Cordova Chronicles: A fisher of men and the sea

Tea and tales with Father Tom at the Catholic Church parsonage, just days before he left Cordova in early July 2018 after 16 marvelous years of service here. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

Followers of Christianity have often been known as fishers of men, based on a Bible versus from Matthew 4:19.  Their mission has always been challenging.

Yet for the past 16 years, Cordova has been blessed with a charming master at catching both men and fish.

Catholic priest Father Tom arrived here in 2002 and has been landing souls and salmon since the moment he walked off the plane.

Given his soft Irish brogue, one would never guess he was raised in Missouri, and ordained in Mississippi.  Father Tom served Catholic church assignments in Denmark and Greenland, as well as 20-year service in the U.S. Army as a chaplain, before arriving here after seven years in Colorado.

Over a cup of tea prior to his departure from Cordova, Father Tom shared stories of his incredible journey.

The welcome sign on the door to the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church parsonage says it all. Father Tom may have been hard of hearing, but was a great listener with an obvious sense of humor. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

For example, he confessed failing in his attempt to learn the Native language during two seven-year stints in Greenland.  Not surprisingly, much of the instruction occurred while out fishing with locals.  “They tried to teach me the native word for “kissing” by making me kiss the lips of cod we caught. It didn’t work.”

While in Denmark, Father Tom learned to fly “the greatest plane ever built, the Super Cub.”  The plan was for him to use the craft to reach remote villages in Greenland.  After crashing twice, fortunately without serious injury, he gave up on the scheme, stating with typical candor, “enough of this “ – – – -.”

Father Tom began his chaplain service in the military as a captain, and was an acting lieutenant colonel before retiring.  He was assigned to the 25th Infantry during his 1968-69 tour in Vietnam.  It made a lifetime impression.  “So many brave young men, so many untold stories.  There were three Catholic priests in the 25th, one for each brigade.  Often units would go for three months without Mass and Communion.  We would be dropped into the boonies and they would immediately stop in the middle of operations.”

“The altar was the ground, and it was like landing in a sea of green – the foliage, the uniforms, the equipment.  The Catholics would gather in the center, the others would form a defensive perimeter.  I remember starting to put on a white alb to perform the service, and stopped, realizing it would be the only white visible as far as one could see.”

A long pause, looking back in the past.  “It was such meaningful and effective service.”

In Cordova, Father Tom discovered all his favorites: mountains,  fish, and people.  His parish in Linville, Colorado was at 10,000 feet, and hiking at that elevation kept him in great shape, so it was no surprise to see him walking Cordova’s streets and hiking Cordova’s mountains.  At age 80, he summited nearby Mt. Eyak, and not surprisingly, celebrated the event with a cold Alaska Amber.

Cordova docks after a very successful fishing trip with Jim Holley.
Photo courtesy Jim Holley

As far as fishing of the finned variety, he spent many a day on the water with Jim Holley, and caught countless halibut, salmon, and bottom fish.  The time he hooked a big halibut, and Jim and his son Jake knocked him over backwards into a fish tote while trying to pull it aboard, is one of his favorite stories.

An avid sports fan, Father Tom and Stan Makarka shared a special spot on the top row of bleachers at CHS Court and never missed a Wolverine basketball game.  Both often gave referees Jerry Bendzak and I good-natured ribbing about some of our calls after the games, but always with the post-game codicil “I don’t know how you guys do it.”    Oh, for more such fans.

Father Tom will head to Soldotna, Alaska for a couple months temporary service.  “After that, I have no idea.  I’ll be back in the system.”

Father Tom is 86 years old.   I ask: “So you don’t plan on retiring?”’

With the simple candor that has endured him to all of us, this reply:  “As a priest, you quit when you’re dead. It’s a fact of life.”

Ah, if all of us could live with such faith, dedication, and humility.

Later that day, I realized one important fact was lacking regarding a story about this community’s ever so popular Catholic Priest of the past 16 years – his last name.

My inquiry received this Irish-tinged reply:   “It’s Killeen, spelled K-i-l-l-e-e-n.”

Not that it matters.

To all of us, he is, and will always be Father Tom.

Father Tom has been catching salmon and souls since his arrival in Cordova 16 years ago. Here he and Jim Holley display a nice 22-pound winter king.
Photo courtesy Jim Holley
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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.