Yup’ik elder draws from both Catholic faith & Alaska Native heritage

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Gemma Gaudio’s faith and lifelong immersion in her Alaska Native culture and Yup’ik heritage is an inspiration to Native people throughout the state, and a model of stewardship to the Catholic community.

She was recently named “Elder of the Year” by Cook Inlet Region Inc. (CIRI), for her selfless dedication to others through her work as a nurse, her advocacy for children and her countless volunteer hours as a leader in Anchorage Faith and Action Congregations Together (AFACT).

Gaudio, who is 80 years old, was born in a sod house in the western Alaska village of Hooper Bay. The eldest of four children, Gaudio was steeped in village life and work, driving a dog sled to gather ice for drinking and cooking. The CIRI resolution described her as “a true culture bearer, still weaving the famous Hooper Bay style grass baskets, continuing to fish and gather greens, tea and berries, and sharing Yup’ik culture, stories and wisdom with elementary school students and youth at her church.”

A long time member of St. Anthony Church in Anchorage, Gaudio serves on the pastoral council, liturgy committee, and is active in other ministries as well. She volunteers at the Alaska Native Medical Center, and gathers with others each Thursday for the Kateri Circle — a time of fellowship and faith sharing — held at the Mountain View parish.

Gaudio was baptized as an infant and completed her sacraments at the Catholic Church in Hooper Bay. Some of her earliest memories are of walking to Mass every day with her brother.

A fluent speaker of her native Yup’ik language, her reluctance to learn English delayed her starting elementary school until she was seven or eight years old.

“I didn’t want to learn how to speak English,” she said. “I was stubborn.”

Despite a late start, Gaudio excelled at school and at age 11 left her Hooper Bay home to attend St. Mary’s, a Catholic boarding school operated by the Ursaline Sisters in Akulurak. It was a five-hour plane ride away. Two years later, having skipped several grades, she returned to her village.

After completing the eighth grade, and with the help of the Ursaline Sisters, she attended Mount Edgecumbe High School, a public boarding school in Sitka. Gaudio left, she said, “to avoid the man her parents had chosen for her to be her husband.” She was one of the first women in her village to do so.

Gaudio worked for over 20 years as a nurse at the old Alaska Native Medical Center, and the old Providence and Bethel hospitals.

In Anchorage, she met Kenneth Gaudio, her husband of 46 years, who passed away this past March. For many years she lived and worked in his home state of Florida, but permanently returned in 1993.

Despite her Catholic upbringing, Gaudio didn’t go to church for 40 years. Living near Saint Anthony parish she said she would often walk by the church.

“My right foot wanted to go in, but the left didn’t,” she said.

She replayed this scenario many times until one fateful day. “I was watching football one day and heard a voice say, ‘Go to church.’”

Heeding that voice, Gaudio found herself in the familiar comfort of her childhood faith, but much time had passed. Father Leo Walsh, then associate pastor at St. Anthony, encouraged her to enroll in the RCIA program, and she returned to full communion.

With the support of her husband, Gaudio made up for lost time and immersed herself in parish life. She volunteered as an usher, a eucharistic minister, and with the pastoral council and liturgy committee. Within a couple of years, and at the invitation of Daughter of Charity, Sister Donna Kramer, Gaudio became involved with the pastoral life of the Alaska Native Medical Center, and with visiting and bringing Holy Communion to patients, many of whom are from villages outside of Anchorage.

Gaudio’s seamless engagement in Catholic and Native culture is evidenced in her work with AFACT and Catholic Native Ministries (CNM). In both capacities, she is an advocate for those who often have no voice to address the injustices they face. According to Courtney Eppler, lead organizer for AFACT’s faith-based, community organizing ministry, “Gemma has been one of our most committed leaders since the founding of AFACT in 2004. (She) is a compassionate leader who is known throughout all of AFACT’s 5,000 constituents as someone who is powerful and brings about real change in the community.”

For Gaudio, deeply steeped in Native tradition and spirituality, there is no conflict between that and her Catholic faith. She credits that to Father John Fox, the pastor of the Hooper Bay church during her childhood there. His efforts to harmonize Native spirituality with Catholicism gave her a solid grounding in both.

Things changed; however, when leadership of the parish changed.

“Traditional dances and the wearing of masks were forbidden,” she recalled. Dancing in general became less frequent. The people accepted this, she said, but ultimately, “people stopped going to church, things started going south, they blamed the priest,” she added.

Despite a long hiatus from her Catholic faith, Gaudio believes that the lessons from Native traditions and spiritual practices are applicable to her faith.

“Our parents taught us respect for the land,” she said. When they would eat a fish on the tundra, they were to dig into the earth, to bury the fish head facing toward the sea. She thought people might see that as superstitious but said that it was to honor the gift of the fish and the one who created it.

Gaudio’s daughter, Jacqueline Shirley, who nominated her for “Elder of the Year,” said, “My mom is truly a Yup’ik woman with ties to both worlds, spiritually and culturally — and she has embraced and reinvented herself.”

While they were in the airport awaiting a flight to Seattle to watch the Mariners (Gaudio’s favorite team) play baseball, Shirley informed her mother of the award.

“She was in shock,” Shirley recalled. “She’s humble, she doesn’t think she’s as good as any other person.”

Following the death of her husband, Gaudio immersed herself in the diverse activities, which made her the favorite for this year’s award.

“She wanted to keep busy, making kuspuks and earrings,” Shirley stated. “She rescinded her resignation from the AFACT Board of Directors. She wants to be overworked.”

With a solid faith, and firmly grounded in her Native traditions, Gaudio shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

'Yup’ik elder draws from both Catholic faith & Alaska Native heritage'
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