Alaska Natives remember Bishop who loved Bush Alaska

Posted: Monday, August 14, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Bent into herself with grief, the Native woman stood before the open coffin, her body speaking a sorrow beyond words. Her muffled sobs penetrated the peacefulness of the sanctuary where Bishop Michael J. Kaniecki lay in state.

Composing herself, the woman sank onto a kneeler, her lilac kuspuk, a bright spot in the solemn setting. She offered a silent prayer before the handmade birch wood casket, trimmed around the base with a strip of moosehide, handpainted with flowers, crosses and doves.

Next to the bishop's miter-topped head rested a brass and grass Yup'ik-made cross. He wore a plain ivory cross. Athabascan moosehide slippers, trimmed with beaver fur and decorated with white beads in a floral pattern, covered his feet. Nearby, a corner of the white satin-lined casket held a pair of hunter green handknit socks.

The simple coffin and special touches within depicted the bishop's close connection to the people of rural Alaska and the reverence and love they shared with him during his lifetime and afterward with their gifts.

''I think we all feel like he was our own personal bishop, said Agnes Sweetsir, a prayer leader and Eucharistic minister at St. John Berchman's Church in Galena. ''He was our confidante, consoler, counselor, comforter, advisor, teacher, leader and most of all our friend,'' she told the crowd at Saturday's funeral service at the Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Many Native people from Northern and Western Alaska traveled to Fairbanks last week week to participate in traditional Roman Catholic ceremonies to lay their beloved bishop to rest.

Kaniecki, 65, died of a heart attack Aug. 6 in the village of Emmonak in Western Alaska.

Instead of traveling to Rome this year to participate in Jubilee 2000, Kaniecki had opted to visit and hold confirmation ceremonies at the 48 far-flung parishes across the diocese over the summer months with a final Jubilee celebration to be held in Fairbanks, Aug. 26-27.

Deacon Larry Charles of Newtok read the gospel in Yup'ik at the bishop's funeral Saturday.

''He was a father, elder figure to me,'' Charles said later at a post-funeral potlatch. ''The thing that impressed me the most I realized right after he died. The oldest couple in my village were unable to speak English, but the bishop by his actions had spoken to them with his message of love.''

Joe Asuluk, a deacon in Toksook Bay recalled the bishop's ever present sense of humor.

''He teases me too much,'' he laughed. ''After he ordained me, we played cribbage, and he told me, 'You need to respect me even with the cribbage.'''

''He was a Bush man,'' said Father Louis L. Renner S.J., editor of the Alaskan Shepherd and chief fund-raiser for the diocese, who traveled extensively with the bishop.

''He wanted to come to Alaska. It was where he could combine both a priestly calling and his love of nature and the outdoors.''

Describing Kaniecki as a ''very dynamic, energetic man,'' Renner said, the bishop's death was a good way to go. ''To be set on a shelf or not be able to fly, it would have been difficult for him personally.''

At 6'2'', Kaniecki was equally imposing in his red-trimmed black bishop's cassock or dressed in Levis and a flannel shirt. He spent a good part of his career in the Bush, beginning as a seminarian/teacher at Copper Valley School in the early 1960s and later teaching and pastoring on the west coast of the state. A pilot for many years, he continued his flying ministry after his ordination as bishop in 1984, and relished every trip he made across the diocese.

''We wouldn't have seen as much of him if he had to be on a flying schedule with the airlines,'' said Max Huhndorf of Galena.

''What I really like about him was that whenever he said Mass here he gave spiritual sermons on how loving God is. He was a teacher in his homilies. He would teach us all the time.''

The sound of the bishop's voice was recognized on aviation radios in by many in river communities as he flew across the state.

''We are going to miss hearing him fly by,'' said Katie Kangas of Ruby. ''He was just a stately presence. He was a very wonderful person who did his best for all the Native people out here. You can't top that.''

Franklin Madros Sr. of Kaltag worried about the bishop flying during the dark winter months.

''He'd really scare me when he'd come in in the dark in his airplane,'' Madros said.

What Madros, 80, appreciated most about the bishop was his humility.

''I never genuflected or kissed his ring,'' Madros said. ''He wouldn't let me.''

When the bishop would drop from the sky in his red and white Cessna and visit, no one could predict.

Eliza Jones of Koyukuk remembers the time he dropped in just as she was finishing up cooking for a St. Patrick's Day feast at the church.

''He asked, 'What you got cooking?' and was walking around the table lifting lids and looking at the food.

''He was just so unpretentious and easy to talk to,'' Jones said.

Services for Kaniecki have been held in a number of small churches across the diocese.

Friday night members of St. Aloysius Church in Tanana read a Roman Catholic burial rite, a Mass for the dead, something that wouldn't have happened without the bishop's encouragement for parishioners to assume liturgical responsibility, said Lois Huntington.

''At first we balked. We thought it was too big a responsibility,'' Huntington said. ''Right now, thanks to him, we are able to do service every Sunday. We are able to do all that because he believed in us and what we could do.''

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