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Missionary's Dark Legacy

Two remote Alaska villages are still reeling from a Catholic volunteer's sojourn three decades ago, when he allegedly molested nearly every Eskimo boy in the parishes. The accusers, now men, are scarred emotionally and struggle to cope. They are seeking justice.

November 19, 2005|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

ST. MICHAEL, Alaska — Peter "Packy" Kobuk has to walk past the old Catholic church to get almost anywhere. To fill a drum of heating oil. To take his children to school. To wash his clothes at the only laundromat in this Eskimo village of 370.

"I think about burning it down, but I have to block that out," says Kobuk, 46. "It all comes back to me right away each time I have to see it."

The decaying wood-frame building also haunts John Lockwood, a married father of nine. Its bell tower, which rises above the village's 90 plywood shacks and prefabricated houses, is one of the first landmarks he sees when returning home in a longboat from hunting seals in the Bering Sea.

"It brings back a lot," says Lockwood, whose weathered face reflects a life spent in the Alaska outdoors. "He did all those bad things to us little kids there, and no one did nothing to stop it."

Even after 30 years, the men can't shake their memories of the late Joseph Lundowski, a volunteer Catholic missionary who arrived in their village in 1968.

The devoutly Catholic village elders welcomed Lundowski warmly, as they did all men of the cloth. But the children soon grew to fear and despise him.

Now grown, they said that over a seven-year period, "Deacon Joe" molested nearly every boy in St. Michael and the neighboring settlement of Stebbins.

The alleged victims, now in their 40s and 50s, say they secretly carried this burden until last year. Then, after watching the Catholic sexual abuse scandal unfold on satellite television, 28 men from the two villages decided to break their silence.

"We couldn't tell anyone [before] because no one would believe us," said Kobuk, one of the few St. Michael Eskimos who is still a Catholic. He wears a homemade rosary around his neck, the blue beads held together by string from a fishing net.

"He worked for God, and I was just an Eskimo child."


In 1886, the Jesuits established their first mission in western Alaska. Making converts in this frozen, unforgiving corner of the world proved difficult at first.

For thousands of years, Eskimos' lives as hunters and gatherers had been ruled by Yuuyaaraq, or "the way of the human being." Yu'pik people believed that their elaborate oral traditions and spiritual beliefs helped ward off bad weather, famine and illness.

It wasn't until an influenza epidemic in 1900 wiped out more than 60% of Alaska's native population that the Jesuits began to make headway.

The Eskimo shamans seemed no match for the deadly virus. The spiritual defeat, along with encroaching Western influences, caused entire villages to convert to the new religion.

Today, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks stretches across the upper two-thirds of Alaska, a rugged chunk of territory bigger than Texas but with just 41 churches and 24 priests.

Staffing remote parishes such as those in St. Michael and Stebbins with full-time priests has proved impossible, which is why Lundowski and other volunteers played a key role in village ministries.

Just 200 miles below the Arctic Circle, the wind-swept settlements of St. Michael Island sit 12 miles apart on a rugged section of coast where the tundra meets the Bering Sea. They are accessible only by small plane or, when the ice melts on Norton Sound, by boat.

In summer, the island is a place of great beauty. Wildflowers blanket the rolling hills, and the occasional Beluga whale swims among schools of herring and king salmon in the dark blue sea.

In winter, the landscape becomes a white, windy Arctic desert, and even the sea freezes for months on end.

Lundowski arrived in 1968, at the end of a long personal odyssey. An orphan, he was raised in West Virginia by his aunt. During World War II, he served in the Army under Gen. George Patton in North Africa and Europe, former associates said.

After the war, he lived at a Trappist monastery in Oregon and worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska before volunteering to help Father George Endal, a Jesuit priest, in several Eskimo villages.

Father Endal was responsible for St. Michael, Stebbins and a third settlement, Unalakleet, 45 minutes away by plane. Villagers said that for long stretches of time, he left parish affairs on St. Michael Island in the hands of Lundowski and another lay missionary.

Though Lundowski was never ordained, he assumed the role of a Catholic priest.

Villagers said he wore vestments and held Sunday services, gave homilies, taught catechism, baptized children, officiated at weddings and performed burial services at a hillside cemetery, where digging a grave required breaking through six feet of frozen tundra with picks and shovels.


Lundowski started molesting boys soon after he arrived, according to legal documents. Joseph Steve, a slight, soft-spoken man in his mid-50s, believes he was the missionary's first target.

Then 17 and a devout Catholic, Steve had volunteered to help Lundowski teach catechism classes at St. Bernard Church in Stebbins.

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