PORTLAND, Ore. — Mary Jo Tully, the first laywoman to become chancellor of a U.S. Catholic diocese, has stepped down from the post she held for 27 years at the Archdiocese of Portland.
Tully — known for wit, candor and a pebbly Midwestern voice — taught, wrote and administered her way to unsought renown in Oregon. Daughter of a Chicago policeman, she charmed thousands of listeners and readers, but often accepted the role of tough cop on behalf of the four Portland archbishops she served.
“What I have done, I have always done out of love for the church,” Tully told friends at a farewell dinner in Portland July 29.
She has moved to be near family north of Austin, Texas, and said she hopes to be of service to the church there.
“The Church is my family,” Tully said during an Aug. 2 retirement luncheon. “People always ask me why I didn’t become a nun. Well, it’s because they wouldn’t let me be superior,” she joked, getting a big laugh from colleagues.
She was not looking to become a chancellor. Invited and hired by then-Archbishop William J. Levada to take the job in Portland, Tully had previously served as director of religious education in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
In the 1960s, she had gone to march with civil rights activists in the South, over the spirited objections of her father.
She wrote books on catechesis, Scripture and the Stations of the Cross and wrote a pithy regular column on Sunday Scriptures in the Catholic Sentinel, Portland’s archdiocesan newspaper, and donated her journalism pay to other causes.
At Portland’s pastoral center, Tully for decades took the toughest crank calls. Colleagues say she was firm, but always loving and clear.
“As one of the four archbishops who have had the privilege of working with Mary Jo, I can only express my extreme gratitude for her service to the church here in western Oregon,” said Archbishop Alexander K. Sample, who has headed the archdiocese since 2013.
“She has been a good and faithful servant of the Lord.”
In 2008, she received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross from Pope Benedict XVI.
Tully was always straightforward and fiercely protective of colleagues.
“She is an amazing woman,” said Carole Wienecke, who was Tully’s administrative assistant and also worked in other roles at the Portland pastoral center. “I saw her help so many people — religious, priests, nuns and lay people — who were struggling.”
Having grown up in a Catholic-Jewish neighborhood in Chicago, Tully has long been passionate about relations between the two faiths. Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin asked her to enliven Chicago’s Jewish-Catholic relationship, a project she carried on in Portland.
She was a driving force in garnering support for a Holocaust Memorial in Portland’s Washington Park, a project some homeowners resisted.
She taught a regular course at Mount Angel Seminary and made sure seminarians attended a Seder each year.
“Mary Jo Tully is a treasure,” said Rabbi Michael Cahana of Congregation Beth Israel in Portland. Rabbi Cahana credits her for building the region’s exemplary Catholic-Jewish relationship, which he calls a model for the nation.
Retired Portland Archbishop John G. Vlazny, who headed the archdiocese from 1997 to 2013, said she was like a godmother for international religious communities who sent members from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Vietnamese Catholics treated her almost like royalty.
Vlazny once referred to Tully as “the ombudsperson, to be sure, in the life of the archdiocese.”
Tully has served as a board member for Oregon Catholic Press, publisher of worship aids and also of this newspaper. Those who worked with her saw what she did behind the scenes.
“To countless individuals — both Catholic and non-Catholic — Mary Jo was the person who offered comfort when they were sick, company when they were alone and help when they were in need,” said John Limb, publisher of Oregon Catholic Press.
Tully was a zealous liaison with Catholic health care providers, urging them to be their best selves, and defending them from detractors. The same goes for colleges.
The University of Portland in 2000 awarded her an honorary doctorate, calling her “an astute teacher” and saying that the labor of her life has been “to educate others in the brilliant light of Christ’s life and story.”
Retired Bishop Remi De Roo of Victoria, British Columbia, has been Tully’s friend since the Second Vatican Council, when they met at a lecture series in Chicago.
“She’s one of the most gifted teachers I’ve ever seen,” said the bishop, who recalled being delighted that she became the first laywoman to be a chancellor.
“There are certain special people and they’re not replaceable,” De Roo said. “She’s the epitome of the highly qualified layperson totally dedicated to the church.”