By Deborah Herz
When six inches of snow closes down schools and brings her hometown of Warwick, Rhode Island, to a crawl, Sister Carol Ann Aldrich just chuckles.
This profile is one in a four-part series on Sisters of Mercy in Alaska.
See links after article.
“That’s a dusting, compared to Alaska,” she says. “In 1989, after I’d been there for six years, Valdez had 569.2 inches of snow.”
For those of us who aren’t math buffs, that’s 47 feet and 5.2 inches of the fluffy stuff. It would take more than an ice scraper to get that off your windshield.
But that didn’t discourage Carol, who celebrated her 65th jubilee last year, from spending 23 years in Alaska as parish director in a wilderness so remote that the moose practically outnumber the people.
Now 84, she was the first sister in the United States to perform a Catholic wedding ceremony. It occurred on May 6, 1989, in Valdez, when severe weather prevented Archbishop Francis Hurley from flying in to officiate as scheduled.
“They’re still married, too,” Carol says of the couple who were parishioners of the Valdez church where she served as administrator. This summer, when she returns to Alaska as she does every year to stay with friends, she might even stop in to see them.
Though it made perfect sense to the archbishop to ask her to officiate at the wedding, things haven’t always been crystal clear to Carol. When she announced she was leaving for Alaska over 30 years ago as one of only six Sisters of Mercy serving five remote parishes, her mother was adamantly opposed. “She thought I was nuts,” Carol adds.
To make matters worse, when she arrived in Anchorage to begin her ministry, the city was nothing like she expected. “I said to myself if this is Alaska, you can have it,” she says of the industrialized port city. “Then I drove to Valdez with Sister Diane Carlson, who served with me at the parish for two years. It was the most gorgeous ride. That drive changed my life.”
After ministering in Valdez for nine years, Carol became director of St. John the Baptist Church, 518 miles south in Homer, where she ran the small parish on her own for more than a decade with only occasional visits from traveling priests.
Despite the long winters, she faithfully served in Homer and two other area communities for another 14 years. Presiding over five eucharistic services in three different parishes every weekend, Carol would drive the twisted, 40-mile stretch of ice-glazed oceanside hills along Kachemak Bay for her 7:30 Saturday night service at St. Peter’s parish in Ninilchik. If there wasn’t a whiteout or blizzard, she’d return to Homer that same night, then drive back to St. Peter’s the next morning for the service at 9.
From there, she’d head back to Homer for the 11:30 service at St. John’s, and at 1 o’clock board a small two-seater plane for eucharistic services in Seldovia, a tiny town nestled on Cook Inlet. That night she’d take the plane back to Homer, nicknamed “the end of the road.”
But the benefits far outweighed the disadvantages. It’s easy to see why she’s dedicated a special place in her Warwick home to Alaska, decorated with handwoven baskets, an Alaskan doll, masks and her favorite photo of mountains and lakes that was given to her as a farewell gift by Archbishop Hurley. “I have nothing but wonderful memories,” says Carol, whose motto is “all for Jesus.” “It’s such a spiritual place. I love the land and I love the people.”
With pristine forests, crystal-clear rivers and snow-capped mountains, it’s easy to see why Carol’s heart will always belong in Alaska. “It was so spectacular, we used to say that if you didn’t like the homily, all you had to do was look out the window,” she says. “Our church had huge windows and moose would often walk by. One day I opened my door to a mother moose and her baby. I closed it right away so they wouldn’t come in.”
Retired now for four years, Carol says a little dusting of snow isn’t going to stop her from ministering to the 13 homebound families she visits from Saint Rose & Clement Church in Warwick, where she also helps care for the altar.
And based on reports from friends and neighbors, she has no intention of slowing down. “I’m never home,” she adds. “I’m always on the road. My license plate is GA-374, and people who know me say the G and the A stand for ‘Gone Again.’ It’s true. I never rest.”
Read more about Sisters of Mercy who ministered in Alaska: