As we approach the season of Christmas (or Nativity as the Orthodox refer to it), I’m reminded of a song — based on the Psalms — that goes like this: “God is with us; understand all ye nations, understand, that God is with us. And submit yourselves, submit yourselves, for God is with us.”
I hear that song sung in a very strong voice. It’s Mary Haakanson’s voice. You could tell that she loved singing those seasonal songs. She sang with vitality; It was obvious that she believed in what she was singing. Mary lived her life like she sang: with vitality, harmony and faith.
Mary’s voice was silenced last Saturday when she departed this life. But her life speaks loudly to those who knew her. She will long be remembered for her kindness and love of family, friends and church.
I met Mary, her husband, the late Sven Haakanson Sr., and their family in the winter of 1979 when I was in the village to cover a story for the Kodiak Times, a weekly Kodiak newspaper. The Haakansons took me in not only as a guest, but a friend. They became like family. I never tired of hearing their stories.
For many years Mary has been known as a loving, caring woman who has drawn multitudes to herself just by being who she is. Marilyn Kreta, choir director at Holy Resurrection Cathedral, said that Mary’s smile and facial expressions conveyed love. Even as she lay in her coffin, Mary’s countenance expressed that love and vitality.
But Mary’s life wasn’t always one of faith and love. As a young mother she struggled with alcoholism. Then she got a wake-up call from her doctor (Bob Johnson) who said that if she wanted to see her children and grandchildren grow up she would have to quit drinking. That’s all it took. Mary quit drinking. She told me that she found the strength to stay sober through her faith in God and involvement with the church.
Mary was joyfully sober, enjoying her family and the wonders of living in a world full of majesty and grandeur. The Haakansons’ home was surrounded by magnificent mountains and a vast ocean.
In the last weeks of her life, Mary continued to be amazed by the beauty of God’s creation. When she was in town, Mary and I would go for a drive and have lunch at Dead Man’s outlook or other spectacular places on Kodiak. Mary was always amazed by the splendor of the waves crashing against the shore, or the majesty of snowy mountain peaks.
Mary was often looking out for the well being of others; even when her health was failing.
In the final days of Mary’s life, when she consulted with doctors to determine the reason for her various physical infirmities, my wife, Kathy, and I were recovering from COVID. Kathy had to be medivaced to Providence Hospital in Portland, Oregon, because of lack of beds in the Anchorage facility. Whenever I called Mary her first question was, “How’s Kathy?”
Besides her concern for others, Mary will also be remembered as a preserver of the Alutiiq language. She spoke the language with her mother, Sasha Christiansen. But Mary was also interested in the other culture in her life. Both Mary and Sven were descendants of Scandinavian fathers and Kodiak Island Native mothers.
Sven’s father, Arthur Haakanson,Sr., and Mary’s father, Rolf (Nookin) Christiansen, were young men when they left their home countries of Denmark and Norway. They met for the first time in New York, immediately taking a liking to each other.
They reunited when their vessels ported in New Orleans and again in Capetown, South Africa.
After Haakanson jumped ship in San Francisco and worked as a bartender in the city’s renowned Barbary Coast.
One night a familiar face showed up at the tavern. It was Rolph Christiansen, full of exciting tales about the ports he had visited since they last saw each other. By now the men began to wonder if they were destined to spend their lives together.
They both badly wanted to go to Alaska.
Soon after their visit, Arthur got a job on the schooner Hunter, which headed to Alaska for a commercial cod fishing trip.
Loaded up with cod, the Hunter hit a reef near Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula. Another vessel transported the crew to Kodiak where they planned to catch a steamboat that would take them to Seattle. The boat had already left and wouldn’t return until spring.
During the long, hard winter, many in the crew decided that Kodiak Island would be the place to spend the rest of their lives.
Arthur ended up in Three Saints Bay, running a herring plant for Trinity Packing Co.
Late one afternoon, he paddled his dory to the village of Old Harbor to attend a dance at the school. As soon as he pulled into the harbor, he got word that a schooner had just anchored up at the other end of the bay. Pretty soon the ship’s crew showed up in the village.
One of the crewmen was Rolph Christiansen.
They were so happy, they hugged each other. At the dance they met their future wives, Alexandria (Sasha—Mary’s mother) Kelly and Wassalissa, Sven’s mother.
The couples were married in a double wedding at the Three Saints Orthodox Church.
Rolf Christiansen stayed in Old Harbor where he and Sasha raised 19 children, including Mary.
Arthur Haakanson and his family moved to different parts of the archipelago, including Ouzinkie, where Arthur became a web mender.
Embracing her father’s sense of adventure, Mary was always ready to go to new places. She and Sven traveled to Norway and Denmark to connect with relatives there. Several years ago, Mary spent some time in Egypt to visit her granddaughter — an exchange student — and her host family. Mary was photographed, outfitted in Mideastern garb, standing by the pyramids and sitting on a camel.
Those images of Mary — grinning from ear to ear — will be in our minds for a long time.
But she will be remembered for many other reasons. Fr. Sergios Gerken, who lived in Old Harbor in the late 1970s, said that Mary blended her Alutiiq and Western ways in how she cooked. She brought out the best flavors of both worlds.
“In spite of all challenges that were put in front of her, she overcame,” said Gerken.
Another friend said that Mary, when dealing with challenges, “chose a sense of decency and became a rock for people.”