The incoming Orthodox bishop for Sitka and all Alaska says he barely noticed the 15 below zero weather on his first visit to the Kuskokwim Delta from his home in the eastern U.S.
“Even though it was really cold, I didn’t notice it so much because the people were so warm,” said Sterry David Mahaffey Jr. “There was a warmth in the church that cold weather wouldn’t drive away. ... I thought, ‘Wow. This is really different.’”
Mahaffey, 61, will be installed Sunday as Bishop for the Diocese of Sitka and all Alaska in a ceremony that will draw the hierarchy in the Orthodox Church in America. They include Metropolitan Tikhon, Archbishop of Washington, Metropolitan of All America and Canada; Archbishop Benjamin, Archbishop of San Francisco and the West; Bishop Michael, Bishop of New York and New Jersey; Bishop Irineu, Bishop of Dearborn; and Bishop Irenee of Quebec City.
The celebration begins with vespers at 6 p.m. Saturday
at St. Michael’s Cathedral. At 8:50 a.m. Sunday
a formal procession will start from the Russian Bishop’s House on Lincoln Street to St. Michael’s Cathedral, where the hierarchical divine liturgy will begin at 9 a.m.
The installation banquet will start at 1 p.m. Sunday
at Centennial Hall. Mahaffey was consecrated this morning in St. Innocent Cathedral in Anchorage.
The public is invited to the events on Sunday
Mahaffey, has been serving as administrator and chancellor of the Alaska diocese since March 2013 and will continue to live in Anchorage. The post has been empty for five years, with another bishop serving as locum tenens.
Once Mahaffey is installed, and he is handed the historic staff of St. Innocent at the end of the liturgy Sunday
, he will be bishop for life.
Mahaffey and Archpriest Father Michael Boyle, dean of St. Michael’s Cathedral, spoke to the Sentinel recently about the upcoming installation ceremony on Sunday
Sitka, the historic capital of Russian America, is the location of the Bishop’s See, which is why the installation ceremony will take place here, Mahaffey said.
Mahaffey described his reaction to being named the next bishop of Alaska as “fearful.”
“Well, I’ve been running from this for a long time,” he said. He had previously been considered for the post of bishop for New York and New Jersey, and several other dioceses as well, but always felt another man was better for the job. When the Alaska position became available, he said, “I was told I would be getting a phone call.”
Mahaffey was selected by the diocese of Alaska at an election in 2012, and last October he was confirmed by the Holy Synod of Bishops in Syosset, N.Y.
He said he feels Alaska is a good fit for him because he enjoys the travel that’s involved covering the large diocese, and has enjoyed getting to know the people.
“I like the people ... People are down to earth, and in tune with nature, and live accordingly.”
Boyle said he and others in the state were pleased with the selection of Mahaffey to be bishop.
“It was almost a unanimous feeling of good will, good heart for Father David, and for him to be our bishop,” Boyle said. “That’s quite an accomplishment: for us to love this man, and he loves us.”
Boyle added that being an administrator is not the difficult part of the job.
“The bishop is ‘papa,’” Boyle said. “It’s not hard to be an administrator. He’s the heart. That’s what Father David is for us.”
Mahaffey was born in Altoona, Pa., and raised in Mahaffey, Pa., which was named after his ancestors, in the middle of the Allegheny Mountains.
“I grew up in the country, which is one of the reasons Alaska attracted me,” he said. “It has the same rural lifestyle.”
He graduated from Purchase Line High School in 1970, and went on to study at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He left school, got married and went to work as a mechanic for a coal company. After the company folded in 1987, he managed a car dealership.
He said he and his wife thought he would continue to work until retirement age, and then go to seminary.
“God had different plans,” Mahaffey said.
Mahaffey was born and raised in the Methodist faith, and became Orthodox when he was 23 in 1975. He and his wife, Karen, were very active in their Orthodox church.
“When I found Orthodoxy, I felt this is where I can worship God properly,” he said. He said he enjoyed the way the Orthodox worship engages “all the senses.”
He served as a deacon in the Orthodox church for 12 years before going to the Orthodox seminary in 1991, he said, “because my wife and I felt it’s what God wanted me to do.”
Mahaffey was ordained in the Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Pa., in 1993 and served parishes in the eastern part of the state until he moved to Alaska in 2013. He has bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and theology from the University of Scranton and a master’s of divinity from St. Tikhon’s. During his time in Pennsylvania, he was an adjunct professor at Alvernia University, a Catholic college in Pennsylvania, as well as St. Tikhon’s.
His first Alaskan experience was in January 2012. He was sent to the village of Napaskiak in the Kuskokwim delta, where the mercury went to 15 below and he conducted services daily in the small church there. He said he was struck by the warmth and friendliness of the people, and enjoyed conducting services in the community of about 400.
Mahaffey said the religion is the same on both sides of the country, but there are many cultural differences. On the East Coast, parishioners are descended from immigrants from Eastern Europe who came to the U.S. more than 100 years ago. In Alaska, most of the parishioners are Alaska Natives whose faith goes back to the influx of Russian missionaries during the Russian America era.
“The Native church has its own wonderful characteristics and traditions,” Mahaffey said.
Mahaffey said he is looking forward to Sunday’s procession from the Russian Bishop’s House to St. Michael’s, when he will be walking in the footsteps of St. Innocent, who was the Russian Orthodox missionary priest Ivan Veniaminov when he came to Sitka in 1834. He was the first Orthodox bishop and archbishop in the Americas, and later became the Metropolitan of Moscow and all Russia. He was canonized in 1977.
At the end of the liturgy Sunday
, Mahaffey will be handed St. Innocent’s staff as the new bishop, which he said will be a great honor.
Those wanting to attend the installation banquet at 1 p.m. Sunday
should purchase tickets before the end of today by calling 747-8120, or by email to email@example.com