By Greg Eckerle, Special to The Record
Two years ago Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz “found it to be an extreme plus, especially positive” that his new executive secretary, Benedictine Sister Paula Wolff, was a woman religious.
“There’s a certain level of leadership that the executive secretary for the archbishop has,” he said, “and I think that’s especially good that she’s coming with her own religious commitment and vows. She also comes with formation and training. I think it’s good for people within the archdiocese to see there’s a woman religious who’s in a role of leadership.”
And Archbishop Kurtz certainly knows about leadership, having been selected last year by American bishops for a three-year term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. As president, he is the public face and voice of 445 bishops who represent the largest religious group in the U.S., with 67 million members. He’s now the representative of American bishops to the Vatican and Pope Francis. He also continues as the leader of more than 200,000 Catholics in the 24 counties of the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Although the new position increased the duties and responsibilities of Archbishop Kurtz and thus, Sister Wolff, she has wholeheartedly embraced her enhanced role.
“I look at it as a way to serve the larger church, the whole world community of Catholics, not just our community here,” she said. “There’s been a lot of media attention since his election as president. But anything that gets the word out about the Catholic Church, about what our values are, what we’re trying to do for people, I think is a good thing. It’s helping the broader church for people that have fallen away as Catholics, that they can see what we’re trying to do, and maybe will want to come back to the Catholic Church.
“I’m helping in a supportive way,” she said. “I think that’s important to have the Benedictine values even in that role.”
Archbishop Kurtz sees thevalue in that, too.
Sister Wolff “is a good listener, and she’s smart,” he said. “This goes a long way. She has a very easy way of dealing with others. There’s not an abrasive bone in her body. She’s very kind and gentle with others.
“In many ways, she is the voice of the archbishop so often, in not only receiving letters and requests, but speaking on the phone,” he noted. “So that’s a very important ministry. In the new evangelization, we know that the first contact with people is so essential, and often sets the pace for either a very positive outcome, or something other than that. She has been very good.”
The archbishop said he has “tremendous admiration for her.”
“She brings all the virtues that should be in every religious and every baptized Catholic,” he said. “She has a way of getting things done. She’s very unassuming, yet very competent. And has really been very easy for me to work with.”
Archbishop Kurtz noted Sister Wolff’s “obvious” patience, as she handles his ever-changing schedule, pores through an average of more than 30 letters a day addressed to him and fields an average of more than 20 phone calls a day for him. And some of the letters and phone calls can be challenging.
For some of the calls, Sister Wolff said she heeds St. Benedict’s advice to listen with the ear of her heart.
“Some people have very big concerns to them, so they feel they have to call the archbishop,” she said, smiling. “He can’t solve all the world’s problems, but I can at least listen, and he tries to do what he can. Trying to keep up with everything is a big challenge, because he’s very energetic, and wants to do everything he can. It’s inspiring to see how he tries to serve people.”
The archbishop’s emphasis on serving people also strikes a chord with Sister Wolff and is a key reason the two work well together.
“What’s rewarding to me is seeing how people are served,” she said. “That makes me feel good. Just seeing all the good that people do for other people in the whole archdiocese is inspiring to me. That’s the best part.
“In the Benedictine way of life, you look at what gifts God has given you, and however you can use those gifts to help other people or to serve God, that’s what we try to do,” she said.
“Right now, this is how I can help the broader church. As a Benedictine, I do my job by trying to use the values we have, such as hospitality — for meetings, in greeting people or listening on the phone. It all goes back to serving God and serving people. I’m calling on God all the time to help me see where I can help this person the best way. I just do that automatically.”
Archbishop Kurtz became the archbishop of Louisville in 2007. At the time, Sister Wolff, a Sister of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, Ind., was working in financial services at the Hildegard Health Center in the Ferdinand monastery. Previously, she was employed by the Archdiocese of Louisville for nine years as secretary to the archdiocese’s chief education officer. So her skills were well known within the archdiocese.
When Archbishop Kurtz’s previous secretary, Norma Merrick (who also served as vice-Chancellor), announced in late 2011 her plans to retire, the archdiocese’s Chancellor and Chief Administrative Officer, Dr. Brian Reynolds, recommended Sister Wolff to the archbishop.
“Brian said to me that the Benedictine Sisters of Ferdinand have been very good,” said Archbishop Kurtz. “And they have. I knew a number of them who served (in the archdiocese), and I had a favorable opinion and admiration for the great work that they’re doing.”
So he contacted the monastery about the possibility, and Sister Wolff came on board in February 2012.
“People are very positive about Sister Paula,” says Archbishop Kurtz. “They’re very grateful for what she does. I think her being a woman religious prepares her well. People hold women religious in high regard. Her being a Ferdinand Benedictine sister has a number of benefits. The first, I think, is her own formation. She comes as a person called by Christ, formed in service to others. She can do that in a very unique way. Secondly, I think there’s a great avenue of people who have an immediate positive aspect in speaking to a sister. And I think it’s good for our own chancery life to have an active woman religious in a leadership role within the chancery staff. Currently sister is the only one here.”
The archbishop also points out the Ferdinand Benedictines’ commitment to living in community, something he doesn’t see often.
“I think that support with community life, in prayer and in shared living, is a great support for her,” he said. “We all need that kind of help, because she’s in a stressful position as the executive secretary for the archbishop. She certainly has been a great presence for us.”
Sister Wolff sees her role within the chancery office as being a “connector” to the archbishop. Her office is next to his, so she often makes the connections for others needing an appointment. And there are a lot of requests she has to juggle. The office houses seven different departments, all working to help the archbishop help the archdiocese to serve the people. Sister Wolff is right in the middle of it, “trying to keep it going,” she said, smiling.
She felt “wonderful” when the director of evangelization, before starting a morning prayer at the chancery office, asked her to provide a Ferdinand Benedictine prayer book to see how the Liturgy of the Hours was laid out. Sister Wolff sometimes helps lead the prayers.
“For me, it doesn’t matter what kind of task I’m working on, as long as it’s helping somehow, even indirectly,” she said. “It’s important that it’s furthering God’s work. I’m amazed at how much Archbishop Kurtz can get into his schedule, by what he tries to do, and I’m surprised he’s able to do as much as he is.”
Part of it might be that he has such a good scheduler in Sister Wolff, though she’d never say it. Indeed, Jen Steinmacher, a fellow office secretary, says, “She’s humble, she doesn’t expect praise. She is very dedicated, has a lot of patience, and is just a kind, compassionate, gentle person.”