On ordination day, as her 6-foot-2 son lay prostrate on the floor of the sanctuary and vowed his life to God and God’s people, Joyce Sample thought of the sick infant she almost lost. The memory marked the beginning of a unique relationship — between a mother and her priest son.
His official name was Alexander King Sample III, but she calls him Alex, and his first year of life was precarious. Meningitis struck suddenly and Joyce rushed her gray-skinned baby to the hospital in Kalispell, Montana, where he stayed in a coma for seven days.
“It was so hard for a mother to see that little body just lying there,” she says.
When the child awoke, an onlooker mused that the Lord must have plans for him. The boy would need to be resilient again a few weeks later when an inattentive babysitter let little Alex fall from his bassinet and both legs were broken. He recovered like a champ.
“I gave him birth, but the good Lord gave him his talents,” says Joyce, 88. “I can’t believe the little guy I raised became an archbishop.”
Rock of faith
Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample attributes his deep faith to his mother, who’d been raised in a Polish Catholic clan in northeast Wisconsin during the Great Depression. Her father died when she was 4 and her mother raised Joyce and her siblings, working diligently in a knitting mill and after hours as a seamstress.
“She raised us as solid Catholics,” Joyce says.
She wed Alexander Sample Jr. and became a mother in a flurry — three children in less than five years.
The elder Alex Sample, a bank examiner, became Catholic when he married Joyce. She was the rock of the family when it came to faith. When her husband wanted to move the family to Las Vegas, Joyce consented, but with a condition: To counter what she feared was a loose and secular culture, the children must attend Catholic school.
“I could see how important it was to nurture my children and make sure that they were on the right path,” she says. Joyce chuckles and says her son found his vocation in Las Vegas.
“She is a good person. She is a moral person,” the archbishop says of his mother.
Caring for mom
Joyce wept tears of joy when her son told her about his plan to attend seminary. At first, Alex Jr. was opposed, seeing other kinds of promise in his engineer son. Time and the devoted elation of his wife turned the father into a supporter. He would live long enough to see his son become a deacon, but die before priestly ordination.
Joyce was steadfast for the kids during the illness and death of her husband.
Newly ordained Father Sample lived closer to his widowed mother than either of his sisters, so it seemed natural to keep an eye out. She was only in her early 60s and was active and social. But as he became a pastor and a chancery official, he visited her on his days off.
“It was family time,” he says. “It was a place where I could go and be myself and be accepted. I know it was a comfort for her, too.”
As Joyce aged, her needs naturally increased. Her son shopped for her, prepared meals, did her laundry and took her to medical appointments.
Respect and dignity
When the archbishop was reassigned to Portland, he offered her a room at the archbishop’s residence, where he cares for her with the help of Holy Spirit Sister Emiliana Moshi and his sister Marti, who has moved to Portland.
“It is hard for her to lose independence,” the archbishop says. “It’s a sense of loss, a sense that life is winding down.”
After the move to Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, the relationship took on additional meaning. The archbishop knew that the lethal prescription law could make older or sick people feel like a burden on families and society. That strengthened his resolve to treat her with dignity.
“I consider it a tremendous privilege to be able to take care of her at this stage in her life so she can be with family,” says the 56-year-old archbishop. He recalls how she tended him as a boy and knows love motivated her. He is glad to return the care, even if it’s taxing sometimes. At the same time, he knows that the relationship is good for him.
“I may be the archbishop of Portland, but when I go home and I’m with my mom, I’m just her son,” he says.
Cooking is the archbishop’s hobby and he still loves to cook for his mother. He also counts it a pleasure to celebrate Mass with her in the chapel at the residence.
“There is a very unique and special bond between a mother and a priest son,” Archbishop Sample says. “In some ways for a priest, our mother is that feminine presence in our life. We don’t have our own family biologically, so we stay closer to the family we grew up with. I don’t want to over-spiritualize it, but I think it mirrors that special relationship between Jesus and his mother.”
He doesn’t reveal confidential matters, but over dinner he does share his challenges and triumphs. Even now, she urges him to get more rest and get out in the fresh air. She also advises him to look people in the eyes and ask them about themselves.
Meanwhile, Joyce often asks her son for spiritual guidance. He helps her make peace with a world that for her seems to have gone mad.
Because of the archbishop’s busy schedule, he and his mother cannot spend as much time together as either would like. But they pray for each other when they are apart.
“Alex has never given me a moment of disappointment or disrespect,” Joyce says. “I am one blessed mother.”
Sometimes, the two are like a comedy team. In Michigan, she arrived late for one of his Masses and at the close of the liturgy, her son told the congregation how important it is to get to church on time. He even pointed her out as an abject example to the worshippers, who were aghast until he broke into a laugh and introduced her as his mother.
Joyce gives as good as she takes. At a Serra Club dinner, when the archbishop was walking up to the microphone to give a few remarks, his mother said in a stage whisper, “Keep it short.” On another occasion, she made a smart aleck remark about him to a group who told her she couldn’t talk about their bishop that way.
“The heck I can’t,” she replied. “I bornded him.”