MARY ANN Iqilan (Rexford) WARDEN
• Role Model
• First Alaska Native Woman Presbyterian Minister
MARY ANN Iqilan (Rexford) WARDEN
Mary Ann was a lifelong learner who dedicated her life to others. She was the heart of her family, a focus of faith in her various communities, and a dedicated advocate for women, prisoners and youth. Mary Ann was a powerful Alaska Native role model who left a lasting legacy, especially among those in her beloved Arctic. What an amazing variety of experiences she had over almost eight decades of her life.
Mary Ann grew up in Kaktovik. She attended Kaktovik Day School, a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. From there she went to Sitka to attend Sheldon Jackson College.
She worked as a purchasing agent for the U. S. Army Purchasing & Contracting at Fort Wainwright from 1965-1970. She then worked for the State of Alaska Department of Law as a misdemeanor clerk. She worked for several years as the secretary for Tanana Chiefs Conference. In 1978, she earned her Associate of Applied Science in Criminal Justice from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Before she became a pastor, Mary Ann served as Choir Director at First Presbyterian in Fairbanks. During this time, she was involved in the weekly services held in Iñupiaq language and the weekly radio recordings of the Presbyterian Eskimo Hour, both of which involved singing. Under Mary Ann’s direction, many came to love group singing. Church leaders called on her to lead singing for presbytery gatherings. Her love of music was contagious.
Her colleague Reverend Kurt Karns worked with Mary Ann in Fairbanks and wrote: “During that time, she also partnered with Rev. Mabel Rasmussen and was very involved in prison ministry, sharing music and worship—but also sharing her heart with lonely people incarcerated at the prison in Fairbanks. Prisoners and prison ministry had a special place in her heart from then on. Both women—Mary Ann and Mabel— were often called “Mom” by people in prison. I don’t think there can be a better description of the trust and love those two women engendered than that.”
She felt called to the ministry, especially to help her own people. Mary Ann was commissioned as a lay preacher by the Fairbanks First Presbyterian Church and worked there from 1979-1985. She worked for the First Presbyterian Church in Evanston Illinois and returned to First Presbyterian in Fairbanks 1987-88.
In 1988, she earned her Bachelor of Science in Sociology at the University of Dubuque, Iowa. During this time, she worked as an intern for the YWCA Battered Women’s Program in Dubuque. The following year she earned her Master of Divinity at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. She was ordained on July 29, 1990, becoming the first Alaska Native Woman to be ordained a Minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church.
Mary Ann was a strong supporter of preserving Alaska Native languages. From 1989-1990, she worked as a language specialist for the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks.
She became the Associate Pastor and Director of Native Ministries at the Northern Light United Church in Juneau (1990-1998). Reverend Karns wrote, “In that congregation, Mary Ann helped revive that congregation’s Native ministry. One of her very effective strategies was through encouraging the use of the Tlingit language. We have a recording of Mary Ann singing How Great Thou Art in the Tlingit, and in the Iñupiaq languages. One of Mary Ann’s passions was to raise up Native Americans in the own service of the Lord in ways appropriate to their own identity.”
She returned to the Arctic and became Associate Pastor of Utqiaġvik Presbyterian Church. When the head pastor left, the congregation worked with Rev. Mary Ann Warden as their only ordained pastor for a number of years. In addition to serving as pastor, she became the local funeral director, doing many, many funerals each year. Reverend Karns wrote, “That is the heaviest load of grief ministry I have ever heard a minister have to bear, while continuing other work in the church. It is taxing–and I think it was taxing on Mary Ann. Still, she never lost her heart for helping people in grief, and continued that excellent work across the Arctic as long as she was able… Mary Ann’s unconditional love helped people see God’s door as open to them.”
She became the Associate Pastor (1998-2006) and then the Pastor at the Kaktovik Presbyterian Church, serving her home town faithfully. She eventually retired there.
Reverend Karns, “As a member of the Presbytery of Yukon, Mary Ann served on a number of committees and ministry teams. Two that are particularly notable was her service as the Spiritual Director of the Presbytery Reconciliation Team that went to Gambell back in 2013. Mary Ann was the one, who suggested the scripture (2 Corinthians 4:5-7) and the Hymn (We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations) that became the themes of the historic work the presbytery did there.
Second, Mary Ann became the moderator of the Native American Consulting Committee, made up of village church elders. It was during her tenure as leader that the committee began to change its mission, so that it now is the body that sets all policy for ministry in the villages of Alaska. Mary Ann’s work made a difference.”
When Mary Ann died on May 30, 2020, she was remembered as a mother, auntie, sister and aana to many and how she was always generous with her love. “To all who knew Mary Ann, she was a deeply loving, lighthearted woman who always made you feel heard and cared for. She lived a life in service to our Creator as a minister and was held dear by all who knew her.” In a tribute to her mother, Allison Warden wrote the story of how, when Mary Ann was a new mother with baby Allison, Mary Ann and her husband got a call, asking them to host seven teenaged girls from Anaktuvuk Pass and one from Point Hope to live with them in order to attend high school. Baby Allison was the center of all that love, with eight teenage girls vying for who got to hold the baby. When Mary Ann passed away, Allison and her friends organized a fund raiser to bring those ‘adopted daughters’ to Kaktovik to help bury their ‘Mom.’
Mary Ann’s Community Involvement:
President, Advisory Board, Arctic Women in Crisis, North Slope Borough Health Department.
Alternative Member of the North Slope Borough Inupiat History, Language & Culture Commission.
Served on the AWARE Board of Directors for a women’s shelter in Juneau.
Served on the Juneau Native Education Board; Alaska Native Sisterhood, Camp 76, Juneau.
Member of the Synod of Alaska Northwest.
Member of the Alaska Presbytery (presently Yukon Presbytery) and its Native American Consulting Committee on Preparation of Ministry.
Mary Ann’s Professional/Work History:
Purchasing Agent, US Army Purchasing & Contracting, Ft. Wainwright AK, 1965-70.
Misdemeanant Clerk, State of AK, Dept of Law, 1971-74.
Secretary, Tanana Chiefs Conference, 1975-76.
Wage & Hour Technician, State of AK, Dept. of Labor, 1976-79.
Commissioned Lay Preacher, First Presbyterian Church, Fairbanks AK, 1979-85.
First Presbyterian Church, Fairbanks AK, 1987-88.
Intern, YWCA Battered Women’s Program, Dubuque IA, 1988-89.
Language Specialist, Alaska Native Language Center, Fairbanks AK, 1989-90.
Associate Pastor & Director of Native Ministries, Northern Light United Church, Juneau 1990-98.
Associate Pastor of Utqiaġvik Presbyterian Church. 1998- __.
Associate Pastor, 1998-2006; Pastor, 2006-2020, Kaktovik Presbyterian Church, Kaktovik.
Honors/Awards and Publications:
Strathmore’s Who’s Who: Registry & Global Network for Outstanding Professionals. Recognized for her work in religion and sociology. https://strathmore-ltd.com/search/mary-ann-warden/9a0kc9u/
Eulogy in her honor by Master of Divinity Kurt Karns for Master of Divinity Mary Ann Warden. 2000.
The Healing Circle, Essays in Cross-Cultural Mission, presented to the Reverend Dr. Claude Marie Barbour. ISBN 0-967 7245-0-3, CCGM Publications, Chicago IL
Featured in: Chie Sakakibara. Whale Snow: Inupiat, Climate Change, and Multispecies Resilience in Arctic Alaska. University of Arizona Press, 2020.