TANANA, Alaska — Memories of life growing up at the Mission of Our Savior came rushing back for the Rev. Helen Peters Sunday at St. James Mission in Tanana.
One look at the stained glass window dedicated to her godmother, Deaconess Bernice Sterne, and Peters was awash in tears.
It turns out they were tears of joy. “Those were the best days of my life,” Peters said.
Recalling everything from being an angel in the Christmas pageant to helping care for sick babies, Peters said life at the old mission was all about community and helping each other. Contrary to accepted perceptions that Natives had to stop speaking their language when the church came to a community, the Athabascan people at this particular mission spoke and sang in their native tongue.
“As a little girl I lay under the pews and watched the priest read scripture and a tall, handsome Native man, Henry Moses, would interpret,” Peters said. “He had a gift that nobody else had, and it was amazing to me.”
The music of the mission has stayed with Peters all these years. “To hear the singing and sounds of Bible reading. The sound is what really got to me,” she said. “We were dressed in fur parkas and boots just singing our hearts out, just like maybe angels in heaven had come down to sing. They had amazing voices. Never again did I hear that special sound like in that church.”
Peters’ father cut wood for steamers and hauled the logs by dog team. At the young age of 2, her mother died in childbirth and Peters moved in with her grandmother. Deaconess Sterne took her under her wing and helped raise her, and Peters loved her immensely.
Working alongside Sterne, Peters learned the art of nursing. When her father drowned, Peters stood on the riverbank and told the priest she didn’t know what she was going to do. “He laid his hands on me and prayed and then I walked down from the mission to the hospital in Tanana,” Peters said. The young teen boldly approached the head nurse and asked for a job, and started to work at midnight that very night, dispensing medicine to patients.
When her grandmother at the mission became ill, Peters went back to care for her. “I did everything she wanted me to do and I listened to her stories about her travels and having a baby on the trail and putting him in her parky and continuing on.”
Peters said she was the last person to be confirmed in the mission, in 1941. When World War II broke out, mission life ended as people moved away or died. At that time she never envisioned becoming a priest. Her husband was on track to become one when he died of brain cancer. He asked her to continue that path. The family had attended Episcopal training in Arizona 1969-70. Peters returned to St. James in Tanana to serve as a lay reader and eventually became a deacon. In 2005 she was ordained as an Episcopal priest.
She and Archdeacon Anna Frank traveled extensively for the church, conducting services, funerals, weddings and baptisms.
Today the old mission is crumbling. When Peters passes by it in a boat on the Yukon River she remembers those joyful times. “I look at the mission, and I imagine what it used to be,” she said. “I remember all the happy things that happened there. It was a place where everyone helped each other.
“It was like God had given these people a special gift. They were amazing people that God put there.”