Though born on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota, Phyllis Bellefeuille grew up on the family’s ranch in Visalia. She remembers picking fruit and walnuts with her siblings and many cousins. Closeness, and longevity characterize the Bellefeuille family; when her brother Charles died recently at 91 years of age, Sr. Julie said at the funeral reception, “Bellefeuilles don’t die at 91; we need an autopsy!”
Phyllis met the Sisters of Notre Dame when she started first grade at St. Mary’s School in Visalia. She decided on that first day, she says, that she wanted to be a Sister when she grew up. When she attended boarding school at Moreland Notre Dame High School in Watsonville, the Sisters accepted her without tuition, which she appreciated. Soon after graduating, Phyllis did enter the community and became Sr. Julie St. Francis; she was part of the first group of postulants and novices to move in 1937 from Belmont to Saratoga for their novitiate training.
“Sr. Julie B.” began her classroom experience with 70 first graders at St. Columbkille School in Los Angeles. Unfortunately for the children, but a blessing for her, half of them came down with the measles, and when they returned, the other half had their turn. “So it was an easier way to start!” she said.
She brought resiliency, a wry sense of humor and wonderful spirit to many other classrooms and ministries—in Los Angeles, Belmont, Santa Clara, San Carlos, Seahurst and Seattle, WA. She recalls, with special fondness, the energy and humor of the sixth-grade boys she taught at Mission Dolores School in San Francisco. She also remembers the years when she both taught and served as principal and superior. Sister Julie had students of every age, many of whom have stayed in touch with her over the years.
She earned Masters’ degrees in Religious Education and in Library Science. As librarian at the-then College of Notre Dame, she taught Scripture every morning, then ran the library the rest of the day. What a change from 10 and 11 year olds! Sr. Julie has always loved reading, studying and learning new things. She also enjoyed writing articles and several interesting personal accounts.
Sr. Julie developed a great interest in helping people who had been alienated from the Church because of their marriages. After studying Canon Law at various workshops, she worked for 15 years in the Marriage Tribunal for the Dioceses of San Jose and Monterey.
Sister served two terms in Province leadership and assisted with the formation of young Sisters. In these responsibilities she remembers “mistakes aplenty” and the “kindness and patience of the Sisters.” There were perks, too, like visits to Hawaii and Alaska to visit the Sisters in their ministries, and even a bobsled ride to visit Sisters in a remote village. Her travel gave her the opportunity to meet with other Native Americans, adding to her knowledge about her Chippewa tribe, part of the Algonquin Nation that lived along the Eastern Great Lakes for many centuries.
Sr. Julie especially enjoyed her years as a staff member of the House of Prayer where she had time for walking, reading and praying, as well as welcoming guests and sharing the quiet beauty of Carmel with them.
Sr. Julie retired from active work at the age of 85, but even in her 90’s, she still enjoyed volunteering at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Belmont, taking the Eucharist to “elderly” people in a nearby nursing home.
Now at Mercy Retirement and Care Center in Oakland, Sr. Julie Bellefeuille still asks God every day to protect her former students, and she prays joyfully and gratefully for her large family and her Notre Dame Sisters. On the occasion of her 80th Jubilee, one of her relatives said, “I have only pride in being Sr. Julie’s cousin and seeing her continue doing God’s work and making all our lives stronger in believing in God’s goodness.”