In 1960, when The Reverend John and Barbara Wolf came to All Souls so that he could become the new Senior Minister of the church, it was a package deal. Barbara did much of what our nine different Care Teams do today. She visited the sick and brought meals and kept tabs on who was in the hospital. Barbara was a driving force behind the memorial garden of the church and helped with our Life Decisions team negotiating prices for cremations for our members with the funeral homes. Together they ministered to the members (and the ministers) of All Souls for over 60 years.
A memorial service to celebrate Barbara’s life will be held at All Souls on Friday, November 3, at 11 am.
As we celebrate her life, we wanted to share the following article written by our board member, Phil Haney, from February 2012 called, Conversation With Barbara: A 60-Year Marriage In Ministry.
John Wolf graduated from Meadville Theological School in 1952, and he and Barbara were married later that year. They met at “Jimmie’s,” a popular hangout for University of Chicago students. It wasn’t love at first sight – Barbara says they were both coming out of relationships and still a bit gun-shy. But the combination of wit, eloquence, physical attraction, and love made each of them irresistible to the other.
John’s family minister, a Presbyterian, told Barbara that she could “make or break” Wolf in his chosen career. Barbara remembers this statement as prophetic. She knows well that ministry is teamwork, and that her marriage is a tribute to balancing home, personal, and ministry life. She knows love takes work, lots of time, some occasional compromise.
John and Barbara were from modest Midwestern church families, and becoming a Unitarian was a long shot for them. John credits a Jesuit priest he knew in the Navy with strong influence on him. The priest encouraged Wolf to read a broad spectrum of literature; it opened his eyes to liberal religion. Wolf soon became a Unitarian. Wolf’s good friend, Roland Harrington, thinking John would make a good minister, told him he should attend seminary. Wolf had doubts about becoming a minister, but he agreed to a coin flip. The rest is history, and All Souls is a big part of it. Think about it: Meadville, Tulsa, All Souls – on a coin flip. Such is fate.
The early years of the Wolfs’ marriage benefited from their educations – formal and practical. Barbara was trained as a clinical dietitian; John worked as an oxygen therapist (putting the oxygen mask on when circumstances required it). These skills helped supplement their income when the wolfs began life as a ministry couple.
John’s first call was to lead a Universalist Church in Racine, Wisconsin. There, the Wolfs lived in a small apartment, sharing a bath and a refrigerator with the owner of the house. Barbara worked as a clinical dietitian at a local hospital where, she recalls, she made a little more money than John. She also remembers that it was at Racine where John learned to give 20-minute sermons instead of seminary lectures.
Their first child, son John David, arrived in 1954. He was christened by Dr. Wallace Robbins, Dean of Meadville Theological School. The Wolfs were a young family on the rise, and UU churces were seeking talent. Dr. Robbins was supportive of Wolf, and a call came from Meadville, Pennsylvania. Barbara says Meadville was a good church for them. The 2-story parsonage was just right for their growing family. There was a local college just down the street, and a city hospital hired Barbara. Their daughter, Catherine Elizabeth, arrived in 1956. These were times the Wolfs remember fondly, early days in ministry, starting a family, beginning a career path. Life was good.
In 1960, the search committee at All Souls Unitarian Church reached out to John Wolf, who by then had caught the attention of the association with his brand of liberal religion and his memorable sermons. This ushered in a time of change and challenge for the Wolfs. The previous minister and his wife – Ralph and Olive Sonen – would be hard to follow at the popular church that had just completed a bold move to the outskirts of town – 29th and Peoria. John Wolf sensed a good fit at All Souls, and he was right. But it was as much the fit of a couple as it was a minister. Wolf negotiated for the position for himself and for Barbara too. When John was…Barbara would be doing in the church, he said she would not be required to do anything she didn’t want to do and that she would not – ever – hold any elected office. The Wolfs sensed the tough challenges of replacing the Sones; it would take hard work and some luck to succeed. They approached the move with caution and sensitivity. John protected Barbara during this time of uncertainty. Gradually their natural roles unfolded, and All Souls and the Wolfs prospered.
How would Barbara Wolf ‘make or break’ John during this time? She found her support in the form of a needs assessment – finding what is the best fit in the circumstance, and how she would make it her fit. Leading the church greeters (there was no Newcomers’ Board then); entertaining the board; staff and committee functions; hosting visiting ministers; cooking at least one meal annually for each church group; all this, and raising two children, was Barbara’s life in Tulsa in the beginning. She had found exactly what was needed. The Wolfs became popular at All Souls, and in Tulsa. She and John loved each other, and they loved All Souls. It was a winning formula.
The ministry of John Wolf at All Souls was not without controversy. Barbara remembers that when John took on the school board and superintendent over segregation, church members came to their house to help screen the calls – often hateful calls – that poured in. But the Wolfs kept a public phone, and they faced their critics with firm resolve. Barbara says she tried not to get too public about her opinions, thinking that if she did she might “lose it” and embarrass John. Once or twice, in civil rights or abortion discussions, she told John’s critics they were flat wrong; she told them that what a woman does with her body is her business, and her decision, not theirs. Soon it was clear that Barbara had opinions, but that she kept her counsel well.
Barbara Wolf always felt lucky to have had a profession, although it was unusual for ministers’ wives to work outside the home in the ’50s and ’60s. After their Sabbatical in 1970, when the children were grown and headed for college, Barbara returned to work part-time at Springer Clinic and as a consultant for 15 years. She found the work stimulating and rewarding. It was another way to help people.
At All Souls it seems as though everyone has a committee, is on a committee, or is about to form a committee. Barbara Wolf is no exception, and her committee consisted of Art McElroy, Bill Holway, and Mark Connolly. Barbara’s personal committee did the necessary things including thawing frozen pipes, fixing Christmas toys, helping with finances, and other needs of the Wolfs. Barbara says it’s a known fact that John never discussed church finances, problems, or concerns with her. The marriage responsibilities were functionally divided: John’s were the church; Barbara’s were the children and finances. The unwritten deal was that John’s study was at the church, not at home. It began this way, and it stayed this way.
A successful church supports and is supported by its minister. Barbara says Betty Hager and Sally Campbell had a long-term vision for the Wolfs’ needs, and took the responsible steps to put it in place. Through their leadership and vision, the church designed a retirement for the Wolfs and funded it, enabling John and Barbara to enjoy their lives after ministry.
Where does love fit in this story? Everywhere. It is the unwavering commitment of Barbara and John, to each other, and to All Souls. It is the spirit of the church.