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Alaska's St. Mary’s Mission searches for future

By Dustin Solbert
St. Marys, Alaska (AP) 12-07

The old mission school that sits on the bank of the Andreafsky River in the village of St. Marys has generations of history behind it.

Built on this spot in 1950, it was a school to children from up and down the Yukon River. It’s an important monument for many in Yukon River villages.

As for the mission’s 11 buildings, “The people are highly attached to them because they value the education they got there,” said Anna Luke, who attended the school and who today works in the St. Marys office of the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks at the former St. Mary’s Mission.

By the end of this winter, a project to install sprinklers and fire alarms is expected to be complete. It’s an important step in keeping up the buildings, which have been recognized for their historic significance by the state of Alaska.

In recent years, since the Catholic diocese sold the 20-plus acres of mission property to a local nonprofit corporation, Ciunerkiurvik Corp., for about $3 million, local groups have used the main building at the mission for training events.

“We’re currently operating as a facility to offer training,” said Sven Paukan, president of the board of Ciunerkiurvik Corp.

AVTEC has offered training for commercial driver’s licenses at the site for students from throughout the region.

Last summer, the Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council had its annual meeting at the old mission. In the past, the Association of Village Council Presidents has conducted training for village law enforcement officers at the old mission. The Catholic diocese hosts training events at the mission building about ten times a year.

Even with such events, the school grounds sit mostly quiet compared to the mission’s school years. The last class graduated in 1987.

Paukan was in that 12-student class.

“It does seem real quiet,” he said.

There are signs of its vibrant history. Renegade rhubarb grows on the fringes of the old vegetable gardens, and whenever former students come together, they reminisce about school days at the mission school.

The recent project to bring the main building up to modern fire code is paid for by the U.S.D.A. rural development program and the Economic Development Administration of the federal Department of Commerce.

Paukan envisions a future in which local school districts can conduct a regular schedule of vocational education classes at the site, and the corporation created to manage the old mission will ask the state Legislature for money to help ensure a future for the complex of buildings.

The diocese sold the mission in 2003.

“We sold it because we weren’t using it to its full potential and thought it needed to go back to the people. We wanted the people to try to make something of it if they could,” said Sister Kathy Radich, who works with the church’s Native ministry training program from an office the church now leases from the local corporation.

The old mission now has 11 buildings, including the main building, a girl’s dorm, a boy’s dorm and a wooden-floored gymnasium. The buildings were moved from its original site, in Akulurak, after the river there was silted in.

Luke said she recalls singing songs during Christmas programs on the stage of the gymnasium building. Discipline was strict, she said, but she recalls playing games such as soccer and baseball on the mission lawn. On weekends, students often had special activities such as movies shown with a projector or square dancing.

“We did a lot of games,” she said.

She knows that keeping the building up is expensive, but she hopes it remains central to the life of the community, as it once was.

“I’m hoping it gets utilized to its full capacity at some point,” she said. “I just hope for the best for it.”