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Last Mass Celebrated at Historic St. Francis Xavier Church in Kotzebue

Sign reading "St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Kotzebue, Alaska, Established 1929" standing in front of a building with green and blue metal siding. Snow covers the ground.

On February 3, Mass was celebrated for the last time at the historic St. Francis Xavier Church in Kotzebue. Father Kumar Pasala offered Mass and baptisms for the final gathering in the 90-year-old structure.

After years of high operating costs, the 1929 church building is being sold to the local Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation, or KIC. Parishioners have expressed hope that, someday in the near future, the Catholic community in Kotzebue will have a new church.

But Father Ross Tozzi is mindful that a church is more than just a physical structure.

“The church building is being sold, but a church is more than a building itself. It’s also a community. The community is still going to worship.”

Father Ross served Kotzebue as their priest from 2009-2015. He still serves the Diocese of Fairbanks but now as the rector in the Sacred Heart Cathedral of Fairbanks.

“Going back many years, the community has had the desire to have a new church, one that is more energy-efficient.”  

The original parts of the structure in Kotzebue date back to 1929; a rectory, social halls, and classrooms for religious education were added in the 1960s. According to Father Ross, in addition to heating costs, the building had suffered from a leak in the basement that took months to identify. The source was eventually discovered to be a leaking fire hydrant in town that caused water to bubble up underground and leak into the church basement.

“It was built without much thinking in terms of Arctic insulation, so it was very expensive to provide heat and keep the plumbing going.”

This last summer, the church also experienced a fuel tank leak.

With the sale of the church building, Father Ross says that the parish of St. Francis Xavier hopes to build a new church. The community is saving costs by renting space in St. George of the Arctic Episcopal Church, where they now worship at noon on Sundays. The Catholic Church still owns land in the city, including a lot on 3rd Street near the Catholic cemetery, where they may build a smaller and more cost-efficient church.

53-year-old parishioner Cookie Ito has been active in the Catholic community at St. Francis Xavier since she was a child. Ito, speaking on her own as a parishioner, notes attendance at Mass seems to have been dwindling over recent decades, but still she remains active with parish life, saying, “I felt safe going to the church, so I feel like giving back.” While Ito expressed great fondness for the old church, she said she is at least comforted that the physical set-up of the Episcopal church is similar to that of a Roman Catholic church.

For now, the Kotzebue church community does not have a timeline or a budget for a new church building.

The property is pending sale with KIC. When KNOM reached out for a comment from KIC President Thomas Kennedy, a representative said, “the purpose for the sale and plans for the church are confidential at this time.”

The Diocese of Fairbanks did not respond for comment before the airing of this story.

Currently, St. Francis Xavier does not have a full-time priest. Mass is celebrated monthly in Kotzebue by Father Kumar of St. Joseph’s in Nome, with lay presiders overseeing services in Kotzebue the weeks he is not in town.

Image at top: The exterior of St. Francis Xavier Church in Kotzebue. Photo: Davis Hovey, KNOM.

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