My 23 1/2 years at The Tidings started when Hermine Anna Woerlein Lees stepped aside — sort of.
It was Hermine’s decision to cut back to part-time staff writer status in the spring of 1991 that enabled me to come on board as a Tidings staff writer. More importantly, though, Hermine’s decision opened the door to a wonderful friendship that lasted three decades, ended only by her passing July 3, at age 94, at home in Cambria.
In her 29 years as a writer, researcher, and librarian at The Tidings — which also included 15 years as editor of the archdiocesan Catholic Directory — Hermine became an institution. She may have worked in the office primarily on Mondays and Wednesdays (and more often during busy production periods), but her presence was felt on a daily basis by all who knew her, for her professional skill, her kind heart and her deep faith.
“If there is ever a contest for who gets to sit next to God in heaven, I’ll vote for Hermine,” said Msgr. Francis Weber, archdiocesan archivist emeritus and Hermine’s dear friend for more than 40 years. “She was the personification of a nice lady who led a wonderful Christian life, one of those people who it’ll be hard to get along without.”
Certainly, I could not imagine my own years at The Tidings without Hermine. This native Chicagoan and lifelong Catholic with a gentle but firm voice that bespoke her German heritage was as much of an archdiocesan library as the newspaper’s filing system that she lovingly and rigorously maintained for so many years.
And Hermine knew the territory as well as anyone. Arriving in LA with her family as a young girl, she attended Catholic schools, became for a short time an Immaculate Heart of Mary nun before becoming a wife and mother, and was an active parishioner at All Souls Church in Alhambra.
At All Souls, her family was the first to greet a new young associate pastor, Father Royale Vadakin on his first Sunday of ordained ministry in 1964. It was Father (later Msgr.) Vadakin who invited Hermine to join the growing ecumenical and interfaith movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Catholic-Jewish Women’s Dialogue that continues to this day remained a ministry close to Hermine’s heart.
So, too, was her involvement as an active Immaculate Heart community member, participating in numerous IHM projects and ministries, like running the bookstore at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center in Santa Barbara.
And, in her 50s, Hermine began a new career, reporting on all facets of archdiocesan church life when she joined The Tidings in January 1986, always with a devotion to quality, detail, and accuracy.
“Hermine wanted the truth, and she’d move heaven and earth to find it,” said Msgr. Weber, who wrote 33 years of “California’s Catholic Heritage” columns for The Tidings and served as its interim editor in 1990. “She could spot an error five miles away, and she didn’t mind telling you about it, but always in a nice way.”
In 1994, she became editor of the archdiocesan Catholic Directory and immediately set about making the volume more readable and user-friendly, not for her own satisfaction, but for the sake of the readers.
“It’s not MY directory,” I heard her say more than once, usually in response to why she always checked with “the powers that be upstairs” before making changes. “It’s for the whole archdiocese. It’s not about me.”
Her “God and Church first” attitude framed her approach to everything Hermine did, and it explained her less-than-favorable opinions of anyone — clergy, religious, laity, public officials, and even fellow employees — who were, as she would say, “humility challenged.”
But she appreciated, and showed, kindness, graciousness, and respect, and was always ready to help someone who needed assistance, whether with a work-related issue or personal difficulty. “I believe in the power of prayer,” she’d say, with the authority of one who had encountered and survived her own share of difficulties.
At The Tidings’ former office on West Ninth Street, it was my privilege and good fortune to have my cubicle adjacent to Hermine’s. I soon learned that — in addition to having an affinity for all things purple — she was highly organized, highly efficient, and neater than the proverbial pin, leaving her desk each night as spotless as when she arrived that morning.
“You don’t raise six children,” she pointed out, “without being organized.”
That, I realized, is a product of love and devotion to doing whatever it is you’re doing with care, quality, and an eye to the future. Hermine may have loved what we would call “traditions” (“I like a quiet Mass, without all the noise,” she used to say, with a bit of a growl, after attending liturgies that were drowning in loud music), but she also appreciated the increased visibility for women as leaders in the post-Vatican II Church.
“Why do you think Jesus appeared to the women first, after leaving the tomb?” she’d say with a smile on her lips but a glare in her eyes that said, “Don’t dismiss us.”
Yes, she would go to the mat when necessary for what she believed was right, as, of course, would Jesus. But, like Jesus, she could also show great kindness and generosity, as evidenced in the thousands of handmade greeting cards she’d create for friends and loved ones, inspired by her favorite artist and fellow Immaculate Heart of Mary nun, Sister Mary Corita Kent.
I received many of these cards filled with messages of praise, hope, and love, always adorned in her immaculate calligraphy, and almost always with the word, “Peace.”
Hermine loved her family, her friends, her faith, and her vocation, all of which she endowed with great passion, integrity, and skill. She was proud of being a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, of belonging to the Immaculate Heart of Mary community, of proclaiming “the good news” through the Catholic press (which earned her a Catholic Press Association award in 2003).
Her parish histories that accompanied Sister Nancy Munro’s “The Faces of God” parish profiles in The Tidings (2001-2014) are among the lasting testimonials to her work, as are her contributions to Msgr. Weber’s “A History of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles,” published in 2006.
Most of all, though, Hermine will be remembered for her honesty, her kindness, and basic decency that emanates from one who loves and follows the teachings of Jesus. As Msgr. Weber said, “If I ever get to heaven, I’m pretty sure I’ll see Hermine right next to the Lord himself. She deserves it.”
So step aside no more, Hermine. Your reward awaits.
Predeceased by her husband Walter, Hermine Lees is survived by her six children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.