When we leave this world to enter the Afterlife, we will be remembered by our character, our values, by how we treated others. His Eminence, Archbishop David Mahaffey, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church in America’s Alaska Diocese, was fondly remembered by his flock this past week following his death last Friday. Mahaffey had battled renal cancer.
He communicated with his flock until he was unable to do so.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Mahaffey was a family man. He was a widower who treasured his children, grandchildren and late wife Karen.
Mahaffey had “both feet on the ground,” said Daryl Griggs, a native of Port Lions who lives in Anchorage.
It was “refreshing to know that he was a loving husband and dad prior to ordination as a celibate monk to episcopacy. Bishop David had understood both worlds. I think that brought a lot of people into the church,” said Griggs.
Mahaffey’s down-to-earth nature helped him relate well with people, “particularly the people here,” said Fr. John Dunlop, former dean of St. Herman’s Seminary and village parish priest.
“As a man who had a family, he was able to relate well with the clergy’s family life … the struggles they face, unlike bishops who’ve never had children,” said Dunlop. “That was unique.”
Mahaffey didn’t want to come across as a grumpy bishop whom children would fear. He was a loving grandfather who treasured the little ones.
Mahaffey not only loved the children but also included them in church services. Following his procession into the church, children brought him items for his vestments before he went into the altar to serve.
“He tried so hard to educate and let people feel a part of the greater family, the church, family of Christ,” said Marilyn Kreta, church choir director and music instructor at St. Herman’s Seminary.
Kreta enjoyed a special relationship with Mahaffey. She and other Orthodox ladies sang at his wedding ceremony.
When Mahaffey came to Kodiak, he often visited Marilyn and her husband, Darcy Stielstra.
Last year, he asked the Stielstras if he could watch the World Series on their television.
“It was nice to see him in a relaxed setting,” said Kreta. “I got to see … all aspects of his life. He talked about his children, grandchildren and how much he loved Karen. I’m going to miss him deeply.”
Dunlop noted that Mahaffey fit in with the “blue collar” work style.
He grew up in Pennsylvania in a Methodist family. He loved serving the church in whatever capacity the pastor and elders asked. He started preaching before he was old enough to drive. When he was 18, he was offered a lay pastor’s license.
“Something inside me said, ‘This is not what you want,’” Mahaffey once reflected.
When Mahaffey started attending an Orthodox church with his future wife, he found what had been missing. After his conversion to Orthodoxy, he became a deacon.
At that time, he was working for a coal company. Later he became a car salesman at the top of the profession, making “more money than I ever made in my life,” he said.
But he was troubled inside.
“I couldn’t put my finger on it. I wasn’t happy,” he said.
After a moving Lenten service in March 1991, his wife asked if he would consider quitting his job and going to seminary to be a priest.
“It was like, ‘Oh! That’s what’s wrong. I’m not doing what God wants. I’m doing something I think I ought to be doing for my family,’” Mahaffey said.
Mahaffey attended St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. Once he was ordained, he was assigned to a parish in Old Forge, Pennsylvania. After Karen died in 2007, Mahaffey desired to be a monk.
When the Diocese of Alaska showed an interest in calling Mahaffey as bishop, a friend urged him to consider the invitation and see Alaska for himself. His first trip to the state occurred in January 2012. One of the places he visited was Napaskiak on the Kuskokwim River.
“It was a very cold winter,” Mahaffey recalled. “There was never a day above 15 below zero, and that was the warm side.”
But the cold never really bothered him. He found the people to be warm and hospitable. It seemed that Mahaffey was a good fit for Alaska. He appreciated the natural beauty and the hospitality of the people.
Bishop David wanted the church to be unified, said Kathleen Carlsen, parishioner of Holy Resurrection parish.
Referencing Kodiak parishes’ adherence to the ancient Julian calendar in celebrating holidays, Carlsen said that Mahaffey was very clear that “for the church to do its job of preaching the Gospel to all the world, we need to move to the (Gregorian) calendar that the rest of the United States is on. Without that (change), we’re going to be a little Russian club.”
Bishop David “realized that the children are the future of the church. Without them, there will be no church.”
“He was gentle in his approach to teaching children, but he could be firm yet not overbearing,” said Carlsen, adding that Bishop David brought healing to the Alaska Diocese, which had endured abuse from previous administrators.
Father Innocent Dresdow, archpriest of Holy Resurrection Cathedral, noted that Mahaffey had unconditional love for his flock.
“That love restored a trust with the clergy as well as the parishioners,” Dresdow said. “He brought so much healing for us.”
Dresdow noted that Mahaffey exemplified forgiveness.
Some of us saw that quality up close and personal the night he addressed a young man who had been imprisoned for vandalizing Holy Resurrection Cathedral.
The young man came to Kodiak to ask forgiveness. This occurred on Forgiveness Sunday, the beginning of Lent. After several parishioners addressed the young man, Mahaffey spoke to him. While the bishop acknowledged the grievous crime that had been committed, he said that all of us need forgiveness.
After all, that’s what Lent is all about. Then Mahaffey shared the words that are often spoken on Forgiveness Sunday: “God forgives … and we forgive.”
In the Orthodox tradition, the bishop is looked upon as a representative of Christ. That night, Mahaffey brought Christ’s hope, healing and forgiveness to a remorseful, repentant young man, just as Christ did in His voluntary suffering, death and resurrection.
Last Sunday, as we sang “Memory Eternal” for Bishop David in that very seminary chapel, I recalled that night when he brought hope to a tortured soul.