FAIRBANKS — A Holy Communion Service spoken entirely in the Gwich’in dialect of Tukudh will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, 1029 First Avenue. 

Reverends from Alaska and Canada, as well as a deacon, will join to officiate the service. Programs will be available, so people can follow along in English.

Allan Hayton, 45, is a Vestry member at St. Matthew’s, and helped organize the event. Originally from Arctic Village, Hayton expects about 40 people to participate in Thursday’s ceremony. They come from eight Alaska and four Canadian towns and villages. 

“It’s a long, proud legacy that our ancestors and forebears have left for us, and I love our language, and to hear a service in our language is amazing,” Hayton said. 

Gwich’in is one of 47 separate Athabascan languages and is spoken in 15 communities throughout Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The Tukudh dialect predates the Gwich’in translation to English. 

A similar service entirely in Gwich’in was held in 2003, a 10-year anniversary service was postponed last year because members from Canada weren’t able to cross the border. 

Beginning in the 1860s, Archdeacon Robert McDonald spent more than 40 years translating The Bible — both Old and New testaments — as well as more than 200 hymns, into Gwich’in.

The Rev. Trimble Gilbert, from Arctic Village, opened an introductory meeting yesterday with The Lord’s Prayer and blessings in Tukudh. A chorus of 15 people joined in — bowed heads and closed eyes — the Parish room of St. Matthew’s resonated with the complex and ancient language. 

Because of the proliferation of English, Gilbert, 79, alternates between English and Tukudh while leading his sermons in Arctic Village. Gilbert said he remembers when only a few services per year were held in canvas tents, always entirely in Gwich’in. 

“Language is a gift giver to us, and when we talk to each other (the) meaning is real strong,” Gilbert said of the connection he gets from traditional communication. Gilbert speaks with his three sons solely in Tukudh. 

After prayer and song, participants introduced themselves, almost entirely in their native tongue. 

There was Joanne Snowshoe, 74, who carries with her a Gwich’in Bible and book of hymns—broken bindings and loose pages evidence decades of heavy use—handed down from her mother. Snowshoe, from Fort McPherson, the Northwest Territories, is participating in the service as a lay reader. She said she remembers reading the gospel in Gwich’in every Sunday as a child. 

Snowshoe and the Rev. Bella Jean Savino, of Fairbanks, sing Tukudh hymns over the telephone every Saturday. 

Savino, 69, originally from Arctic Village and Fort Yukon, also recalled attending weekly service as a child. “Nobody stayed home,” Savino said. Savino, who rarely has opportunities to speak Gwich’in in Fairbanks, said she’s grateful for the service. 

“We learn a lot from each other,” she said. 

During study and practice, Hayton emphasizes the importance of connecting to the audience, telling celebrants what to convey, “we feel it in our hearts and it means something to us.” 

Regarding Thursday’s service, Hayton said, “Come expecting a celebration. We’re going to have a good time, worship and celebrate in our language.” 

The service will be followed by a cover dish. 

Alaskan attendees came from: Gwichyaa Zhee (Fort Yukon), Viihtaii (Venetie), Vashraii K’oo (Arctic Village), Jalgitsik (Chalkyitsik), Tsee Duu (Beaver), Deenduu (Birch Creek), Danzhit Haiinlaii (Circle), Tanan (Fairbanks) and Eagle.

Canadian contributors traveled from: Vun Tut  (Old Crow), Teetł’it Zheh (Fort McPherson), Dawson and Whitehorse. 

Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510.