Sister Julie Codd feels privileged to journey with Native people
Watching old Westerns in her childhood town’s movie theater, Julie Codd always rooted for the Indians.
"I didn’t want any part of the cowboys. I thought they were just bullies,” she said. “I always loved the Indians. I thought I’d like to marry an Indian.”
A few years later, going to Catholic high school in Spokane, one of Julie’s favorite teachers was a Dominican sister who had worked with Native people in Kettle Falls, north of Spokane. “She would just kind of go on about the Indians and how wonderful they were. I was fascinated with that.”
At Seattle University, Julie studied sociology and art (she’s a watercolorist) and became engaged to a Chilean man from a wealthy family. But she wasn’t sure if that was the right path — she also considered becoming a stewardess and entering religious life. During a retreat for engaged women, Julie discerned her religious vocation. She entered the convent at age 23, later professing vows as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace.
After teaching for 13 years in Mount Vernon, Alaska and Seattle, Sister Julie got a chance that changed her life even more: living in community with the Swinomish people in Skagit County.
It was the beginning of some four decades ministering to Native peoples — on the reservation, in downtown Seattle and most recently with a nonprofit dedicated to helping native women heal from abuse and addiction.
“Her main way of communicating the Gospel message is by living it,” said Jesuit Father Pat Twohy, the Archdiocese of Seattle’s chaplain for urban Native American Catholic ministry, and a good friend of Sister Julie. “She just totally gives herself for them. Then they really see the Gospel in action.”
‘My Indian home’
Nearly 30 years have passed, but Sister Julie still has some sadness that she no longer lives with the Swinomish people in Skagit County.
“It was like my Indian home,” she said. Being away from the people whose lives she shared is “kind of a heartbreak.”
Although she loved the classroom, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity in 1978 to minister to the Swinomish (originally with Franciscan Sister Jean Rollins). “I thought that it would be wonderful to get to know a people,” Sister Julie said.
For a decade, she taught religious education to Native children and prepared them for the sacraments (serving as godmother for some), visited the sick in hospitals and their homes, helped lead prayer services for funerals and other occasions, and came to understand their Native spirituality.
“They walk in such a sacred way on Mother Earth,” Sister Julie said. “They’re so aware of the Spirit.”
For nine years, Sister Julie and Dominican Sister Barbara Bieker lived in a modular home that the tribe set up for them on the reservation, near St. Paul Church. Their home was open for adults and children to visit and pray. Sister Julie didn’t completely give up the classroom — she taught a morning English class at nearby La Conner High School, and ran afternoon and evening study halls for Native students in the tribal library.
Sister Julie said it took a few years for her to really know the Swinomish people. Eventually, she became “very beloved” by the whole community, said Father Twohy, who arrived to serve the Swinomish in 1985.
Sister Julie was “very respectful, caring, supportive and inspirational and creative to her Native peoples here,” said Beverly Peters, a Swinomish tribal member who was a longtime member of St. Paul Parish. “She was just a lovable person who showed us the way, especially spiritual-wise.”
Moving to urban ministry
After a decade with the Swinomish, Sister Julie’s congregation gave her a year’s sabbatical, then encouraged her to work with Native people in the city, near her Bellevue-based CSJP community.
So she got involved with a Kateri Circle, a prayer group named after now-St. Kateri Tekakwitha (a 17th-century woman of Mohawk and Algonquin ancestry) at Tacoma’s St. Leo the Great Parish, and started another circle with a Native woman and her family.
But then Sister Julie decided to track down the Chief Seattle Club, a ministry to Native men in downtown Seattle. Started by Jesuit Father Raymond Talbott, it was a place where the men could get a cup of coffee and a doughnut, maybe find some clothing and pick up some day jobs, transported by Father Talbott in his van.
When she finally found the club, “a little dumpy place on Washington Street,” Sister Julie introduced herself and said she wanted to work with Native people. With Father Talbott’s OK, she returned with some of her art supplies to do art projects with the men.
After just two visits, the 82-year-old Father Talbott announced he was having open-heart surgery and wouldn’t be able to continue running the club. He asked Sister Julie to take over the program, working with an executive director. She went home, got permission from her community and returned the next day — only to find the club all boarded up.
But she’d gotten the OK to run the club, Sister Julie told Father Talbott. No, he said, it would be too hard for a woman to handle. “Well, I’m going to do it,” Sister Julie told him. “I think God’s calling me to do this.”
Sister Julie Codd prays with Robert at the Chief Seattle Club during a visit for Sunday Mass. Photo: Stephen Brashear
A catalyst for empowerment
At first, Sister Julie admits, she didn’t exactly know what she was doing. But she felt her ministry with the Swinomish people had helped prepare her to work with urban Native people.
She started by providing homemade soup to the men who stopped by the club, initially open three hours a day, three mornings a week. The teeny kitchen, really just a couple of hot plates, was frequented by rats. So Sister Julie began making soup at home with the help of two older sisters, transporting it in huge pots to the club.
It was the beginning of a vision, eventually shared by others on the club’s board and in the community, to provide more programs and services to homeless and low-income Native men and women, as their own organization in their own building.
From the beginning, the Native people helped Sister Julie run the club. “They’re not clients, they’re members,” she said. “This is their home base so they can feel they’re not far from their Native [roots].” (A Native arts program was one of her additions.)
Everyone who came to the club felt Sister Julie “was definitely aware of their needs and would help them if she could,” said Tricia Trainer, a member of Seattle’s St. Joseph Parish who began as a volunteer and still serves on the board.
Sister Julie even went out at night to help those in need, driving Father Talbott’s old van. One night, while dropping off a Native elder, Sister Julie was approached by a gun-toting teenager who stole the women’s purses before running off, said her good friend, Notre Dame de Namur Sister Liz Tiernan.
It was a wakeup call. From then on, at the request of the CSJP provincial leader, Sister Liz went along. “I used to say that I was riding shotgun as she hurtled through the streets of Seattle,” Sister Liz said, laughing.
Sister Julie began a Kateri Mass and meal for club members and Native families, originally celebrated twice monthly by Father Twohy at Seattle’s Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church.
“[Sister] Julie was very good at speaking from her own faith but also weaving in the Native practices,” Trainer said.
Every month for 10 years, Sister Julie took a van full of club members and families to the Swinomish Reservation for a Kateri weekend. The local Mass later moved to the Chief Seattle Club, where it’s still celebrated Sunday mornings by Father Twohy.
By 2002, after a decade of work that included becoming the club’s director and a board member, it was time to move on, Sister Julie said.
But there would be no Chief Seattle Club today if Sister Julie hadn’t stepped in all those years ago to keep it going, Father Twohy said. “She chose to be with them, the most-suffering people,” he said. “She wanted to be with them, to form these bonds that are eternal.”
Walking another journey
Sister Julie pulls out her phone, scrolling through the photos and proudly showing off her handful of “adopted” Native families.
They include the extended family of Violet Baird, a Sioux woman who was Sister Julie’s right hand at the Chief Seattle Club. “We just had the baptism of her two great-granddaughters” and the first Communion of her three great-grandsons at St. Leo’s in Tacoma, Sister Julie said. “I’ve been able to work with them and get them into Catholic school.”
Glancing at Sister Julie’s datebook, it appears nearly every day has something needing her attention. Besides helping her adopted families when she can, the 78-year-old is working with her community’s elderly sisters and the congregation’s associate programs. About three years ago, Sister Julie was invited to join the board of Mother Nation, a nonprofit for Native women recovering from abuse and addiction.
Her strong connection to the Native community brought her a role in the 2006 miraculous cure of Jake Finkbonner, a 5-year-old Lummi tribal member suffering from flesh-eating bacteria. Sister Julie helped arrange for a relic of then-Blessed Kateri to be brought to Jake’s Seattle hospital bed by her friend Sister Kateri Mitchell, a Sister of St. Anne and executive director of the national Tekakwitha Conference for indigenous Catholics. After the relic was placed on Jake and prayers were said, he began recovering.
“It was very beautiful to be that close to a miracle,” Sister Julie said of the event that resulted in Blessed Kateri’s canonization in October 2012.
Sister Julie’s ministry to Native Americans continues to be defined by “her great love for the people and admiration for their culture,” said Sister Liz, who works alongside Sister Julie as a Native catechist. Sister Julie has always felt that “the church needs the Native people; they have so much to give us and to contribute,” Sister Liz added.
As she approaches 40 years since beginning her ministry with Native people, Sister Julie reflects on the privilege of journeying with them in faith: “I feel richer for having walked with them.”
Northwest Catholic - November 2017
Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at [email protected].
Jean Parietti es editora local para el sitio web NWCatholic.org y destacada editora de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic. Pueden contactarle en: [email protected].