When people in this remote southeast Alaska town (pop. 1,100) ask Aaron Isaacs how long he’s been a Democrat, he invariably replies, “As long as I’ve been a Presbyterian,” meaning as long as he can remember.
As long as anyone can remember.
As in many of the tiny towns and villages scattered among the Pacific Ocean islands off the coast of southeast Alaska, the Presbyterian Church has been here as long as the town has. The first recorded Presbyterian worship service in Craig was in 1907 ― seven years before the first public census.
“There’s still lots of ownership of our church,” says June May, a born-and-baptized member of what is now called First Presbyterian Church of Craig and Klawock (the Presbyterian churches in the neighboring villages merged in 1984). Though the church numbers just 47 members, “lots of people consider themselves Presbyterians because we were the first and only church here for so long,” May says.
The Rev. Claudia Rowe, pastor of First Church since last September, concurs. “I’m not treated like the Presbyterian minister in town,” she says. “I’m considered a community asset.”
Craig’s Presbyterians are delighted to have Rowe as their pastor ― she previously served in Seattle Presbytery ― but they don’t exactly need her.
“Lay people have always been key here because we’ve had many periods without a pastor,” May says.
Presbyterians here ― many of whom have lived in Craig their entire lives ― don’t take particularly kindly to “short-termers.” Rowe says she was told by the Pastor Nominating Committee: “Don’t come unless you’re going to buy a cemetery plot.”
Laughing, she adds: “”I haven’t bought the plot but I’ve already changed my will to be buried in Craig.”
The church records in Craig also reveal some of the Presbyterians’ individuality and resourcefulness. Pat Gardner, another church member born and raised in Craig, is a bit conflicted about his middle name. His birth certificate lists it as “Walter” but “Homer” appears on his baptismal certificate. “Well,” Pat says, “my father named me but my mother had me baptized and she preferred ‘Homer.’”
Carolyn Gardner, Pat’s wife, shakes her head and smiles. “I came to Craig in 1967 and met Pat here,” she says. “First time I saw him I knew he was the guy, and he still is … and the Presbyterian church is all a part of it.”
Despite their isolation, Craig Presbyterians serve and are served within the larger PC(USA).
Adeline deCastro ― yet another Presbyterian born and raised in Craig ― has just completed two terms on the denomination’s Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns. She has also been active in Presbyterian Women and the Presbytery of Alaska.
“I remember one summer many decades ago when a group from University Presbyterian in Seattle came to teach Bible school,” she recalls. “In the evenings they would dance the Charleston for us and we thought they were from Hollywood or someplace like that, it was so exciting.”
Ecumenism comes naturally in small towns like Craig, though the people may not know it as such.
“People run from church to church, depending on what’s happening, but they don’t ever think about being ‘ecumenical,’” deCastro says.
Rowe likes it that way. “Craig has really held on to the small-town ethos,” she says. “There are no sullen teenagers and separation of generations. I don’t have to minister only in the church. I’m constantly out and about talking to people and the Session considers my conversations, no matter who they’re with, part of my ministry.”
Craig ― the town and the Presbyterian church ― seems like a comfortable fit for everyone. But First Church has had its conflicts. Everyone, for instance, vividly remembers “the pews.”
A pastor ― who shall remain unnamed and who, according to all, was unduly influenced by his wife ― decided to “modernize” the sanctuary by removing the hardwood pews and replacing them with folding chairs.
“There were just too many accidents with the folding chairs,” Carolyn Gardner says.
So Craig’s Presbyterians appropriated plywood pews from the now-closed Klawock church.
“Yuck, plywood,” says Sharon Demmert, who came to Craig with her school teacher mother in 1952.
“Yeah, those beautiful old pews are all over town now,” says Pat Gardner.
After tolerating the plywood pews for as long as they could, the Gardners launched a fundraising campaign to purchase new hardwood pews. It was a very slow campaign and “a number of ministers tried to talk us out of it,” Carolyn Gardner says, “but we just kept donating a little money to the fund every year. Ministers come and go.”
Apparently not Claudia Rowe.
“Craig is me,” she says. “I visited Craig and just wasn’t able to think about anywhere else.”
The church had extended a call to another pastor, but that call “fell through,” she says, God opening the door for her dream job.
“I pinch myself every day,” Rowe says. “I’m in heaven ― this is my reward…”