Archbishop Alexander Sample speaks about Rick and Kathy Birkel before blessing the couple. (Andie Petkus/Catholic Charities)
Archbishop Alexander Sample speaks about Rick and Kathy Birkel before blessing the couple. (Andie Petkus/Catholic Charities)
The new executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon makes it clear that she puts God first.

Natalie Wood assumes the post July 1 having worked for two months alongside Deacon Rick Birkel, who is retiring after eight years as head of the Southeast Portland-based social service agency.

“Struggle and strife are part of the human condition but they are also moments of holiness,” Wood told staff and supporters at a June 9 event held at Amaterra Winery in Portland’s West Hills. “This mission is a mission given to us by God. We truly are the hands and feet of Christ.” She said she serves God first, humans second.

Wood, who worked for 20 years at Catholic Charities in Houston, Texas, is “a model of mission, vision and values,” said Rebecca Arredondo Yazzi, incoming chairwoman of the Catholic Charities of Oregon board of directors.

Wood also is a skilled administrator who recently received an award for management from Catholic Charities USA.

“She seems very well prepared to be in this role,” said Mary-Elizabeth Harper, an attorney and Catholic Charities board member who attends Resurrection Parish in Tualatin. “It is a good direction to go, having a strong woman leader.”

Wood began as an intern at Catholic Charities in Houston and has spent her career there until now. She worked closely with victims of hurricanes and flooding.

Archbishop Alexander Sample said he is struck by the presence of the Holy Spirit when he is with the new executive director. He considers her “a new sister in Christ.”

The evening, held in a room overlooking Washington County farmland, also was a tribute to Deacon Birkel, who took the helm in 2014 having arrived from the Washington, D.C. area.

“We have been centered in you and your light,” said Theresa Vithayathil Edmondson, outgoing board president.

Staff gave Deacon Birkel and his wife Kathy a farewell gift, an icon of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

“I am filled up with enormous gratitude,” Deacon Birkel told the group. “You are the wind in the sails of Catholic Charities. You guys talk about being unchurched here. Let me tell you, you make up for it.”

Birkel oversaw many initiatives, including the Pope Francis Center for engagement in social justice, Germaine’s Café and job training program and Kenton Women’s Village, tiny houses in North Portland. Deacon Birkel retooled the agency during the pandemic, focusing on food help and emergency response, including after devastating fires in Southern Oregon in fall 2020. He also oversaw construction of several affordable housing complexes.

The Catholic Charities board grew in diversity with Birkel at the helm. The last two board presidents have been women of color, as is Yazzi.

Archbishop Sample said Birkel has fulfilled his role as a deacon, one who is ordained to serve, especially the poor. The archbishop then blessed Deacon Birkel and his wife Kathy.

Mark Ganz, a longtime Catholic Charities backer, said Deacon Birkel is like a good Boy Scout, leaving camp even cleaner and better than when he found it.