Archbishop Paul Etienne is seen Nov. 9 after his installation as archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral in Anchorage. (CNS photo/Ron Nicholl, Catholic Anchor)
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 CheyenneWyoming’s statewide diocesesince 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 Etienne spoke with CWR by telephone in
CWR: How are you finding Alaska so far?
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 upliftinggood
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.
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?
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?
Etienne: We estimated thereagain, with the same
struggles of knowing how many there really arebetween 55,000 and 58,000.
CWR: Soat least as far as your official estimatethe 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?
Etienne: Just this weeklast nightI 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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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?
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 settingswhether 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 yearsat this
point, what are you already missing about Cheyenne? What are you feeling homesick
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
basisit 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
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
they’re helping me to make this my home, too.