Story by David Kilby | Correspondent
When Father Dave Swantek, pastor of St. Martha Parish, Point Pleasant, heard about the “frontier priests” of Alaska as a child, he could only dream that he would one day have the same mission. Now, every August, he flies to “The Last Frontier” to bring the Gospel and Sacraments to Catholics in the small tourist town of Skagway.
This year, however, he had the opportunity to make two trips. In September, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., asked Father Swantek to represent him when his Vincentian confrere, Father Andrew E. Bellisario, C.M., was consecrated the new bishop of Juneau Oct. 10. Father Swantek joyfully accepted and traveled to Alaska for a week.
There were about 30 priests, many of them Vincentians, as well as several bishops at the consecration, representing Alaska’s three dioceses and those beyond, he said.
“It was beautiful,” Father Swantek recalled. “The bishop spoke very well of his parents and how his mother showed him how to live out his Christianity. The music was beautiful and faith-filled. The people were hopeful. I think he’s going to do great things.”
‘A Wild, Untouched Land’
Father Swantek has spent the past nine Augusts in Skagway, providing much-needed relief for the priest of the local parish.
“It’s wild, untouched land,” Father Swantek said. “In New Jersey, we have pockets of preserved land surrounded by development. Alaska has pockets of development surrounded by wilderness. It feels like you’re an early American frontier priest when you’re out there.”
“They have like 17 Catholics,” he added. “If they’re not at morning Mass, I literally walk to their house and say, ‘Come on, let’s go to church.’”
Yet, when tourists arrive on cruise ships, Skagway’s population increases from around 700 to 10,000 or sometimes 15,000. The tourist season is often a challenge for the Diocese of Juneau, which covers an area the size of Florida and has only eight priests, Father Swantek explained.
Despite the challenge, Father Swantek considers it a blessing to share the Gospel in this unique environment, making it relevant to the fishermen, hunters, lumberjacks, shopkeepers and cruise ship visitors, sharing the Catholic faith in a way that makes sense in the beautiful wilderness around them.
“What is the relevance of Christ to them out there? Entering into their reality, what would Christ say? That’s the cool part of being a priest up there,” he said.
Since the community of locals is so small, he often eats dinner with parishioners in their homes. “It’s a lot slower up there, but you’re asked to go a lot deeper with those you encounter,” Father Swantek said.
He added that one of the great lessons he has learned from his ministry in Alaska is the importance of “spending time with Jesus in the quiet.” Some of his best meditation experiences have been on walks in the Alaskan wilderness, he said.
“It’s kind of a retreat time for me, too,” he said. “I’m better and stronger in my priesthood because I do this. I’ve learned how important it is for me, because what comes out of my time in Alaska is better for the people I serve.”
Childhood Dreams Fulfilled
As a child, Father Swantek said, he wanted to be an astronaut, a “Star Wars” Jedi Knight or something similarly adventurous. His family supported the missions and his mother would read him stories about priests in Alaska from the diocesan newsletter, “The Alaskan Shepherd,”, which he found fascinating.
“Those were priests in the frontier,” he recalled from the stories. “They were flying planes, riding dog sleds. These were cool adventure priests who gave up everything to follow Christ in the North. So I thought maybe I’d like to be a priest in Alaska.”
Years later, he read “The Story of a Soul,” the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, which influenced his vocation to the priesthood. He recalled at one point during his discernment, he held two brochures in his hands – one for the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, and one for the Diocese of Trenton. He said he felt called to serve his home Diocese, but kept his dream to be a priest in Alaska in the back of his mind.
Little did he know that he would have the opportunity to do both. Nine years ago, Father Swantek received a call from Bishop Edward Burns, then-bishop of the Diocese of Juneau, now present bishop of Dallas, Texas. During the phone conversation, the bishop asked, “Are you healthy? Do like to hike?” Father Swantek said yes to both questions, so Bishop Burns responded, “Come on up. I got a church for you up in Skagway.”
The name of the church was St. Therese. “It was God saying, ‘Dave, you’re meant to be here,’” Father Swantek said.
In Alaska, every day is an adventure like the ones Father Swantek aspired to have as a child. He hikes up mountains on a regular basis. He’s been on a glacier; he’s seen the Aurora Borealis, bald eagles in abundance, black bears and brown bears. He is also working on getting his pilot’s license so he can reach more people throughout the remote islands of the area.
“The priesthood can take you anywhere. God will move you to places you never thought possible,” Father Swantek said. “I would never have had these opportunities if I hadn’t become a priest.”