Passing along family values
“God is first, and the rest of it will take care of itself.”
Stephen Letourneau, CEO of Catholic Charities Maine, says that is the belief he tries to live and lead by.
“It’s about trusting that God is going to carry us through no matter what the challenge is,” he says.
Steve, as he is called by most who know him, has led Catholic Charities Maine for the past 15 years and worked there a decade before that. Although it is an agency with more than 900 employees and volunteers serving in 20 different programs around the state, Steve says he views them all as members of an extended family.
“I’m a pretty simple person, so I try not to overcomplicate things. For Catholic Charities, I look at it like one, big family, cohesively united together. The emphasis is on family,” he says. “If you’re talking priorities, after God, family has to come next, not the work, because the work will be taken care of if you take care of those other two priorities. So, keep God first, family second, and work third. I say that to my staff — family comes above work, and they’re a more productive workforce because of that.”
Steve says he draws his strength and values from the closeness and example of his own family, which includes his wife, Lisa, their four children and nine grandchildren, his siblings, and his parents, Jules and Gaile, who were his guiding lights when he was growing up in the town of Fairfield and are still his mentors today.
“My mom is the glue of the family. She really makes sure that it’s all sticking together. She has always been the beacon who points you in the right direction,” Steve says. “And, when I think of my dad, servant leadership always comes to mind. My dad has a natural knack for being a leader, and it’s not because he is pushing himself to be a leader. He just leads by service, and I think people want to follow someone like that. I’ve tried to incorporate that same mentality into my own leadership.”
Steve is the fourth of six sons born to Jules and Gaile Letourneau, who spent most of their nearly 62 years of marriage in Fairfield. Jules grew up there, and Gaile’s family moved there when she was a freshman in high school. The pair started dating in their junior year and married five years later.
Jules was always a hard worker, whether it was laboring for up to 18 hours a day in his family’s bakery, taking a night job at McDonald’s to earn extra money while serving in the U.S. Army, or rising through the ranks in the finance and accounting departments of the Hollingsworth & Whitney Company paper mill in Winslow, which later merged with Scott Paper Company. He then transitioned to the mill in Skowhegan, now operated by Sappi, where he retired as a business analyst.
“My parents instilled work ethic in all of us. One commonality I can say about all six boys in our family is that we’re all workers, whether it’s working for our jobs or at our homes,” Steve says. “It’s just that high standard of excellence that was instilled in us. If you’re going to do something, do it to the best of your ability.”
It was Steve’s mom and dad who also taught him the importance of keeping God first and foremost in his life, which is why Steve’s priority list mirrors that of his father’s.
“For me, it was the only way to go. Number one, you have to have faith in God, and the rest of it is going to be taken care of. Then, you have your family — your wife and your children and your extended family. Then, you have your job,” says Jules. “The Church was always number one with us. I can’t remember us missing any Masses. We must have for sickness or whatnot but not often.”
“Even when we were on vacation or camping, we always went to church,” says Steve. “Lisa and I have always extended that to our family, too. When we go on vacations, it doesn’t matter where we are. Mass is part of it.”
Prayer is always present, too. When Steve was growing up, he recalls his family embracing the seasons of Advent and Lent and praying before meals and at bedtime.
“We never, as a family, sat and prayed the Rosary, but prayer was a big part of their lives, and it was a big part of our family life,” says Steve. “When we went to bed, we would always say our prayers, but my father would also always give us a blessing. He would make the Sign of the Cross over our foreheads. That’s something that I carried on with my kids and now with my grandkids.”
Far from fading with the passage of years, for Steve and his parents, the commitment to time spent in prayer has only grown stronger.
“We spend about an hour and a half in prayer in the morning, first thing. We get up at six o’clock, and it will be close to 8 o’clock before we’re done,” says Jules. “When you first get up in the morning, it’s quiet. It’s very quiet, and I have a certain routine that I use, and she has her routine.”
“In the morning, we pray separately, but at night, we pray together,” says Gaile.
“We always like to do it at night, because the day is over, and if we don’t wake up, we have kind of settled everything at that point,” adds Jules.
They and a group of friends also get together monthly to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the Rosary, which is something they and Steve also pray on road trips.
“People wonder, how do you travel 82 miles to work from Fairfield to Portland every day? It’s one of the things I look forward to because I get to have a 30-minute prayer session, uninterrupted. I’ve really come to appreciate praying the Rosary, and I think it’s through their influence,” Steve says. “One thing that I really recognized early on, and then appreciated later on, was that my parents are prayer warriors, and when it comes right down to it, I find myself moving more and more into that prayer warrior category. I pray the Rosary every day, and if I miss it, it’s not a good day.”
In addition to their strong prayer lives, Jules and Gaile have also long put their faith into action.
“Faith always leads. We follow,” Jules explains.
Jules, Gaile, and Steve remember the days when Jules would be a reader at Mass, while four of the Letourneau boys would be altar servers. Jules himself missed out on being an altar server as a boy but says he’s been one pretty much ever since, currently helping out at funeral Masses. He is also an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, and he and Gaile organize breakfast gatherings after the 9:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at Notre Dame du Perpétuel Secours Church in Waterville, something they brought with them from Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Fairfield when it closed in 2011.
“We have six teams, and we coordinate that effort,” says Jules. “Usually, a pretty big group attends.”
Jules also served on the parish council, the finance council, and as the coordinator of the Worship & Spirituality Commission, a position he particularly enjoyed. He is an active member of the Knights of Columbus, has helped seniors with free tax preparation and, for the past 16 years, has supported the right to life cause by traveling to Augusta every Thursday to pray the Rosary outside Maine Family Planning.
Gaile taught religious education for 10 years, helping to prepare second graders to make their first Communion, and she currently volunteers at the Fairfield Interfaith Food Pantry.
“I mainly try to be a support to anyone who needs it — the neighbors, our family,” she says.
Despite busy schedules, being with family is something that the Letourneaus have always treasured. Anything their sons were involved in, Jules and Gaile were involved in, too.
“He always had time for his family,” Gaile says of her husband. “He was Cubmaster. He was involved with the sports boosters.”
“There was a lot of baseball, a lot of football, basketball, track,” says Jules. “We had to do family things because we had six boys who were active. We were introduced to camping, so we did a lot of camping.”
“It was a very close group as a family. We did things together. Like any family, you always have your challenges and struggles in life, but it was important for my parents that those things got resolved quickly,” Steve says. “You were always jockeying for position, but you were always together.”
Steve says his parents always made sure each of their sons knew how special he was. Take, for instance, their birthdays.
“In our house, when it was your birthday, you were the king for the day. My mom made sure of that,” Steve says. “Everyone treated you like you were the king of the family.”
Steve says he came to appreciate his upbringing even more when he and Lisa, while still in their 20s, moved to Aroostook County to live and work in a group home.
“Lisa and I got our first job working in a group home with six teenage boys coming to us from all walks of life. Most of them were abused and coming from jail,” he says. “I realized, wow, some of these kids never even had a birthday celebration.”
Social work wasn’t a career path Steve planned to pursue. He wanted to go into coaching and teaching, but difficulty finding a job led him and Lisa in another direction. They went through training with instructors from Boys Town to become family teachers, who would both monitor and teach troubled youths in a home setting. What they thought would be a one-year position turned into an eight-year one.
Steve says it was a time when his faith life, which had become less active through his college years, was reenergized. He credits the welcoming parish communities of St. Mary in Eagle Lake and St. Joseph in Wallagrass and his participation in a Cursillo retreat.
“It tied together the importance of studying and reading, not just praying and not just going to Mass but really digging into Scripture and why the Church teaches what it does,” he says. “Then, amid all the distractions in the world, it also emphasized the importance of giving yourself time alone with God. That is so vitally important.”
While serving in northern Maine, Steve got to know Dixie Shaw, who is now Catholic Charities’ Director of Hunger & Relief Services but at that time ran a Catholic Charities’ group home in Caribou. Aware that Steve and Lisa wanted to move back to central Maine, it was Dixie who told them about a foster care director position in Lewiston. It would become the start of Steve’s 25-year career with Catholic Charities Maine.
Through the years, Steve served in several capacities, and when the CEO position opened up in 2007, he was encouraged to apply.
“I actually didn’t want to do it. I loved working with programs, because I love working with people,” he says.
After praying about it, he decided to pursue it and was offered the job, something he attributes to both his years of service work and his financial acumen.
“A lot of my skillset, which comes from the financial background that my dad has, is seeing problematic financial programs and working with them to make them more sustainable,” he says.
Good stewardship is just one of the “RICHES” that lie at the heart of Catholic Charities Maine’s mission. They also include respect, integrity, compassion, hospitality, and excellence — all values Steve says he learned from his parents.
“Respect, integrity, and compassion they instilled from day one,” he says. “Your word was always important. Integrity was always important and owning up when you made mistakes and making it right if you could. Those kinds of things were always important, and at Catholic Charities, it is the same thing.”
When he began working for Catholic Charities, Steve says that he was surprised to learn about the number and variety of programs the agency had, which include everything from providing dental care to running a food bank to welcoming refugees. He felt, however, a key component was missing.
“The one thing I thought they did, they didn’t do, and that was being a place to turn for people who were down and out. People called, and I would hear, ‘No, I’m sorry. We don’t do that.’ I kept hearing the receptionist redirect people. So, when I became CEO, that is the one thing that I wanted to change,” he says.
It led to the development of Parish Social Ministry, which includes both assistance to parishes, so they can better meet the needs of their communities, and Relief & Hope Services, which provides emergency assistance.
“I wanted an emergency services component, so we could at least talk with people who had problems, and if we couldn’t help them financially, because that isn’t always the best thing anyway, we could at least help them find a way forward with whatever situation they had,” he says.
When Parish Social Ministry was created, Steve says his goal was that within 10 years, it would be the program for which Charities Maine was best known. While that might not yet be the case, Steve says, “We’re getting there.”
Jules and Gaile say they are pleased to see all that their son has accomplished.
“I’m just so proud of him. I want the whole world to know that my son is the CEO of Catholic Charities,” says Gaile. “I’m so proud of all my kids.”
While Jules says that Steve has gone beyond the point where they can now be of much help to him, Steve sees it differently.
“You help just by your prayers and your support of Catholic Charities,” he says. “Keeping our family strong makes my job a lot easier.”
He says having children and grandchildren of his own has made him realize the challenges his parents faced and the grace and perseverance with which they met those challenges.
“It was a great childhood,” he says. “Raising my own kids, I always wished I could be half the parent that they were.”