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Alaska Life

Former Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley dead at 88

The second leader of the Archdiocese of Anchorage has died, leaving behind a city that holds deep memories of his life's work.

Archbishop Emeritus Francis Hurley passed away at the age of 88, just before his 89th birthday on Jan. 12, according to the Rev. Steven Moore, pastor of the Co-Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. An obituary from the archdiocese said Hurley died at his Anchorage home at about 7:30 p.m. on Sunday.

The Catholic Anchor, an archdiocese newspaper founded by Hurley, reported that Hurley regularly celebrated Mass at his home chapel after Roger Schwietz was installed as Anchorage's newest archbishop in 2001. The Catholic News Service said Hurley, who became Anchorage's archbishop in 1976, had heart surgery in 2010.

Born in 1927 in San Francisco to an Irish Catholic family, Hurley entered the seminary after graduating from eighth grade. He was ordained as a priest in 1951.

"The 24-year-old's first assignment was as assistant pastor at Holy Names parish in San Francisco, where his elderly Irish mentor instructed him to meet every parishioner in his area," Hurley's obituary said. "The tall, talkative young priest took those instructions to heart, and made personal contact a focus throughout his life."

Hurley's Alaska connection began in 1970, when he was ordained as an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Juneau. Later that year, in a first for the nation, he was ordained as a full bishop by his brother, Bishop Mark Hurley of Santa Rosa, California. The two would be among just nine pairs of bishop brothers in the U.S. until Mark's death in 2001.

In 1976 he became Archbishop of Anchorage, following Joseph Ryan, who had held the position since the Archdiocese was established in 1966.

To keep in touch with a far-flung flock scattered across remote locations, Hurley earned his pilot's license. He logged extensive flying hours to meet with parishioners.

"The priest has to be present to the people, and you have to find every chance you can to do that," Hurley told the Catholic Anchor in 2010.

During his tenure as archbishop, Hurley played an integral part in the state's largest single gathering of people during Pope John Paul II's 1981 visit to Anchorage.

The Vatican contacted him to make arrangements when the pontiff's plane was scheduled to stop in Anchorage en route from Nagasaki, Japan. "We found out around Jan. 5," recalled the Rev. Moore, the former vicar general of the Archdiocese of Anchorage. "There wasn't much time, but (Hurley) got it all done by the time the Pope arrived at the end of February. He was in charge of it."

A year later, Hurley invited Outside clergy to Anchorage who suggested that Alaska's largest city needed a facility to house its homeless people. That began a dialogue between the archdiocese and the city that led to the establishment of the Brother Francis Shelter.

"A homeless man died in a dumpster behind Holy Family Cathedral," said the Rev. Scott Medlock. "He brought up a couple of religious brothers to help create housing for the homeless in Anchorage."

Hurley also started Clare House, a shelter for women with children, and Covenant House Alaska, a shelter for teens. Covenant House moved to new quarters last year and, although Hurley didn't have much to do with the new facility, "He was sure proud of it," Medlock said.

Medlock was a Methodist minister with a wife and children, working in Maryland, when he met Hurley in Washington, D.C. "He immediately struck me as a person of great compassion. My wife and I felt what I think most people felt when they met him -- that this man really cares and he really cares about me."

Medlock had been considering converting to Catholicism but his marital status presented a stumbling block to switching religions and continuing his calling. Hurley petitioned the pope to make a rare pastoral exception and, in 1996, ordained Medlock as a Catholic priest.

Hurley's career was not free of controversy. The archdiocese, and Hurley, were drawn into the Catholic sex abuse scandal by one of the area's most charismatic priests, Monsignor Frank Murphy. In 1985, three years after a boy in Murphy's parish complained to Hurley that Murphy had abused him, Hurley sent Murphy out of town on one day's notice — just as Anchorage police were closing in. Hurley told parishioners that Murphy had left for in-resident alcohol treatment.

While Murphy was away, a delegation of mothers of teen boys from his parish met with Hurley and Moore and demanded that Murphy be investigated by the church. Hurley told the women that Murphy's only problem was with alcohol. But when police said they would publicly arrest Murphy at the Anchorage airport when he returned, Hurley agreed to transfer Murphy to his home area in Boston and to alert Catholic officials there of Murphy's past.

An Anchorage high school principal, Pat Podvin, took his own life in 2004 after publicly disclosing he been been abused as a teenager by Murphy. Five men who said they were abused by Murphy shared a $1.4 million settlement paid in part by the Anchorage Archdiocese in 2006. No charges were ever filed against Murphy, who retired to New Mexico, where he died in 2012. In 2003, Hurley's successor, Archbishop Schwietz, publicly apologized to Murphy's victims.

As the Iron Curtain fell, Hurley extended his pastoral activities to Russia, traveling with the Rev. Michael Shields to Magadan, in the Russian Far East. A center for the notorious Gulag Archipelago, the region had a large population of people who had spent time in prison camps in part because of their religion — Jews, Muslims and Catholics. Their return flight was canceled and Hurley and Shields were stranded for three weeks. They used the time to establish the beginnings of a Catholic church in a local prison camp. Today Magadan has a Catholic parish and the Nativity of Jesus church as a result of their efforts. The Russian ministry was something he would follow closely in his later years.

In the days after the terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Hurley "spearheaded the Engaging Muslims Project at APU," to establish a interfaith dialogue, Moore said.

Hurley also helped mark the funerals of prominent Alaskans in recent years, including 2010 services in Anchorage for the late Gov. Walter Hickel and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.

"He was completely comfortable with the rich and the powerful, the Hickels and the Rasmusons and the Carrs," Medlock said. "He could work a room at a charity ball or civic function and be totally himself. But he was the same when he walked through Brother Francis Shelter. He always seemed to be present when there was a need for anyone."

After Hurley retired, he remained active, performing masses at local churches when regular priests weren't available and visiting those in need. "It was somewhat legendary among the priests," Medlock said. "We'd learn about a parishioner who was in the hospital or had a family member who had died and we'd hurry over only to learn that the archbishop had already been there."

Hurley retired to a modest house near the Delaney Park Strip that became known as "The Hurley Hotel." This was somewhat legendary among the priests. House guests included visiting clergy and parishioners from out of town.

"It wasn't unusual for someone from a village to stay the night before heading to the airport," Medlock said.

Hurley's health deteriorated in recent years, and he was attended to by personal care assistants and his long-time secretary, Joann White, who worked for him for 53 years.

"His body just wore out," Medlock said.

In his final days his bed was moved to the room where he had usually received visitors. "Many people were coming in just to sit next to him," Medlock said. "We knew it was near the end. But he was comfortable and died very peacefully."

"He had a great heart for the poor," Medlock said, and recalled an event that took place on Thanksgiving 2014.

"I had finished 10 a.m. Mass and my wife and I decided to visit him and wish him a happy Thanksgiving," he said. "We walked in and he looked at us and said, 'Take me to Beans Cafe.'"

Medlock did not know that Hurley had made saying the Thanksgiving Blessing at Beans a priority for many years. He was concerned that the old man with heart issues and other medical problems, using a walker, might be experiencing some kind of mental confusion.

"But he was insistent," Medlock said. "We took him over, and it was an effort. There was ice outside the shelter, but we got him in just in time for the second Thanksgiving meal. He said a prayer and then, with his cane -- not using his walker -- he just started to walk around the perimeter of Beans. I was afraid he was going to fall. But he walked and spoke with everyone. One person after another, 150 or 200 homeless people greeted him as he walked around. You could see the feelings he had for them and the genuine affection they had for him. As feeble as he was, he was going to be with the homeless. And they were his friends.

"He finally came back to his walker and said, 'OK, I'm ready to go.'"

A viewing will take place from late afternoon to evening on Wednesday, Jan. 20 at Evergreen Funeral Home, 737 E St. The coffin will be brought to Holy Family Cathedral at 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 21, with a vigil service starting at 6:30 p.m. and continuing through 9 p.m. The funeral Mass will take place at 2 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 22, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Burial will be Jan. 23 at St. John Neumann parish in Cooper Landing.

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