a chalice that your childhood parish priest, Msgr. Owens, used. What does that mean to you?
It’s great to have a physical memory of Msgr. Owens, since he played such a large role in my vocation. He died in 1988, long before I was ordained, but I tried to find his chalice before getting out of the seminary. That didn’t happen, although before I came up here last year, I was able to find it through the help of Kathy Kasprzyk, a former St. Charles Borromeo parish employee. From her information, I was able to identify Father Thomas Begley as the one who would know about the chalice. It took a while, but we eventually found it, and I knew Kathy would be thrilled to hear about it.
However, as Providence would have it, she died the very day I received the chalice, which was also the anniversary of Msgr. Owens’ death. The first time I used the chalice was at Kathy’s funeral.
Time passes, and many things change, but some things never change, regardless of where you are. The chalice is symbolic of that, pointing to the truth that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. He unceasingly searches us out and makes himself present in the Eucharist at every Mass.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.