Catholic Church appoints new Anchorage archbishop

A Wyoming bishop will be elevated to lead the Archdiocese of Anchorage, becoming the fourth person to hold the Roman Catholic Church's highest position in the city.

The local church publication Catholic Anchor announced early Tuesday that Pope Francis named Paul Dennis Etienne, 57, to the position of Anchorage archbishop.

Etienne, who has been the bishop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for the past eight years, will replace Archbishop Roger Schwietz, 76, who was required to submit his resignation at age 75 under canon law. Schwietz's service was honored in a ceremony in July 2015 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral in West Anchorage.

Etienne was formally introduced to parishioners and reporters at the Archdiocese of Anchorage's downtown office during a conference Tuesday morning.

Schwietz, who told Alaska Dispatch News last year he hopes to continue with the clergy in an Anchorage parish after stepping down as archbishop, joked about the length of time he had waited for word from Francis of his replacement.

"It's been 15 months since I sent in my resignation – I was starting to get worried that he'd forgotten about it," Schwietz said.

No date has yet been announced for Etienne's Anchorage installation as archbishop, the Anchor reported. Schwietz will serve in the interim.

Etienne said when the call from the Vatican came last week informing him of his new post, he asked for a night to think it over. Ultimately, his answer was the same as the one he gave when he was posted to Cheyenne.

"Then and now, I said that if it is indeed God's will for me to serve far from my roots, I shall indeed say yes," Etienne said.

Etienne was born in Indiana. He received a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of St. Thomas/St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1986.

Etienne was first ordained as a priest in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 1992. He held various pastoral positions in Indiana until 2009, when he was ordained as bishop of Cheyenne.

Etienne said his leadership style involves working with people, and that he expects to delegate some decisions to his staff during his first year in Alaska.

"I consider myself one who does collaborate," Etienne said. "I like to be a pastor — I like to be out in the field, among the people."

Etienne's appointment was not welcome news for the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, which responded to Tuesday's announcement with numerous allegations of Etienne remaining silent on issues of abuse while serving as bishop in Wyoming.

SNAP also called for Etienne to publish the names of anyone in the archdiocese responsible for sexually abusing children, accusing him of ignoring a similar request when he was bishop of Cheyenne.

"This is a simple, inexpensive, common sense step that protects the vulnerable and heals the wounded," SNAP officials wrote in a statement. "We hope Etienne has the courage and compassion to post predators' names in his new diocese."

Asked about the SNAP statement, Etienne said in 2002 he was the first priest in the Indianapolis archdiocese to serve on a committee dedicated to implementing reforms in the wake of the Catholic abuse scandal. In Alaska, he said, he aims to take a similar leading role on the issue.

"I'm very committed to doing not only what we're required to do, but anything that we desire to do to protect our young and our vulnerable in this community," Etienne said.

Etienne's sole previous visit to the Last Frontier was on a Southeast Alaska cruise, but he said Tuesday that he hoped to see more of the state.

"Flying in last night, by the grace of God, we had enough light to see Denali," Etienne said. "I can't wait to see it all up close and personal."

Sister Mary Peter Diaz, a Daughter of Charity with Anchorage's Catholic Native Ministry and Hispanic Ministry, asked Etienne about his family's reaction to his new station. Etienne told her that his 82-year-old father, who is caring for his 81-year-old mother with Alzheimer's disease, had hoped for a posting closer to home but accepted his son's path.

"He said he understood," Etienne said. "(He said,) 'You just need to know I love you, I'm proud of you, I support you.' "

That response resonated with Diaz, whose calling also took her far from her parents in California before they died in recent years. She had high praise for Etienne's embrace of Francis' call to go out among the people.

"Know that God loves you — that's the core," Diaz said. "Whatever comes after that, you can do it."

Chris Klint

Chris Klint is a former ADN reporter who covered breaking news.