By Joe Lee
JACKSON – The reality of being presented with a medal awarded by Pope Francis is difficult for Christine Love to get her mind around.
Recently retired after more than five decades of serving as housekeeper, caretaker, and trusted friend to Jackson Diocese Bishops Gerow, Brunini, Houck, Latino and Kopacz, the soft-spoken member of Cathedral of St. Peter’s the Apostle Church was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice cross for her fifty-plus years of dedicated service to the Office of the Bishop.
“It makes me feel good. It makes me feel happy. It makes me feel like I’m going to heaven,” Love said of the medal, which was announced at the Vatican in February and presented to her by Bishop Joseph Kopacz at the Cathedral in late June. (Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, as translated, means “for the church and pope.” See accompanying story.)
A graduate of Jim Hill High School in Jackson, Love earned an undergraduate degree from Campbell College (now Jackson State University) six decades ago. When her husband, A.G., a building contractor, was temporarily ill early in their marriage, Love enrolled in nursing school at Hinds Community College.
“I was just about finished. Pharmacology was my last class,” Love recalled. “I was told, ‘You’re just like a nurse. Come on.’ I started with the Professional Nurses Registry and worked for them a year or so before going on out my own. That’s what led to my work with the diocese and the bishops.”
A major turning point in her life was an opportunity to serve as a private duty nurse for Bishop Gerow, to whom she grew close. Gerow retired in 1967 and was succeeded by Bishop Joseph Brunini, but Love continued to sit with him as his health worsened over the years.
“At the end, Bishop Gerow’s home was at St. Dominic Hospital. He passed away in my arms,” she said. “After he passed, I began working with Sister Claudia Murphy, taking care of the senior citizens of the diocese. When Bishop Houck came along, I started working for him at his home.”
There were lots of lighthearted moments over the years. Love recalls Bishop William Houck always being able to tell a good joke and remembers his Frank Sinatra records; she said Bishop Joseph Latino enjoyed discussing the news and television shows. Using the words “perfectionist” and “tidy” to describe all five men, Love said she built a rapport with each and earned a level of trust that brought her into their inner circles.
“I’ve known Christine more than 35 years,” said Diocesan Chancellor Mary Woodward. “I got to know her better when I started coordinating the dinners Bishop Houck would host at his townhouse. Christine would be getting the house in tip-top shape for guests while I would be chopping lemons and carrots.
“She is one of the kindest people I know. Traits of hers that I think endeared her to each bishop were her dedication to their well-being, availability at the drop of a hat, her knowledge of the household and of each bishop’s personality. She would know exactly how Bishop Houck would want something, compared to how Bishop Latino would like it. Each one she served was unique, and she was very good at adapting to each one’s modus operandi.”
While Love and A.G. raised five kids (all of whom graduated from St. Joseph Catholic School and went on to college), she juggled being a band mom, soccer mom and sports mom while being flexible when it came to her responsibilities for each bishop.
“With my arrival in the Diocese of Jackson, Christine extended her dedicated service to me at my home with weekly house cleaning,” Bishop Kopacz said. “I note ‘extended her service’ because at the time of my arrival she was also attending to Bishop Houck and Bishop Latino.
“She worked with others to prepare my house to receive guests for special events, and she always made sure my Labrador Retriever had some extra loving and treats. She’s rightly enjoying a well-deserved retirement surrounded by her children, grandchildren and friends. I and the Bishops who preceded me – Bishops Gerow, Brunini, Houck and Latino – are eternally grateful for her dedicated care, her strong faith in the Lord Jesus, and her love for the church.”
“I tried to bring honesty and work ethic to whatever I did,” Love said. “Bishop Houck always encouraged me. He said, ‘You can do it. You can make it. I want to see those kids graduate from St. Joe.’ He encouraged me to open my own business and was very proud when I created Love Janitorial Services 18 years ago.”
“Christine is a very circumspect person,” Woodward said. “She and I could discuss important matters about the household, but it would never go beyond us. She understood the life of a bishop and had an immense amount of respect for the office and the man in it. Maintaining a bishop’s house is an awesome responsibility, and Christine was an extremely valued and trusted person by each bishop. I knew if I called her to come check on something she would be on her way before we even hung up the phone.”
Love says she’ll always get a bit emotional when talking about Bishops Gerow, Houck, Brunini, Latino and Kopacz and the impact all have had on her life.
“I can’t say I’ll miss the work,” she said, “but I’ll always miss my bishops.”
Pro ecclesia et pontifice decree
From the decree issued by Pope Francis on February 21 at the Vatican:
“Francis, supreme pontiff, has deigned and elected to bestow the august insignia cross “pro ecclesia et pontifice” upon Lady Christine Love, for her excellent works and outstanding diligence, thus making it possible for her to adorn herself with this medal, having earned it through great service to the church and in particular the office of the bishop.”
While rare for a sitting pope to award a medal to anyone from the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, it has happened several times.
“At the request of Bishop Joseph Latino, Pope Benedict XVI awarded Sister Dorothea Sondgeroth, OP, the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross in 2012,” said Diocesan Chancellor Mary Woodward. “He also, at the same time, bestowed the Benemerenti Medal on Judy Cannon, former administrative assistant to Bishops Brunini, Houck and Latino, and Bill Dunning, former diocesan finance officer.
“The medals are requested by the local bishop and an extensive application is completed and reviewed by the papal office at the Vatican. Several individuals were awarded the Pro Ecclesia in the 1950s and 60s.”