For Joann White, long-time secretary to the late Archbishop Francis Hurley, her work has always been much more a vocation than a job.
After officially retiring June 30 following the Jan. 10 death of the archbishop this year, White still remains active in his work, sorting through the last of several file boxes friends helped her move from the pastoral center to her home in Spenard.
“I’ve always said, if I have to do filing in heaven I’m not going,” laughed the 85-year-old White, proving that her sense of humor also remains active.
White’s career with Archbishop Hurley spanned more than 50 years, beginning in Washington, D.C., when the two were in their 30s and the young Monsignor Hurley was a man rising in the ranks of the U.S. church. Known for her efficiency and loyalty, White was an invaluable ally, and remained Archbishop Hurley’s secretary after his appointment as bishop of Juneau. In 1976, she came to Anchorage when he became archbishop.
Although archbishops officially turn in their resignations at age 75, they remain active in their communities and as members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This was especially true for the energetic and social Archbishop Hurley.
So White remained as his part-time secretary, and both maintained offices at the pastoral center during his nearly 15-year retirement after Archbishop Roger Schwietz assumed leadership of the archdioceses in 2001.
White treasures her life-long commitment to the church.
“I think the thing I enjoyed most about serving the church was working with people who shared the same values and outlook that I had,” she told the Catholic Anchor.
And being part of church history was exciting, she said, from the heady days of seeing U.S. bishops in Washington, D.C. prepare to leave for the second session of Vatican Council II to the thrill and hard work of the visit of Saint Pope John Paul II to Anchorage in 1981.
White is a Maryland native, the youngest of 11 children. Her mother faithfully saw her large brood off to Catholic school and sent them to First Friday Mass so diligently that White said it seemed appropriate to her children that she later died on a First Friday.
However, although White’s father was Catholic, her mother did not join the Catholic Church until her deathbed.
Two of White’s brothers died as infants, but the five remaining sons all served in World War II at the same time, and all survived. Donald, the oldest and an Air Force pilot, was shot down over Germany and held in a prisoner of war camp. Another brother eventually helped in the cleanup effort in occupied Japan.
It might surprise White’s friends, who know her as invariably proper and well dressed, but she says as a child with all those brothers she inevitably became a tomboy.
“My brothers would play in the street when I was really little,” she recalled. “They would put me on the curb, and one would always have to take his turn sitting with me.”
The sense of adventure that brought White to Alaska also engendered her love of travel. She frequently visited relatives in the Eastern U.S., made trips to Rome and often visited the Spanish island of Majorca where friends vacationed.
She once accepted the invitation of a friend who was volunteering in a Ugandan hospital for lepers. Besides Uganda, that trip took her to Kenya and Tanzania and left her with a case of malaria which she continued to battle after returning home.
White’s 10 siblings have all died, but she remains close to many nieces and nephews, including some who paid a visit this summer. Alaska will remain her home.
The last few years of the archbishop’s life were marked with illness and decline, White recalled. Toward the end of his life, he began to experience dementia and grew particularly dependent on her.
“I took a class at the Alzheimer’s office,” she said, a move she highly recommends to other caregivers.
“I had tried to prepare myself for his death,” she said, “but it was still a great feeling of loss. But I’ve weathered it well.”
Making his death even harder was an excruciatingly painful back problem that prevented White from attending the archbishop’s burial at St. John Neumann Mission in Cooper Landing during the week following his funeral. White endured surgery the following month, and still relies on a cane and walker, although with the aid of physical therapy she’s determined to continue improving.
Over the recent Labor Day weekend, an old friend visiting Anchorage drove her to Archbishop Hurley’s burial site in the picturesque hamlet two hours south of Anchorage.
“I had a little talk with Archbishop Hurley,” said his longtime friend and secretary.