Archbishop Bernard Hebda had just finished posing for an official portrait at the St. Paul Cathedral in advance of his installation this week when he turned to the assembled staff members with the burning question: "What are you doing for lunch?"
Hebda suggested they check out the cafeteria at St. Paul College. Everybody walked over and had a "great time," said cathedral rector Rev. John Ubel, marveling that Hebda even knew about the place.
"He can be spur of the moment … and he genuinely enjoys being with people," Ubel said. "Those are fantastic qualities that will serve him well in the archdiocese."
Hebda, an unpretentious cleric with a Harvard degree, will be installed as the Twin Cities' ninth archbishop Friday, taking leadership of a church confronted by more than 400 clergy abuse claims, bankruptcy and restlessness in the pews. He replaces archbishop John Nienstedt, who resigned last June when the archdiocese was charged with failing to protect children.
Hebda has garnered praise from priests to parishioners for his Pope Francis style of engagement. But advocates for victims of clergy abuse wonder when he will contact them, as they represent the central issue behind the archdiocese's deep troubles.
They say the archbishop's true colors will not be revealed until the archdiocese unveils its bankruptcy plan for compensating abuse victims, expected later this month.
"I don't know that he has done anything," said Jennifer Haselberger, the archdiocese whistleblower who exposed the clergy abuse coverup in the chancery. "The criminal charges are still pending. No settlement has been reached in the bankruptcy. Accountability remains elusive."
Hebda was not available for interviews in recent weeks, according to his media office. However, when he announced his appointment as permanent archbishop in March, Hebda said his primary concern had been "to do no harm" during his 11 months as acting archbishop. Advocates say he now needs to "do some good" on the child sex abuse issue.
The St. Paul Cathedral, which will host Hebda's installation ceremony Friday, has been spiffing up for the big day. Volunteers polished the marble floors, dusted pews and cleaned the statues and woodwork. The Basilica of Saint Mary also has prepared for a Thursday night celebration and prayer featuring Hebda.
Hebda was sent by the Vatican last June to do some serious housecleaning as well — of archdiocese finances, public image and the morale of priests and parishioners.
Vatican-watchers say Hebda was an interesting choice. He was on track to be the next archbishop of Newark, N.J. Before that, he had a four-year stint as bishop of Gaylord, Mich.
Ordained in 1989 at age 29, Hebda's longest clerical appointment, 1996-2009, was as an influential canon lawyer at the Vatican.
Landing in the Twin Cities last year, Hebda needed to break the tension on several fronts. One of his first moves was to launch a series of "listening sessions" for lay Catholics, a move praised by both critics and longtime faithful. He also began developing relationships with parish priests, often surprising them and their parishioners.
Ubel recalls a busy scene in the cathedral on the feast of St. Blaise in February, during which Catholics receive a blessing of the throat. Hebda had walked over to get his own throat blessed. When he saw the long line, he went to the sacristy, found two candles used in the sacrament, put on a stole and pitched in.
Likewise over Easter weekend, Hebda offered to fill in for a sick priest, spending about two hours hearing confessions and blessing Easter meals.
"He teaches by example," Ubel said. "This archbishop has taught me, simply by observing him, what it means to be attentive to people."
The Rev. Gene Tiffany, an archdiocese priest of 44 years, called Hebda a "calming influence" in the battered archdiocese. Tiffany appreciated that he was open to diverse opinions, adding, "He's not inclined to make decisions alone."
Hebda now must make sure that the key positions in his administration are staffed by like-minded souls, said John Thavis, former Vatican bureau chief for the Catholic News Service now living in St. Paul.
"It's the culture, the atmosphere you set up, that is important," he said.
But following a conservative archbishop such as Nienstedt, Hebda also faces clerics and parishioners who continue to support that agenda.
"Suddenly the pope is saying he's not obsessing on gay marriage and abortion, that there will be other priorities," Thavis said. "That's going to call for a real conversion for some clergy."
Becoming archbishop will give Hebda new authority that could shore up his influence and stabilize the church, Twin Cities Catholic leaders say. For example, he can assign priests and appoint the rector of St. Paul Seminary, said Robert Kennedy, chair of the Catholic Studies Department at the University of St. Thomas.
Kennedy said finances will be among Hebda's biggest concerns: He will have fewer staff and a tighter budget than his predecessors. And after years of controversy surrounding the chancery, "there's a sense of woundedness," Kennedy said. "That will be a persistent challenge for him."
Resolving the emotional and financial fallout of the clergy abuse issue will be Hebda's biggest challenge. The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2015, following a flood of claims that it allowed priests who were known to have sexually abused children to continue in ministry. The archdiocese has been in mediation with creditors, namely 400-some individuals who claim they were abused, since then.
The archdiocese is expected to release a plan to compensate those victims in the weeks ahead. Victims' advocates say they hope Hebda pays attention to its compensation for victims and the message it sends.
But back in the pews, parishioners such as Angie DeWitt remain optimistic that the archdiocese has turned a page. A longtime cathedral member, here and in another state, she said she's never encountered an archbishop like Hebda.
"I'm surprised by the number of times he just shows up and helps out," DeWitt said. "I think he'll bring even more healing to the church. He's made a good start in that direction."