Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
A lectionary remains open on the Archbishop's desk at the Diocese of Marquette offices.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
A lectionary remains open on the Archbishop's desk at the Diocese of Marquette offices.
WHITE PINE, Mich. — In the door pocket of his Subaru Outback, Archbishop Alexander Sample keeps a kit to offer the sacrament of anointing at a moment's notice.

It's a sign that the 52-year-old new Archbishop of Portland — even amid day-to-day duties of administration, decisions, meetings and travel — considers himself a priest at the core.

Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit suggests that, to understand Archbishop Sample in his day-to-day life, it's helpful to know about the first bishop on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Venerable Frederic Baraga.

A Slovenian known as the "Snowshoe Priest," Bishop Baraga would set out on weeks-long treks to visit missions, even during harsh winters. A town on Lake Superior at the site of his major Indian mission is named for him. Overlooking L'Anse Bay, Catholics established a shrine that includes a large bronze statue, a cross in one hand, snowshoes in the other.

Sure enough, Archbishop Sample considers Bishop Baraga a hero.

"He was a man of prayer," Archbishop Sample says. "At a certain point he knew he was going to be isolated. Instead of complaining, he prayed more." Bishop Baraga would rise to pray hours before dawn and then set out on missionary journeys.

Archbishop Sample kept a portrait of Bishop Baraga in his Marquette, Mich. office. The pioneer churchman is buried in the crypt of Marquette's St. Peter Cathedral, where the faithful place photos, notes and holy cards, seeking his intercession.  

On a typical morning, Archbishop Sample would rise early and down a cup of coffee. He ate breakfast, then showered and shaved — a beard is not on his agenda. After he dressed in his clerics, he would visit the Blessed Sacrament, kept in a chapel in his house. He stayed there a good long time in the presence of the Lord. He would include a prayer for Bishop Baraga and seek the missionary's aid in carrying out apostolic ministry.

On weekdays, he would walk to the cathedral where he'd celebrate morning Mass. Two days per week, he celebrated a private Mass at his home.

He then headed to the diocesan offices, in a small office park a few miles from the cathedral. Like any leader of an organization, he had meetings, phone calls and emails in large quantities. He listened to committees and made the major decisions for the Diocese of Marquette's 94 parishes and missions, 55 priests and nine Catholic schools. Reporters often asked him to comment on matters of moral or civic import.

The diocesan staff in Marquette — who number about 20, some of those part-timers — are a good-humored group.

During Lent and Advent, they gather willingly for morning prayer in a small office chapel. Along with prayer and work, there can be hijinks. Aware that the archbishop is not keen on spiders, staff were known to hide rubber arachnids in his desk drawers.   

Each day, there were variations in routine for the archbishop. Sometimes, he was asked to speak at a parish, a school or a benefit dinner. Often, he was leading a rite, rally or class on something like the Year of Faith.

He knows a bishop must tend to health and the body as well as the spirit. During the winter, Archbishop Sample would cross-country ski. In warmer weather, he rode his bicycle around Marquette or headed to the water with his kayak.  

After work or some exercise, he headed to his mother's apartment building and brought her to his house next to the cathedral. There, they shared dinner, which he prepared himself, often Italian fare. After eating, he'd bring his mother home. Not much happened after that, unless there was a night meeting.

"I'm pretty much boring in the evening, an early-to-bed guy," he says.

On weekends, the archbishop liked to visit his 16,000-square-mile diocese.

"A very important part of being a bishop is to be out with your people," he says. "I didn't want them to think of me as some bureaucrat in Marquette."

On a recent winter Sunday, he drove two hours west toward the Wisconsin border to celebrate Mass at St. Jude Parish in the small mining town of White Pine. There was no confirmation or church anniversary. He came just because he wanted to, unafraid to cruise at 60 miles per hour on snowy roads.

The White Pine copper mine closed about 15 years ago, taking 3,000 jobs with it. A nearby paper mill shut down. The town and the parish have been dwindling ever since. And during the harsh winters many residents head south, escaping the annual average 17 feet of snow. The area draws snowmobile riders and skiers, but not many of them seem to be church-goers, says Paulette Aho, pastoral associate at St. Jude.

The archbishop's visit came as a bright moment. Mass began with a prayer for the New Evangelization, written by the archbishop and printed on cards.

"Come, Holy Spirit, and set our hearts on fire for the work of the New Evangelization!" the prayer begins. "Grant us abundant growth in the virtues of faith, hope and love and sanctify us for the mission Jesus Christ has entrusted to us."

The prayer later says, "Inspire our brothers and sisters who no longer worship with us to return and rediscover the beauty and practice of the faith. Give us the grace and the courage to share the gift of faith with those who do not know Jesus and who long to discover the true meaning and purpose of their lives."

For the homily, Archbishop Sample stood in front of the altar, shepherd's staff in hand, and spoke without notes. He taught with urgency, showing his conviction that faith is an absolutely vital matter.

The path to resurrection goes through the cross, he told the 75 worshipers. But the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop offers hope for the apostles and for us, he explained.

"This life with all its joys, beauty and wonder, but also its sadness and sorrow, is only temporary," he said. "My life is not meant for this world. Ultimately, it's meant for the world to come." When your heart is heavy with anxiety and suffering and fear, he concluded, remember the Transfiguration.

He told parishioners he is sad that this will be his last visit to them. At a post-Mass luncheon — a Midwest potluck replete with hot dishes like chicken in mushroom sauce, spaghetti and beans, plus jello salads and homemade sweetbreads — scores of parishioners patiently waited their turn to wish him farewell.

"He's fantastic," says Audry Lindstrom, a 73-year-old member of St. Jude. Her husband, who is ill, lost his job when the copper mine closed. She retired from the region's hospital.

Lindstrom helped assemble the meal in honor of the archbishop's visit, and said the project helped her forget some woes.

"He grabs your attention immediately and relaxes you," Lindstrom explained. "He really gets to your heart."

The archbishop, though he's introverted, can talk to anyone with verve and joy. Anna Butina comes to his table at St. Jude and begins telling him what's in her heart. She's upset that Pope Benedict has resigned. It does not seem right to her.

Archbishop Sample hears her out and kindly explains that the pope explained it would be for the good of the church. Butina may not be convinced, but she enjoyed the encounter with her charismatic spiritual leader.  

After lunch, he drove 30 miles to visit inmates at a prison in the woods near Marenisco. One inmate asked if he'd always wanted to be an archbishop. The churchman let out a guffaw and replied that no, one does not apply or ask for the job. He always thought he'd be a parish priest, he explained.  

He became something of a celebrity in the Upper Peninsula, where local television broadcast his episcopal ordination live and where he was quoted in the secular press periodically.

Often, when he wears civilian clothes and heads out, he is recognized by gas station attendants and grocery store clerks.
Annually, one in 66 drivers in the Upper Peninsula hits a deer.

Archbishop Sample has clipped several in the past few seasons, which is not surprising, given his road time — 22,000 miles per year.  

A Subaru fits in nicely in Portland, but in the Upper Peninsula's truck-driving culture, such a vehicle is suspect. Waggish priests in some of the more remote parishes of the rural diocese accused him of driving a "hippie car."

But for him, it was a rolling chapel. He kept a rosary near the gearshift. A small icon of Mary was wedged into the dash. He prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy as he drove along wooded roads. At other times, he listened to Satellite radio, which he set to play classical sacred music like chant and polyphony.

"I actually like the time in the car," he said while heading west on U.S. 41, a highway that runs from Florida to the northernmost tip of the Upper Peninsula, ending at Lake Superior. "I do a lot of thinking, a lot of reflecting, a lot of praying. Without a close relationship with Christ, this life wouldn't be possible."