In 2007, a long time, dedicated donor to Outreach Alaska mailed Mary Ann Khoury a very old, wooden carved icon of the face of Christ. This donor travels all over the world and found this icon in Belarus in 1994. He had placed it in his safety deposit box for years when he decided it needed to be in Alaska at St. Herman Theological Seminary. At the time Mary Ann received this blessed icon, there was no bishop in Alaska. Discussing this with her bishop in Wichita, His Grace Bishop Basil Essey, and showing him the icon, he suggested she present it to the seminary when the Diocese of Sitka and Alaska received their new bishop. This took many years. Finally, in February 2014, His Grace, Bishop David Sterry Mahaffey was installed as the new bishop for the diocese. With the new bishop in place, it was now time for this blessed icon to travel with her to Kodiak to be at the seminary, near the relics of St. Herman as they lay at peace in the cathedral just one block from the seminary. But - the icon needed to be encased in a perfect way to be presented and mounted at the seminary.
The icon was small and showed wear. She contacted Deacon George Nelson, a well-known word worker at St. Herman Mission in Wassillie, Alask, to design an icon box for this special piece. That box was sent to her in Wichita, Kansas, where she took it with the icon to a local framer who lined the box with beautiful green satin and mounted the icon on the satin for presentation. A plaque was designed to be placed on the back of the box and reads as follows:
Donated to St. Herman Theological Seminary by Mabel R. and Kevin J. Carroll. Found in Belarus 1994 - dates to the early 1800s Donor Proviso - Not to be sold and never to leave this seminary. Presented on May 11, 2014 by Outreach Alaska"
It was a calling that pulled Rev. Thomas Andrew into priesthood.
It pulled him from his family in bush Alaska. It dragged him away from other potential careers.
And now, it has been 10 years since Thomas accepted priesthood in Old Town Kenai’s Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church.
"I don’t know how to describe the way it feels," Thomas said.
His wife, Theresa Andrew, said leaving their home and their families in the bush was difficult, and it still pains them sometimes. They had 15 siblings between the two of them.
Fifty-five-year-old Thomas didn’t always plan to be a priest. He wasn’t staunchly religious his entire life. Entering then reentering the Seminary was not a lifelong aspiration.
Sometimes Thomas thinks about other jobs. He doesn’t make a lot of money as a priest, but he has a good education, which he could use to make a lot more, he said.
And his earlier careers were fun, he said, but they are behind him now.
"I just feel like I was selected out to do a job," Thomas said, sitting back in his chair Thursday around the tables in the Kenai Safeway café.
"If I evaded this calling," Thomas said, "because God is greater than I am. …"
He folded his hands and smiled.
"I don’t want to evade it."
God is love, he said, and also fear.
"We’re not living on our own," he said. "A lot of people think it’s my body, it’s my life, I can do what I want. God is in your life whether you believe in him or not."
Thomas’s face suddenly splint into a smile, as if a punch line was approaching. He was facing the grocery store entrance.
"Hey Father, you should come by today," Kenai Barber Shop Owner Rick Langley said, walking past Thomas to the soda machines. "I got a rabbi who’s getting his hair cut."
It was a joke among friends.
Langley has been cutting Thomas’s hair since the priest moved to town. One day, a Catholic priest sat waiting while Langley cut Thomas’s hair. As Langley does with most priests’ whose hair he cuts, he started egging on the two of them.
The Catholic priest began talking a lot about his church, bragging a little, Langley said. So Thomas began explaining the history of his church.
The two priests began bantering, arguing —then the whole thing crumbled in laughter, Langley said.
And that’s how Thomas is, Langley said; he’s a funny guy.
"Before he came in the (Old Town Kenai) area," Langley said, "it didn’t seem so friendly.
"Good, good guy. Real nice guy. … Once I started figuring out he was a real good guy, I started ribbing him a little bit."
Having been married to Thomas for 32 years, Theresa loves her husband for the same reasons Langley enjoys cutting his hair. Thomas is fun, and he is funny. He has told Theresa so many jokes, she can’t remember them, she said.
But Thomas has other qualities too, Theresa said. He is kind, he is humble — he is a human.
When he speaks to his parish, to tourists visiting the church and Kenai residents, Thomas speaks directly to them and without condescension, Theresa said. Most priests whose hair Langley cuts are unlike Thomas, Langley said.
But Thomas’s dedication to his priesthood is a "lifelong journey," Theresa said, and it is difficult.
"It’s not a fairy tale happy ever after," she said. "It’s an everyday struggle that you don’t take for granted."
Always in the back of his head — and her’s — Theresa said, is a loneliness for their families living far away in the bush.
The oldest of seven siblings, Thomas lived for most of his childhood in Marshall, where Theresa also lived.
Thomas’s parents brought their children to church, and, eventually, Thomas started going every Sunday.
When he was 10, Thomas met 7-year-old Theresa. Theresa said she fell in love with him immediately. "By the time I was 11," she said, "I knew it would be him or I was a nun."
Early in middle school, Thomas started singing and reading psalms in the church because he was better in English than most other older villagers.
He later attended school at Anchorage Community College and graduated with his associates degree in air traffic control. In the 1980s he worked in Anchorage’s flight service station.
Then in 1984, he entered the Seminary and left a year later for college in Fairbanks.
From 1985 to 1990, Thomas studied education at the University of Fairbanks. He still read in churches, but his involvement had wavered, he said.
After he received his bachelors degree in teaching, he returned to the bush as a teacher. He spent three years in Emmonak, teaching one year in the same school as Dr. Steve Atwater, now Kenai Peninsula Borough School District superintendent.
Although Atwater didn’t know Thomas well, the superintendent remembers the priest was good with children, and that he was "sturdy" and made good decisions.
During Thomas’s time in Emmonak, through a lesson plan, he "accidently" introduced the Idita-Read program, now dubbed "Read A Rout," an incentivized Iditarod-stylized reading program for young students.
He didn’t think it would take off as it has today, he said.
But then in the spring of 2001, after a decade teaching, he quit.
"I had a funny feeling that I should try and move on and do something else," he said.
So he, his wife and their four children moved to Kenai, where he returned to church as a deacon. He told Theresa he would look for a job. He said he was leaving it up to God.
At that time, Bishop Nikolai Soraich was with the church in Old Town Kenai, and he asked Thomas if, maybe, Thomas would like to return to the Seminary to study for priesthood.
Thomas had to say yes.
"I didn’t want to know the consequences of saying no," he said, "after I had told my wife I was leaving everything up to God."
So, after two years in the Anchorage Seminary, and after about a year as a priest in the bush, Thomas called Soraich and received his assignment in Kenai.
Now he is in Kenai.
"I guess you could say the rest is history," Thomas said, smiling.
He thumbed the cardboard band around his empty coffee cup.
"In a way, I’m still teaching," he said, putting his cup down and looking up. "Sometimes I say I got the ‘p,’ ‘r’ and ‘t’ mixed up before the word ‘each.’"
He folded his face into a large smile.
Theresa said Thomas’s sense of humor is his way of settling. He doesn’t dwell about his family so far away in Marshall she said; he looks forward and laughs when he can.
"I guess it’s life," she said. "It’s not always going to be roses and sunshine and happiness."
Lately Thomas said he has been thinking, just thinking, about where else they could go. Their three older children are now independent, and their youngest just graduated from Kenai Central High School.
Thomas is well educated. He could do a lot else, he said.
And his position with the church is not permanent. The only permanent assignment is, well, death, he said. Maybe he could go back to the Seminary, this time in New York or Pennsylvania and get his masters degree, he said.
But he doesn’t know, he said.
He said he likes life in Kenai.
He likes the people he has gotten to know. They’re a part of his family now. He has seen some die and others marry. He also likes visiting Wildwood Correctional Center, he said.
He started laughing, remembering his childhood.
As a kid, he and his brothers were "rambunctious," and one woman would always warn his mother: Your boys are going to be in and out of prison.
"And you know what," Thomas said, his eyes disappearing behind his humor, "I am in and out of prison."
Photos by Rashah McChesney.