Alaska Presbyterians

And Health Care

 It is to be remembered that many of the first Presbyterian missionaries to the Arctic were medical missionaries -- including Ann Bannon RN and Emma Stauffer RN, as well as the Rev. Doctors Horatio Marsh arriving in 1897, Henry W. Griest arriving in 1921, and Dr. Newhall arriving in 1925. Griest returned after furlough and remained at Barrow until 1936.

 The Presbyterians did not build the hospital at Barrow, but they certainly did lobby at the federal level for its construction -- plus they provided many of the medical personnel.

 Concern for medical care for people has always been high on the priority list for the Presbyterian effort in Alaska. The Presbyterians built a number of hospitals in the territory, even though as the century closes the church is not operating any of them. Perhaps, we should consider ourselves initiators, allowing others to operate and maintain that which we have begun.

The following story could be placed with the material on Barrow or it could be placed here. I have chosen to include it here. It is a story which took place from the veranda of the Barrow Public Health Service Hospital and it involved a tragic bit of Americana – the death of humorist Will Rogers and his pilot Wiley Post.

 Griest and the Death Of Will Rogers

 “I hear tell there’s a missionary up at Point Barrow that I’d like to see. You know my sister down in Oklahoma is a great believer in those people, but I allus figured there were enough heathens in the States to keep the missionaries busy without sending them off to foreign countries,” Will Rogers was overheard saying in 1935 in a Fairbanks hotel and reported in an Indiana newspaper interview with the missionary some years later.

 “Charley Lindbergh says there is an old doctor up at Point Barrow who is quite a card after you get next to him. You know him and Anne flew up and visited a while back. What do you say, Wiley, let’s fly up and pay Doc a visit? Mebby it won’t cost us anything by us going that far.” The man that Will Rogers and Wiley Post were going to see was the Rev. Henry W. Griest, MD, DD, Presbyterian minister and doctor at the Barrow hospital. The men fell 15 miles short of their objective after flying through an Arctic fog for about 1,800 miles.

Griest had left a comfortable medical practice in Monticello, Indiana, in 1920 to carry the Gospel to the Arctic. He remained there for 16 years except when he returned to Hanover to complete his AB degree and receive his honorary DD in 1926. His Doctor of Medicine degree was awarded at Indiana University. 

Griest was expecting the fliers back in 1935. Word came of a crashed plane, but it couldn’t be Rogers and Post because they were scheduled to arrive from the opposite direction. Griest and Captain Brower, a retired whaler who frequently helped the doctor, were waiting on the veranda of the hospital when they saw a speck in the distance - a tiny craft powered by an outboard motor. A man emerged rushing to the hospital panting out his news: “Bird man she blow up.” 

Thirty to 40 men piled into two motor launches and tied a large canoe to the stern of one boat and started down the coast in a southerly direction. 

It was 8 p.m., About 1 a.m., the men at the hospital knew it was Rogers and Post. “God! It’s them,” murmured Brower, “Listen, it’s the Natives ancient funeral dirge for a dead chieftain.”

 The canoe was guided into the lagoon, lifted out and carried to the steps of the hospital. The two bodies taken from the canoe were carried to the two operating rooms. Capt. Brower was in charge of Post’s body and Dr. Griest took care of Will Rogers. The repair work on the mutilations started at 2 a.m., and went on for five hours, during which time news of the crash was sent around the world.

Griest described the wounds to the bodies in an interview in 1939 at his home in Monticello. It was evident to the doctor that the men had been killed instantly.

 Griest’s job was to make the body presentable for Mrs. Rogers. She later described her brief view of her husband in the casket as seeing him “smiling and untroubled,” a tribute to the skill of the humble missionary-doctor.

Griest died at his home in Monticello, Indiana in November of 1955. His wife Molly, who was a nurse at Barrow serving with her husband, died in 1975 at the age of 103.

Cordova Community Hospital

This writer is not certain when the hospital at Cordova was constructed, but records show that the Rev. Carl DeMott wrote to the Yukon Presbytery in 1949 indicating that the congregation of the Presbyterian church in that community would be willing to affiliate with the American Baptist Missionary Society if the society would be willing to take over the hospital. Presbytery action was delayed pending outcome of a meeting of the Cordova Hospital stockholders on December 20, 1949.

 The Rev. DeMott later reported that the Hospital Association at Cordova had voted 21 to 1 to accept the offer of the American Baptist Society to take over the hospital. It was felt by both the Board of National Missions in New York and the Presbytery that work at Cordova should be turned over to the Baptists.

 The Cordova congregation then officially requested permission to withdraw from the Presbytery of Yukon and in order to affiliate with the American Baptists. The request was granted with the caveat that should the Baptists ever withdraw from the field, the work would revert back to the Presbytery of Yukon. The Cordova church was sold the Baptists in 1951.

 Valley Presbyterian Hospital

While we were disengaging from a hospital in Cordova, we were starting one in Palmer. In 1950, Yukon Presbytery noted the emergency nature of the hospital situation in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. A plea for “action now” was sent out and a special Presbytery Hospital Committee was appointed. A national women’s effort to raise needed moneys ensued under the campaign theme of “Pennies for Palmer.” By 1951, it was reported the hospital agreement in Palmer, between the local hospital board and the Board of National Missions, had been signed by both parties May 1.

Groundbreaking ceremonies took place during the 1953 spring meeting of Presbytery, April 9.

However, basic differences in philos-ophies soon emerged between the Presbyterians and the hospital board. In 1957, the Rev. Bertram Rutan reported that the Third Division Liquor Dealers had proposed that the Valley Presby-terian Hospital might wish to be the recipient of money obtained through raffles. The Board of National Missions opposed the idea. The hospital board, by a vote of four to three, voted to accept the donation nonetheless.

The Board of National Missions asked to hospital board to reconsider. Upon reconsideration, the vote was upheld. As a result, the Board of National Missions gave the hospital board one year’s notice that official relationship was terminated. The Presbyterian Church would no longer be associated in any way with the Valley Presbyterian Hospital, except as the holder of the mortgage. Sigh.

Alaska Native Service Hospital

 In 1954, Presbytery voted to “get something definite started” in regard to work in the Alaska Native Service Hospital, Anchorage. Rev. John Seibert had just been appointed by the Board chaplain for the Presbyterians an the hospital.

 By 1956, Miss Alice Green, commissioned lay worker who had spent many years as Presbyterian missionary at Savoonga, was serving the hospital as interdenominational “religious coordin-ator” through a National Council of Churches grant.

In other Native medical center related work in 1956, the Rev. Lowell Campbell of Gambell, requested that Yukon Presbytery correspond with the pres-byteries of Seattle and Tacoma to solicit pastoral care and church visitation for Alaskan patients in Seattle and Tacoma hospitals. Many tuberculosis patients from the Native hospital were sent to these areas for long-term treatment.

The Rev. Campbell was approved as Presbyterian chaplain for the hospital in 1957.

Today several Anchorage churches maintain visitation programs for Pres-byterians arriving from rural areas for treatment at the newly constructed Alaska Native Medical Center on Tudor Road.

Alaska Psychiatric Institute

 In 1956, Presbytery was in unanimous support of the Alaska Mental Health Bill, Senate Bill 2518.

 “As Christian citizens of Alaska we believe this is a progressive measure for the care and treatment of the mentally ill of Alaska. We deplore the present antiquated methods of handling our mentally ill,” the Presbytery stated.

A wire was sent delegate E.L. “Bob” Bartlett and an appeal was made to the National Council of Churches for support. Each congregation was asked to take like action.

 Anchorage Presbyterian Community Hospital

 The ultra-modern $800,000 Presbyterian Community Hospital, located on Eighth Avenue and L Street in Anchorage, was officially dedicated on June 10, 1963, and received its first patient at noon on June 18, according to a report written by the Rev. Hal N. Banks.

The 45-bed hospital was a non-profit institution operated by Presbyterian Ministries, Inc., Synod of Washington-Alaska, United Presbyterian Church in the USA. The hospital was designed to provide full emergency, medical, surgical and obstetrical care for patients of every race, color, and creed – perhaps perceived as of more significance because of its location in a town served by a Native service hospital and a hospital operated by the Sisters of Providence.

There were approximately 50 active members serving on the medical staff at the opening of the facility. Like most, the hospital could boast of an active women’s auxiliary which raised funds to help buy specialized equipment, operated a gift shop, and provided personalized services to the patients.

The day to day operations of the facility were directed by a local board composed of Dr. Edward V. Wright, minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage; George E. Hale, MD; A.S. Walkowski, MD; Dr. Robert A. Frederick, John M. Sweet, and Ron L. Rettig.

Banks was the chair of the hospital’s chaplaincy committee, composed of two individuals, himself and the Rev. A.L. Abrahamson, pastor of Central Lutheran Church. The committee’s purpose was to support and assist the hospital’s part-time chaplain -- the Rev. John L. Maakestad. Maakestad served as chaplain in the mornings at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute and in the afternoons at the Presbyterian hospital. He was a Lutheran. The hospital itself was a solid building -- a fact proven by the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964. Following the quake, structural engineer Richard Hadley inspected the facility and declared that it was unbelievable that the four-story concrete building was able to withstandthe quake, even though it was located within 250 feet of the major fault.

When disaster struck, the Presbyterian Community patients were ordered evacuated to Providence Hospital by Mrs. Elizabeth Trigge, director of nurses, who had been appointed to her position just three hours prior to the quake.

“People miraculously appeared with offers of assistance,” Mrs. Trigge recalled at the time. She assigned each patient to a volunteer with a car. The non-ambulatory patients were evacuated to Providence in station wagons. The evacuation of the 24 patients in the hospital at the time of the quake was completed in one-half hour.

The severe shock disrupted the building’s utilities but actual damage was confined to breakage of hospital supplies and other things that had fallen from the shelves.

Rev. Banks was appointed Yukon Presbytery’s representative on the hospital board in September 1963. On April 8, 1964, Presbytery approved the nomination of Dr. Peter Koeniger to the Board of Trustees for the new hospital.

At the 1964 meeting of Presbytery, the Rev. William Pritchard addressed the relationship between the Presbytery and the Anchorage Community Hospital, including a brief picture of the hospital’s financial responsibilities. Details were not included in the minutes but sketchy records in the archives would indicate that there was some financial strain on the new institution.

Also at this meeting it was reported that the Board of National Missions had made emergency funds available for disaster relief in the Anchorage earth-quake area.

The hospital building today is used as a municipal health center and offices. The spirit of the original Presbyterian Community Hospital has gone through several reincarnations – and could, in some ways, be considered the roots from which sprang the present Alaska Regional Hospital at DeBarr and Airport Heights roads.

 Providence Alaska Medical Center

and Fairbanks Community Hospital

 Interest in hospital ministry continues through two Presbyterian chaplains. The Rev. Claude Klaver served as chaplain at Fairbanks Community Hospital for several years before moving to the chaplaincy at the Denali Center, and the Rev. Dianne O’Connell was a certified chaplain at the Providence Alaska Medical Center from January 1991 through July 1998. She continues ministry there as coordinator for the Interfaith Caregivers, a group of church persons from various denominations who serve needs of patients following their release from hospital care.

Providence hosted the fall 1997 meeting of Yukon Presbytery at the request of Chaplain O’Connell.


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