Mary Jane Landstrom:

Ecumenical Church Worker

By Dianne O’Connell


 Mary Jane Hargrave has been an active member of the Yukon Presbytery practically since the day she arrived in Alaska back in 1959.

Growing up in a Presbyterian family in Tennessee, Mary Jane attended church activities and church camps throughout her youth and knew that she was interested in mission work of some kind when she finished with school. She obtained a degree in elementary education and taught for two years in Nashville before coming to Alaska in the late 1950s to see her sister and to meet her sister’s new husband. Intrigued with the place, she applied for a teaching job at Nunaka Valley Elementary School in Anchorage for the 1959-1960 school year. It was during this year, that her classroom was being used on Sundays for a new Presbyterian congregation being organized in the area. Since the church was Presbyterian, she decided to check it out.

Mary Jane stayed at Nunaka Valley for three years, and became a charter member of the new Immanuel Presbyterian Church.

Still feeling the call to mission work and/or a position as Director of Christian Education with a congregation, Mary Jane was taken under care by the Yukon Presbytery and enrolled in the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. During her 1964 summer field placement in the Alaskan Arctic, she met Frank Landstrom of Anchorage. The couple became engaged and married on January 15, 1965 -- the date being a family tradition for weddings in Frank’s family.

Following her marriage, Mary Jane returned to Richmond and completed her examinations. She and Frank spent their honeymoon driving from Richmond to Nashville to Anchorage, Alaska, via the Alcan Highway. 

Mary Jane’s association with the Yukon Presbytery now began in earnest. She continued her work with the Rev. Hal Banks at Immanuel, as well as becoming active in the Anchorage Council of Churches. With her background and training in Christian Education, she was eagerly sought after to coordinate cooperative, ecumenical education events with the various mainline denominations. 

“I really think that Sheldon Jackson’s Comity Agreement still had an effect in Anchorage,” she smiles today. “Mainline denominations worked together and individual people realized that their extended families were a long way away, and they had to stick together here in order to survive. Much of this cooperative spirit changed during the Vietnam years. Several issues began to divide the formerly close knit community,” she recalls. “The community became anti-hippie, for instance, and with the pipeline boom, we became more fearful of each other and of the general influx of population.”

In the early years, Mary Jane would help organize and conduct cooperative programs at Alaska Pacific University. The military chaplains would bring busloads of people from the fort and base to participate. Richard Gay had just arrived at AMU and people thought he was just the greatest speaker who ever lived, she adds. 

“Another change involved the actual curriculum for the ecumenical efforts,” the educator goes on. “When we were sharing techniques and teaching skills for working with different age groups, it worked fine, but when we moved into content, then our diversity became more apparent and it was more difficult to find consensus.” 

But ecumenism was a passion for Mary Jane and her support for the Anchorage Council of Churches (now the Interfaith Council) and its programs runs deep. The organization’s finest hour, she believes, came following the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. Ross Patten, a Presbyterian, was serving the Alaska Council as executive director, but he was actually being paid through the National Council of Churches. 

“To me, he was placed in that exact place for that exact moment,” Mary Jane states. Patten’s office was the pivotal point for collecting and dispersing relief funds and services following the earthquake. The following year, 1965, the office was closed. It had been where it was supposed to be, when it was supposed to be there -- and was no longer needed. 

Mary Jane’s church involvement slowed down for a few years following the serious illness of her husband, Frank. As Frank’s health improved, the couple was able to again enjoy activities such as camping and fishing together. 

Mary Jane would have liked to obtain paid church work as a Director of Christian Education, but during those days, few churches in Alaska had associate pastors, let alone paid Christian education workers. She was tapped to join the Presbytery’s volunteer Christian Education Committee, however. She served as moderator for the committee for at least two six-year terms, she recalls.

The ecumenical educator also became interested in an organization called Church Women United. The group had been formed in the late 1950s, but Mary Jane had been unable to attend the daytime meetings while she was still employed as a public school teacher.

 Virginia Banks, then wife of Hal Banks, was deeply involved in the organization, and now, as an housewife and unpaid church worker, Mary Jane could attend, as well. 

Church Women United took root and blossomed, in part, as a result of the spurt in general church development in the 1960s. Turnagain United Methodist, Immanuel Presbyterian, the Disciples of Christ, the Congregationalist, Anchor Park Methodist, St. Mark’s Lutheran and St. Mary’s Episcopal churches, all organized within several years of one another during this time.

The end of the Korean War, Statehood for Alaska, and the discovery of the Kenai Oil Fields all contributed to the growth of the community and the resulting need for churches, Mary Jane adds.

Church Women United was a going concern about this time and one of its main projects was to raise money for the establishment of a home for young women based on the concept of Hospitality House in Fairbanks. About $10,000 had been raised for the project, which was a great deal of money at the time. When the earthquake hit, however, the national YMCA backed out of the project, leaving Church Women United with a bunch of money and no project.

 “Alaska Children’s Services was beginning to expand,” Mary Jane remembers. “We were able to raise another two or three thousand dollars and provide them with a down payment on a new house and mortgage payments for the first year,” she adds proudly. “It was called Aquarius House back then but has a different name now. Ronn Ohlson and his wife were the first houseparents. The program houses teenage women between the ages of 16 and 18 years.” 

‘It felt very good to be a part of a group of women with a purpose,” Mary Jane says today. “I started attending the celebration days, became an officer and later became unit present for four years -- and then again for another four years.” 

Church Women United through the years has been a participant in, or a catalyst for, many projects and programs in the community, including the Literacy Project, F.I.S.H., Campus Ministry, the Food Bank, Hospice, Beans Cafe, the Salvation Army’s McKinnoll Shelter, the Abused Women in Crisis shelter, the women’s resource center, and most recently, the Healthy Families Project in Mountain View and the governor’s Smart Start children’s program.

Mary Jane’s work with one ecumenical effort led to her involvement with another, and another.

“I was president of the Alaska Christian Conference in the early 1970s,” Mary Jane recalls. “I went off that board because I was needed on the campus ministry board.”

Impetus for that program came as a result of the University of Alaska, Anchorage’s campus expansion program. 

“When, (the Rev.) David Fisson left, I was president and chair of the search committee which hired Dianne O’Connell for the position as campus chaplain,” she smiles. (The interview was being conducted by Dianne O’Connell.) 

Mary Jane’s main disappointment with the campus ministry program was the lack of financial support shown it in the ecumenical church community. Also there seemed to be little interest in exploring social and/or theological issues, but some of the main service projects are still functioning -- such as the Small Blessings Cafe. Methodist Robbie Robinson has probably been the longest, strongest, and most dedicated supporter of the program, she adds. 

In addition to her work with children and young adults, her various ecumenical efforts and her work on the Presbytery of Yukon’s Christian Education Committee, Mary Jane also served two terms on the Presbytery Nominating Committee and was a member of the search committee which called Neil Munro as associate synod executive. 

At the time Munro was hired, both the Alaska Presbytery and the Yukon Presbytery were served by one associate executive. The search committee was comprised of people from both presbyteries, Mary Jane laughs, and a couple of the meetings were held at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau.

“We conducted our exit interview with Gordon Corbett (outgoing associate synod executive) in prison,” she explains. 

Mary Jane Landstrom was elected Stated Clerk for the Presbytery of Yukon at the fall meeting of Presbytery in 1994. She was attending a Stated Clerk’s meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, at the time, so her first actual meeting was in the spring of 1995. Interim executive Bob Palmer was just leaving, and current executive presbyter David Dobler was just beginning. 

What have been some of the turning points for the Yukon Presbytery over the years? 

“Well, the change from mission status to independent status was a big change from a financial standpoint,” the stated clerk says. “Our involvement in the Native Land Claims Settlement was of major historical significance, and our current and future involvement in subsistence will also have significant impact on us as a church.” 

Life in rural Alaska has changed dramatically since Mary Jane first went to the Arctic for her field placement in 1994. Honeybuckets were the norm, as were propeller driven aircraft. 

“It just blows my mind to return to Barrow today and find, not only flush toilets, but computer links between the schools and improved air travel,” Mary Jane laughs. “The villages used to be totally dependent upon the barges arriving on time. When they didn’t, it was economic disaster if food and fuel had to be flown in. Today, the villages have modern grocery stores and fresh fruit when they want it. “The modern communications tools are a marvel, as well,” she adds. 

There is one church member -- Rodney from Gambell -- who sends an e-mail outlining his observations and concerns to the Presbytery office probably once a week. Teleconferencing for committee meetings makes regional representation a true reality. The Atqasuk church’s annual report was late not too long ago -- but not a problem, it was soon faxed from the local school to the Presbytery office, with a follow-up telephone call from the village to make sure it arrived! 

Mary Jane Landstrom has been a vital part of the Presbytery of Yukon and its mission for nearly thirty years. Without church workers of the caliber of Mary Jane, our efforts to bring forth the Kingdom of God on this earth would be to no avail.

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