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Much of Southeast Alaska will miss a beloved priest who helped save my life

Heather Lende

HAINES -- It's sort of funny that Father Jim Blaney's Sitka funeral Mass was streamed live on the web since he didn't approve of the Internet. He was a face-to-face kind of guy who talked frankly, loudly, and often, to everyone, anywhere. He was 76 when he died Dec. 4 in Sitka of a fast-moving skin cancer diagnosed three weeks earlier. 

Father Blaney was a member of the missionary religious order of priests, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which may be why he trusted Mary more than cell phones. He ranked the seriousness of an emergency according the Hail Marys required-- one, two or three. "The Blessed Mother will take care of us,” he'd say, on the Chilkoot Trail with a church hiking group or on his regular 20-mile bike ride to Chilkoot Lake and back.

James Blaney was born on July 30, 1937 in South Boston. The son of John Blaney and Anna O’Sullivan Blaney, he grew up on the grounds of the maximum-security state prison in Charlestown, where his father was the deputy warden. On May 22, 1965, he and his twin brother Joe, who preceded him in death, were ordained together as priests at St. Bridget’s Church by Cardinal Cushing of Boston. Rev. Jim Blaney celebrated his first Mass on May 23, 1965. He was assigned by the Oblates to work in parishes and hospital and prison ministries in the Midwest and in the South before coming to Alaska. 

Father Blaney not only served the Haines Catholic Church twice but also worked in all the parishes in Southeast Alaska at one time or another over the last 25 years. He was a familiar face at school and community events to many of us -- both home and away. For a while he captained the regional Catholic mission boat, Mater Dei. In Sitka, I heard he called the homeless men he served lunch to in the church basement “My guys.” He was adopted into a Tlingit family in Klawock.

Father Blaney was in the Haines volunteer fire department, he helped at the finish line of the annual Kluane-to-Chilkat bike race here, ate burgers at the Elks, attended concerts and basketball games, shared dinner with residents at the assisted-living facility and sat in the bleachers at Little League games. He blessed the fleet with the ministerial association each spring.  

Mostly, he was an old-fashioned parish priest who always wore his white collar, and who treated everyone in Haines that he knew as if we were the sheep of his flock, even nonbelievers. With me writing obituaries and him doing funerals or visiting the sick, we worked together often. I asked him more than once about God’s grace and if some of the people we shared death and dying with would rest peacefully. The reply, delivered in his loud, Boston-accented, matter-of-fact way was always the same. “Heather,” he’d say, and repeat it louder as if I hadn’t heard, “Heather, when we meet St. Peter he’s going to ask one question -- ‘Have you been good to God’s people?’ If you can answer yes, then you’ve got it made.” 

Father Jim helped me recover from the bike and truck collision that almost killed me by acting like returning to normal was no big deal.  He too was nearly killed in a car accident when he was a young man -- “got T-boned” is how he phrased it -- yet he kept driving. “What are going to do? Stay home?” he’d say with a shrug. When I’d visit him at the church he’d give me -- an Episcopalian -- communion. Jesus never asked what denomination his followers were, he said. 

The last time I spoke with him was the night before he died. His sister held the phone up to his hospital bed. She said he hadn’t talked all day -- a sure sign death was imminent. I could hear him breathing. 

You don’t always get to tell someone you care about what he meant to you. I wasn’t sure Father knew, and maybe it was the urgency, or the phone lines between us, but I blurted out that he helped save my life, and gave me back something I feared I’d lost forever: the confidence to ride my bike again. Then  I thanked him. “I’ll miss you,” I said. But there was more. “And Father? If you can hear me, I love you. I hope you know that. You really were good to God’s people.”

Haines writer Heather Lende is finishing her third book of essays, “Finding the Good.” This post originally appeared on her blog. It has been reprinted with permission.