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  • The Apostle of Alaska, Archbishop Charles Seghers

    by Kevin Schmiesing

    On an evening late in November, 1886, four men settled into their bearskins to try to keep warm in the unoccupied hut they had appropriated for the night. They were worn out from a long day trekking across the snow-covered tracts of western Alaska. Tomorrow they would reach their destination, the town of Nulato. In the early hours of the morning, one of the men said he was going out to get some firewood, but instead he returned with a gun. He aimed it at one of the other men and delivered a single shot through his heart. Thus came to a violent end the extraordinary life of a great North American missionary and pastor, Archbishop Charles John Seghers.

    Seghers was born in Belgium in 1839. Orphaned at a young age, he was raised by his uncles. Drawn to the prospect of a life spent spreading the Gospel in distant, pagan places, he enrolled in the American Seminary of Louvain, an institution founded for the purpose of recruiting and training men from Europe’s Francophone nations for missionary service in the United States. He was ordained in May of 1863 and by September he was on a ship crossing the Atlantic, bound for the new diocese of Vancouver Island.

    The see city of Victoria was a study in diversity. There were Catholics—Irish, French, Germans, Italians, and a few Spanish-speaking South Americans—white Protestant Americans of various ethnicities and denominations, some Jews, some Chinese, and a large population of island natives. Those of European descent were mostly transients on their way to work the gold fields of the Fraser River. This combustible assortment managed an uneasy coexistence, characterized by cooperation in a colorful array of vices. Against this daunting set of challenges stood Bishop Modeste Demers and a handful of beleaguered priests. The learned, linguistically talented, and diligent young Father Seghers was a welcome reinforcement.

    Seghers took up his duties as rector of the cathedral and de facto administrator of the Diocese of Victoria during Bishop Demers’ frequent travels. But Seghers’ missionary zeal impelled him to set out on evangelistic quests whenever he had the opportunity. He visited Indians around Vancouver Island, many of whom had rarely if ever seen a priest. On these journeys he proved himself capable of bearing the harshest physical conditions and material deprivation, a quality indispensable for the missionaries of the northern shores of the Pacific.

    Following Demers’ death in 1871, Seghers was made bishop of Vancouver Island. Far from providing him with an excuse to relax, the appointment freed him to pursue his missionary aspirations in the place he had long desired to work: Alaska. The Diocese of Vancouver Island included that vast territory, whose native peoples dwelled in some of the most remote locations on earth. Russian Orthodox missionaries had reached a small portion of them; otherwise, they had yet to hear the Good News. Seghers was determined to bring them the knowledge of Christ.

    Seghers reconnoitered Alaska during a relatively brief journey in the first year of his episcopate. By 1877, he had sufficiently put affairs into order in Victoria that he could hazard a more extensive trip into the far north. From the settlement of St. Michael on the southwest coast of Alaska, he and his travel companions—another priest, Joseph Mandart, and four Indian assistants—ventured up the Yukon River into the interior. As they went, the bishop made use of his facility with languages, learning both Russian and native dialects. This eliminated the serious problem of unreliable translators, who could do damage with careless renderings of theological concepts—such as enumerating the Trinity as “Father, Son, and Mother.”

    The party survived numerous hazards of winter travel in Alaska: temperatures reaching 42 below zero, plunges through ice into deathly cold waters, and hostile shamans who sensed a challenge to their authority. Everywhere an opportunity presented itself, Seghers gathered Indians and explained the basic truths of Christianity. The audiences were by and large receptive and the bishop was determined that permanent missions must be established there. By the time Seghers returned to Victoria in September of 1878 after more than a year away, he had made contact with some 30,000 Alaskan natives.

    There was news waiting for him. Pope Pius IX had died and the new pope, Leo XIII, had a new assignment for Seghers: coadjutor of Oregon City, heir-apparent to the pioneering bishop of the Pacific Northwest, François Blanchet.

    Seghers departed his beloved faithful of Vancouver Island with sadness, but he had no time to pout. He set out at once on an apostolic visit of his new diocese, which, if not quite the unfathomable size of Alaska, was nonetheless enormous. The diocese, based in Portland, encompassed the states of Oregon, Montana, and Idaho. Seghers made his way across the mountains and plains, laboring as he went. “When I am preaching, I rest from riding,” he wrote, “when I am riding, I rest from preaching.”

    Upon the resignation of Archbishop Blanchet in 1880, his coadjutor ascended to the archiepiscopal office. An efficient administrator as well as a competent theologian, Seghers put both the financial and spiritual affairs of the archdiocese on sound footing. His emphasis on Catholic education was noteworthy. Three years before the bishops of the United States would issue their clarion call to Catholic schooling at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884), Seghers and his suffragans issued an equally strident exhortation to pastors and parents to provide a fully Catholic education to Catholic children.

    In preparation for the Third Plenary Council, the archbishops of the United States went to Rome in 1883 to meet with Pope Leo XIII and Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, Prefect of the Congregation Propaganda Fidei. There Seghers learned that his successor in Vancouver Island, Bishop Jean-Baptiste Brondel had been transferred to become the bishop of the new Diocese of Montana. A suitable replacement for Victoria had not been found and the prospects were not good for locating an available priest qualified for that challenging assignment. Seghers wrote to Simeoni, pleading that, in view of “the love which I have always had for Vancouver Island, I beg of Your Eminence, as a grace and a favor, that the Holy See may grant me the liberty of resigning the metropolitan church of Oregon City, and returning to the Diocese of Vancouver Island.” His request was granted.

    The people of Alaska had always remained close to Seghers’ heart. In short order, he assigned priests to the relatively accessible posts of Wrangel and Sitka, but the more remote areas would require more extensive preparations. After making sure that Vancouver Island itself had been adequately provided for, Seghers made plans for an apostolic voyage to the Alaska interior.

    With two Jesuits, a Catholic layman, and a contingent of Indian porters, Seghers set off for the headwaters of the Yukon River tributaries in northern British Columbia. The layman, Frank Fuller, had been attached to the Jesuit De Smet Mission in Idaho. The Jesuits did not trust him—they thought him mentally unstable—and urged Seghers not to include him on the journey. But Fuller expressed a strong desire to go along, and there was nothing in his demeanor to suggest the breakdown to come. Seghers overruled his Jesuit companions and permitted Fuller to join the expedition.

    The group made their way on foot and by canoe to Harper’s Place, the junction of the Yukon and Stewart Rivers. Due to the need to both serve that region as well as hasten on to Nulato, far down the Yukon, the missionaries made the difficult decision to split up. Fathers Robault and Tosi would remain, while Archbishop Seghers, Fuller, and two Indian guides would proceed to Nulato.

    As the party neared Nulato, Seghers began to notice Fuller’s increasing agitation and erratic behavior and recorded his observations in his diary. On October 16 he wrote, “Had a strange conversation with brother [Fuller] who, for the third time, is giving proof of insanity.” The last words in Seghers’ diary are dated November 25. Three days later, Fuller shot and killed the archbishop, with whom he had traveled for four months.

    The natives of Alaska, his fellow priests, the people of Vancouver Island and Oregon, were all stunned at the news of the prelate’s death, but grief gradually gave way to celebration of his faith and his achievements. A non-Catholic Victoria newspaper eulogized: “Do you wish to see his monument? Look around! You see it in the handsome buildings which he has erected… in the educational and charitable institutions which he has founded and fostered; you see it in the lives of the people to whom he ministered, and, above all, you see it—the light in darkness—in the great work which he has himself done among the Indians.”

    In the wake of his death, the Alaskan missions drew newfound attention. When in 1892 the territory was erected into a prefecture apostolic—the initial step toward diocesan status—its first prefect was Pascal Tosi, one of the Jesuit companions whom Archbishop Seghers had with some difficulty persuaded to accompany him on his fatal journey of 1886. When in 1916 the prefecture was raised to a vicariate apostolic, its first bishop was another Jesuit, Raphael Crimont, who had first heard about the Alaska missions from a fundraising talk given by Seghers in Paris in 1884. The arduous life and tragic death of this zealous evangelist were the labor that had given birth to the Church in Alaska.

    Author’s note on sources: On Archbishop Seghers, see: The Apostle of Alaska: Life of the Most Reverend Charles John Seghers [translation of Maurice de Baets, Vie de Monseigneur Seghers, 1894], trans. Sister Mary Mildred, S.S.A. (Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1943); Patrick Jamieson, Victoria, Demers to De Roo: 150 Years of Catholic History on Vancouver Island (Victoria, B.C.: Ekstasis, 1987), and Gerard Steckler, S.J., Charles John Seghers, Priest and Bishop of the Pacific Northwest, 1839-1886 (Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon, 1986).

    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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