Sister Marjorie Hebert interim head of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans
Marianite Sister Marjorie Hebert had just completed a one-year sabbatical and was prayerfully searching for a new direction in ministry when she got the call.
On the other end was her good friend, Daughter of Charity Sister Anthony Barczykowski, the executive director of the archdiocesan Department of Community Services, asking if she would consider becoming the interim president of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans to succeed outgoing president Gordon Wadge.
“When Sister Anthony called me, she said, ‘Hello, Marjorie, this is the Holy Spirit calling!’” Sister Marjorie said with a chuckle. “I said, ‘No it’s not. It’s Sister Anthony.’ She really meant this was the Holy Spirit directing us. I really do think it was divine providence and part of God’s plan.”
In her previous work, Sister Marjorie had served as a school teacher and principal, a diocesan-wide educational administrator and congregational administrator. Then, in the mid-1990s, Sister Marjorie was asked to tackle an ambitious dream – building a skilled-care nursing facility for 16 congregations of religious women and men, whose members were graying.
Planning for ‘Wisdom’
On their own, each congregation could never dream of building a healthcare facility for its members. The dream required teamwork and collaboration, and the result was Our Lady of Wisdom Health Care Center in Algiers, a $25 million, 138-bed facility that opened in 1997 whose primary purpose is to serve women and men religious, diocesan priests and laity.
“One of the biggest challenges for me at Our Lady of Wisdom was working in collaboration with the 16 different congregations,” said Sister Marjorie, saying that experience will help her learn quickly the scope of Catholic Charities’ 40 programs that serve the community.
She considers it another grace that when she started her new position in early January, she had a severe case of laryngitis, preventing her from speaking above more than a whisper in her introductory meetings with new staff members.
“I felt that was a direct assistance because it caused me to listen a bit more than talk, and that was my guide through those first three days, and I’m continuing to do that now,” Sister Marjorie said. “It’s been exciting because I feel like I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on it in the short time that I’ve been here.”
Up for the challenge
From her previous work in the archdiocese, Sister Marjorie was aware of the enormity of Catholic Charities’ work in the archdiocese. She recalled that Catholic schools and Catholic Charities were two of the core ministries of the local church.
“My first concern was how big it was,” Sister Marjorie said. “Now that I’m here for this short time, the reality of just how big it is looms larger. The breadth and depth of it is much larger.”
In succeeding Wadge, who had served for 33 years in various capacities with the former Social Apostolate and Catholic Charities, Sister Marjorie has been named “interim” president and chief executive officer. How long the “interim” period is and whether or not she would be a candidate for the permanent position are still open for discussion with Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
She said: “I said to the staff, ‘Interim is a period, but I come to the position not with interim energy or enthusiasm for their work. I come for it as though I will be here long-term, and that remains a decision to be made by all the entities involved.’ There will be a process to search for a permanent replacement. The details of that are being designed and talked about at this time.”
Wadge was a ‘servant leader’
Sister Marjorie said Wadge, who left to take a leadership position with the YMCA, was “a true servant leader.”
“His depth of commitment, his enthusiasm for the work, his commitment and tenacity just to lead Catholic Charities through such turbulent times was outstanding,” Sister Marjorie said. “When I left after my first board meeting, I told Gordon, ‘The board is so appreciative of your leadership and all the work you’ve done that I feel like they consider you could walk on water.’ Gordon told me, ‘Sister, my wife would tell you otherwise.’”
Learning her new staff
One of Sister Marjorie’s first tasks is to meet with her entire staff during the month of January. She is capable of remembering names and faces, but not as sharp as she was as a young classroom teacher.
“I could come out of a classroom after three days and know the names of 63 kids,” she said, smiling. “I’m finding as I’ve aged I’m not as good as I used to be.”
Among her short-term goals is to continue the strengthening of Catholic Charities’ Catholic identity and “assessing how we can better serve the many people in our existing programs.”
“I’ve been asked what changes I was going to make,” Sister Marjorie said, “and from the outset I said I initially expect to change only those things that will make us more efficient and more effective in serving the people of the archdiocese and in further developing the mission of the archdiocese and the mission of Catholic Charities.”
Catholic Charities has just completed a strategic plan.
“We’re not starting from scratch,” Sister Marjorie said. “I know I have a very dedicated and committed group of administrative staff to assist me, and that spirit of collaboration is there,” she said.
Among the challenges facing Catholic Charities is the difficult economy, she said. Many of Catholic Charities programs are funded through city, state and federal grants, and those are always at risk. Also, Wadge’s departure follows on the heels of the 2011 departure of Jim Kelly, who had served with Wadge as co-president/CEO.
“This is yet another change for the staff of Catholic Charities to adjust to,” Sister Marjorie said. “There have also been changes in our physical location (in the archdiocesan building on Howard Avenue). A significant number of staff have been newly hired. So, change is not a stranger to Catholic Charities, but we embrace it.
“As a Marianite of Holy Cross, Blessed Basil Moreau always challenged us to have a zeal for the mission of the church. Before my coming to this position, I have recently had a more intensified prayer for zeal for the mission of the church. I find a quality of zeal among our staff, and that’s reassuring and welcoming.”
Sabbatical was a blessing
During her yearlong sabbatical – “a wonderful time,” she says – Sister Marjorie met weekly with a group of women that she first met through a Cursillo experience. She had regular spiritual direction and volunteered as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion at Ochsner West Bank. She had time to sit as a companion for friends who were recovering from surgery and was able to care for two grand-nephews.
She also volunteered at Our Lady of Wisdom, the place she built from scratch, and the place where she made sure blessed medals had been placed in the concrete forms while the cement foundation was being laid.
“That gave me a deeper respect and understanding for the engagement in work with the many volunteers who are part of Catholic church,” she said.
She knows she does not have all the answers, but that’s a good thing.
“When I took on the Wisdom project, at first I was fearful of what I didn’t know,” she said. “As I continued to discern about this position, I really could say that for every position I have ever taken, I didn’t know it all. It was on-the-job training. But all during that Wisdom project, I prayed that psalm response: ‘Prosper the work of my hands, O Lord, prosper the work of my hands.’ I’m back to that chant.”