By Deborah Herz
The first night Sister Pat Oliver arrived in Anchorage some 40 years ago, she fell headfirst down a flight of stairs and dislocated her collarbone. You could say her mission to Alaska started off with a bang.
This profile is one in a four-part series on Sisters of Mercy in Alaska.
See links after article.
Things could only get better from there, so the now-retired English and science teacher who celebrated her 60th jubilee in 2017 took an assignment as pastoral minister in Glennallen. Located in the Copper River Valley 180 miles northeast of Anchorage, the small rural town is home to more churches than bars, abundant trout and salmon fishing, and long hard winters.
Pat lived alone in a double-wide trailer in the isolated town, in an area so remote that water had to be trucked in every week to fill her home tanks.
“The snow was piled so high I can’t even remember what color my trailer was,” she says. “In the winter it would be dark almost all day, and during the summer it would be sunny 18 hours a day. You’d be out shopping or cutting the grass at 2 in the morning.”
Then in her 30s, she presided over regular services in the rustic wooden building that served as the parish church, taught children religious education inside her trailer and provided liturgical training to parishioners so they could take over when she wasn’t available.
“It was a small parish, with fewer than 100 families,” she says. “Many of them were young. Some were oil people who came to work on the pipeline, and others were pioneers looking for a great adventure. Many worked for the Department of Fish and Game, which had an office in Glennallen.”
Described as someone who could turn up anywhere, she ministered to her tiny parish alone for months on end. “I felt at home even though I was far away from family,” says Pat, who grew up in East Providence, Rhode Island, with her sister, the late Sister Judy Oliver. “I was never lonely. I loved the simplicity of life and the people, especially the Native American Ahtna tribe (better known as the Athabascan Indians). I loved the wide expanse of nature and the wildlife. It was beautiful and quiet.”
The scenery in her tiny parish town was breathtaking, with four massive surrounding mountain ranges and the ever-present Mt. Drum, a dormant volcano, looming in the background. During the winter, the spectacular aurora borealis would often light up the night sky in vivid shades of green, purple, yellow, orange, blue and red, and herds of moose and elk would amble across roads and fields at dusk.
“The weather was a big factor, but we never let that slow us down,” she adds. “Once we drove to Valdez through Thompson’s Pass and it was snowing so hard we couldn’t see. We hung out the window and brushed the snow off the windshield, praying to see the tail lights of a truck so we could follow it and not slide off the mountain.”
Because visits from traveling priests were so rare, she and her fellow pioneering Sisters of Mercy in Alaska—Carol Aldrich, Arlene Boyd, Patricia Collins, Kathleen O’Hara and Jean Pyper—all looked forward to seeing the late Archbishop Francis Hurley, who piloted his own plane in and out of the remote territories.
“He was a great man who encouraged us to meet regularly so we wouldn’t become isolated from our community. Once he gave us all turtleneck sweaters as gifts,” she recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘This is the closest we’ll ever come to a Roman collar.’”
Living by her motto, “Into Your hands,” Pat has learned to let go and let God take her wherever He sees fit. Now living in Cumberland, Rhode Island, she serves as a spiritual companion to those seeking a closer relationship with God, and she travels as often as she can.
“Traveling offered me some of the greatest lessons in life,” she says. “The most important one is that good people are everywhere. You just have to accept their differences. When you open yourself up to our differences, you find the similarities. That leaves an opening to find God everywhere.”
Read more about Sisters of Mercy who ministered in Alaska