Beautiful churches helped Alaska deacon on road to conversion

Iowa native serves in Alaska diocese, loves sacred spaces

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Raised a Presbyterian in Manchester, Iowa, Deacon Michael Hawker of the Diocese of Anchorage, Alaska, never set foot in a Catholic church as a child or young adult.

A life-threatening ordeal with an aggressive form of cancer in his 50s led him on a spiritual journey that ended with his conversion to Catholicism, and, several years later, his ordination as a permanent deacon. Along the way, it was encounters with Jesus he experienced in Catholic churches, including SS. Peter and Paul in Petersburg, Iowa, that helped him grow in faith. That’s why he and his wife, Carol Carlson, decided to donate $30,000 recently to the capital campaign to restore the building. (Work began at the parish just recently).

For Hawker, a church isn’t just bricks and mortar, but a place where humans can connect with the divine and with all the faithful departed.

The exterior of SS. Peter and Paul Church, Petersburg. (Photo by Sarah Seeley)

“I was raised Protestant,” reflected Deacon Hawker. “There was something in my life that always beckoned me to (Catholic churches). They demonstrated something with faith. You see them, their steeples like fingers pointing to the heavens. They are testaments to the faith of our fathers.”

Deacon Hawker has walked a long, winding, sometimes painful path on his spiritual journey. After studying accounting at the University of Northern Iowa, the young man headed to Alaska following graduation in 1979. He secured a job with a firm at the height of an oil boom and traveled the state as a representative for many customers, including indigenous peoples who had oil holdings.

In 1998, he retired from business and then served as a representative in the Alaska state legislature for 14 years, retiring in 2016. During most of his life, he says he always

believed in God, but was not that active in his Christian faith, unlike his wife, who was a devoted Lutheran.

Things changed in 2010 when he was diagnosed with neuroendocrine prostate cancer, a virulent form of the disease, which spreads quickly and can kill in weeks or months.

He tried chemotherapy, and while resting between treatments, he contemplated God.

“At that point in my life, I was so sick when I closed my eyes, I couldn’t sleep,” recalled the deacon. “I heard God discussing my fate.”

When the treatments didn’t work, Deacon Hawker was ready to give up, but his wife wouldn’t, telling doctors she “wanted to give him one last fighting chance.”

After many refusals for alternative treatments, she found Dr. Eugene D. Kwon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The physician is an immunologist who specializes in urology. He devised a treatment wherein the deacon took hormone blockers as a way to arrest the cancer’s growth.

On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, 2010, Deacon Hawker got test results that would indicate if the medicine had worked. The evening before he spent praying.

“It was the night I first gave myself into the hands of God,” said the deacon. “When I got the results, the first words out of (Dr. Kwon’s) mouth were ‘You have had your Christmas miracle.’”

The cancer had become dormant, and subsequent tests showed he was healing, according to the deacon. A later surgery was able to restore his use of his bladder after two previous unsuccessful attempts to repair it. Since 2011, the deacon has had one relapse of cancer in 2016, which was again treated with chemotherapy and the hormone blockers.

During that time and afterward, Deacon Hawker began researching Catholicism and made a trip to New Mexico where he visited two Catholic churches, which date back centuries.

While praying in a desert church built by Native American converts called Satuario de Chimayo, he strongly felt the presence of Jesus.

“I walked in a seeker — the moment I rose from the pew, I was a Catholic,” said the deacon. Deacon Hawker was required to visit the Mayo Clinic every three or four months after his initial treatment, so during those trips he would also visit family in Manchester.

During multiple visits to Iowa as he prepared to enter the church, he stopped inside many of the Catholic churches of northeast Iowa, including SS. Peter and Paul. The altar there, built by renowned artisan Egid Hackner, fascinated him.

Pictured above is the inside of SS. Peter and Paul Church in Petersburg, part of the Spires of Faith Cluster. The building is currently undergoing a major renovation thanks to the generosity of donors like Deacon Mike Hawker and his wife, Carol Carolson. (Photo by Sarah Seeley)

While in the small country church, which is the first consecrated in the archdiocese, he again had a spiritual experience.

“I’ve become a student of sacred spaces,” he said. “When I walked into SS. Peter and Paul, I felt that I was home. I could feel the Holy Spirit.”

Deacon Hawker and his wife both converted to Catholicism, and he was ordained in May 2018. He and his wife now serve cancer patients as part of his diaconate ministry.

Deacon Hawker is also doing research for a book on Egid Hackner. The 62-yearold wants to use his remaining time to serve God and help seed hope in others.

On a card given out the day he was ordained, he printed the self-written phrase:

“An active lived faith will always produce hope. Where there is hope, miracles are possible.”

 

 

 

 

Cover photo:

Deacon Michael Hawker is pictured with his Mayo Clinic physician, Dr. Eugene D. Kwon, and Dianne Mann, RN, a Lutheran nurse at the clinic who aided him during his illness with cancer. (Contributed photo)

 

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