The Rev. Miss Alice Green: First Ordained Woman Minister, Presbytery of the Yukon By The Rev. Ms. Dianne O’Connell Yukon Presbytery Historian “A Missionary is Born...”
“Aunt Frances was a nurse and Aunt Lottie was a teacher at Sheldon Jackson High School in Sitka, Alaska, in the early 1900s. They came back every three years on furlough,” smiles the Reverend Miss Alice Green from retirement in Anchorage in 1998.
In 1917, the two sisters came outside on their regular furlough to be with a third sister, Alice, in Scott City, Kansas, when she gave birth to her second child.
“My mother gave birth to me and died,” says Alice, eighty years later. “I was named after her.
“Aunt Frances stayed to take care of me and my brother. A year later, she married my dad -- so she was both my stepmother and my aunt. Aunt Lottie went back to Alaska and served as principal at Sheldon Jackson for many years.
“We moved to Denver, Colorado, when I was six. And remember, Aunt Lottie visited every three years -- and she always talked about Alaska, and that’s where I wanted to go....”
But the route to Alaska took Alice first to Missouri, back to Colorado, on to Chicago, and further east to Maine.
She attended college at Park College in Missouri. She taught school a couple years in Colorado.
“I tell people I was kind of hard on towns,” she laughs today. “My first assignment was at Marble, Colorado. The marble mines closed down and so did the town. Next, I went to Dunton, Colorado. The mine there caved in. No one was killed, but they closed the town anyway.”
Taking it all as a sign that perhaps she should be pursuing another career, Alice enrolled in the Presbyterian College of Christian Education at Chicago. The school today is a part of McCormick Seminary.
Upon obtaining her masters degree, Alice wanted to teach at Sheldon Jackson in Alaska -- but nothing was available. She accepted a position as a Sunday school missionary in Maine, and went to Maine in the summer of 1943.
“Come back when you are married....”
The young missionary first met the Rev. Dr. J. Earl Jackman when she was attending General Assembly back in Chicago in the summer of 1944. Jackman, recently appointed as Secretary for Sunday School Missions and Work in Alaska for the Board of National Missions, had just returned from his first trip to the far north. He was in charge of recruiting missionaries and pastors for the 27 churches in the territory.
Alice recalls telling Dr. Jackman of her life long dream to follow her aunts’ footsteps and to do missionary work in Alaska. Jackman, she says, indicated that there were no positions for single women available and that she would have to be married.
Later that fall, Jackman came to Maine where Alice was working as a Sunday school missionary. Three married male ministers accompanied him. Alice again approached Jackman and asked which of the three marriages he would like her to break up, so that she could marry one of the men and go to Alaska.
Apparently, Jackman saw the humor in Alice’s comment and the commitment in Alice, and she was selected as the Commissioned Church Worker for the 250-population village of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, west of Nome -- a position open for a single woman.
“Mail once a month ... most months....”
Alice arrived in Savoonga in July 5, 1945. She rented “a little Eskimo house” for five dollars a month and settled into the community. There was no church building as yet, so the congregation met in the schoolhouse.
Isolated out in the Bering Sea, there was little contact with the Presbytery of Yukon. The mail arrived about once a month, from November through May, “and a couple of times in the summer,” recalls Alice. The Rev. Elmer Parker came over from the village of Gambell two or three times a year to provide communion and baptize new babies. Alice, herself, was not ordained. These were the days before the ordination of women.
“The school house burned down in March the first year I was there,” Alice says today. “It was on a Tuesday. I remember because the elders of the church were knocking on my door sometime after midnight. They were concerned where they were going to hold the Wednesday night service and prayer meeting!”
A solution to the dilemma was quickly found -- the men met at one home and the women met at another. Nobody’s home was big enough to accommodate everybody.
How many people in the 250-person village were active in the church?
“Oh, about 250!” Alice laughs.
A new schoolhouse was completed in 1947. In 1948, the congregation put in the pilings for a new church building and “let them freeze in” for a year. The following year, “the building arrived” and the people built the church.
The church was dedicated in 1950. The Rev. Dr. Jackman flew in from New York for the event, as did the Rev. Rolland Armstrong, Board of National Missions representative for Alaska, Juneau.
“A move to Anchorage and service at Native Hospital...”
Alice remained in Savoonga through 1954. She spent a year in Maine on furlough and returned to Anchorage in December of 1955 to accept a position as Religious Coordinator for the Alaska Native Service Hospital for the National Council of Churches.
The hospital had opened in 1953, primarily as a hospital for tuberculosis patients.
“There was a hospital in Anchorage, one in Seward, one at Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka and four in Seattle -- all filled up with Alaskan TB patients,” Alice recalls sadly.
Treatment for tuberculosis at the time required a patient to stay in the hospital for as long as two years. The long stays did enable the religious coordinator to get well acquainted with a large number of Native people from all over Alaska.
“Becomes active in Presbytery, Synod, and National Church Work...”
While at the Native Service Hospital in Anchorage, Alice attended Faith Presbyterian Church, located at 15th and Gambell, and became deeply involved in the work of the Presbytery. She served as chairperson for the Mission Strategy Committee for several years and was involved in the merging and development of several congregations.
Faith, for instance, located about a mile from First Presbyterian, eventually merged with Woodland Park Presbyterian in Spenard, and later became part of Trinity Presbyterian. Before either of these events occurred, however, Faith had already begun laying the foundation for the new church on the eastside of town -- Immanuel Presbyterian.
Alice was chair of the Presbytery’s Mission Strategy Committee by this time. A lot of National Missions monies went into the Immanuel development and Earl Jackman recruited the Rev. Mr. Hal Banks as the organizing pastor for the new congregation.
“I was a member of the Board of National Missions when the self-development of peoples committee voted to give the $10,000 to the Angela Davis Defense Fund,” Alice explains “No, we weren’t consulted. That’s because the funds were to be disbursed at the discretion of the self-development of peoples committee.
“We had given a lot of money to the civil rights workers arrested in the South -- so it wasn’t her (Ms. Davis’) race that was a problem for people -- oh, it might have been for some -- but the biggest problem was that she was a Communist.
“I was at a meeting of the Missions Board in October after the thing had happened. I was sitting at the same table with one of the self-development of peoples committee members.
“I told him then that the only thing that bothered me was NOT that we gave her the money. What bothered me was that in order to get justice in this country, a person like Angela Davis had to hire a high priced team of lawyers in the first place. This is where the Church should be placing its efforts -- determining how to change that fact!
“The guy agreed with me.”
“Another thing about this situation that never got much publicity,” adds Alice, “is that because of the stir caused, ten Black pastors each put up $1,000 a piece to pay back the $10,000 to the church.”
“Agitating for Equal Representation...”
A major organizational issue of this time period, according to Alice, surfaced around the question of whether or not Alaska should become its own synod.
At the time, most states were a synod in and of themselves.
“Alaska was originally a mission of the First Presbyterian Church of Portland, Oregon,” says Alice. “This was the church that sent Sheldon Jackson up here in the first place! Portland churches are much older than those in Washington,” she adds, expressing the first of several preferences for Oregon over Washington during the discussion.
The reason for the problem involved unequal representation at the synod level. Alaska and Yukon presbyteries were members of the Washington Synod. The Washington Synod allowed any minister or elder who wished to attend synod meetings to do so. Alaska and Yukon were welcome to participate, but Washington would provide no financial assistance for travel for the Alaskans.
Hence, Alaska explored the idea of becoming its own synod. Unfortunately, the rule was that there had to be at least three presbyteries to form a synod. Alaska Presbytery and Yukon Presbytery added up to only two.
“There was some thought of carving out a northern presbytery from Yukon,” Alice recalls, but it just wasn’t financially feasible.”
Eventually, Washington voted to pay for the travel of an elder delegate and minister delegate from each of the two Alaskan presbyteries to attend the synod meetings. The Washington presbyteries could still send as many delegates who wanted to attend.
“We accepted the travel assistance, and after we got there, we began to agitate that the synod be re-organized along more legitimate lines -- the one person, one vote concept,” Alice explains. “We began to be active on synod councils and committees and threatened to file a complaint regarding representation. We just wanted them to be legal,” she explains.
Alice served on the re-organization committee to determine synod sizes.
“We had a meeting in Portland with representatives from all the northwestern synods, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada -- there may have been others.
“Oregon really wanted to be in our synod -- Washington really didn’t want them. I speculated at the time that it had more to do with the politics of who would be chosen synod executive of the new synod than anything else,” she says. “Finally Washington agreed to take a small part of northern Idaho, the part with close ties to Spokane anyway.”
“I really felt bad for Montana. Nobody wanted Montana. It was too far east for some; too far west for others; and too far north for yet others. They finally wound up in the Rocky Mountain synod. Oregon, Nevada, and southern Idaho eventually joined the Northern California synod.”
The new synod structure provided for equal representation for each presbytery.
During this re-organization period, it was also decided that Alaska should have an Associate Synod Executive elected by the two Presbyteries.
“Prior to the late 60s and early 70s, local churches didn’t have much say about who was to be their pastor,” Alice explains. “The pastors were chosen by Dr. Jackman.”
Rolland Armstrong, Brian Cleworth, and William Pritchard were the first “resident representatives” chosen by the Board of National Missions, all of whom served the Alaska and Yukon presbyteries and had their offices in Juneau.
Gordon Corbett was elected as the first Associate Synod Executive residing in Anchorage.
“National funding dries up for ecumenical work...”
During the years immediately following World War II, there was a great deal of prosperity in the country and a corresponding surge in church membership and financial participation. One of the projects that the National Council of Churches supported during this time was funding for the salaries for ecumenical religious coordinators for Indian schools and hospitals throughout the country. Alice Green’s position at the Alaska Native Service Hospital in Anchorage was funded through this program.
As the 1960s came to a close and the 1970s began, churches began to “get poor.” One of the programs cut back by the National Council of Churches was the ecumenical work in schools and hospitals. Alice’s position was not funded.
“I was out of work for about a year,” Alice recalls. “I stayed in Anchorage and continued on as a volunteer at the Native hospital. It was about this time that Gordon Corbett came as the new associate synod executive.”
Corbett suggested that Alice consider the interim pastor position at Ketchikan -- even though she was not yet ordained. Alice accepted and served the Ketchikan church for a year.
Back up on Saint Lawrence Island, the Rev. Sig Kristiansen was serving both the Savoonga and the Gambell Presbyterian churches, under the old appointment system. It was determined that both churches would now be allowed to “call” their own pastors.
Kristiansen was called to the Gambell pulpit -- and Alice Green was called to the Savoonga pulpit.
Upon being called to the pastorate, the Presbytery voted to ordain Alice -- the first woman to be ordained in the Presbytery of the Yukon.
Two Inupiat men from the Arctic had been ordained before her -- Roy Ahmaogak in June of 1947 and Samuel Simmonds in 1961.
But other than that, Alice says, Yukon Presbytery wasn’t much into ordaining folks -- everyone came to Alaska already ordained.
Today, there are a dozen ordained Presbyterian women serving in Yukon Presbytery.
The first, Alice Green, was ordained September 15, 1972, at Trinity Presbyterian in Anchorage.
“After the Presbytery meeting that year, they chartered a plane and flew to Gambell to install Sig,” Alice remembers, “Then they flew on to Savoonga to install me.”
What had changed in Savoonga during the 18 years that Alice had been gone?
“The same people were there, only more of them,” Alice smiles. “The village had grown to 400, by natural processes -- certainly not because new people had moved in.”
Another change was the airport. Mail came daily.
“But along with the mail, came liquor. We didn’t have that before,” Alice adds.
“”Interestingly enough to me, though,” Alice says today, “most of the liquor was being consumed by the unmarried. Once the people married, they pretty much settled down. It wasn’t like that in some villages.”
There were some theological changes evident, as well. There was more of a charismatic movement in the village. Many of the people had visited the Assemblies of God church while visiting Nome, and Sig Kristiansen, the Presbyterian minister serving Savoonga just prior to Alice’s return, also had a strong charismatic bent.
A number of folks were also writing hymns in their own language for church services.
“Methodists vs. Presbyterians....”
Quite a sizeable group of Savoonga and Gambell people had re-located to Nome in order to keep their families together while their children attended high school there. There was no Presbyterian church in Nome so the Savoonga people were encouraged to attend the Methodist Church where the Rev. John Shaffer was minister.
Many folks did attend the Methodist Church for Sunday morning services but the also enjoyed the Assemblies of God services on Sunday evening.
Pretty soon, the Savoonga and Gambell folk wanted to establish their own Presbyterian Church. As Clarence Irrigoo stated it,
“Presbyterianism is part of our culture!”
In 1973, Alice was asked to spend a month in Nome to help organize the new Presbyterian congregation -- with the understanding that they would share both the Methodist building and the Methodist minister, Mr. Shaffer. The Aywaan Parish was also established at the time, encompassing the new congregation at Nome, the Methodist church at Nome, and the Presbyterian churches at Gambell and Savoonga.
There were some interesting stories as families settled into one congregation or another, Alice relates. For instance, John and Della Waghiyi and family started out as Presbyterians in Savoonga. Upon moving to Nome, they joined the Methodist Church. When the new Presbyterian congregation was formed, they supported the effort with their membership.
Eventually, however, they wished to re-join the Methodist congregation. As John Shaffer, who was serving as pastor for both congregations, put it at the time, “They must not have liked the Presbyterian minister.”
“Native Land Claims and Savoonga...”
Alice was active on the Washington/Alaska Synod Council during her second stint in Savoonga and, of course, was supremely aware of the issues effecting the people during that time.
One such issue was the work to settle Native land claims. St. Lawrence Island -- with its two villages of Savoonga and Gambell -- had long been designated a “reindeer reservation.” John Larson, a VISTA volunteer and lawyer, was able to convince the federal government that if the island were a “reservation”, it probably contained more than reindeer -- people, for instance.
During the years before the 1972 settlement, a great deal of discussion occurred among the people regarding the merits of participating in the cash and land settlement option versus just a land settlement.
Looking at the situation, the people determined that under the cash-land proposal, they would only be awarded about a third of their island. Just land -- they got the whole island.
A formal election was held to decide the issue. Alice served as an election teller, one of the few persons in the community not personally effected by the outcome of the vote.
There was only one vote against taking the island, but not the money, Alice recalls. That vote was that of a former resident who now lived in New York.
“The decision has meant that the village hasn’t been as rich as some of the other villages -- in terms of money,” says Alice, “But, I think they have been happy with the decision.”
Another issue facing the communities soon after was that of a proposed state “easement” around the entire island and the island’s internal waterways. The “easement” was designed to provide access to fishing for non-residents and, allegedly, to provide for such things as future airports and roadways. It was proposed by some sports fishermen, Alice recalls today.
“All totaled, a full fifty percent of the island would be taken away -- and this after the people had already chosen the island over the cash settlement,” Alice exclaims.
The minister attended the hearing on the matter in Gambell. She remembers testifying against the proposal and indicating that “the people can always be asked for special easements for airports and the like in the future. Let the people decide at that time -- it’s their island!”
Fortunately, the easement proposal died.
Alice Green served the people of Savoonga from 1972 through 1982 when she retired and moved back to Anchorage.
Sig Kristiansen went back to Savoonga after Alice left, but his wife was interested in returning to Nome, Alice recalls. Sig returned to Nome, accepted a paid position with the state Social Services Department, and began a “tent-making ministry” with services conducted in his home.
Later with the assistance of Bi-Centennial Funds, land was purchased from Joe Martin, a former teacher from Savoonga, and a building was purchased and re-located to the lot. Presbyterian services are still being held in the little building -- but the small congregation has never been able to budget for a pastor nor a place for the pastor to live.
Back in Savoonga, the Rev. William Ng served the church there for a couple years. Rev. Haldane of Metlakatla served as “interim” following Rev. Ng. And the Rev. Janice Stamper arrived in Savoonga shortly after that. The community is currently being served by the Revs. Jason and Heidi Gamble.
Alice Green became Stated Clerk of the Presbytery -- a position she held from 1982 through December 31, 1991. The lady minister retired once more, after more than fifty years of ministry in Alaska -- more than half the life span of Yukon Presbytery itself.
What does she see the second millennium bringing to the Presbyterian Church?
“Hopefully, a greater concern for the Native population in our major cities,” Alice offers.
Her greatest sadness, “The lack of effort on the part of the local churches to reach out to the urban Native population;” and her greatest joy, “seeing a few of those who grew up in Savoonga and Gambell taking an active part in the Anchorage congregations.”
It would appear that after fifty years, Alice may no longer live in Savoonga, but a part of Savoonga definitely still lives in Alice.
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