Astruc, Priest in Bush, Dies
Cleric: 'I Requested a Mission Where It Was Cold,' He Once Said

By Mike Dunham
Anchorage Daily News (Alaska)
June 30, 2002

Rene "Nucang'in" Astruc, a French priest who made it his mission to harmonize church teachings with Alaska Native spirituality, died Friday night in Anchorage after a long struggle with kidney cancer.

Astruc had worked as a preacher, teacher and school administrator in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta since 1950. But he will most likely be remembered for extending church approbation to Yup'ik customs, including traditional dance and potlatch ceremonies.

He was born in Versailles, France, on Sept. 17, 1924. After the war, he joined the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

TX: "I requested a mission where it was cold," he recalled in a 1996 interview. The Jesuits sent him to Holy Cross on the Yukon River. He was ordained in 1954 and assigned permanently to Alaska in 1956.

For most of the rest of his life, he worked in small Yup'ik Eskimo villages spread from the Lower Yukon River to Nelson Island.

When he first arrived, Mountain Village parishioner Winifred Beans recalled, he seemed strict and unapproachable; his accent made him hard to understand.

But as he traveled with Yup'ik people, shared their food and their lives, he became more accepting of Native ways and increasingly accepted by the residents.

After performing a Catholic baptism on a child in 1960, he accepted "Yup'ik baptism" from the child's grandmother, who gave him his Yup'ik name at that time.

In 1964, when he was the headmaster of the mission school in St. Marys, he became aware of tension between that village and neighboring Pilot Station. Years earlier, the Pilot Station people had held a potlatch -- a traditional celebration where young people are presented as full-fledged members of the community -- for St. Marys. But an earlier priest prohibited Catholics from participating or reciprocating, casting a pall on the custom throughout the area.

"I looked into it and didn't see anything reprehensible," Astruc said. "So I told them, as far as this priest is concerned, it's OK."

Reciprocal potlatches between the two villages have taken place since then, and the custom has revived in other area villages as well. In 1996, Astruc was presented at the St. Marys potlatch, standing on a seal skin, clad head to toe in new handmade clothing.

Astruc strongly encouraged Yup'ik dancing, a custom suppressed by some of his Jesuit predecessors. In the 1990s he advised the Anchorage Museum of History and Art in its exhibit of Yup'ik masks, "Our Way of Making Prayer."

In 1996 he retired and returned to France. But less than a year later, he came back to Alaska. "There was no work for him to do in France, and he missed the people in Alaska," said his brother, Bruno, one of several family members who came to Anchorage from France last year to see him for a final time.

In spring 2001, he was diagnosed with cancer of the kidney and underwent surgery in Spokane, Wash. In October he entered Providence Alaska Medical Center, where he received a throng of visitors -- brother Jesuits, former St. Marys students, teachers and volunteers, participants brought to town for the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. So many gathered that visitors were, at one point, admonished by hospital staffers to quiet their chatter and laughter.

On Oct. 25, the Alaska Humanities Forum honored him as "A Friend of the Humanities" in an awards ceremony presided over by Gov. Tony Knowles. Astruc was bedridden, but forum members gathered in his room for a group photograph.

As he awaited death, two Yup'ik dance fans lay on his chest. From time to time he picked them up and practiced dance motions. "They're up there waiting for me to join them," he said, referring to men who taught dancing to him.

Many visitors sought him out for private confession; Astruc too found an opportunity to clear the air. "We thought we knew it all," he said, apologizing to Chevak visitors for heavy-handed rules imposed by some early missionaries. "But we didn't."

Astruc spent his last few months at the Mary Conrad Center. For a while, he recovered enough strength to have dinner at the homes of friends and celebrate Mass for the other residents of the center. He hoped to visit the Yukon villagers one more time in May, but the progress of the disease made that impossible.

Early in June, though he could no longer eat, he asked for bowls of dried fish, akutak (Eskimo ice cream) and greens to be passed around to guests. The traditional Yup'ik foods had been brought to him by well-wishers. "It's like we've already started the vigil," he said, remarking on the eating and merry conversation that accompany Yup'ik wakes. "This is the best part of dying, the laughter."

He asked to be buried in St. Marys "with my old friends."

He is survived by many brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews in France. Services will be announced later.


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