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Fr. Chuck Peterson, Priest Who Helped Build Yup'ik Catholic Leadership, Dies At 82

Father Chuck Peterson waves farewell during his final Bethel Mass on Sunday, October 1, 2017. Yup'ik elders, deacons, and their wives surround the Jesuit priest, giving him a traditional Yup'ik blessing for safe travels on his journey.
Dean Swope

Catholic Priest Fr. Chuck Peterson died on Christmas Eve. The Jesuit priest began serving in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the 1970s, where he spent decades building the local, Indigenous leadership of the church. In 2017, his superiors transferred Fr. Chuck to California after he developed health issues. On Dec. 24, Fr. Chuck died in San Jose, California at the age of 82. He passed two weeks after being admitted to the hospital with pneumonia in both lungs from COVID-19.

To remember Fr. Chuck, we are re-airing a shortened piece KYUK produced in 2017, before he left Bethel. You can listen to the original piece in its full form here.


Before Charles Peterson became Fr. Chuck, he was an altar boy in the 1950s at a Catholic Church in Missoula, Montana. At age 17, Peterson wanted to become a priest. He was attracted to the Jesuit order, and to Alaska, where only Jesuit priests served.

 “I want to join that outfit,” Fr. Chuck said, laughing.

He was ordained, and by the time he was 24, he was teaching at the Anchorage Copper Valley Catholic Boarding School. That summer, the church sent him to Bethel to teach catechism. A few years later, in 1970, he returned to Bethel as co-pastor. 

 “And I loved it!,” he said.

The priest, by then known as "Father Chuck," joined city league basketball, volunteered for the fire department, and he made a controversial decision to celebrate Catholic Mass in Yup’ik, beginning his mission of building Yup’ik leadership within the Catholic Church. Soon, there were Native Deacons.

“The first one to be ordained was Alvin Owletuk of Marshall,” Fr. Chuck said. “Since then there have been, I think, about 50.”

In the 1990s, Fr. Chuck was transferred to Indian Country in the Pacific Northwest. The entire time he kept asking to return to Bethel. In 2005, the church granted his request. The Catholic Church had been rocked nationwide by revelations concerning sexual abuses committed by priests, and the scandal hit hard in Alaska. Fr. Chuck saw the pain and worked to heal the harm and rebuild the church.

“I realistically don’t feel it can be completed in my lifetime,” Fr. Chuck said,  “but I want to promote it as much as I can, a Yup’ik priesthood in the Catholic Church. Heck, I’d like to see a Yup’ik bishop, too.”

Fr. Chuck always wanted to return to Bethel, and now he will. His body will be cremated and, following his wishes, his ashes will be brought back to Bethel. The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Bethel will hold a public burial for Fr. Chuck after pandemic health restrictions have lifted.

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