St. Therese Church, Skagway, Alaska, has become another home for Father Daniel Cahill, a retired priest of the Diocese who spends a month during the summer helping out in the parish. Here, Father Cahill celebrates Mass in the church. In the background is a painting that represents miners during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 when Skagway was known as the Gateway to the Klondike, Father Cahill says.  Courtesy photo
St. Therese Church, Skagway, Alaska, has become another home for Father Daniel Cahill, a retired priest of the Diocese who spends a month during the summer helping out in the parish. Here, Father Cahill celebrates Mass in the church. In the background is a painting that represents miners during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 when Skagway was known as the Gateway to the Klondike, Father Cahill says. Courtesy photo

When Father Daniel Cahill took a two-week trip to Alaska in 2013, he fulfilled a dream and gained a new priestly ministry.

“I always had a fascination with Alaska, the magnificence, the splendor of the place,” said Father Cahill, who retired last year after serving 45 years in active ministry as a priest in the Diocese of Trenton.

“I went to Alaska for two reasons: to see Alaska and to experience parish life up there,” said Father Cahill, who was pastor of St. Ann Parish, Keansburg, at the time of his trip.

He sought advice from Father David Swantek, now pastor of St. Martha Parish, Point Pleasant, whose love of Alaska leads him to spend part of his vacation providing relief for priests in the Diocese of Juneau.

“I thought about going to the Diocese of Anchorage, but Father Swantek encouraged me to consider the Diocese of Juneau,” said Father Cahill.

For the past six summers, Father Cahill has filled in for the St. Therese Parish, Skagway pastor, Father Perry Kenaston, one of the seven priests serving 16 parishes and missions in the diocese.

In recent years, Father Cahill and Father Swantek have coordinated their scheduled visits to St. Therese Parish.This year, Father Cahill covered the parish during July, then Father Swantek followed in August.

Although ranked smallest in the United States in terms of population, the Diocese of Juneau stretches down Alaska’s southeastern panhandle, with parishes scattered over a 500-mile cluster of islands, peninsulas, and fjords accessible only by boat or seaplane.

Father Kenaston is also pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Haines, which is 40 miles away from Skagway. Usually he splits his week between the two churches.

“He hands me the key to the church in Skagway then takes the next boat out to Haines, where he can stay put and focus full attention on Sacred Heart,” said Father Cahill.  

Shepherding St. Therese Parish is a far cry from his ministries in the complex, high-energy parishes of Trenton Diocese, he said.

For example, in the summer, St. Therese’s enrollment is 15 families.  That number dips to six or eight in winter. Only one grocery store operates in Skagway, with the nearest shopping mall 100 miles away in White Horse, Yukon Territory. 

The pastor’s duties include celebrating morning Mass each weekday, then two Sunday Masses, one at noon for Catholic guests from cruise ships, and another in the evening for locals.

 “The parish has an energy in the summer, when four cruise ships dock daily, bringing tourists.  From May to September, the town’s population of 900 swells to 6,000-8,000,” said Father Cahill.“There is a good sense of community among the residents. They look forward to the cruise ships leaving so they can be their own community again.

“It’s exciting to meet people from all over the world at the Sunday Mass or in town,” Father Cahill added, “but each evening when the cruise ships leave, there’s a beautiful peace around town.”

St. Therese Parish runs simply, with families, not a paid staff, looking after the building. One parishioner mows the lawn; a volunteer does the bookkeeping.

Father Cahill said the simplicity of life in Skagway allows him time to explore Alaska while hiking, riding the pastor’s mountain bike or salmon fishing with a parishioner.  

Amid the differences between living in the Dioceses of Trenton and Juneau there is one bright similarity Father Cahill noted – for a priest, parish becomes family.

 “It’s become home going back there,” he said, noting that the diocesan bishop, Bishop Andrew Bellisario, Father Kenaston and parishioners “welcome me and want me to come back.” 

While back in New Jersey, Alaska remains in Father Cahill’s heart, he said whenever he can, he urges people to support the Catholic Extension Society, which subsidizes St. Therese Parish and many other small missions in remote areas.  

“The Home Missions need financial help so they can experience the Sacraments as we do,” he said.