Todd Cooper meets Pope John Paul II in 1997, when Cooper was a seminarian studying in Rome for the Diocese of Yakima, Washington. (Courtesy Todd Cooper)
Todd Cooper meets Pope John Paul II in 1997, when Cooper was a seminarian studying in Rome for the Diocese of Yakima, Washington. (Courtesy Todd Cooper)
One of the steady hands of leadership for the Archdiocese of Portland is a commonsensical layman who often stays behind the scenes.

Todd Cooper, 49, has been chief aide to Archbishops John Vlazny and Alexander Sample. He arrived at the pastoral center in 1999 and soon earned a reputation for good thinking and deep faith.

“He exemplifies faithful discipleship and dedicated lay ministry in the church,” said Msgr. Joseph Betschart, the Mount Angel Seminary leader who has known Cooper for more than 25 years. “He is truly an inspiration.”

Wags Teasing friends call Cooper “Todd of God.” While the moniker pokes fun at his earnestness, it pays tribute to his unabashed devotion.



Youthful conversion

The second of four siblings and the only boy, he was raised in Lewiston, Idaho. His parents had conversion experiences as adults. Inspired by Cursillo, a movement that aims to re-propose Christianity in fresh ways, the family became deeply involved in the church. Cooper recalls as a boy waking up and coming out of his room in pajamas to see his father at the family table drinking coffee and talking faith with a men’s group.

At age 12, young Todd had his own conversion at a Catholic youth retreat that included charismatic prayer.

During high school, the family moved to the Tri-Ccities in southern Washington. Todd finished at Kamiakin High before moving on to the local community college. One day in prayer, he was confused about the role of Mary in Christian life and asked God to clear matters up for him.

“That opened the floodgates,” he said. “She has been with me every step of the way.”



Trying seminary

Cooper had a notion to explore priesthood and was accepted at Mount Angel Seminary in 1992 for the Diocese of Yakima. Because of his high potential, he was sent to Rome in 1995 to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University, a school founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Before he made the trip, one wise mentor told him, “Don’t let your studies get in the way of your education.”

He met Pope John Paul II several times and spoke with Mother Teresa of Kolkata. He was at the literal center of the Catholic world as a tour guide to the tomb of St. Peter.

His bishop in Yakima was the late Francis George, who later came to Portland and then was cardinal archbishop of Chicago. Perhaps the top U.S. Catholic intellectual of his day, Cardinal George taught Cooper to cling tohold fast to tradition while being deeply pastoral when dealing with people.

While excited to learn so much about God and life, it eventually became clear to Cooper than he was called to marriage, to go through life and learn about God with one person.



‘Other duties as assigned’

Grateful for six years of formation, he left seminary in 1998 and soon was offered a job in Portland with the man who had replaced Francis George — Archbishop John Vlazny. Cooper became Archbishop Vlazny’s right-hand man, in the office, at liturgy and in meetings. “Archbishop Vlazny is a great mentor and a great human being,” Cooper said.

He Cooper has been just as delighted to work with Archbishop Sample, whom Cooper he says is amazingly open to hearing the candid views of staff.

Cooper sums it up: “Archbishop Sample is wonderful.”

Cooper particularly appreciates a new sense of openness and evangelization Archbishop Sample has brought. “My encounter with others should lead to an encounter with Christ,” Cooper said. “If the church is to be changed and renewed, it needs to start with me.”

Cooper is not a yes man. If he sees an archbishop headed in what he considers a dodgy direction, he says so. But once a decision gets made, he is on board.

The chief line section in Cooper’s job description is “other duties as assigned.” He has been a media spokesman, government lobbyist, event organizer, master of ceremonies, teacher, writer, editor and pilgrimage coordinator.

One of his first projects was to coordinate a year Great Jubilee celebration in 2000 celebration that brought 10,000 people to Memorial Coliseum for a Mass and faith rally. Groups marched in from neighborhoods all over Portland.

He likes the energy that deadlines and projects provide. “I am more of a sprinter than a long distance runner,” he said of his work style.

Cooper tends to get the complicated, sticky assignments like trying to figure out the future of St. Francis Dining Hall in Southeast Portland or finding sensible ground between conservatives and progressives on immigration policy.

Cooper served on the national advisory council for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Along the way, he has received job offers, but appreciates remains faithful to his deep roots and relationships in western Oregon. That includes family.



Soulmate

In 2000, he met a woman who also was working at the Pastoral Center. He and Kathie Wieck collaborated on Disciples in Mission, an evangelization formation program that created small Catholic faith groups all over western Oregon.

“I loved the way she worked with people,” Cooper said.

They started spending time together outside the office. Though almost everyone at the Pastoral Center could see what was happening, Kathie was slow to recognize that Cooper was falling for her. She was raising three children on her own after a divorce and annulment.

Kathie could not fathom that a fine young man would want to enter a serious relationship with a single mom. In addition, she was still healing from her previous broken relationship.

But on one date, the pieces came together. Kathie made dinner, a rainbow appeared in the sky and the pair walked under cherry blossoms along the Willamette River. Cooper told her how nice it was to go out with the most beautiful woman in Portland.

When they wed in 2004, the children were ages 7, 9 and 11. Cooper learned that a stepfather needs to earn trust and that patience is indeed a virtue.

Eighteen months after they wed, doctors discovered brain cancer in Kathie. She was expected to die within two years, but lived on with struggles, pain, joy, laughter and hope for more than 15 years. Kathie died in October 2020.

On her headstone, Cooper had this phrase inscribed: “The most beautiful woman in Portland.”

Kathie, Cooper concludes, made him a better man with her selflessness, kindness and generosity. “I love talking theology,” he said. “She lived it out.”

The three children chose lives of service as a paralegal professional, a certified nursing assistant and as a woman religious.

Meanwhile, Cooper’s aging father lives in Portland and Cooper is overseeing his care.



Sharing in divine life

Amid everything else, Cooper is working on a doctorate in theology from Mount Angel Seminary. His dissertation will explore the notion that communion between divinity and humanity was the primary motive of the Incarnation. Cooper thinks Christ would have become human even if Adam and Eve had not sinned.

“It’s about sharing in the divine life,” Cooper said, suggesting that sin ought not be so much front and center in the Christian story and approach. “I don’t think the Incarnation was plan B. I think it was plan A.”

A longtime member of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Northeast Portland, Cooper has taught lay faith formation classes and has led retreats. He gives input when his archbishops write pastoral letters and other statements.

In the end, Cooper believes the Holy Spirit is still working in the church and in his life.

Todd is a faithful guy who puts himself at the service of the church in many ways,” said Father Matt Libra, Cooper’s pastor at St. Rose of Lima. “He believes in Jesus, he believes in the church, and lays down his life.”

Father Libra calls Cooper’s ministry unique in that it takes him in many directions and many places, just like the apostles. That takes a strong and calm center, the priest said.

“He’s a sensible guy,” Father Libra explained. “He tries to listen to the Spirit and live an authentic life of a disciple of Jesus Christ.”