Peter Quirk: Catholic education ‘changed my life’

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
Photo by Arturo Mari | L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO

When Pope John Paul II walked down the stairs from the second-floor bedroom of Archbishop Philip Hannan’s residence in 1987 – the pontiff was leaving for a flight to San Antonio, the next stop on his historic visit to the U.S. – the engineer’s gene in Peter Quirk, a man who always did his homework, prompted him to prepare yet another plan.

Quirk was at the base of the steps, near the end of the line of about a dozen members of the archdiocesan committee that had choreographed every movement of the pope’s three-day visit to New Orleans. Pope John Paul II was pressing the flesh rather quickly, bidding farewell to the volunteers.

“The Holy Father was going around the room, almost like slapping hands,” Quirk recalled. “So, when he got to me, I figured I was just going to tell him how I felt. I shook his hand and I said, ‘Holy Father, thank you for your example.’ He stopped momentarily – we had name badges on – and he glanced down at my name tag, and then he looked back at me in the eyes with an almost imperceptible smile. And, off he went.

“Who would have known that this man was going to end up being a saint of the Catholic Church? That was a special moment for me.”

That moment, frozen in time for 32 years, will take on even more significance next month when Quirk, who has spent a lifetime both volunteering and working for the local Catholic church, is honored by The Catholic Community Foundation with the St. John Paul II Award.

The award, which will be bestowed by Archbishop Gregory Aymond at the foundation’s annual dinner Oct. 10, recognizes the stewardship of a Catholic layperson of “high moral character and exemplary values” who has rendered “unselfish volunteer service” to the ministries of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

“I never was much on being recognized for stuff you should be doing anyway,” said Quirk, 82, who attends daily Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Metairie with Marilyn, his wife of 61 years.

Actually, Marilyn beat her husband to the award in 2016, honored for her cofounding of the Magnificat Ministry to Catholic Women, which started with a handful of local women gathering for prayer and then blossomed into a worldwide ministry.

“It’s like the early church,” Quirk said of his wife’s ministry. “I mean, it’s just spread all over the world, and it started with a couple of housewives.”

Quirk, who has six children, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, spent most of his professional life as an engineer and later as president and CEO of Walk, Haydel & Associates, one of the largest engineering, design and construction management firms in the country specializing in oil refineries, offshore oil platforms, the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) and underground storage facilities for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

But Quirk hardly grew up eating prime rib and summering in the Hamptons. He attended St. Dominic School and was an altar boy at Mass, but his family never had much money because his father was an inveterate gambler.

“He was a ‘dude’ – he’d wear these white suits and go out to Jefferson Parish on a bus or a streetcar to gamble,” Quirk recalled. “I remember that. I was working when I was 8 years old. I worked at a drugstore, delivered on my bike, did soda jerking, had a paper route once I was at Jesuit. My bedroom was a screened porch. The Picayune would drop the papers around the corner in a little garage. In those years, people wanted their paper at 3 o’clock in the morning – nobody had air conditioning, and they’d be sitting on their porch waiting for the paper.

“But for some reason, I never felt like I had anything less than anybody else. I think God protected me during those years. In those years, I could see the need that people had and, for some reason, I felt like part of my mission in life was to serve others. Everywhere you look in this community, there’s a huge need, and I’ve always been inclined to help where I can.”

Quirk said he attended Jesuit for four years on what was known colloquially as the “Poor Boys’ Scholarship.” His family didn’t pay a dime, and he never felt out of place among families whose sons were gilded members of Mardi Gras society.

“The beauty of Jesuit is that you don’t know that,” Quirk said. “I found out later that all these guys were kings of Rex, but I didn’t know that. Most people didn’t have cars in those days, and we all had uniforms.”

He played tackle on the football team and wrestled, and he developed an affinity for math, which helped when he hitchhiked to LSU and began studies for his engineering degree. He was a lifeguard at the LSU swimming pool and paid his way through college, where he met Marilyn, who grew up Episcopalian, on a blind date.

Marilyn later received instructions in the Catholic faith from then-Father Stanley Ott, who later became an auxiliary bishop of New Orleans and then Bishop of Baton Rouge before dying of cancer.

“He was very, very humble and a very, very good listener,” Quirk said. “There was no pressure. Marilyn actually went to him to find out more about the Catholic Church. He was dynamite. Marilyn had a very deep spirituality, and they were close until the time he died.”

During his engineering career, Quirk served as a volunteer on the boards of Xavier University of Louisiana, the University of Holy Cross, the Archbishop’s Community Appeal, the United Way, the Willwoods Community, The Catholic Foundation, Covenant House, Christopher Homes and the Serra Club.

Quirk has spent the last 19 years working for the archdiocese in various capacities, including 12 years as executive director of the Department of Development and The Catholic Foundation, four years as director of stewardship and more recently in a development role with archdiocesan Catholic schools.

His first-hand experience of the transformative role of Catholic schools, especially for children of modest means, has made him passionate about making Catholic schools more affordable. Quirk championed a program that directs state income taxes directly into scholarship opportunities that allow children from low-income families to get a Catholic education.

“It changed my life,” Quirk said. “During the time I was raising money to get these needy public-school kids into Catholic schools, I’d get phone calls, mainly from African-American grandmothers, and they wanted their grandson or granddaughter in a Catholic school. This was from someone who was not Catholic. They saw the difference between a charter school and a Catholic school.

“We were able to help one lady’s granddaughter get into Ursuline, and she told me, ‘Her heart is being formed in Catholic school. She has turned out to be more selfless than selfish.’ That’s powerful, and when you think about it, that’s Catholic education. When you go to a Catholic school, you’re a man for others. You don’t stand on the sidelines and watch life go by. You roll up your sleeves and get involved. You help people.”

The Catholic Community Foundation will honor Quirk at its annual dinner Oct. 10 at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. A social hour will begin at 6 p.m., with dinner at 7 p.m. For dinner reservations, go to www.ccfnola.org/annual-dinner or contact Madelyn Klein 596-3044 or mklein@ccfnola.org.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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