Eskimo Parish by Paul O’Connor

Priests in the lower 48 may have to deal with bad roads, bad weather and poor attendance at services, but count your blessings: at least you don’t have to deal with a team of malemutes which has taken a dislike to one another. Your car doesn’t pick fights with itself while you’re waiting for traffic to ebb. Parishioners in northern Alaska, even today, must perforce miss Sunday service if the leads freeze over before you get the boats in the water but while the land’s still too soft to support snowmobiling.

This is one of those odd little books that, so far as I know, garnered minimal attention when it was first published and has sunk like a stone in the intervening decades: it’s a partial autobiography of a Jesuit priest who felt the calling to serve the indigenous peoples of northern Alaska at a time when this was something of a Terra Incognita, even to the indigenous peoples of southern Alaska. It’s a diverting read today, as much for the opportunity to read that specific Jesuit missionary viewpoint as it is to read a description of life in northern Alaska in the 1930s and 40s.

In 1930, Paul O’Connor felt the calling to serve as parish priest for the Catholic indigenous peoples in the northern portions of the Alaska territory. For his first few years, he served as an itinerant priest, travelling by dog-sled in winter and boat or airplane in summer when the tundra was too soft to travel by sled. In many ways, this would be merely the memoir of a priest serving any far-flung rural parish–he visits the sick, anoints the dying, performs baptisms and marriages as needed–if it weren’t for the fact that he is traveling between parishioners by dogsled. Well, and serving what is in many ways an alien culture to his readers, and to himself. He remained for sixteen years, and upon his return home wrote a memoir.

Like Eva Alvey Richardson’s book about her teaching experience in Alaska, Arctic Mood, it’s a book set in a place about which few Americans1, whether from the territory in question much less the lower 48, knew little at the time of the book’s publication. It’s a reasonably sympathetic tale, though readers might do well to remember who the narrator is, and the time in which the book was written: there’s no little amount of missionary zeal explicit in O’Connor’s narrative, not to mention condescension towards the “ignorant savages”. (I can’t help but wonder what the indigenous peoples thought of these men and women who came with a strange religion or educational agenda, though they seem to have been reasonably amiable about it.) Just for the record, the Bruce Publishing Company was not exclusively (or explicitly) a religious publishing company–rather it was a small imprint which concentrated on business, education and religion. In fairness to O’Connor, his agenda is, not surprisingly, concentrated on bringing the Word of God to a people who’ve had little opportunity to hear it otherwise; he does seem to appreciate the local culture.

The white man and his inventions for decimating time are to [the Eskimo] a source of philosophic wonder. When you tell him with pride that you can cover in an hour by airplane a distance that would take him a week to cover with his dogs, he will only answer with a noncommittal grunt “Eeee?” (Yes?)–if you do not speak Innuit. If you know his language he wil ask laconically, “Chin?” (Why, what’s the rush?). To him the impatient hustle is the white man is a puzzle. You inform him, quite readily, that it is to save time and he will ask you why you want to save time.

1a territory at the time of the book’s publishing, Alaska didn’t become a state until 1959


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