Father Ted Kestler, SJ, minister to residents of Chefornak, Alaska, died in a house fire on October 12. He was 72. At the time of his passing, Fr. Kestler was serving in the Yup'ik village of Chefornak with a population of just over 400. Located on the south bank of the Kinia River in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, it is about 98 air miles southwest of Bethel. Chefornak residents practice a subsistence lifestyle and rely on commercial fishing.
Father Kestler was born in Tacoma on Dec. 18, 1943, along with his twin sister, Mary Ann. He entered the Jesuit Novitiate at Sheridan, Ore., in 1964 and was ordained a priest in 1975. In 1980, while at Gonzaga Prep, Fr. Kestler first learned of the need for more priests in Alaska and volunteered with two other priests to go north.
In 1982, Fr. Kestler was missioned by the Jesuits to serve in Alaska. His first assignment was in the remote village of Kaltag. There, Fr. Kestler met fellow Jesuit, Alaska church historian Fr. Louis L. Renner, SJ, who had come to Alaska to help lay in a winter's supply of stove wood. Father Kestler helped saw, split, and stack wood. He was named pastor of the Catholic missions in Kaltag and Nulato (Our Lady of the Snows) for three years, commuting between the two small villages by boat when the Yukon River was open, and by snow machine when it was paved over with ice and snow.
In his own words he "loved every moment of it."
In 1985, Fr, Kestler was appointed rector and president of St. Michael's Institute at Gonzaga University. All the while, however, his desire to return to Alaska continued undiminished.
In 1990 he was appointed to serve as general superior of Jesuits in Alaska, which he did for nine years. In 1997, he became superior also of the St. Mary's Jesuit community of approximately 10 priests serving in western Alaska. In addition, he worked with the Native Ministry Training Program, which equipped Alaska Natives to better know and share their Catholic faith, while remaining true to their traditional lifestyle.
"I am profoundly convinced," he wrote, "that 'seeds of the word,' as the early Church Fathers and the Second Vatican referred to them, were already present in the life and customs of all indigenous peoples before missionaries actually arrived."
In remembering Fr. Kestler, Oregon Provincial Fr. Scott Santarosa, SJ, wrote, "Ted gave me a gift, which was the reminder that what we all do makes a difference in the world, in peoples' lives. The gift was connection - with one another, with people in the villages of Alaska and on the margins, with our history and legacy, and with our future."
Many services were planned for Fr. Kestler. A Memorial Mass was held October 20 at Holy Family Cathedral, Anchorage. Vigils were scheduled for October 20 and on October 21 at 7 p.m. at St. Mary's Mission, Akulurak, Alaska. Funeral Mass will be held on October 22 at 2 p.m., also at St. Mary's Mission.
Additionally, a Memorial Mass will be held October 25 (time and location TBA) in Chefornak. Services are also planned in Spokane with a Memorial Mass at 1 p.m. October 29 at the Jesuit House Chapel at Gonzaga University, followed by inurnment at 3:30 at Mt. St. Michael's Cemetery Columbarium.
(www.catholicanchor.org contributed to this report.)