By Mary Stone
Joe Sehnert has always wanted to come to Alaska; it’s been on his bucket list. But other worthy calls came first, until the persistent image of the wooden door of the Shrine of St. Therese chapel had its way at last.
Joe originally saw the image of the Shrine door online a few years ago while following up on a Catholicjobs.com ad for the Shrine Executive Director position. He remembers thinking, “I need to go where those doors are!” But, when he wasn’t selected for the position he pursued other mission opportunities in Africa. When the Shrine caretaker opportunity became available, he applied, but again was not selected. Thankfully, the call of the Shrine was persistent, and Joe kept in contact with the Diocese of Juneau; when the Executive Directorship became available last fall, he applied again and was offered the position. Persistence pays off.
Sehnert finally arrived in Juneau in late February, just 3 weeks after leaving his former position as Director of the Liberia Mission in Africa, but fully ready to throw himself into the new position of Executive Director of the Shrine of St. Therese.
Raised in a Catholic family of 5 brothers and 3 sisters and growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, Joe attended Catholic elementary and high-schools, and completed his postsecondary studies at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
He joined the Sigma-Aldrich Bio chemical Corporation in 1983, right out of college, and pursued a successful career in the biotech industry for 23 years, eventually retiring as Vice President of Corporate Communications in 2006. He and his wife of 38 years, Colleen, have two grown children. Joe was an active catechist in his home parish in St. Louis and led confirmation preparation classes.
Inspired by the Catholic missionary sisters of his elementary school in St. Louis – the Sisters of Mercy from Drogheda, Ireland – Joe always had the sense that he too would one day answer the ‘call to mission.’
“Way back then…it was clear to me that at some point in my life I was going to give as they gave, teach as they taught and inspire as they inspired….or at least try to do so,” Joe wrote in his introduction to the Liberia Mission. After his two kids had graduated from college he recalls thinking, “Well, it’s time to do it, if I’m going to do it!”
Following his retirement from Sigma-Aldrich, he made the decision to go west and serve in a Jesuit mission on the Colville Indian Reservation in beautiful northeastern Washington State. At the same time, Joe’s wife was serving at a Franciscan parish in Kansas. But feeling called by the mountains and streams (not Kansas), Joe served as a Pastoral Administrator of St. Michael’s Mission on the vast reservation in Colville for 5 years, thoroughly enjoying his Jesuit coworkers in Mission, the friendly and welcoming native American people, and the grandeur of the landscape along the Columbia River.
In 2011, after 5 years on the Colville Reservation, Sehnert felt it was time to move on, and his mission calling led him across the ocean to Africa. He became the director of Liberia Mission, an effort of Franciscan Works (a lay mission organization based out of the Archdiocese of Chicago), in a small town 1 hour outside of Monrovia, Liberia. Liberia Mission was established in 2003 to provide education and residential support to children left orphaned as a result of the country’s recent civil war. Settled on a 25-acre compound and with 45 Liberian staff-members, the mission includes a farm, school and a Catholic parish. The school served 400 local students while Joe was director, 100 of whom were orphan students who resided at the mission.
Sehnert supervised the Liberia Mission for 4 years, leading an expansion into the piggery micro-business—raising pigs for profit—a facility renovation and other advances in spiritual development. He led the Mission through the extremely difficult period of the Ebola crisis in 2014, the largest Ebola outbreak in history, sharing that, “I wasn’t trying to be a hero… it’s just that it wasn’t a good time to leave. I never felt I was in danger.” (His family back in America was not quite as certain.)
When most other non-essential foreigners were leaving Liberia, Joe remembers, “I never felt like I was in harm’s way; it was just good stewardship. But also, when you’re in the middle of it (a crisis such as the Ebola outbreak), you don’t realize what a mess it is…. You’re just going through the motions. You just do what you gotta’ do.”
Joe left the Mission compound to obtain food for students and staff, avoiding the larger cities, and for 5 months students were not allowed off the Liberia Mission for their own safety. The Mission lost one student to Ebola.
Following the Ebola crisis, and due in-part to his mother’s health, Sehnert finally decided it was time to go, handing over leadership of the Liberia Mission to a young Irish lay missioner and returning to the United States. Tragically, the new director was killed in a car accident shortly after assuming the leadership role; Joe chose to return to the Liberia Mission temporarily as interim director, and to also hire a new principal for the school.
Sensing Joe’s keen and energetic interest in Alaska and recognizing his obvious qualifications, Bishop Burns and (then) Diocese Business Manager Larry Bussone were happy to allow time for Joe’s schedule to clear.
Arriving in Juneau just 3 weeks ago, Joe hasn’t seen a tremendous amount of rain yet; but, he has no concerns. “I love rain and drizzle. It’s like Ireland with mountains…” And, he’s looking forward to introducing S.E. Alaska to his wife and daughter during their upcoming visits.
About the Shrine of St. Therese, Sehnert eagerly shares, “There are some places you go in your life where you can feel the presence of God…The Shrine is a pretty awesome place.” He felt this when he first visited the Shrine grounds last December, and even more so now that the snow is melting and plants are beginning to grow.
“To be able to help people find a little bit of spirituality in a world that is pretty crazy – that’s an awesome apostolate! I’m happy to be here!”
Joe Sehnert is here to do a job, but don’t be surprised if you see him cutting grass or pulling weeds on the Shrine grounds on his off time.
Looking out the office window at the mountains and channel view he exclaims, “I love this! It’s perfect.”