The jeweled mitre looks like a king’s crown and symbolizes the headship of the Orthodox Church. David Mahaffey wears one.
Mahaffey was consecrated as the Orthodox Church in America’s Alaska bishop in Sitka earlier this year.
He is the diocese’ first resident bishop since 2007, when then bishop, Nikolai Soriach, was forced to resign at the request of the Orthodox Church in America Synod. During the interim, Alaska was served by Bishop Benjamin Peterson of San Francisco and the West.
Mahaffey is an “everyman” of sorts who is just as comfortable talking about boat engines as he is pontificating Church doctrine or ecumenical councils.
Before entering the priesthood, Mahaffey worked for a coal mining company in his native Pennsylvania as a heavy equipment mechanic and operator. When the bottom fell out of the coal industry, he became a car salesman.
Mahaffey is a widower with four children. His wife, the late Karen Mahaffey, led him to Orthodoxy.
Mahaffey grew up a Methodist in a Pennsylvania town named after his paternal ancestors. 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 reflected.
When Mahaffey started attending an Orthodox church with his future wife, he found what had been missing, he said.
Mahaffey was married in the Orthodox Church, but didn’t convert until two years later.
He became a deacon in 1981. At that time Mahaffey 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.”
After a moving Lenten service in March of 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.”
The Mahaffeys sold their house and David attended St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, Penn. Once he was ordained, Mahaffey was assigned to a parish in Old Forge, Penn.
He broadened his horizons by taking classes at the University of Scranton where he received Bachelors degrees in theology and philosophy and a Masters in theology.
Mahaffey taught doctrine, church history, modern belief and comparative theology, and ethics at St. Tikhons and ethics and medical moral theology at the Melrose Park campus of Alvernia University.
Mahaffey and his children experienced a tragic loss in 2007 when his wife died of cancer.
“My wife was dearly loved,” Mahaffey said. A sacristan at St. Tikhon’s Seminary, where she was buried, said funerals of bishops, priests and dignitaries did not draw as many people as hers did.
Now that Mahaffey was a widower, he 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 of 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. If you can’t take the cold, Alaska is not a good choice. But (the cold) never really bothered me.”
He found the people to be warm and hospitable.
Reflecting over his first visit to Alaska, Mahaffey said “it did something which is hard to explain.” When he went back to his home parish in Pennsylvania, he looked forward to returning to Alaska.
When he came to Kodiak in August of that year for the annual St. Herman’s pilgrimage to Spruce Island, his desire to serve as Alaska’s bishop was “sealed,” he said.
The Diocesan Assembly called Mahaffey to be Alaska’s Church administrator and chancellor so that “both the diocese and myself (could) see if it was going to work,” he said. “Things went exactly as God planned. We seemed to be a good fit.”
Mahaffey was elected bishop at the September 2012 Diocesan Assembly in Anchorage. The OCA Synod of bishops finalized that decision in October of last year.
“I’m very glad to be here,” Mahaffey said. “I feel like I’m getting something back I thought I had lost in my childhood.”
The new bishop is struck by the kindness, simplicity and authenticity of the people. They have a “strong, deeply-rooted, dedication to the church” which was first brought to Alaska by Russian missionaries in the 1700s, he said.
In other parts of the country, including Mahaffey’s home state, immigrants who already were Orthodox sent for the priests. “The people preceded the clergy. In Alaska the clergy made the people Orthodox. No other place in the United States can claim that.”
Rhapsodizing about the beauty of Alaska, Mahaffey said “I don’t know how you can describe it. Photographs don’t do it justice.”
Mahaffey’s concern for the preservation of Alaska’s beauty prompted him to cooperate in an effort to block the Pebble Mine project.
“I’m not opposed to mining, but I’m opposed to something that is destructive. This environment is special like nowhere else in the world. If we corrupt it, it will be too late.”
Mahaffey has taken on other social issues, such as getting behind the drive to provide more law enforcement officers in the villages.
Mahaffey said that the bishop is a public figure. The people look at him as an example of what the church is supposed to be. “I hope I’m always able to fulfill that role,” he said.
He added that everyone in the church has a part in bringing God to people. “This is not about any one person. It’s about the diocese of Alaska, and how we all do what we can do for the betterment of the diocese.
“I don’t ever want it to be about me. I want it to be about the diocese.”
Mike Rostad is a freelance writer and longtime Kodiakan who writes a weekly column examining the in-depth stories of Kodiak residents. You can read more about other Kodiak islanders in Rostad’s book, “Close to My Heart-Writing and Living Stories on Kodiak Island, Alaska.