Family shaped archbishop’s values

In the photograph above, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz is seen celebrating Mass in the Diocese of Knoxville, where he served as a bishop for seven and a half years prior to his appointment as Archbishop of Louisville. (Photo Special to The Record)
In the photograph above, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz is seen celebrating Mass in the Diocese of Knoxville, where he served as a bishop for seven and a half years prior to his appointment as Archbishop of Louisville. (Photo Special to The Record)

By Glenn Rutherford, Record Editor

Though it’s a long way from the coal town of Mahanoy City, Pa., to the presidency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz will tell you that, in many ways, Mahanoy City is a place he’s never really left.

The Archbishop of Louisville was elected on Nov. 12 to a three-year term as president of the bishops’ conference, and his rise to prominence in the Catholic Church in America has always been accompanied by his verbal homages to his family and his hometown.

When he was named to the Louisville post in 2007, the then-Bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., told reporters that his family history and his hometown — together with his Catholic education — had shaped the values of his life.

When he was interviewed in Tennessee by representatives of The Record, Archbishop Kurtz recalled that, as a young boy, he had worked each Saturday morning in a Mahanoy City bakery. He’d sweep the floors and help the owners clean their store — it was work he said he enjoyed.

“And I ended up using half of what I earned to pay for the bus ride that would take me to school,” the archbishop said.

Archbishop Kurtz, now 67, remembered that tuition at his high school — originally called Immaculate Heart High School and later re-named Cardinal Brennan High School — was $5 a week. “The bus cost either $2.50 or $5 a week; I can’t remember,” he said back in 2007. “But I took care of the bus costs” because attending a Catholic high school was important to him, he said. He added that he has always been grateful to his parents — the late George and Stella Kurtz — who were willing to sacrifice to pay the tuition.

The education he received — both at school and at home — left the newly-elected bishops’ conference president with fond memories of his childhood and a deep and abiding appreciation for life. Life from conception to a natural death, just as the church has always taught, is a phrase he has repeated in homilies and speeches throughout his ministry.

The above photo shows the newly-elected president of the U.S. bishops’ conference in his younger days.
The above photo shows the newly-elected president of the U.S. bishops’ conference in his younger days. (File photo)

“I think I have a great love for Christ and our church and our church teachings,” he said in the aforementioned interview. “And I believe that we as Catholics need to embrace the full truth of our faith and never stop learning and deepening our truth.

“Obviously, in my work both with Catholic Charities and the bishops’ conference, I’ve been very much involved in the cause of life,” he said.

Now that dedication will be witnessed on a much more visible national stage.

Throughout his ministry, since his ordination as a priest on March 18, 1972, Archbishop Kurtz has remained an active and visible participant in pro-life activities.

“I’m very much involved with the peaceful proclamation of the truth that occurs each January on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision (which legalized abortion in the U.S.),” he said. At many prayer services across the street from Louisville’s only abortion clinic, the archbishop has asked that proponents “talk about the cause of life and our needs to have just laws within our society. I think that’s fundamental.”

But the archbishop has always called for pro-life proponents to be respectful of those who disagree with them, and to be prayerful in their efforts to create a culture of life.

He has also expressed his belief that “environmental concerns are real, and threats to our planet need our attention.” And the social work that has been a part of his history — he holds a master’s degree in social work from the Marywood School of Social Work in Scranton, Pa. — has also been a part of his ministry in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and in the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Those who know him best marvel at his energy — the archbishop’s schedule published weekly in The Record often is filled with nearly two dozen appearances and services which he attends. Sometimes two or three of those appearances occur on the same day.

People also marvel at the fact that, despite a schedule that would deplete the energy of a man half his age, the archbishop is rarely seen without a smile on his face.

“It seems to me that as priests, the very least we can do is be joyful,” he said during the interview in Knoxville. “There is a great joy in sharing the love of Christ with others,” he said. Those lucky enough to be called to ministry, he noted, have an obligation to share the joy of their relationship to Christ with others.

Mary Weaver, editor of the East Tennessee Catholic diocesan newspaper during Archbishop Kurtz’s tenure there, said in the summer of 2007 that the leader they were losing — and Louisville was fortunate enough to be getting — was “the salt of the earth.”

“This is the day we all dreaded,” she said. “We knew it was going to happen eventually because he’s such a good man.”

Now that good man will lead the bishops of the United States for the next three years. He’ll tell anyone who asks about his journey to the presidency of the USCCB that the values he learned in the midst of his family — and his church — are those that shaped his life and his ministry.

His family was the center of his world, he’ll tell you. George and Stella Kurtz had five children, and two of the archbishop’s sisters are still living — Patricia Cameli and Theresa Bakos. A brother, George, and a third sister, Rosemarie Quinn, are deceased.

It was “big-brother” George, born with Down syndrome, who the archbishop says held a unique place in his heart and had a special influence on his life.

“Georgie came to live with me after my mother’s death,” Archbishop Kurtz once told a reporter. “Georgie always kept me grounded in the reality and priority of relationships. At the end of the day when he and I would spend time together, he helped me to see what is ultimately important.”

Once, Georgie and his “little brother” Joseph were shopping — perhaps it was at an ice cream parlor; the detail of the moment has somewhat faded from the archbishop’s memory. But its importance hasn’t.

“What do you want, Georgie?” the archbishop asked, probably referring to a cone of chocolate or vanilla.

“To be good,” said George.

And that’s what the newly-elected president of the bishops’ conference has tried to be.

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One reply on “Family shaped archbishop’s values”
  1. says: Beverly McAuliffe

    Congratulations to you, Archbishop Kurtz! Of course, anyone who knows you predicted that you would be the president. God has blessed you (and all of us in the Archdiocese of Louisville) with your gentle, compassionate, and joyful leadership!

    And what a precious picture of you as a teenager (?)! You haven’t changed a bit!!!

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