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Here’s how one Alaska priest forged a deep connection to Magadan, Russia

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: April 7
  • Published April 7

Magadan seen from Staritski Peninsula (Photo by Johannes Rohr via Creative Commons)

Those of us who travel do so for many reasons. Sometimes it's for work, to return to school — or just to go on vacation.

Some of the earliest travelers journeyed far from their homes to spread their faith. Paul of Tarsus, also known as Paul the Apostle, was one of the most prolific travelers in the first century of the common era (30-67 AD). His travels around the Mediterranean are well-documented in the New Testament of the Bible: to Ephasus, to Corinth, to Thessalonia and to Rome.

Many young Mormons are dispatched on missions around the world after graduating from high school. While these assignments typically last a couple of years, some become lifelong missionaries.

That's what happened to Father Michael Shields. Born in Talkeetna, Father Shields graduated from West Anchorage High School in 1969. After attending St. John's University in St. Cloud, Minnesota, he went on to seminary and was ordained in 1979. He was the first Alaska-born Catholic priest to serve in the Diocese of Anchorage.

Shields accompanied then-Archbishop Francis Hurley on an Alaska Airlines "Friendship Flight" to Magadan, in the Russian Far East, in 1989. On that trip, Hurley and Shields conducted the first public church service in Magadan. After visiting with local believers, Hurley promised to send back a priest to the region.

Shields returned to Magadan in 1990. "It was harsh and cold — a very difficult time for Magadan," he said. After he returned, he went on a retreat, where God told him to "go and pray in the camps."

"Well, God and I fought for 40 days about that," he said. On one occasion, Shields asked God if he didn't mean "Mazatlan" instead.

Magadan is one of Anchorage's sister cities, but it has a dark history. The city was established in 1930 and served as a transit center for slave labor camps for gold mining throughout the region. "Prisoners came to Magadan from the Ukraine, from Latvia, Poland and Germany," he said. "But mostly from the Ukraine."

When Shields shared his revelation to serve in Russia with Archbishop Hurley, he was turned down flat. "It took me two years to convince him," he said.

Since 1995, Shields has served in Russia. Now, he travels to raise funds for the various programs on the ground in Magadan.

For the first few years, Alaska Airlines provided regularly-scheduled air service, but those flights stopped when the Russian economy collapsed. At that time, it was a very difficult time for Magadan. "There was nothing in the stores and no coal for heat," he said.

Shields came to Anchorage and appealed to the "sister city" to help. That appeal launched a massive food-box drive, enough to fill an Alaska Air National Guard C-130. Donated funds paid for the plane to take the foodstuffs to Magadan.

"Now, I travel to seek help. I have no real money to use, so I count on local churches to sponsor our missions," he said. "I haven't had a real vacation in more than 20 years."

Because there no longer is direct service from Magadan to the U.S., Shields must go the other way to get back home: through Moscow, Frankfurt and New York. Along the way, he visits churches in Ireland, then in New York and on the West Coast in addition to churches in Alaska.

Service levels on airlines have changed dramatically in the time he's served in Russia. "In the 1990s, the service on the planes really was out of control. The flight attendants sold too much liquor and there were beer bottles rolling down the aisle in the planes," he said. "And it was a joke about telling passengers not to smoke in the rest room. Everyone was standing in line to use the bathroom … smoking."

All of that since has changed, he said. "Surprisingly, Aeroflot now is one of my favorite airlines. They have new planes and the service is great," he said. "Of course, Alaska Airlines also is one of my favorites," he added.

So, while he started out as a missionary traveler, Shields has put down roots in Russia. In 2001, his group started construction on the Church of the Nativity. His one- to two-month fundraising missions outside of Russia are used primarily to fund the ongoing programs, including a women-and-children ministry, working with the poor, the young and the old. "The women and children's program has been going on for 18 years," he said.

Over the course of his mission in Magadan, Shield has become an authority on Russian travel. He's been able to draw on his experience in the Alaska travel industry, where he worked for Westours and Gray Line during the summers while still in school.

"Just make sure your documents are prepared correctly," he cautions. "And be prepared to be surprised. This includes being prepared to change your travel plans along the way."

In addition to flying throughout Russia, Shields also has traveled cross-country on the Trans-Siberian Express. "It was beautiful and strange," he said. "I traveled in mid-winter and the cars were heated by coal. When the train stopped we would go out and buy food from the grandmas who had set up tables outside. The hospitality was great."

"Alaskans definitely should visit Russia's Far East," said Shields. "There's a connection between us. There's a northern mentality, which includes a great sense of living through the cold — and the reality that you're a long way from family and friends."

Magadan is famous for its good fishing. "Since lots of priests like to fish, I'm able to get some help in the summers," he said.

"Magadan has a Fairbanks-style feel to it. There's a wildness to the region similar to Alaska," he said. "I think Alaskans would be amazed at the hospitality in Russia."

Two travel companies in Seattle specialize in Russian journeys and the special visas required for a visit: MIR Corporation and Red Star Travel.

To learn more about Father Shields' mission in Magadan, including his work at the Church of the Nativity, visit the website magadancatholic.com.

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