Aloysius Renner came to Alaska in 1965. In the 41 years he spent here, he traveled to far-flung Native villages, dip netted for fish, chopped wood, spent seven years commercial fishing out of Dillingham and put in 15 years at the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a German professor. He wrote numerous travel articles and a history book. He lived the consummate Alaskan life.
What makes his life stand out is that Aloysius Renner was actually Father Louis Renner, S.J. (Society of Jesuits) — Father Louie to friends and family.
Renner’s remarkable time in Alaska and his scholarly mission is recounted in his autobiography, “A Kindly Providence: An Alaskan Missionary’s Story 1926-2007.” In it, Renner takes us on a journey through North Dakota, Washington, France, Italy and eventually Alaska, where he taught German at UAF and fulfilled priestly duties at Native villages such as Ruby, Tanana and Healy.
Renner’s story starts at a homestead between Fallon and Flasher, N.D. His parents, John Renner and Rose Gustin, were descended from German and Russian emigrants. Renner was born on April 25, 1926, the second of eight children. A sickly child, Renner grew up on the family farm, eventually gaining strength and health that served him extremely well in Alaska. He talks about growing up as a simple country boy, working hard from dawn ‘til dusk, participating in family chores from the time he was old enough to carry a tin filled with water.
Renner recalls his childhood with fondness and even warmth, despite the challenges and hardships. His was a very close, very loving family, who worked hard to survive. “Religion was a major, an essential, part of our family life,” he tells us. Morning prayers, evening prayers, grace before meals, an evening Rosary, pictures of the saints and pope displayed prominently throughout the house, and Sunday Mass in Flasher — sometimes by car, but more often by sledge or wagon. For more formal training in Catholicism, the kids went to summer catechism.
Education was important for their children — “From the outset, one of our parents’ major concerns was that we children receive a Catholic education,” he writes. But with no Catholic school in nearby Flasher, Louie and his siblings ended up in Fallon, at a school for day scholars and boarders run by the Benedictine sisters from Richardton, N.D. Because North Dakota weather is unpredictable, the Renner children boarded at the school during the week, going home on weekends.
Renner’s family moved to Tacoma during the Great Depression. John Renner “hated farming,” and jumped at the chance to sell land ravaged by dust and drought. Renner went to school, worked as a telegram delivery boy, a deckhand and various other jobs, as World War II came and went. It was during this time that life in Alaska began to interest him, he says. But it would be many years before he would get there.
Renner got the call to the priesthood during his junior year. Prior to that, he writes, his mind was filled with confusion. He was turning 18 soon, requiring registering for the draft. He wanted to travel, wanted a life of scholarship, but also wanted to serve a greater cause.
He was recommended to the Society of Jesuits in January 1944; he entered the novitiate in March of that year.
Becoming a priest is a long process, requiring years of study. Renner’s studies and call took him to Oregon, France, Seattle Preparatory School (as a teacher), a stint teaching at Monroe Catholic School in Fairbanks, doctoral studies in Munich and finally, a post at the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a teacher of German, despite his doctorate in philosophy.
Renner writes of his life in Fairbanks with joy, fondness and awe, touching on all the aspects that make it a special place — the landscape, nature’s bounty, the beauty of snow and the aurora, the warm hearts of the people. And through all of his adventures, he credits God’s “kindly providence” for his successes.
After 15 years at the university, Renner was tapped to head the Alaska Shepherd program, a fundraising arm of the Jesuits. Though he loved his teaching duties, he went where God pointed and spent another 20 years at the Shepherd, mixing office duties with trips to outlying villages to offer Mass and confessions to Catholics without a regular priest, and trips to various spots notable for Alaskan Catholic history. He also wrote many articles about his travels and the history he was discovering. He spent time gathering articles and information so someone could write the definitive history of Catholics in Alaska — a chore which eventually fell to him.
In between, he lived like an Alaskan — as he tells it: “Like most everyone, I found the Alaskan winters long. When spring did finally roll around, I felt an urgent need to get outdoors for long stretches of time, to live close to nature, and to engage in some hard, physical work, even if under somewhat Spartan conditions.” He spent seven summers, beginning in 1989 (by this time, remember, he is 63 years old) working for friends at their Dillingham fish camp, working long, irregular hours in extreme conditions at a job some have called one of the most dangerous in the world. But he thrived on all that Alaska had to offer, and loved this land almost as much as he loved his master.
One could see his Dillingham days as an allegory of his life — “Those Dillingham days were … occasion for me to challenge myself. … They were occasions for me to practice patience. … But life on the banks of the Nushagak and … Bristol Bay … were far from being merely an endless routine of hard work, discomfort and misery. There were days when the waters of the bay were as calm a as millpond. And there were nights utterly serene … There was time to pray the Rosary, to meditate, to reflect on how my work, as a commercial fisherman, was akin to that of Saint Peter and the other apostles who were also commercial fisherman. And there was time to play.”
Renner has a phenomenal memory, and kept prodigious diaries. The details of his life are all there, often in overabundance. But it gives a clear picture of the life of a priest — the years of study, the search for meaning, the selfless offering of one’s life and service to others. And Renner is a good writer — not just technically competent, but interesting. He kept this reader’s interest throughout the 500-plus page book, even in sections where the detail was overwhelming. I really wanted to see how it ended.
Renner writes of his life with grace and wit. He is quick to admit his own flaws, and gives all credit to his success and even survival to God and His “Kindly Providence.” In the first chapter, he writes, “I have never considered myself as being accident-prone, though I have had some close calls and I have done some very foolish things in my life.” He then lists a few of the close calls: falling into a horse trough at age 3 and nearly drowning, a near-miss from a horse’s hoof a few years later, sticking his arm into the rolling wringer of the old-fashioned washing machine at age 2, then getting hit on the head with the stick mother Rose used to rescue his arm, a passenger in a car driven by his brother that hit a guardrail, slamming his head into the barrel of his loaded shotgun (they were on a hunting trip). There’s more, but you get the picture. How many of us are willing to recount our mishaps and stupidities for strangers to read?
He ends his story in 2006, when his “Alaskana Catholica,” a history of Catholicism in Alaska, is published. But it doesn’t really end — because Renner touched a lot of people in his four decades in Fairbanks, and his attitude of service and caring is contagious. It will live on long after he has joined his parents and his Father he knows he will meet in Heaven. It is a kindly providence, indeed, for one of his faith.
Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 347-2422.