No sanctuary here

My husband and I, and a friend who lives with us in Spenard, just said goodbye to three unlikely guests – two priests and a policeman from Poland. For a few days they sang Matins and Vespers in Polish to begin and end the day in Rancho Spenardo's garden, the site of locally legendary pagan ceremonies. Our guests arrived here when two Anchorage Catholic Churches turned them away. Sure, they weren't on a donkey and carrying a babe… but they didn't even get a stable.

This is how it happened. The three had just summited Denali in a week – a lot faster than they expected – when I met them in Talkeetna and offered them a ride to Anchorage with their considerable pile of mountain gear. They had some days to spend in the state and not too much money before they flew out of Anchorage. So they planned to stay at a church – two of them being priests and all.

The three had been put up by tiny Saint Bernard's Church in Talkeetna, which doesn't even have a full time priest. There seemed no reason to doubt the generosity of the much larger and more endowed Catholic establishment in Anchorage.

As we drove, the two priests explained, with the help of the more English-proficient policeman, that visiting priests are always welcomed by churches and parishioners. Catholics are generous, they said. They take in the wayward. They have even sheltered this pagan. During my extended hike of the Appalachian Trail, monasteries, churches and Catholic retreats provided shelter and food. But apparently such hospitality has been lost track of by the Catholics of Anchorage.

First stop -- Holy Family Cathedral. The staff was in a meeting and couldn't deal with the priests. They were told to go to Our Lady of Guadaloupe – another well-appointed church in the Turnagain area. There a sister turned them away after consulting the "boss" by phone. I don't think it was "The Boss" – you know, the Big Guy Jehovah, his son Jesus, or even the Holy Ghost. I didn't go that high. Being good church bureaucrats, they just followed their own rules and forgot about these nice young men in a foreign land who needed a little hospitality.

The priests: Robert and Krzysztof Grzybowski (brothers) were shocked. The policeman Adrian Przylucki was worried. What were they going to do? I was embarrassed for my town and invited them home. The next thing you know their bright yellow tent was going up in my garden, and three of the nicest, handsomest guys (each could pose for a Greek statue) headed into my sauna.

Catholics and other Christians may wait for their reward in Heaven. I got my reward at Rancho Spenardo's regular Friday sauna. The three Polish climbers were the prettiest sight. Seeing them romping in the garden, using the hose to cool down, and then steaming in the old cedar sauna was enough to make this female heart young again.

As far as Anchorage's Catholics getting their reward in Heaven… I think they need to do a little more work here on Earth… or Saint Peter will start recruiting us tree-hugging, naked, garden-romping pagans. We at least know how to make guests welcome. And don't be surprised if those priests start hugging trees. They learned it at my house.

Johanna Eurich came into journalism from a background in theater. She began as a volunteer at Pacifica Radio in Houston, Texas. She has produced many radio news stories and features for NPR and has done radio news in Barrow, Bethel, Talkeetna and Dillingham, as well as Anchorage, Pittsburgh, and Pocahontas County West Virginia. She has won the Press Club's Public Service Award and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's national award for Cultural Programming, and designed and launched Native America Calling and National Native News. Her print pieces on Native culture bearers ran in the Anchorage Daily News. She was also the producer of the statewide arts program "Alaskanarts" for a number of years.