Archbishop Alexander Sample and his mother, Joyce, chat in the archbishop’s residence in 2017. Joyce died the following year. Carmen Gaston, director of mission advancement for the Archdiocese of Portland, senses that her boss’ views on female leaders have been shaped by his mother and Mary, the mother of God. Joyce “was such a strong personality and force in his life, and he has such a devotion to the Virgin Mary,” said Gaston. (Courtesy Archdiocese of Portland)
Archbishop Alexander Sample and his mother, Joyce, chat in the archbishop’s residence in 2017. Joyce died the following year. Carmen Gaston, director of mission advancement for the Archdiocese of Portland, senses that her boss’ views on female leaders have been shaped by his mother and Mary, the mother of God. Joyce “was such a strong personality and force in his life, and he has such a devotion to the Virgin Mary,” said Gaston. (Courtesy Archdiocese of Portland)

In early November, Pope Francis for the first time named a woman — an Italian member of the U.S.-based Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist — to the No. 2 position in the governorship of Vatican City. Earlier this year he appointed two women to key Vatican posts previously held only by men. The pope’s actions reflect his repeatedly articulated belief that there must be greater roles for females both outside and inside the church.

Because “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must … be guaranteed in the workplace and in the various other settings where important decisions are made,” the pope wrote in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Archbishop Alexander Sample seems to share this view. Since being installed eight years ago, he’s steadily placed women in several top positions in the Portland Archdiocese.

One of his appointees is Sister Veronica Schueler, also a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist.

“I believe the archbishop wants the most qualified person in a job, but at the same time he’s interested in having women active in leadership and ministry,” said Sister Veronica, chancellor of the archdiocese. “He recognizes women bring important gifts with them.”

Here are snapshots of four women in high-level positions in the archdiocese. With diverse backgrounds, they share attributes — including smarts, strength and a desire to fulfill the mission of the local church.

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Sister Veronica — who succeeded Mary Jo Tully, the first laywoman chancellor in the nation — described her fellow female leaders in the Archdiocese of Portland as women who ¬ without fanfare. They are effective “and know exactly what they are about,” she explained.

The religious sister fits that description strikingly herself.

Raised in Massachusetts, she graduated from college with a major in writing and a minor in criminal justice, then took a job as a guard at a Pennsylvania women’s prison. She found the work meaningful but sensed there was more to life, and in 1985, she entered the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist. Her vocation as a sister, she told the Sentinel in 2018, has allowed her to be who she truly is.

Sister Veronica went on to attend law school and eventually spent 15 years working in immigration law.

In the male-dominated fields of law and corrections, she experienced discrimination and harassment, though she feels a portion of that was because she was a woman religious. “I was not the only woman; others, too, experienced it,” she said. “We all were struggling together.”

Sister Veronica views the church, meanwhile, “as unique in that it really looks at the whole human person and their strengths.”

Discrimination can occur, yet “a prelate who truly wants to do what’s best for the church is going to be open to the best person for a job, be it a man or woman, layperson or religious.”

The recent actions by the pope, Archbishop Sample and other leaders are encouraging, she said. “I think it’s wonderful that both the archbishop and Auxiliary Bishop [Peter Smith] are comfortable with women in leadership and seek it out.”

For nearly four years Sister Veronica has worked as the Portland archdiocesan chancellor, overseeing archives and sacramental records, handling paperwork for priests and religious, and serving as Archbishop Sample’s delegate for consecrated life.

Like other women leaders at the pastoral center, she hesitates to generalize about females or speak for them.

But she does believe women bring a different perspective to their work than men.

“Women often have a greater holding capacity — the ability to hold the tensions and stresses that are part of the church and exist everywhere,” she said. “They also bring a sense of service — recall Mary’s fiat — in a way that’s different from men.”

And while women absolutely can be forceful or assertive, “it’s not necessarily their go-to in a situation,” said Sister Veronica. “There’s a sense of taking the long view and trying to discern what God is really asking in a given situation.”

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Alana Wilson, director of human resources for the archdiocese, savors a challenge. “Often there are complicated decisions that managers have to make, and my goal is to find win-win ways to respond,” she said. 

Wilson, who grew up in New Jersey, holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and earned a certification for human resource work from the University of California, Los Angeles.

When she moved to the Bay Area, Wilson — with drive to match her intellect — told friends she was getting a job at Stanford University. “No, I don’t have one yet, but I will have one,” she recalled telling them. And she did.

In 1980, Wilson was hired as a compensation analyst at the university; when she left in 2000, she was associate vice president for human resources. She eventually helped establish the first human resource department for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which awards millions of dollars in grants annually.

Moving to Portland to be closer to family when her husband was terminally ill, she retired early to care for him.

“After he passed away, it hadn’t occurred to me that I would work again,” said Wilson, who began volunteering at Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego. But when the parish’s deacon, Kevin Welch, learned of her background, he told her the archdiocese needed someone with her expertise. A volunteering gig at the pastoral center turned into an interim job and then a full-time position. That was six years ago.

“I’ve worked with a lot of unique and excellent organizations, but this is my favorite job ever,” said Wilson.

Under her leadership, the HR team offers employment and benefit services for staff at the pastoral center, parishes and schools in western Oregon. Wilson’s office helps with the hiring process, determines pay classifications, and when there are conflicts among staff or differences in opinion, her staff navigates to a solution.

“I love supporting the mission of the archdiocese, and my heart is really being of assistance to the parishes and priests,” said Wilson. “Priests don’t get an MBA, so I think it’s helpful for them to work with someone who understands their mission and can support their management decisions.”

Wilson, a mother and grandmother, said she’s heartened by church leaders appointing more women to high-level positions.

“Here I believe women have a voice and are heard and have an effect on decisions,” Wilson said. “I’m very proud of that.”

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Jeannie Ray-Timoney is pictured in her office at the Archdiocese of Portland Pastoral Center in 2019. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

With four older brothers and an education at the all-girls St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, Jeannie Ray-Timoney knows what it’s like both to be surrounded by males and to be grounded as a confident, faith-directed woman.

“At St. Mary’s I learned to believe in myself, stand up for what’s right,” said Ray-Timoney, superintendent of schools since 2019. “I got a really strong moral foundation there and was challenged to look out for people who are in need. That’s served me well as a parent, grandparent, educator and as I lead other educators.”

Ray-Timoney, who’s completed a number of marathons, studied physical education and theology at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco. After receiving a master’s degree, she earned a doctoral degree in Catholic educational leadership. Ray-Timoney taught at schools in the archdiocese and was associate superintendent for five years before being named to the top post.

Just as laymen and clergy bring their vocation and background to work, women, too, carry rich experiences to leadership positions, said Ray-Timoney. “We come in with the knowledge and education and experience for the work we do. But I also hope my perspective from being a member of the community, being a mom and wife prepares me for this role and enriches it.”

A mother of one son and four daughters, Ray-Timoney said her girls have grown up in a different era than she did, with sexist views now less pervasive in society. “I had to fight a bit more to be heard and hopefully helped pave the way for them to have a voice,” she said. “But it’s something we still must continue to work for.”

She pointed out that in parishes, women have long kept religious education and other pastoral programs running. “I think it depends on where you live, but we are getting to the point where women are also being given more leadership positions in the church,” she said. “I think the pope definitely sees a place for women and laity to have a strong voice.”

Pope Francis has spoken about the essential role women and laity will play as the worldwide church prepares for the Synod of Bishop in 2023. Ray-Timoney said she’s eager to see how the process plays out locally.

In her work at the pastoral center, Ray-Timoney said she feels “very much respected and supported.”

“I know that the archbishop trusts me, and I feel blessed to carry out this role.”

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Carmen Gaston, who oversees communications and development efforts for the archdiocese, never thought she’d work for the church. “Honestly it was the last place I thought I’d be,” she said. A family tragedy, however, helped confirm she’s likely where God intended.

Gaston is a native Oregonian and received almost all her sacraments at St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton. Between confirmation and marriage, she earned a law degree and held jobs as a successful corporate professional who traveled the globe. Employed by Polaris Industries, which manufactures motorcycles and snowmobiles, she helped products become legalized in more than 50 countries. She also worked in brand and product management for John Deere, the heavy machinery company.

Returning to Oregon to be near family, Gaston served in advancement positions at the University of Portland and Catholic Charities of Oregon before being invited to work for the archdiocese.

Gaston recalled the interview she had with Archbishop Sample in which she expressed her concerns about working for the church. “He completely caught me off guard,” she said. “We covered all these issues, and I was amazed at how incredibly pastoral he is. He is traditional in his teaching, but he is definitely one of the most pastoral priests I have ever met.”

Though she went into the meeting unsure, “now I’m on the payroll,” Gaston said with a laugh.

The mother of two added that she’s not a “submissive female,” and during her six years at the archdiocese she’s never been discouraged from using her voice. “If anything, I’ve been admonished for not using it.”

While valuing her job, Gaston acknowledged she sometimes wondered if she was where she was supposed to be.

That changed four months ago after her brother drowned in Hawaii. “His death was tragic and unexpected,” said Gaston. “We are still mourning.”

In order to attend the memorial Mass, the archbishop rearranged his schedule and encouraged other archdiocesan staff to do the same. Bishop Smith was the homilist. Gaston said she felt wrapped in love and support.

“As I sat there in Mass I realized: There’s a reason I am here, why I have this job.”

Gaston senses that her boss’ views on female leaders have been shaped by two formidable women — his own mother and Mary, the mother of God. “His mother was such a strong personality and force in his life, and he has such a devotion to the Virgin Mary,” said Gaston.

“Both men and women have a lot to offer,” she added. “And like in a family with a mother and father, when you have that balance of both genders you can tell the difference.”