May 27, 2016

An unexpected gift: Emphasis on youth, reliance on Our Lady mark Joan Hurley’s journey at Providence

Joan Hurley, president of Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville, stands next to the statue of Our Lady of Providence, which has graced the school grounds since the students of the Class of 1960 and the Saint Maria Goretti Sodality raised the money to purchase the statue in 1960. (Submitted photo)

Joan Hurley, president of Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville, stands next to the statue of Our Lady of Providence, which has graced the school grounds since the students of the Class of 1960 and the Saint Maria Goretti Sodality raised the money to purchase the statue in 1960. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Ever since she was a child in Scotland, Joan Hurley has talked to the Blessed Mother, asking her to help and protect her—but never before had she called upon the mother of Jesus in a situation involving an immediate need for $500,000.

The situation unfolded in 2004, Hurley’s first year as the president of Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville.

Hurley knew that the archdiocesan high school for the New Albany Deanery had long had the dream of having a performing arts center to showcase its theater program. She also knew that Providence graduate Paula Robinson had already pledged $1 million for the building of the center.

Wanting to know how the fundraising for the center was progressing, Robinson asked for a meeting with Hurley—a meeting the school president dreaded because the school was still short $500,000 for the project to begin.

“What we needed was a half a million dollars to fall out of the sky,” Hurley recalls. “I prayed to Our Lady asking for her help, because it’s her school.”

When the meeting started, Hurley prepared to share the disappointing news about the lack of funds, but Robinson spoke first. She told Hurley she had looked at her financial situation again and wanted to donate another $500,000 to the project.

“It was incredible,” Hurley says about the money that led to the school’s $2.5 million performing arts center that opened in 2006. “To me, that was a miracle. That was Our Lady answering a prayer. And that’s just one of the things she’s done here.”

‘I wanted to do something to help’

That story reflects the 12 years Hurley has served as the president of Providence, a tenure that will come to a close at the end of June when she retires at 68.

After all, these 12 years at Providence have been an unexpected gift for Hurley—a gift marked by deep faith and spiritual growth for a longtime business executive who never thought she would become a school president in southern Indiana.

Sure, Hurley had always dreamed of spending the last 10 years of her professional career serving the Catholic Church in some capacity. And so when the central Indiana business where she had risen to be a senior vice president was about to be sold or merged, she opened herself to her dream of one day “helping the Catholic youth.” She just didn’t expect it would lead to Providence—or leaving behind her comfortable, well-established life in Carmel, Ind.

“When they called me down to Providence for a second interview, they offered me the job,” she says. “Mike [her husband] and I prayed about it on the way back. By the time we got to Carmel, we knew we should come—even though it flew in the face of everything I had done in my life.

“I knew no one down there, and I had never taught at a high school. But I really felt I had talents that I could use to help our youth. I saw how many were losing their faith, and I wanted to do something to help. And I felt God was calling me to do this. When God wants you, he opens the door very quickly—enough to make your head spin.”

Hurley laughs as she shares those last words. Still, it wasn’t until she was first moved to tears at Providence that she was completely convinced that God had led her to the right place.

‘It was life-changing’

“My faith has grown in so many ways, in different dimensions here,” she says. “For example, when you meet with a parent who needs financial assistance or help in some other way, you have an inroad into their life. And that’s very humbling.

“Then there’s the other dimension— when you’re asking for help from donors to help those people. You almost feel you’re part of a Scripture setting—that you’re a beggar at the gate. You’re operating for Christ, and you feel the power of Christ as you’re asking.”

Those two dimensions merged when Hurley stood to speak at Providence’s annual student assistance fundraising event—just 12 weeks after she had started at the school. All her years in business had taught her to have a script ready, to put herself in the spotlight to close the deal. Yet when she began to talk to the audience, something unexpected happened to her. A feeling rose within her to put her script aside.

“I could feel the Holy Spirit within me. I knew how important it was. And I became very emotional.”

Her tears flowed as she talked about how much some students needed help.

“In that instance, it wasn’t about me. It was about letting God work through me for the good of others. And if that means you break down in front of a crowd, you do it. It was life-changing.”

So was the period five years later when Hurley’s personal life quickly turned heartbreaking.

‘You learn from the suffering’

In September of 2009, her older sister, Eileen, died of cancer. Two months later, Hurley was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Because of having just lost my sister, I decided to have a full mastectomy,” Hurley says.

As heartbreaking and challenging as that time was, Hurley once again decided to “give it over to God,” believing that “This is a walk I had to take.”

It wasn’t a walk she made alone. Besides her husband and their two grown children, she now had her Providence family and her family at her parish, St. John Paul II in Clark County. Members of those families brought her to chemotherapy treatments. They prayed for her. They even found moments of humor together that boosted her spirits.

“Accepting the suffering and realizing it was a blessing gave me a different outlook on life. I think I’ve always been positive in life—when a problem comes up, you deal with it and go on—but this was different. For example, when you lose your hair and you forget to put your wig on for Saturday morning Mass, do you go home or do you go in?

“You go in, and you are humbled by it. But you make it a positive experience. You realize that people don’t look at your hair. They look at you. It does change your outlook on life. You know your body is never going to be the same, but it doesn’t matter what you look like. You are you. You learn that whatever God wants you to look like, it will do.”

She has been in remission from cancer for more than five years.

“I always felt I was going to survive,” she says. “You learn from the suffering and come out the other side.”

‘It was nothing short of a miracle’

While Hurley’s life and faith have been transformed in her 12 years at Providence, so has the high school.

Besides the performing arts center, the school has new turf fields for football and baseball. A new cafeteria with an updated kitchen has been installed. So have tennis courts as well as air conditioning throughout the school. The list goes on and on.

As the dean of the New Albany Deanery, Father Wilfred “Sonny” Day marvels at how much has been accomplished during Hurley’s leadership of the school.

“I really believe Our Lady of Providence sent her to us,” says Father Day, who serves as pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Starlight. “She’s just a gifted communicator and leader. She also has these donor relationships she’s developed. People just respect and admire her, and they’re willing to follow her wherever she leads.”

Still, Father Day believes all her qualities stem from her greatest gift—her faith. Hurley attends daily Mass at the school and faithfully takes part in eucharistic adoration.

“She’s a real spiritual leader, and she’s respected deanery-wide as a person of deep Catholic faith,” he says. “She has ensured the Catholic identity of Providence High School.”

That focus on enhancing the spiritual lives of students is reflected in Hurley’s favorite improvement to the school: its new chapel.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted since I came to the school,” she says. “It used to be in the old convent attached to the school, far removed from the kids. My great wish was to have it right in the center of the school. As we were going through our most recent capital campaign and talking to donors, one said, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do.’ We thought the chapel would cost $1 million, but we got it done for $362,000.

“Again, it was nothing short of a miracle. It’s right at the student entrance. They have to pass by it every day when they come in, and every day when they go out.”

‘It will always be in my heart’

Even with all the improvements during her tenure, Hurley accepts little of the credit. Instead, she talks about the dedication and support of alumni who keep giving to make the changes possible. She salutes the parents who “sacrifice so much to ensure their children receive a Catholic education.” She praises the administration, faculty and staff as “the backbone of the school.” And she brags about “how wonderful the kids are, and the lessons they taught me.”

“It’s Blue Pride,” she says, sharing a rallying cry for the school. “That’s what this school is about. Blue is Our Lady’s color. Our Blessed Mother is front and center at our school. The things she’s pulled off here are unbelievable. They couldn’t have been done without her.”

Many people at Providence believe the same is true about Hurley.

“She’s adamant that Our Lady is doing this, that Mary will take care of it,” says Larry Weimer, the school’s chief financial officer. “But Joan’s background, leadership and capabilities have been a great blessing for Providence. If you were going to put a manual together of what a high school president should be, it would be about Joan Hurley.

“For her, it starts with faith, love of the students and their families, and wanting the students to be educated in their Catholic faith and to grow in their Catholic faith—and then make that possible for their families in the future.”

As Hurley considers her future, she turns first to these past 12 years.

“I’ll always be part of the Providence community,” she says. “Walking away from being involved in it every day will be hard. It will always be in my heart.”

The tears and the emotions come again as Hurley shares that love. She knows that emotional bond will stay with her as surely as she and her husband of 46 years will continue to live in the area.

She also plans to travel, including making more frequent trips to her beloved Scotland, where she first met Mike at the wedding of a girlfriend who was marrying another American.

It was yet another of the unexpected gifts in her life—most of which she connects to the influence of the Blessed Mother.

“I’m sure she’s fed up listening to me because I always ask for miracles,” Hurley says with a soft laugh. “I talk to my Mother every day.” †

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