Credit for this recognition goes especially to Matilda Stepovich, wife of Michael Stepovich, and Father Lawrence Nevue, S.J. A debt of gratitude is also owing to Father Francis Mueller, S.J., Professor Paul H. McCarthy, Mr. Lee Linck, and Mr. Lawrence S. Gordon.
Now it remains with the good parishioners and all interested donors to maintain the site as the Federal Government requires.
The “little church” was built by the Father Francis Monroe, S.J., in 1904. Its first location was at Dunkel Street near Front Street, situated across the Chena River from its present site and some four hundred feet upstream.
Fairbanks was established as a trading post by Captain E.T. Barnette, in the late summer of 1902. His chartered vessel, “La Velle Young”, had come some twelve miles up the Chena River, a tributary of the Tanana River, when the water became shallow hindering further progress of the vessel. So the captain hurriedly unloaded his cargo and set to work building cabins from trees felled on the spot. So the town came to be…..
The first name given to this small campsite was Barnette’s Landing. Barnette, wishing to attract Judge Wickersham to set up the District Courthouse in his own, offered to name it Wickersham. The judge made no promises as to the location of the courthouse, but he did say it would please him to have the new place named Fairbanks, after the judge’s good friend, Charles Warren Fairbanks, who became Vice-President of the United States in 1905. Barnette agreed, and the town was named after Wickersham’s friend – Fairbanks.
Prospectors were attracted to the trading post, and they chose it as the base of their operations. When Felix Pedro discovered gold in some quantity twelve miles from the post, the news spread rapidly. People from Dawson, Fortymile, Eagle, Circle, and other camps converged on the new town.
Many of the prospectors were Catholics. The Prefect Apostolic for Alaska, the Very Rev. Father Joseph R. Crimont, S.J., notified Father Francis Monroe that he should come to Fairbanks and build a church for the residents and prospectors.
In June of 1904, the two priests arrived at the post, which by this time was teeming with people attracted by the discovery of gold.
Father Monroe set about the task of gathering funds for the new church by begging from gold camp to gold camp. He sought the men of the town to help him build the church.
When $3,000 was collected, Father bought a site for the church. The site he found was located on the east side of the town, on the road which led to the camps. The building was hurriedly begun before the winter set in. The roughly structured building hardly resembled a church, but, it was suitable for services, and it could be used as a library and reading room, giving the miners a place to assemble. After managing to raise about $5,000 more, Father Monroe cleared the debt, and was able to purchase books for the library.
In 1906, the town’s people decided that a hospital was very necessary. A committee of men was drawn up, headed by Mr. Dan Jonas. These men approached Father Monroe and asked him to take on this task. Money for the project was quickly raised, and the work began.
There were several drawbacks to the project. One was the San Francisco earthquake, which made supplies slow to come in from the “outside”. Another was a serious fire that occurred in the business section of Fairbanks. This fire financially ruined many of the original subscribers of the hospital project.
Eventually the necessary funds were raised through a loan, and the building was continued and completed. The hospital was opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1906. The hospital administration passed through several hands. In 1910, the Sisters of Providence of Montreal, Canada, took over the task of staffing and administering Saint Joseph’s Hospital, as it was finally called.
The hospital was remodeled and rebuilt several times. The last such remodeling occurred in 1951. In the late 1960’s Saint Joseph’s Hospital was closed. The old building stood during the 1970’s more or less an eyesore to the community. In the early 1980’s it was gutted, leaving the strong framework, which became the basic structure for the bank and office building which stands behind the church today.
The hospital had been built near an old sawmill on the north side of the Chena, near Cushman Street. The church was on the south side of the Chena, and some distance to the east of the hospital. The disparity in locations caused a difficulty for the priests attending the sick at the hospital and offering daily Mass in the Sister’s chapel. It was decided to move the church from its old place on Dunkel Street to its present location close to the hospital.
The intrepid Father Monroe engaged contractors, and the building was moved from Dunkel Street to the bank of the Chena River. The contractors suggested building a bridge on which to transport the building to the other side of the river. Father decided that this would be too expensive. He dismissed the contractors and continued with his own idea.
First Father Monroe cleared away debris from the old sawmill site. Then he excavated for a hall basement, upon which he would eventually place the church. When the hall foundation was ready, Father proceeded to the task of bringing the other structure across the river.
The river was only about six feet deep and the ice was strong enough to support horses, so Father Monroe proceeded with his plan. He drew lines on the ice about thirty feet apart, running diagonally across the Chena. Then about every eight feet he inserted poles into the ice, hammering them down into the mud at the river bottom. They were supported in such a way as to remain upright, then were left there to freeze in. With the onset of the extreme cold the poles were set. Then they were trimmed evenly to about two feet above the surface of the river. Planks were balanced on them for the four hundred feet which the building would have to be rolled to the other side of the river.
It was quite an event when the church was moved. Bets had been placed as to its success or failure (with the odds moving toward failure). Everyone in town turned out to watch! The movement across the ice was very simple. However, when the spot where the church was to rest was reached, there was a distance of some twenty – five feet to lift the church up the bank. A roadway was cut out of the bank with a somewhat steep grade. Then there was the added lift to the foundation. Father Monroe took the precaution of adding another cable to the building to give it support up the grade and on the lift to its foundation. Some thought that this was as unnecessary expense. It turned out that Father was wise in his decision, for just as the church was to be placed on the prepared foundation, the old cable broke. The new cable held and saved the church and workers from harm.
In the spring of 1912 Father Joseph Cote, S.J., arrived in Fairbanks and did the necessary electrical wiring in the church. He also began the work on the water plant. A residence was added to the church and the downstairs hall was finished.
In 1914, the roof of the church was changed, and the ceiling was raised five feet. A choir loft was added, and a belfry was erected in the front part of the church.
Later the walls were covered with decorative tin, in a fleur – de – lis pattern. This pressed tin work added a special beauty to the church and has a certain charm today because of the singleness of its use in the North. The installation of this tin embellishment was carried out by Father Monroe, Brother Thomas Callahan, S.J. and a young miner, who later became Brother Stephen Karpinski, S.J.
In 1926, Father Patrick O’Reilly, S.J., enhanced the beauty of the “little church” by the installation of its exquisite stained glass windows. In no other church in Alaska are such windows found. It was also Father O’Reilly who looked to the landscaping of the property around the church, adding trees, shrubs, and flowers.
Under Pastor Father John Hayes, S.J., the back stairs to the building were installed, and one of the upstairs resident rooms was pressed into service as the “baby room”, with glass front and loudspeaker in place.
When it was named as a historical monument, a complete face lift was done on the church, together with a paint job according to federal regulations.
Our Lady’s statue, which stands over the front door of the Immaculate Conception Church, adds for us, who are Catholic, a poignant religious charm. She welcomes all to quiet reflection with her Son, Jesus Christ, and she smiles out at his people enjoying the resful beauty of Golden Heart Plaza, which graces the banks of the Chena River.
A special thanks to: James P. Doogan Sr., Father Louis L. Renner, S.J., Hugh Doogan, Sr. Mary Claire McLaughlin, C.S.J., Kerry and Ivar Halvarson, Stu Rothman, and the University of Alaska Archives.