Archbishop Paul Etienne has become known as a bishop of the American frontier. These days, there isn’t much more of a “frontier” than Alaska. In an incredibly appropriate move, in October Pope Francis named Etienne to the Archdiocese of Anchorage, where he was installed as archbishop in early November.
Archbishop Etienne (pronounced “AY-chen”) had been the bishop of Cheyenne—Wyoming’s statewide diocese—since 2009; it was his first episcopal assignment, received at the tender age of 50. Ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Archbishop Etienne has two brothers who are priests and a sister who is a religious. As archbishop of Anchorage, he is now the metropolitan over a province that includes Alaska’s other two dioceses, Juneau and Fairbanks.
Archbishop Etienne succeeded Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz, a pilot who flew himself around his archdiocese and recently took up pastorship of a parish, a role he will fill after his retirement as archbishop.
Archbishop Etienne spoke with CWR by telephone in late November.
CWR: How are you finding Alaska so far?
Archbishop Paul Etienne: Well, the people have just been wonderful. They’re very warm, and they have made my entry here a very good experience. And I’m finding that the faithful are full of faith. I find it to be a pretty joyful place as well. The liturgies are always uplifting—good music, good participation. So that’s been great.
CWR: It’s interesting that you say you find the people “warm,” which is probably especially welcoming when you’re in Alaska in November.
Archbishop Etienne: [laughs] Exactly.
CWR: It’s encouraging to hear about the level of faithfulness, because I think there’s only something like 35,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Anchorage. Is that right?
Archbishop Etienne: Well, the number seems to be a moving target. I just this morning was visiting with my vice-chancellor and she’s submitting numbers to the annual Kennedy directory, and it looks like the number we’re going to submit this year is less than 23,000. But it’s with the knowledge that a lot of people just don’t register today. So it’s kind of hard to know how many Catholics there really are.
CWR: How many Catholics are in the Diocese of Cheyenne?
Archbishop Etienne: We estimated there—again, with the same struggles of knowing how many there really are—between 55,000 and 58,000.
CWR: So—at least as far as your official estimate—the number of Catholics is half as many as in your last diocese, but geographically you’re adding half-again the square miles, going from 98,000 square miles to 140,000 square miles. Plus, it’s a metropolitan see, so you have all of those responsibilities as well. You’ve only been installed a few weeks now, but have you had any surprising challenges from any of those changes so far?
Archbishop Etienne: Just this week—last night—I began a round of visits to parishes. I was in one of the parishes last night for Mass and a reception, I’ll be in another one tonight; so right now my focus is just getting to know this archdiocese. …
I didn’t even make it to Baltimore for the bishops’ meeting, because one of the bishops that came for the installation ended up very sick and I ended up staying with him, caring for him in the hospital for 12 days after that. So that added to the lack of normalcy, if you will, and the lack of my ability to really hit the ground running. …
I’m sure there are some issues that I will be discussing with the other bishops of Alaska, and I’m told that they enjoy a very strong fraternity here. Not only bishops with bishops, but bishops with the priests, and bishops with priests beyond the diocesan boundaries. I think because of the challenges of this state, and the vast distances that are involved, there’s been a very intentional focus on sustaining that kind of priestly fraternity. And I’m very grateful for that.
CWR: Is your predecessor, Archbishop Schwietz, going to stay in the area and assist you?
Archbishop Etienne: He is. We [face] a pretty regular challenge of finding enough priests to cover all the bases, so when he made the last round of pastor appointments in July, he actually appointed himself pastor of one of the local parishes just north of Anchorage, and has one of the newer-ordained priests with him as an associate. He’s going to be very active as a local pastor in his archbishop-emeritus status. And I’m very glad that he has chosen to stay in Anchorage after his stepping down from the active role of archbishop and still serve as an active pastor in the archdiocese, which is great. And I’m really looking forward to growing that relationship and growing in fraternity with another brother bishop here in Anchorage itself.
CWR: I can imagine it will be nice to have the help of another bishop in that archdiocese, to assist with duties that are specific to the bishop.
Archbishop Etienne: Absolutely, I mean just for the closing of the Holy Doors with a cathedral and a co-cathedral, he closed one of the Holy Doors the same morning that I took the other church. So even that was handy. And I’m sure with confirmations and other things that will be a real blessing to have him here to help cover some of the bases.
CWR: I’ve heard that he would fly around in his own plane to get to some of the farther reaches of the archdiocese.
Archbishop Etienne: He did have his pilot’s license; he’s not been flying for about three years, I believe. And I don’t have any intentions of getting a pilot’s license while I’m here! [laughs]
CWR: My understanding is that some of the places in that archdiocese are pretty difficult to get to.
Archbishop Etienne: There are some of the places where the only way to get to them is by plane. It’s pretty easy up here to charter a plane to fly out, do your business, and they bring you back. Weather permitting. [laughs]
CWR: Do you know how many parishes there are in the archdiocese?
Archbishop Etienne: I think we count 29 parishes and missions in the archdiocese. … I’m certainly going to get to the ones that are more easily accessible between now and the end of February, but there is a hope that within the first year I will be able to get out to all of them.
CWR: It’s so important to have that personal interaction with your flock, and not just be a face on the website and in the paper.
Archbishop Etienne: Exactly. And I want to get into the tiniest little missions and villages as well. There are still one or two priests in the archdiocese that fly, and I am looking forward to visiting those parishes and maybe taking a couple of extra days there to be able to fly into some of these villages and meet the people, where we probably don’t actually have a church or a mission but where we still try to maintain some kind of a presence.
CWR: I’ve heard that when you got the call from Archbishop Sambi [then-nuncio to the United States] appointing you bishop of Cheyenne you were cutting down trees on family property, and that you and your brothers, who also became priests, gave each other hunting rifles as ordination presents. You’re an avid fly fisherman, a big outdoorsman. Are you excited about the opportunity to explore and enjoy the wilderness of Alaska?
Archbishop Etienne: Well, I just love the outdoors. And I am very excited about traveling outside of Anchorage, into the archdiocese, just to see the lay of the land. I drove up last week to Wasilla, which is about an hour drive north of Anchorage. Spent the night there with the pastor and celebrated Thanksgiving Mass there Thursday morning with the community at Sacred Heart, and just seeing the vastness of this country and the mountains, I’m very anxious to see as much of the country as I can. And I’m very interested, as well, to get into the small villages, to be able to be present where the people live, to learn more about their traditions and their way of life, and to continue to preach the Gospel in the most practical (or impractical) of places, if you will.
On a very personal level, I’m also very anxious to meet people in their settings—whether it’s the parishes, or the villages in the outlying areas. I’m just anxious to get to know the people and their traditions, and their way of life, especially when you think of the various native groups that are represented and that populate the state. And on a practical level I am anxious to meet people who can show me where the good fishing places are, and go on hikes and really get into the wilderness itself, and just to experience the vastness of the raw beauty of God’s creation and nature.
CWR: You led the statewide diocese of Cheyenne for seven years—at this point, what are you already missing about Cheyenne? What are you feeling homesick for?
Archbishop Etienne: Well, I’ve been praying a lot about that in the last couple of days. Obviously, I’m here now, I am installed, but it’s going to take it a while for it to feel like I’m home. You know, the first thing that comes to mind is just the chapel, the place where I pray on a daily basis—it takes a while to find that space again. But you know, God’s present in the grandest of cathedrals, and present in the Blessed Sacrament in the most humble mission church in the world. So the surroundings are just that: the surroundings. I have to keep reminding myself that when I go to prayer, I’m going to the Lord, not necessarily to a particular place. As important as time and space and regularity are in prayer, fundamentally it’s about going to the Lord himself and being present to the one who loves me more than I can ever imagine.
I was kind of lamenting the other night that it takes some time to get to know a diocesan-wide church, to get to know the people, to know the places, to know the way of life, and the various traditions. I’ve left that all behind, and I’m starting all over again. So it just makes one uncomfortable; that’s the nature of change. Not that it’s a bad uncomfortable, but it’s just the unsettling reality of being uprooted and transplanted into another portion of God’s family. So that’s the growing pain that I’m living with at the moment. But there’s excitement that’s a part of that as well, and that’s where I’m trying to keep my focus.
I remember saying in the press conference when I was introduced here that the Lord is my home, the Church is my home. And wherever the Lord leads me, that’s where I will find my home and that’s where I will make my home. And I firmly believe that: this is where the Lord has led me, through the invitation and appointment of Pope Francis. And I trust this is where the Lord is making a new home for me. And I’m very grateful to the people of Alaska and of the Archdiocese of Anchorage who have welcomed me to their home, and they’re helping me to make this my home, too.