In May of this year, Father Ben Torreto was surprised to learn he would be appointed the next pastor of Saint Andrew Parish, as Father Leo Walsh was leaving for a position as an associate director of Interreligious Relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.
Father Ben Torreto recesses down the aisle after his installation as pastor of Saint Andrew Parish. Left, Father Eric Wiseman walks next to him, and to the right, Archbishop Roger Schwietz walks behind.
Photo by Nina Peacock
On July 1, Father Leo left and Father Ben stepped in. Father Ben was formally installed as the new pastor on Aug. 30.
On the eve of his installation, Father Ben sat comfortably in his office and leaned back in a sky-blue easy chair, crossed his legs, and spoke energetically about his new assignment.
"What can Alaska learn from the small community of the people there? What can be shared?" he asked.
He was asking what he could bring from his culture in Cotabato, a province of the Philippines, to the people he serves in Alaska. Father Ben is a participant in the Global Solidarity Partnership, an exchange between the Cotabato Diocese and the Anchorage Archdiocese. In the exchange, Father Ben and another Filipino priest, Father Hyme Mencias, were transferred here to help the churches grow in "appreciation and learning from each other," said Father Ben.
"For me, coming here is to be able to be part of the mission that American missionaries did to our country in the 1950s," he said. "This is my way of bringing back the mission that they have done. Now I am thankful to share that seed that they planted in our country 60 years ago."
Father Ben was inspired to become a priest when he was a boy. American missionaries visited his village in Cotabato.
"Once a month we would have a priest to say mass, to hear confessions, to meet the chief, things like that," he said. "And I was so impressed, because the priests could speak English. So my innocent understanding was, if you become a priest, you can speak better English. I didn't know that they were Americans!"
His parents also inspired him to continue the Roman Catholic faith. They regularly attended mass when they visited relatives in the larger cities.
"That was very vivid for me. I was there at the church, making the sign of the cross, not knowing what everything was, but that alone was very encouraging for me.
"So when I got to high school, I simply said, 'I go to mass.' It became part of my life," he said.
Father Ben attended Notre Dame Archdiocesan Seminary in the Philippines. The Republic of the Philippines comprises over 7,000 islands, and Father Ben was placed around various villages of the Cotabato Diocese.
"When I was a young priest, we say the first five years are the honeymoon years, and after that you've been given a tough job," he said.
Father Ben was assigned to Kalamansig, a village on one side of a large island, unreachable by roads. He traveled there on a cargo boat.
"I remember I asked one of the crew, 'You seem to be overloaded; is this OK?' The sailor said, 'As long as this will float, Father, this will go,'" Father Ben laughed.
"When you are there, you look at one side, it's all mountain. You look at the other side, it's all ocean," he said.
That description sounds a lot like bush towns in Alaska. "Yes," he agreed.
Like Father Leo, Father Ben is involved in interreligious dialogue and seeking a peaceful community.
"These things are part of what I see as a concern of the church. We cannot just be blind and deaf to what is happening around us," he said.
He is also involved with an Archdiocese of Anchorage initiative to bring three teenagers from the Philippines to Eagle River for a youth retreat to "encounter the young people here, engaging in faith-building," Father Ben said. The trip was planned for this summer, but the Filipino teens were denied their visas, so they will try again next year.
At the installation on Aug. 30, Filipino supporters of Father Ben traveled from Anchorage to witness the event. Parishioners from Saint Andrews Parish filled every pew.
The Rev. Roger L. Schwietz, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, gave him a key to symbolize his pastoral authority, transferred from the archbishop to Father Ben. Father Ben was presented to his staff and his advisory council, and he made a pledge to seek help from them.
The installation, "gives me the authority as a shepherd. Not as a commander, but as a shepherd," Father Ben said.
During the ceremony the archbishop held a wooden shepherd's staff.
After the ceremony, congregants gathered in the lobby for a potluck meal. Father Ben posed for pictures with the Knights of Columbus, families and parishioners. Smiles flashed from face to face as he was congratulated and welcomed.
"It's a continual celebration of sharing," Father Ben said in his address to the church, following his installation. "I commit to loving each of you and to love this parish - to love is to serve."
This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, September 10, 2009.