Nov. 15, 2013, edition
By Bill Vossler
For The Visitor

During his 11-year bishopric in Fairbanks, Alaska, Bishop Donald Kettler impressed Alaskans in many ways. One was by journeying out to remote villages in the 400,000 square mile diocese, said Robert Hannon, chancellor of the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska.


Artwork courtesy of the Diocese of Fairbanks

“Traveling in small aircraft and snow machines at minus 30 Fahrenheit with only three hours of daylight takes it out of anyone,” Hannon said. “Yet, he would routinely set off on these long winter trips. He really enjoyed the villages and participating in events with the people. He wasn’t above trying to dance with Yup’ik dancers during potlatches. He also sampled native delicacies — like muktuk — with interest.”

Sensitivity to people

Bishop Kettler’s sensitivity impressed Patrick Tam, director of adult faith formation for the Yukin-Kuskokwim Region of the Fairbanks diocese.

“What stands out immediately about Bishop Don is pastoral sensitivity,” Tam said. “Due to the costs of travel and distance between Fairbanks and the bush, he was not able to get out to our villages very often. But when he did come out for confirmations, for example, his schedule was pretty tight. Yet when he came into the village, he asked to be taken to see the homebound and the elders. Even though he might be exhausted from traveling, he made time to see people who asked for him.”


In the small community of Nightmute, Alaska, at one of the far reaches of the Diocese of Fairbanks, Bishop Kettler poses with a Yup’ik man and his model kayaks. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Fairbanks

Tam added, “Not long after his installation as our bishop, he made a tour of some bush parishes including ours, Emmonak. We arranged for him to have lunch at the home of an elder. I was with him since the elder, Maggie Charles, didn’t speak much English. Maggie was worried about the simple food she had to offer a bishop — dried salmon, homemade bread, tea and jam. But she also beamed at being asked to host a new bishop.

“Just a couple of months ago, Bishop Don returned to Emmonak to help with a retreat for deacons. I took him again to see Maggie, this time to anoint her on her sickbed at home. During his brief visit, he reminded her, ‘You fed me lunch the first time I came to Emmonak.’ After more than 10 years, Bishop remembered her simple act of kindness.

“I often told him, ‘Bishop, you show more pastoral presence in a 24-hour visit than some priests who come out for several days.’ The bottom line is that he puts people first.”

Hannon said, “One of Bishop Kettler’s gifts is his ability to engage with people in a way where they don’t feel intimidated or talked down to. He is gifted in meeting people where they are.”

Solid decisions

Bishop Kettler also impressed people with his decisions. One of his best decisions was revitalizing Diocesan Pastoral Councils, Hannon said.

The Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, is divided into four cultural/geographical districts. Each hosted regional pastoral councils, from which representatives would fly to Fairbanks twice a year to discuss issues with Bishop Kettler.


In 2012, Bishop Kettler presided at the dedication of Blessed Sacrament Church in Scammon Bay, Alaska. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Fairbanks

“It was a successful model on how to reach out, and keep lines of communication flowing, when priests sometimes visit parishes only once every six to eight weeks,” Hannon said. “When your diocese encompasses more than 400,000 square miles, several native cultures and far-flung communities, trying to bring a sense of unity to it all is challenging. Being a remote diocese, there was little formality displayed here. Parishioners felt very comfortable talking and visiting with Bishop Kettler. He even served as a spiritual director for a few people.”

Supporting bush parishes

Another stellar decision, Tam said, “was a pastoral decision to give us — the 24 bush parishes of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Region — a lot of support and a lot of flexibility. Bishop Don has always shown a deep cultural sensitivity. He knew that the way things are done in Fairbanks might not be the best way in a Yup’ik Eskimo village of a few hundred people.

“For example, while the instructions call for the presider of the Mass to stay within the sanctuary during the sign of peace, Bishop Don understood that it is important in Yup’ik culture to reinforce relationships with a personal touch. He had no problems offering a sign of peace to the people in a small village congregation.

“Due to a severe shortage of priests,” Tam said, “many of our bush parishes have called forth lay ministers and native deacons for ministry. Bishop Don has always given support and encouragement for these ministries. Without his support, the liturgical and sacramental life of our parishes would have been further stunted.”

Additionally, Bishop Kettler impressed Alaskans with his love of people, said Tam. “Bishop Don was definitely a ‘people person.’ ”

Love of people

Fred Villa, associate vice president of the University of Alaska System, and former special assistant to Bishop Kettler, said, “He loves being with people, visiting, sharing and mostly teaching.

His passion is to shepherd and guide his people, not rule over them.

“Bishop Kettler sincerely enjoys being in the company of youth,” Villa said. “Participating and witnessing youth in action at conferences and in worship gives him great joy. But the bishop doesn’t have an endless amount of energy — and I think it frustrates him not to be as active as he was in his youth.”


Early in his tenure in Alaska, Bishop Kettler fuels a Cessna aircraft during a visit to St. John Berchmann Parish in Galena, an isolated Yukon River town not accessible by road. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Fairbanks

“Bishop Don enjoyed people,” Tam said. “The native people of our region were special to him. He ate with them, joked with them, prayed with them, ministered to them, danced with them at their traditional celebrations. Seeing them active in their various ministries made him happy since he knew how our parishes are struggling along without priests.

“In recent years, Bishop Don introduced Polish priests into our area to serve parishes. A few years ago, when the Polish priest in our parish heard that the bishop would be coming for confirmations and staying with him, he was thoroughly stressed out. He came from a place where bishops were usually treated like royalty. How surprised he was to find a bishop who helped with the dishes and carried his own bags!”

Besides his love of people, Bishop Kettler was down-to-earth, Tam said.

“He spoke to people in simple straightforward language. He had no problems picking up a broom if the church needed sweeping or taking his place at the sink after a meal. I’ve seen him crawling on the floor of the church playing with a toddler and I’ve seen him kneeling down to bless a sick elder in her wheelchair. And after a day of ministering and visiting with people, he enjoyed just watching a movie or a basketball game with a bowl of popcorn.”

Dealing with crises

Too many of Bishop Kettler’s visits to the villages were painful, however, to deal with the clergy abuse crisis. But even in that difficult venue, he excelled. He impressed people with his candor.

“I worked with Bishop Kettler at the peak of reports of sexual abuse and misconduct of priests that were overcoming our diocese,” Villa said. “One of the most important decisions Bishop Kettler made was to be completely open with the media and general public as accusations of priest sexual abuse or misconduct by church officials was brought to light. There was a perception that the church was hiding something.

“The installation of the sexual abuse task force to investigate any new allegations and respond to such claims expeditiously and openly led to a turnaround in the trust of our church leadership,” Villa continued. “It strengthened the faith of the parishioners and shifted the general public perception from blame towards empathy for the bishop who had to deal with the failings of others as he worked to reconcile and heal those who were harmed.”

Hannon said, “I watched him respond to those crises where he was guided by a sense of justice and compassion. For example, legal restrictions prevented Bishop Don from making contact with those who suffered abuse. When he traveled with attorneys for the plaintiffs, he always made a point of talking with those people the attorneys allowed him to.

“In the Frontline TV documentary on the abuse,” Hannon recalled, “one man broke down crying. Bishop Kettler didn’t hesitate; he went around the table and hugged the man as he wept.”

“First,” Tam said, “Bishop Don made public apologies for the clergy abuse whenever there was a chance to do so. Secondly, he visited village parishes where abuse had taken place and pleaded for reconciliation and healing. His heart was broken every time a new allegation was brought forward. It was moving to see the bishop, a physically imposing man among smaller Yup’ik Eskimos, bowing down and humbly asking for their forgiveness and for prayers.”

Hannon was impressed when Bishop Kettler decided to give the Frontline film crew access to the healing visits. “Bishop Kettler wanted to make sure the victims’ anonymity was protected so he did two of every healing ceremony, one for those comfortable with cameras and one for those who wanted to remain anonymous.”

He wasn’t afraid to complete several takes — even during a snowstorm — so the film crew had the footage it needed. “He embraced the notion that real healing had to be done openly,” Hannon said. “Treating all the claimants with compassion and justice was challenging. As a missionary diocese we did not have the resources to draw on like other larger dioceses in the country.”

Fun side of the bishop

Outside of such trying work, Bishop Kettler impressed people with his willingness to have fun. Hannon said Bishop Kettler’s most surprising trait was his lightheartedness. “He especially loves festive occasions and visiting with students at the Catholic schools. He loves sports and follows several teams — including his beloved Minnesota Twins — avidly.”

Villa added that Bishop Kettler enjoyed talking about the Twins and Vikings — when there was something good to talk about. “Bishop also enjoys a quiet walk pulling a cart with a bag and nine holes on the golf course. He is very proud of growing up in Sioux Falls, his family and priest friends.”

Tam said, “The Yup’ik Eskimos of western Alaska had a true friend in Bishop Don. He appreciated and blessed their culture. I will miss his warmth, his friendliness, and his encouragement.”

Villa noted that Bishop Kettler has a wonderful habit which is a blessing to those who correspond with him — hand-writing responses to virtually everyone who communicates with him. “As you can imagine, this is an incredibly time- and energy-consuming activity. But don’t ever consider suggesting any shortcuts to this activity. He will get it done. I’ve seen shoeboxes of cards, literally hundreds upon hundreds of cards that he will personally respond to. What a wonderful ministry!”