ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Former Sen. Ted Stevens gave the state of Alaska “not only great service,” but he “remains a model for the young to give their lives in service as well,” said retired Anchorage Archbishop Francis T. Hurley.
His comment came after a memorial Mass Aug. 16 at Holy Family Cathedral for the late senator and four others who died in a plane crash Aug. 9. As the recessional, the congregation sang the state’s flag song.
Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz, current head of the Anchorage Archdiocese, was the chief celebrant of the Mass in the packed cathedral. Archbishop Hurley delivered the homily. Several other Catholic priests also were on hand, as was the Rev. Norman Elliott, retired rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Anchorage, the late senator’s home church.
Stevens and the others died after the float plane they were traveling in crashed near the fishing village of Dillingham. The party was on an outing to fish for silver salmon. Four passengers survived.
Archbishop Schwietz told the packed cathedral it was only fitting that Catholics and “many friends here today from other denominations, join together as a community to say thank you to Ted Stevens.”
Stevens, 86, was the longest serving Republican in the U.S. Senate, having served 40 years before losing his seat in 2008. He was considered a giant in his home state and voted “Alaskan of the Century” in 1999.
In his homily, Archbishop Hurley praised the “old-timers” who made Alaska what it is today.
Pointing to Stevens’ grandchildren, who sat in the cathedral’s front row, the archbishop noted that many people say the church belongs to the youths. But looking out at the congregation filled with many pioneer Alaskans who had known Steven personally, he turned that idea around.
“I think the future is with us old-timers,” Archbishop Hurley said, “because so many have given an example of hope and faithfulness for the future.” Stevens was among those, he added.
“We know Ted Stevens was very concerned about the people he served. He was a man of hope and a man who knew how to get things done,” Archbishop Hurley observed.
Noting the intense media coverage following Stevens’ death, Archbishop Hurley asked the congregation if there was anything else that could possibly be added.
“We feel we know his story intimately,” he said.
Archbishop Hurley highlighted two truths from the liturgy, which he said were relevant to the late senator’s passing.
“First, the grave is a sign of hope,” he said. “Jesus taught us that truth when he had finished his task and was at his grave – the grave which led to resurrection. And secondly, during our prayer we pray in gratitude for the gift God has given us in the deceased.”
A funeral service for Stevens was Aug. 18 at Anchorage Baptist Temple.
In an interview with the Catholic Anchor, Anchorage’s archdiocesan newspaper, shortly after the plane crash, Archbishop Schwietz said it was important for the church to pray for those who were recovering from the tragic accident and “for the families who have lost loved ones.”
“Regardless of whether they are Catholic, it is important for us to pray for them,” he said.
When he headed the archdiocese, from 1976 to 2001, Archbishop Hurley met with Stevens multiple times in social settings.
“He was always open to listening to people and their plans,” he recalled. “And he was always very friendly whenever we spoke.”
Archbishop Hurley noted the senator’s support of many social services to the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
“He was personally interested in everything going on in Alaska,” Archbishop Hurley said. “That’s why he sort of became the ‘Uncle of Alaska.’ ”
During his time in Senate, Stevens was known for his tenacity in fighting for legislation that he thought would benefit his expansive but fledgling state. He played an instrumental role in steering billions of federal dollars to Alaska.
On other issues, including many of concern to the Catholic Church, Stevens had a mixed record.
In 2006, the National Right to Life gave him a 50 percent rating when it came to voting on abortion.
Between 2005 and 2008, he voted against federal funding of contraceptives for teens and voted in favor of notifying parents of minors who get out-of-state abortions. But he supported expanding research to previously existing human embryonic stem-cell lines and voted against a measure to bar federal grants to organizations that perform abortions.
In 2008, he supported legislation that sought to prohibit minors from crossing state lines for abortions.
Stevens also was a supporter of the death penalty.
He voted against comprehensive immigration reform in 2007 and was opposed to amnesty for illegal immigrants. He was, however, a supporter of establishing a guest worker program.
In the mid-1990s, he voted in favor of school vouchers, funding for abstinence-based education and laws requiring schools to allow voluntary prayer.