Jesuit Father Chuck Peterson dreamed about being a priest in Alaska when he was a student in a Jesuit high school in Missoula, Montana, in the 1950s.
Today, after a career spanning more than 50 years serving indigenous people, mostly in Alaska, the priest dreams of returning to the Last Frontier following a devastating illness — severe bleeding outside the brain — that necessitated learning to walk and talk again.
“My hope is to go back,” he said with typical enthusiasm. “The recovery has been wonderful.”
Father Peterson is a big man with a big voice well known to generations of Alaskan villagers. When his illness struck, he was serving as pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Bethel, and living in community with other Jesuits who travel to villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
“But I went up to Bethel recently to pack up my things, and I realized I still get very fatigued.”
So for now, the priest, who turns 79 this month, is serving as chaplain in the infirmary at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, where he resides in the retirement home for members of his order in Los Gatos, California.
Father Peterson joined the Jesuits immediately following high school graduation in 1956 and by 1963 his Alaskan dream became a reality when he was sent to the since closed Copper Valley Mission School, near Glennallen.
He was a scholastic — still in studies and not yet ordained — when he was assigned to teach at the high school, which served Alaskan Natives from all over the state, including Yup’ik, Inupiat, Athabascan, and Aleut youth as well as a few non-Natives.
“We even had foreign exchange students from Kenya,” the priest recalled. “We had to teach them how to wear socks. They’d never experienced such cold.”
During his two years at Copper Valley, the young seminarian was sent out to villages to meet students’ families, staying in homes with no electricity or running water, meeting people who spoke little to no English, who subsisted off the land and water. It was the beginning of a lifetime of respect and love for Alaska Native people.
The experience at Copper Valley, which closed in 1971, helped to shape Father Peterson’s conviction that the church must honor the cultural values and spirituality of indigenous people. And it also influenced his vision of the community aspect of the church.
“Copper was an extraordinary place,” he recalled. “Priests, nuns, the 25 Jesuit Volunteers, the students — everyone shared in the work, whether it was painting, skinning a moose, or doing the routine work details. One of my favorite memories is of the coal trucks arriving from Palmer around two in the morning, and the boys shoveling coal into the coal bins from 2 to 4 a.m.”
After returning to the Pacific Northwest to complete studies, he was ordained in 1969. Father Peterson returned to Alaska and was assigned to the Diocese of Fairbanks, where more than 50 Jesuit priests served far-flung parishes. Even the bishop of the time, Robert Whelan, was a member of the order.
“Bishop Whelan asked, ‘What were we doing to promote Native vocations?’” the Jesuit said, and the answer was an innovative program creating a permanent Yup’ik speaking diaconate program. By 1970 Father Peterson was serving his first stint as a pastor in Bethel, and instrumental in the program’s creation.
In 1975, the first Yup’ik speaking deacon, Alvin Owletuk of Marshall, was ordained. Nearly 50 more followed, and the program is still active today.
After the success of the diaconate program, Father Peterson was assigned to what proved to be a short-lived attempt at developing a Native seminary in Fairbanks. The development of lay spirituality among indigenous people was also near to his heart, and he spent three years in the 1980s coordinating a center of theology and spirituality in Nelson Island coastal communities. Father Peterson served in Hooper Bay and St. Mary’s as well.
Amid assignments in the Alaska Bush, the Jesuit took a sabbatical to study at the Toronto School of Theology, where his degree reflected his life’s passion: “How to discover and work more efficiently in Native spirituality and integrate it into Catholicism,” he explained.
In 1997, Jesuit leaders asked Father Peterson to serve as the superior of the Rocky Mountain Missions, a collection of several Indian reservations in the Pacific Northwest. He obediently agreed to leave Alaska, but said he frequently “begged” to return.
His wish was granted in 2005, when he returned once again as a pastor in Bethel. But it was under trying circumstances.
“The clergy sexual misconduct crisis had hit,” he said. “I told them (his superiors) I’d like to be back with the guys” in the Alaskan missions.
Although there were many charges of sexual abuse against Jesuits in the Diocese of Fairbanks, the majority were faithful priests left to carry on and bear the animus created by the scandal. Today, due in part to declining numbers of Jesuits, only four members of the order currently serve in the nation’s northernmost diocese.
Father Peterson, known affectionately as “Father Chuck,” became integrated into the life of Bethel, even joining the volunteer fire department.
“And I was almost shot to death once,” he added nonchalantly, when asked about his adventures in Bethel.
Asked to be a parole officer for a local man, things turned deadly when the man’s mental illness led to an armed standoff, with the priest serving as negotiator inside the home.
“The place was surrounded by police. He told me he was going to shoot and I felt the bullet go by my head.”
The story had a happy ending, with the man recovering after heading to the hospital on foot with the Jesuit.
For Father Chuck Peterson, it was just another day in a life dedicated to the people of rural Alaska.