Marylhurst University photos
Judith Johansen, president of Marylhurst University, has become Catholic.
Marylhurst University photos
Judith Johansen, president of Marylhurst University, has become Catholic.

MARYLHURST — During a funeral at St. Mary's Cathedral in summer 2011, Judith Johansen gained spiritual clarity.

She had been president of Marylhurst University for three years, hired for leadership skills, business sense and savoir-faire in educational mission. Though a Lutheran, she valued the Marylhurst's Catholic heritage and admired the Holy Names Sisters who'd founded the school in 1893. One of her early projects was, as she puts it, to "dust off" Marylhurst's Catholic identity. She knew that a college, if it's to authentically explore the world, must first be rooted in something.  

During that funeral for philanthropist Mary Clark, Johansen felt hit by what she likens to lightning. She wanted to join the Catholic Church, the church of the Sisters, the church of Mary Clark, the church of Catholic Charities, the church of so many good people she had met over the previous years.

"Why wouldn't I want to be part of that?" Johansen says. "It's the living out of the social values of the community that I like."

Johansen approached Archbishop John Vlazny that day. He suggested she get instruction from Jesuit Father Rick Ganz, whom Johansen had hired to help guide Marylhurst's Catholic renaissance.  

Father Ganz took on the task gladly and marveled as Johansen embraced faith.
"I love people in their awakening time," says Father Ganz. "God is so good at what he does. I say to God, 'Man you're good.'"

Johansen made her profession of faith this June in the Marylhurst chapel. Retired Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner confirmed her and Father Ganz concelebrated Mass. On hand were many of the Sisters and some close friends.  

Though the change was significant, Johansen says it was not exactly a conversion. She's always been Christian. But there is something about Catholic liturgy that strikes her as clear, simple and special. She has a devotion to Mary, whom she sees as a strong woman who endured suffering and sacrifice for the greater good.

In 2007, Johansen was an attorney recently retired as CEO of six-state power company PacifiCorp. That fall, she attended a Marylhurst ceremony honoring benefactor Phil Knight. She walked away unsettled. She wouldn't rest, she thought, until she could be part of the school and its ways. While thinking of some way to help  from the background, then-President Nancy Wilgenbusch told he the top job was opening up.

Wilgenbusch encouraged Johansen to apply.   

Holy Names Sister Joan Saalfeld served on the committee that was searching for a new president in 2008.

"Judy came across as just a thoroughly good person, a people person, a very experienced CEO," Sister Joan says. "She just did so well on questions about values, respect and relationship to church. She was so straightforward and forthcoming."

After Johansen was hired, it became evident to her that Marylhurst's Catholic identity had become vague.   

"I thought that was odd," she says. "I thought 'We are what we are. Let's not hide that. We are Catholic.'"

She convened sessions to develop a vision. What emerged was the body of values brought by the founding Sisters — accommodating to all but clearly Catholic.

She brought on Father Ganz and asked Sister Joan to join the university staff as vice president for mission. Almost a dozen Holy Names Sisters now sit on Marylhurst's Board of Trustees. Johansen saw to it that regular Mass returned to the Marylhurst.

"We welcome people of all walks of life. We are not converting people," she says. "But we are the oldest Catholic university in Oregon."

Sister Joan and others in the Holy Names community were delighted at Johansen's recent profession of faith, but not surprised.

"It showed she really believes in the identity here on a deep level," Sister Joan says. "She always valued it. It resonated with her own values."

Marylhurst is a small pluralistic society, especially when it comes to religion, Sister Joan explains. She and Johansen take that as an opportunity for everyone to seek truth.

"Judy knew you need to have a clear identity before you have an interfaith dialogue," Sister Joan says. "I am hoping for a kind of centered pluralism."