Valdez sister honored with papal medal

PATRICIA COLL FREEMAN
Catholicanchor.org

Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz presented Sister Marie Ann Brent, pastoral administrator of St. Francis Xavier Church, with the highest honor awarded to the laity by the pope.

The archbishop bestowed the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal – which recognizes service “For Church and Pope” – to Sister Brent during the Sept. 27 Sunday Mass at the Valdez parish.

In an interview with the Anchor, Archbishop Schwietz said he requested the award from the Vatican to thank Sister Brent for her many years of work in the archdiocese.

“She has been so instrumental in bonding the community together and carrying out so many pastoral services to the people down there in Valdez. It’s been really marvelous, and she’s very, very well appreciated for that service,” he said.

“She’s done all kinds of wonderful work,” the Archbishop Schwietz added, “not only shepherding the parish but working in the name of the church in caring for the people of the whole community.”

As pastoral administrator at St. Francis Xavier — which has been without a resident priest for 22 years — Sister Brent leads Communion services in lieu of Mass, runs the church and visits homebound parishioners and those in the local hospital and jail. She is a certified Catholic chaplain.

In Valdez at large, she coordinates with area ministers, organizing area-wide charitable projects and annual blessings of motorcycles and pets. She has served on a local governmental task force on assisted living care, and this year, Sister Brent was nominated for the “Woman of Distinction” award sponsored by Advocates for Victims of Violence, Alaska.

In addition, she is a trained emergency medical technician and paramedic who was honored as the State of Alaska’s “EMS Educator of the Year” in 1984. Her medical work, she once told the Anchor, “opened doors and broke down barriers,” thus extending her reach and the church’s into the community.

Sister Brent is a member of the California-based religious congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family, which she entered on January 6, 1953 from the Diocese of Oakland.

Founded in San Francisco in the late 1800s, the congregation cared for prostitutes and others who fell prey to bad times in the rush for gold.

Sister Brent once described the Sisters of the Holy Family as independent women “who pray with our boots on.”

True to that trailblazing charism, Sister Brent came to Alaska in 1972, at the request of then-Bishop Francis Hurley of Juneau. Sister Brent worked out of Sitka, from where she was flown on a small Bush plane into outlying lumber camps — bringing the Eucharist with her.

She then spent seven years as parish administrator of St. Christopher-by-the-Sea Church in Unalaska — where she became the first parish director of an Alaskan parish without a resident priest. While at Dutch Harbor, she boarded foreign commercial ships in the Bering Sea, climbing swaying chain ladders, to attend to urgent medical needs of sailors.

From 1986 to 1993, she served as pastoral administrator of Holy Rosary Church in Dillingham. From that base, she flew to St. Theresa Mission to encourage Catholics in remote Naknek with Communion services, religion classes and Bible studies.

Since Sister Brent arrived in 1993 in Valdez, long-time residents Deacon Dan Stowe and his wife Trish have worked closely with her at the parish. The couple leads religious instruction classes for adults inquiring into the faith and trains parishioners for parish projects.

“Sister’s very dedicated, and she is open to listen. You can go and talk to her at any time,” Deacon Stowe observed. “Now that doesn’t mean she does everything you would like to see done,” he added, “because she will do it according to what she thinks is pastoral to the community.”

“She’s quite a lady,” he noted.

Archbishop Schwietz has asked newly ordained Deacon Stowe to continue working with Sister Brent and to take over some of her duties, “so she has some more free time,” Deacon Stowe explained.

Given the transition, Archbishop Schwietz said he thought it an “appropriate” time to thank Sister Brent for her work.

“It’s not that she’s retiring,” he quickly added. “She’s continuing to carry on her work, so this is not a retirement party at all.”

“It’s a recognition of her continuing work in the archdiocese and, through her, to thank the other women religious who have served over the years in so many different capacities, in not only this archdiocese, but throughout the state and who in their lifetime were not recognized sufficiently, I think.”

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