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Father Etienne Reflects On His Time As Diocesan Administrator

Father Bernie Etienne, left, Pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Evansville, shakes hands with Father Phil Kreilein, pastor of Resurrection Parish in Evansville, who thanked Father Etienne for his service as Diocesan Administrator. Photo by Tim Lilley

For the past five months, the spiritual and practical needs of carrying out the mission of the Church and ministering to the people of the Diocese of Evansville has been in the capable hands of Father Bernie Etienne.


Following the July 28 ordination of Archbishop Charles C. Thompson Thompson as the seventh Archbishop of Indianapolis,  our diocese entered into a vacant see period. On Aug. 1, the Diocese of Evansville College of Consultors (members of the Council of Priests) elected Father Etienne to serve as Diocesan Administrator until the installation of the sixth Bishop of Evansville.


Father Etienne serves as pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Evansville. He was ordained a priest for our diocese on June 5, 1993. He has served as pastor of Holy Rosary since 2006, after serving 10 years as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Princeton and Blessed Sacrament Parish in Oakland City. Beginning in 2011, Father Etienne served the fifth Bishop of Evansville, Bishop Thompson, as Diocesan Vicar General. Under Canon Law, upon Bishop Thompson’s appointment to serve as Archbishop of Indianapolis, the Evansville Vicar General was one of several diocesan-level positions appointed by the bishop that became vacant. Bishop Joseph M. Siegel will fill it and the other positions following his Dec. 15 installation.


Father Etienne spoke with The Message on Nov. 29, 17 days from Bishop Siegel’s installation. He was asked to reflect on his time as Diocesan Administrator.


How did your experiences in the priesthood prepare you for the assignment of Diocesan Administrator?


Over the years, in my different assignments, I’ve developed a sense of the people of our diocese: their habits, their strengths, their longings. During the town hall meetings in August and September for the Capital Campaign, we were all over the diocese and there were people in all parishes that I knew. It was a joy to be able to connect at the parish level in ways that I haven’t been able to do for awhile.


Within three years of ordination I was hyphenated: serving as vocations director, different stints as a Dean, Vicar general for the last five years. In the role of Vicar General, I had a more intimate glimpse of the operation of the diocese. Those responsibilities prepared me for this level of leadership in our diocese. It helped me to understand the structure of our diocese: our staffing, the gifts and abilities of our people, and so gave me confidence in delegating.  All of those pieces have been good preparation.


Who particularly helped you during this time as Administrator?


Over Thanksgiving break, especially Thanksgiving morning before our 9 a.m. Mass, I had a chance to reflect. There is a long list. One of the things (on that list) is the people of our diocese. I met with my spiritual director last month and told him I can tangibly feel the effect of the prayer that’s being offered for me in this role. I can tangibly feel the strength, the insight, the wisdom; so I’m most grateful for all those who have been praying for me.  I certainly haven’t been getting by on my own prayers.  That’s one thing that’s been very clear to me.


I hate to name names, but there are some who stand out.  I’m very grateful for the way that almost immediately Bishop-Emeritus (Gerald A.) Gettelfinger reached out to me in support and encouragement, and continued to do so. He has really stepped forward and embraced that episcopal role that he knows so well in this diocese so that our people could still have a bishop celebrate those keys liturgies, particularly confirmations. I’m really grateful for his contribution in all of this.


I’ve always admired our staff, but I’ve come to a much deeper respect for our diocesan staff throughout this experience. I’ve been able to engage with them at a different level and have seen even more clearly their competence, which I knew was there, so I’m really grateful.  


As I’ve said earlier, much of what I’ve done is through delegation. On the diocesan level, certainly Tim McGuire (Diocesan Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer) has been my primary consultor. Because of his gifts and understanding, it’s been easy to delegate to others who can handle different projects.


Our priest consultors and our diocesan consultors graciously met with me on a monthly basis to offer input and guidance, which was invaluable. I really appreciate the efforts of Deacon Dave Rice in our work together with the clergy personnel and the professionalism that he demonstrates when dealing with issues. Father Phil Kreilein has taken on the responsibility of the upfront planning of the episcopal installation, which has given me tremendous relief.


Certainly, I feel disconnected from Holy Rosary Parish right now because of the demands of this position, but the reason I was able to disengage was because of the great staff we have at the parish. They’re not territorial about their responsibilities; they have an ability to see what needs to be done and they figure out how to get it done without drama or fanfare.  Every one of them has stepped up and done a tremendous job with the parish, freeing me up, which is a real blessing.


Renee (Werner, Administrative Assistant in the Bishop’s Office) has carried a tremendous load for us here at the Catholic Center, helping me to stay on task. Anything that I gave to her I could forget about, and I knew it would be done. She has demonstrated to me what an administrative assistant is. She saw the potential that I didn’t realize was possible. I’ve really been blessed to have her with me.


All the staff here has been great to work with. It’s been a blessing.

What will you miss about this role?


I have been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed the interaction at this level - I didn’t expect it. It’s been an unexpected surprise. I will miss the interaction with our staff and our people, but there’s a part of me that will be glad to reach the place where the final decision doesn’t rest with me.


I’m really grateful that, thus far in my watch if you will, we haven’t been confronted with issues that are so challenging that we didn’t know where to turn. I may sleep a little better at night knowing that ultimately it’s going to be somebody else’s responsibility. (Father Etienne laughs.) That won’t happen for 17 days, but I haven’t been counting.


Even though I’ve been involved at a high level of our administration as Vicar General, it’s always been in a support role of the goal of the bishop. I’ve been able to be in a little more of a creative role in this position in problem-solving and being out front. That’s been energizing to work at that level.


But what I’m looking forward to is being able to re-engage at the parish level and fulfill my responsibilities better there. That has suffered in the last five months, and our people have been tremendously understanding.They’ve been very gracious about their expectations during that window and I’m grateful for that. It’s made it easier for me. I”m looking forward to getting back to business at the parish.


What are your thoughts about Bishop Siegel and where his leadership may take the Diocese of Evansville?


The term in my mind because of his stature and his demeanor: gentle giant is the image I have had since my meeting with him. He is gracious and soft-spoken, easy to be with. I think he will be prayerfully deliberate about direction and decision making. I appreciate the fact that he’s not coming in with an agenda; just an openness to meet us where we are and a sense that we will together come to an idea of a direction for our diocese. I’m comforted by that image of him.  


It’s also a blessing that he has already had years of experience as a bishop, even though as an ordinary for our diocese he’ll have a different level of responsibility. That allows him to really hit the ground running when he gets here. I think that’s exciting.


Any additional thoughts you’d like to share with the diocese?


I was honored to be asked to serve. I’m grateful for all the support and prayers and the wonderful people I’ve worked with and walked with on this journey.


This diocese is a jewel. I can’t think of a better place for Bishop Siegel to be named as bishop than the Diocese of Evansville. The faith of the people, the generosity, the dynamic present right now where we are on our own diocesan journey: it’s one of the better-kept secrets in the church of the United States. I look forward to his leadership and where we go from here.


The Message is grateful to Father Etienne for sharing his thoughts with us on his time as Diocesan Administrator. We continue in prayer for Bishop Siegel as he assumes the role of chief shepherd of the Diocese of Evansville.