From teen shoe salesman in Tell City, Indiana, to archbishop of Anchorage, it seems his life has been full of unexpected turns. That’s how Bishop Paul Etienne of Cheyenne, Wyoming, described his elevation to archbishop and assignment to the Far North. But some people weren’t too surprised the pope chose him for greater responsibilities, namely the family who watched him grow up.
They are his father Paul, 82, mother Kay, 81, and siblings Bernie, 58, Rick, 56, Nicolette, 54, Zach, 52, and Angie, 47.
The elder Paul and his wife Kay live in Tell City – population 19,347 – on the Ohio River.
A priest, Father Bernie is vicar general of the Diocese of Evansville and pastor of Holy Rosary Church in Evansville. Also a priest, Father Zach is pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Evansville. Sister Nicolette is a sister of the religious Order of St. Benedict and principal of Holy Name School in Beech Grove. Rick is a financial planner and father of three. Angie is an executive for a skin care company and is mother to four, including one child who died as a baby.
FAITH JOURNEY BEGAN AT HOME
“It doesn’t surprise me that he is being made an archbishop,” Sister Nicolette told the Catholic Anchor. In fact, she has been expecting it for a couple of years because “he has the skills and the leadership and a servant’s heart” necessary for the work.
That servant heart grew among the verdant woods of Southwestern Indiana.
“We just kind of grew up loving Jesus and knowing that we’re loved by Jesus and wanting to serve the church, not necessarily as priests and religious but just as people who want to know, love and serve God,” Sister Nicolette explained.
The faith of the Etienne children began at home.
“Mom and Dad have been a great witness of that all our lives,” Sister Nicolette observed. They taught each child “there was no doubt that God loved me and that I was a child of God,” she said. “Your whole vocation in life is to be about God’s kingdom, and that’s kind of the way we were raised.”
Sunday Mass was the biggest priority, and they never missed it. Even when the family arrived in a new town for a rare overnight — before checking into their hotel — they drove to the local Catholic Church to ensure they’d know the way and how long it would take to Sunday morning Mass.
“Our Catholic Church has always been one of the main-stays in our life,” said the elder Paul.
Paul and Kay taught catechism classes and organized church picnics. Their boys served at Mass and the elder Paul continues to help with most of the funerals at St. Paul’s Church. And still Paul and Kay, who is living with Alzheimer’s, attend Mass every day.
The children went to public school, headed by a Catholic, where they attended religion class each day — from 8 to 8:30 a.m. — taught by the Benedictines.
‘THE HUMAN SIDE’ OF RELIGIOUS VOCATIONS
The Etienne sphere was peopled by priests and sisters, and religious vocations were seen as real possibilities. The family knew the priests and sisters in their parish. Moreover, their mother, Kay, had a brother who was a priest and a sister who was a Benedictine.
“We constantly had priests and nuns around us, so we saw the human side,” Father Zach noted. “They show up at your house and play baseball; they show up at your house and help Grandma make Christmas cookies.”
Sometimes, the large family’s vacations took them to a convent or rectory to save money. Laughing, Father Zach recalled loud announcements down hallways: “‘Etiennes are on the floor!’”
“We never pushed any of those kids to become religious, but we never discouraged them from becoming religious,” Paul said of his children.
Sister Nicolette explained, “It wasn’t like ‘We want you to be nuns and priests,’ it was like, ‘When you grow up, we want you to serve God and to be faithful to the Catholic Church and be kind.’ That was kind of the motto.”
She continued: “You could get married and serve God or you could become a priest or a nun and serve God. As long as you were about knowing, loving and serving God, you’re on the right track.”
Paul is glad that four of his six children had religious vocations. As to the new archbishop, he said, “I know that he has been very happy in his religious life” and is a good role model to the young.
‘NATURAL BORN LEADER’
On top of an abiding Catholic faith, the family valued a strong work ethic — which came early for Archbishop Etienne.
“He’s a natural-born leader,” Sister Nicolette observed.
Paul recalled how from childhood his archbishop-son showed great responsibility.
“I’ve always told the kids, ‘Whatever you do, as long as it’s a legal process to make a living, I’m going to back you a hundred percent. I’m not going to tell you what you should do. You should make up your mind, and know that you’ve got the support of your family,’” he said.
The future archbishop took it to heart. In high school, he worked in a shoe store. By graduation, he was placing orders and managing returns. Then Siebert’s men’s clothing store opened down the street, and they called the teenager for an interview. The next day, the owner of the store offered young Paul a sales job.
“He said, ‘Sir, I didn’t come up here to take a salesman’s job. The least I would consider doing would be the assistant manager of the store,’” recalled the elder Paul. “Before the sun set that day, they called and said, ‘You got it.’”
About four months later, he was promoted to store manager at 18. He bought a house. And rumor had it town leaders would groom Paul as mayor.
“He just has that charisma about him that people like,” the elder Paul said of his son.
A PRAYERFUL SERVANT
Archbishop Etienne is the best kind of leader, according to his brother Rick.
“I know that he does all things for the glory of God,” he said. “He seems to do a good job at balancing more of a contemplative approach to life with the action that’s needed,” Rick explained. “I think if you get too far on either side, it’s not helpful. You have to try to find that tension in the middle.”
A long-time businessman, Rick noted: “I’ve worked with authoritative leaders, and I find him to be a servant leader, where you work with the people and listen and then prayerfully make decisions based on the input.”
A LONG WAY FROM HOME
Although the Etiennes are proud of their son and brother, faraway Alaska meant disappointment for the close-knit family. Dad Paul’s first response to that news was: “‘Dang! You’re going to be even farther away than you are now! You can see how good my prayers are. I’ve been praying for the last couple of years that your next transfer you’d be closer to home.’”
To be sure, the Etiennes enjoy being at home for dinner and after-dinner walks and Cubs games on TV. Based in Cheyenne the last seven years, Archbishop Etienne was able to make such visits every couple of months, which were especially needed given his mom’s health.
The added distance may be felt particularly by Father Bernie, Archbishop Etienne’s closest brother in age and interests. “Paul and I are very good friends,” Father Bernie said. “We share so many things in common.”
They include 150 acres of woods three miles outside Tell City, near the Ohio River. While laymen, the brothers bought the parcel, planning one day to build a cabin there for retirement. After the brothers became priests, the two spent their Mondays off walking in the woods, harvesting trees, running chainsaws in their wood shop in an old barn. “We’re very actively involved in timber management,” explained Father Bernie. On the parcel’s open ground, they’ve grown corn, winter wheat, clover and prairie grasses for the resident wildlife. During the archbishop’s recent October visit home before heading to his new Alaska home, he and Father Bernie were on the land again.
The Etiennes will meet again for the archbishop’s Nov. 9 installation in Anchorage, all except their ailing mother Kay. More regular visits to the Far North will be difficult, particularly for siblings in religious life.
Despite the coming separation, there’s serenity among the Etiennes, a holy resignation to God’s mysterious move for the family archbishop. Whether Wyoming or Alaska, “Gone is gone…he’s still gone,” Sister Nicolette observed.
The elder Paul’s second response to his son’s news was joy: “I said, ‘I’m extremely proud of you…and whether you’re in Alaska or whether you’re close by, it really makes no difference. You’re doing what God wants. And that’s fine with me and makes me happy.”
They believe Archbishop Etienne is well qualified to shepherd his new and “bigger parish” of the Anchorage Archdiocese.
“I’m sure that the skills that have brought him thus far will serve him well in Alaska,” Father Bernie said – “the skills of pastoring…his prayer, his faithfulness, his love of the church and love of God’s people, his trust in God’s plan.”
“I think he’ll do you people a great job,” Paul said of his son, adding with a laugh, “But I don’t want him to be pope!”