A map of Alaska with the Kodiak region highlighted.
Organization: Marian Center, Inc.
City: Kodiak
Region: Kodiak
Program Area: Human Services
Grants Received:
2012: $22,871  2004: $25,000
2008: $23,700

The Filipino chorus sang, the Hispanic chorus sang, we all sang

Mission Statement
St. Mary's Church – Marian Center

The empowerment, integration, human and spiritual development of the diverse cultures within our community through programs responsive to these needs.
For a remote Alaskan island, Kodiak has a surprisingly diverse population. When I arrived a year ago, I noticed Alutiiq language posters around town and "News from the Philippines" in the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Near the harbor, a truck called Martha's Place sells Mexican food, and the canneries down Shelikof Avenue are filled with Asian and Central American workers.

The Catholic parish of St. Mary's is a hub of immigrant
activity. Buffered from Mill Bay Road by tall spruce trees, St. Mary's includes a school, church, thrift store,
and the Marian Center, where something is always going on.

Sister Barbara Harrington, the calm and gracious woman who directs the center, is bilingual in Spanish and English. With community help, she's built the Marian Center into a welcoming and empowering place. The center offers ESL instruction, citizenship classes, meeting space for groups big and small, and activities that sometimes translate into jobs.

A photo of a group of women making tamales.Spacer Image The Asociación Latina de Mujeres in Alaska – or "ALMA" – has held classes on haircutting, home-buying, and starting a business, to name a few. "We've looked at our skills," says Nancy DeSantiago, "and Marian Center gives us the possibility to try new things." The group operates a food booth at Kodiak's Crab Festival every May. Upbeat and articulate, Nancy describes how the women come together to prepare Mexican tamales, a longtime favorite, and pupusas, a thick, pork-filled tortilla from El Salvador, served with salsa and spicy coleslaw.

Kodiak Filipinas may soon occupy space in the center as well. Mary Guilas-Hawver, founder and President of the Filipino Women's Council, says, "I'm glad Sister Barbara is thinking of us. Right now the office things are riding around in my car." The Council, a volunteer organization that works with victims of domestic violence, is a link between Filipino women and the Kodiak Women's Resource Center.

Mary left the Philippines twenty years ago and calls Kodiak "a good place to live, very friendly and very forgiving." Nancy came from Mexico six years ago and describes Kodiak as peaceful. "A small town is good for a big family," she says cheerfully. "The weather is a little bit crazy, but it's better than where I came from."

But it's not easy to get settled in this port town where the community's well-being depends upon fish. Cannery workers who cannot sustain themselves during the industry's slack periods are especially vulnerable.

Gloria Quezada assists immigrants with the difficulties they encounter. She herself came to Kodiak nineteen years ago from Mexico where she was an accountant. Now she holds two jobs, including one at the Marian Center in administration and advocacy. She does everything from translating mail to handling emergencies and often finds herself in the role of liaison between immigrants, attorneys, and home countries. "Sometimes it's too late," says this quietly intense woman, "but usually we can help." She tells me that it's especially hard for many people from El Salvador because illiteracy in their own language makes it even harder to learn English.

An exterior photo of the Marian Center in Kodiak.Spacer Image Sister Carol Bartol, the center's education coordinator, explains how work takes precedence in the lives of immigrants. After long shifts on a processing line, people still have to feed their children and take care of other family business rather than attend a meeting or class. I've heard this dilemma echoed by many others. Sr. Carol, compassionate and pragmatic, has learned that one-on-one ESL instruction is more effective than weekly classes.

Despite the daily struggles, something good is always happening at St. Mary's. On a gray, rainy morning last week, the Marian Center kitchen was filled with teenagers in red aprons, making pupusas as a fundraiser for their chorus. And that evening, hundreds of people packed into the church for a Jubilee mass celebrating Sister Diane Bardol's 50 years as a nun, 36 of those years in Kodiak. A small woman with huge energy, she is an active reminder of hope. Wet and blustery outside, it was bright with candles and flowers inside. Though a newcomer myself, I felt at home. The Filipino chorus sang, the Hispanic chorus sang, we all sang.

Carol Hult is a writer, editor, and avid hiker who recently moved from Anchorage to Kodiak. Her work includes essays published in The Peirce Seminar Papers and the Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering.