By Mary Lou Putrow
Susanne Hofweber (1919-2017) was born in Detroit, Michigan on December 6, 1919. She has been actively engaged in Christian education in the Roman Catholic tradition for more than sixty years. Susanne will be best remembered for her role in leadership positions in catechetical organizations both in the United States and the Caribbean. She is a professed member of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Adrian, Michigan.
Susanne Hofweber was born in Detroit, Michigan on December 6, 1919 of August J. Hofweber of La Crosse, Wisconsin and Emily Gertrude Campbell whose father was an Irish immigrant, who had come to the United States as a result of the potato famine. Emily, graduating from the University of Michigan, became a teacher in rural Michigan. She later moved to Detroit where she was employed by Bell Telephone Company and met her husband, a pioneer automaker in the Motor City, before mass car production was introduced as an industry.
From her earliest childhood memories, Susanne could identify the exuberance of her father's faith. It was a faith that guided his every action and that he shamelessly professed on any given occasion. He was never one to hesitate suggesting to others the richness and value of the Catholic faith. His was a faith that expressed itself in what was then known as "Catholic Action". To this end, he associated himself with the Capuchin Franciscans and their ministry to the poor and homeless. In contrast to August's exuberant faith, Emily was more reserved and quiet but also a deeply faith filled presence in Susanne's life. As each of the Hofweber children came of school age they were enrolled in St. Theresa Catholic School, which was staffed by the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
The Hofweber family was not spared the ravages of the great depression and lost both home and business in the folds of this financial disaster. Although every aspect of family life was affected by the insecurity and turmoil of the nation, school remained a haven of security and stability; the sisters had agreed to keep the children in school despite the Hofwebers' inability to pay the tuition.
Susanne found in the school environment the same faith filled atmosphere that permeated the Hofweber home. She looked up to her Adrian Dominican teachers with fond affection and deep admiration. In her earliest school years, this young child, influenced by the happiness and serenity of her teachers had already claimed her role models.
The depression passed and August Hofweber reclaimed a financial stability. Susanne continued her education at St. Theresa's. She enjoyed history and English, debating and public speaking. "As you know", she stated "there were not many extracurricular opportunities open to a female at that time." By January 1936 she had identified her life's work. She announced to her parents that she had chosen to follow the vocational path of her teachers. Although totally surprised, her parents entered fully into the preparatory measures needed for her entrance into the Adrian Dominican Sisters. Because the mission of this religious congregation of women focused almost entirely on education, it was a given that Susanne would continue her education at Siena Heights College and become a teacher.
With a Michigan permanent teaching certificate in hand, Suzanne began doing exactly what she had so highly esteemed in her own teachers. Her subsequent certification in Florida and Puerto Rico broadened the geographical realm of her teaching profession to Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Toledo and Puerto Rico. By 1948 Susanne had earned a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy and three years later a Licentiate from the University of Santo Domingo.
It was the 1954 appointment to Academia Sacrada Corazon in Puerto Rico that marked a turning point in Susanne's history. Although at the academy only one year, it marked the beginning of twenty-four years of service to the churches of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Susanne's experience in the Caribbean was marked by great joy in spreading the word of God, but also by great sadness as she learned the price of openly articulating the gospel teaching in the face of evil: persecution of the church by the government.
Susanne spent seven years at a school established by the Adrian Dominican Sisters in the capital city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, known by all as "Colegio Santo Domingo". The years here and those at Las Matas de Fanfan in the mountain area near the Haitian border were years of the Trujillo dictatorship, a period of time when people lived under a justified fear of what the dictator might mandate. Because the Bishops of the Dominican Republic denounced his regime of atrocities, murders, and tortures, Trujillo identified the church as enemy of the state and began a persecution of the church and its leaders. Susanne describes this time of life as "a time of three revolutions, flight from the frontier, sanctuary in the capital, and the evacuation of all U.S. citizens and foreigners by the U.S. Armed Forces". The Bishops' home had been destroyed, as well as the rectory and vehicles of the Redemptorist missionaries; a bomb had been placed at the entrance of the Sisters' home. In an unpublished interview Suzanne appraises her time in the Dominican Republic, "When serving at the Colegio and La Matas I felt I was at the heart of the church. At one place it was a poverty so much more poignant than suffering from lack of material necessities; at the other it was the worst of human deprivation and starvation. I experienced along with the native people ?what it meant to be church".
Nonetheless, it was in La Matas de Fanfan, close to the Haitian border that Susanne began her work with catechists in earnest. The mountain terrain and long distance traveling on horseback and mule were no deterrent to this woman, fired with zeal for God's Word. She taught, trained and supervised a cadre of rural teachers who in turn would travel to the further outlying mountain areas to spread the Gospel.
Susanne's thirst for deeper knowledge, and understanding of her work led her back to the United States to take an extended course on the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine; in 1964 she received a certificate in Modern Catechetics from the Catholic University of America. Later Susanne again came to the United States to complete a degree at Catholic University of America . While a student there she was privileged to have as teachers Gerard Sloyan, Berard Marthaler and Mary Charles Bryce, all of whom bore influence on Susanne's life work in catechetics. Sloyan was farsighted and, according to Susanne, " a strong motivator for moving persons into contemporary catechetics in the age of the Second Vatican Council." Of Marthaler she has said, "He was the greatest! Through him I was introduced to the international world of catechetics; I met the experts in the field from other continents and found my views strongly influenced and challenged by these connections." Bryce had a contagious enthusiasm for religious education and "was an inspiration to anyone who entered her classroom." In 1971 Susanne was awarded an M.A. in Religion and Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America. Her two research projects for this degree reflected well her life interests: The Significance of Christ's Eucharist for Church Unity and Cosmos and The Theological Content of the Medellin Documents . Later on when Susanne met Mary Charles Bryce on a common professional scene, her teacher became a soul-sister and personal friend. After graduation many times she professionally crossed paths with Berard Marthaler and continued to find him "the most respected influence in catechetics in the Western world".
It was with this preparation behind her that Susanne assumed significant leadership in catechetics on the national and international scenes. She was director of catechetics in the Archdiocesan office of Education in Puerto Rico (1970-1976) and she began her work as a theological consultant to the Caribbean Bishops' Conference. Her fluency in Spanish and German served her well. As a simultaneous translator for the Bishops she had access to their meetings and first hand experience of the pastoral planning for the implementation of Medellin and Vatican II documents. This work brought her an appointment as an official delegate to Rome when the Spanish-speaking Bishops convened to begin work on the General Catechetical Directory. (1971), and the synod that followed.
From 1976 to 1982 Susanne served in several positions in the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan. She first was hired for the Adult Religious Education Department, then assumed Directorship of the Education Office for the diocese until such time as a permanent director could be found. When the director was in place, Susanne served as Associate Director of Education. In this position her main responsibilities were in Adult Religious Education.
In 1982 Susanne was nominated for the position of Executive Secretary for the National Conference of Diocesan Directors of Religious Education (NCDD), an organization serving the Catholic Dioceses of the United States in catechetical work. This was a critical time as the Conference was to assume the responsibilities of the Office of Catechesis of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops which the Bishops had closed the previous year. Susanne established and organized the new office, and guided the day to day work of this fledgling organization. Numerous letters and various communications to her at that time indicate her most gracious hospitality, her organizational skills, and her dedication to the work of catechesis. Particularly noteworthy are the words of praise for Susanne's efforts to include the role of Eastern Catholic Churches in Catholic catechesis. It was through her that the Eastern Catholic churches were invited to sit on the board of NCDD.
In 1988 her work at NCDD came to an end; her departure from Washington, DC was marked by innumerable accolades and great gratitude for the work she did at the conference. During a well earned sabbatical Susanne continued to study and update her theology.
In 1989 she accepted the position of National Program Director of the Vincent Pallotti Center for Apostolic Development where she was able to employ the many skills she had developed over the years, particularly in training persons for various roles within the church's mission. The purpose of the Center was to prepare lay leadership for volunteer and missionary roles.
Over and beyond Suzanne the translator, the teacher, the catechist, the organizer, was Suzanne the minister. Her life is one marked by a deep sense of mystery and what she would deem the unique privilege of collaboration with others. In her autobiography she describes her life in ministry. "What an enrichment! And the opportunities and privileges that have come my way! I sometimes sit back in awe and wonder." This she could say after years of scaling the mountainous areas of Las Matas on donkey back to prepare catechists for their work, and even after experiencing the persecution of the church in Santo Domingo. This refrain continued well into her years of ministry in her homeland. "Being resource to each other in such creative and imaginative ways when ? mutual love of God and His word were our only resource" she counted as gift. In her farewell letter on leaving NCDD, she said to those honoring her, "Thank you for enriching my life".
It is noteworthy that Susanne never stopped learning. While daily activities continued to be learning experiences for her, she also consistently sought out more formal study opportunities.Post graduate theology classes were taken at:
- Pontifical Seminary of San Tomas de Aquino in the Dominican Republic
- Dominican Seminary in Bayamon, Puerto Rico
- Catholic University of America
- University of Detroit
- St. John Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan
- Summer Theological Institute at St. John Center for Youth and Family
- Institute for Continuing Education ?Archdiocese of Detroit
The same selflessness and dedication that prompted Suzanne's life choices and influenced her work, from the rugged terrain of the Dominican Republic to the offices of national organizations also expressed itself in her many years of service on boards and committees. Susanne served on the:
- Editorial Board of Living Light
- USCC Committee for the National Catechetical Directory
- NCEA Advisory Committee ?Religious Education Division
- Board of Directors of NCDD of Religious Education and Catechetics
- Federation of Diocesan Liturgy Commission Advisory Committee on Sacraments
- Vice-president and board member of REA
- General Catechetical Directory as representative of the Spanish speaking Bishops of the Caribbean Conference
- Served as Assistant to the Bishops at the CELAM Conference in 1974 in Puerto Rico
- In 1993 Susanne served as catechetical expert for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' publication of the Children's Lectionary .
Various organizations recognized the contributions of Susanne Hofweber and called her work to the attention of the public by granting numerous awards:
- Middle States Association Award for Outstanding Service to Secondary Education, as a member of the Visiting Committee of NCEA for schools in the archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico in March 1969.
- Award from El Colegio Santo Domingo on October 30, 1971 for Leadership in Education.
- In 1988 the Religious Education Association recognized her work in promoting leadership in interfaith religious education.
- In 1990 the NCDD presented her with an award at their annual banquet.
- On April 12, 1988, Susanne was granted the Sadlier-Dinger award for her long and visionary leadership in, and unselfish dedication to, catechetics. The award reads "in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the educational ministry of the Catholic Church in America."
- Award from the Dioceses of Baltimore and Washington, DC March 3, 1988 for Catechetical Leadership.
- 1988 award from the Eastern Catholic Churches of the United States.
- USCC department of Education ?"collaboration and support in the church's educational mission in the U.S., May 1980."
- Religious Education Association for Leadership in Interfaith Education 1992.
Contributions to Christian Education
In enumerating Susanne's accomplishments in the field of catechesis, there is little concrete evidence of great accomplishments: a few articles, no books but instead a quiet persistent work and care behind the scenes. In numerous accounts and in her private collection of letters, gratitude is expressed to Suzanne for her consummate concern, for her kind hospitality and particularly for her administrative leadership as first executive secretary of the National Association of Diocesan Directors (of Religious Education) for six years and in difficult times. Under her guidance the NCDD grew as an organization and maintained its position on the cutting edge of catechetics for the Roman Catholic Church in America. To this organization Suzanne lent her ability for networking, her vision for the promotion of quality catechesis and as one colleague said "she is in my book of great women". Words such as "most inspiring". "generous", "tremendously hospitable" are among the qualities her friends and colleagues identify.
However, it was not only in this national position but in the hill country of the Dominican Republic, in the Universities of the island and in the office in the dioceses of Saginaw and of Puerto Rico that one encountered this generous advocate of quality catechesis at all levels of church. Her international experience served well in the promotion of catechesis wherever she was. As the Conference Bulletin for the 1990 NCDD convention states, her "name may not be recognized to every member of the catechetical family but everyone has been impacted by her work."
Today (2003) in her retirement Susanne meets daily for scripture discussions with parishioners; she conducts weekly communion services at a retirement village and at her home parish of St. Owen in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan where she also resides.
Further information about her present work can be found on http//www.stowen.org/staff.htm
Addendum: Sister Susanne Hofweber O.P., formerly known as Elizabeth Hofweber, passed away on Aug. 27, 2017, at the Dominican Life Center in Adrian, Michigan. She was 97 years of age and in the 80th year of her religious profession in the Adrian Dominican Congregation.
Publications by Susanne Hofweber
- Hofweber, S. (1977, September 17). It's catechetical Sunday in the diocese of Saginaw. The Catholic Weekly , 1.
- Hofweber, S. (1981, June 26). Independence Day: A parish and family celebration. The Catholic Weekly , 1.
- Hofweber, S. (n.d.). Estudio y observaciones del ritual de la penitencia . A collaborative work on guidelines for the reception of the sacraments for the Diocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico (Susanne served as director of this guide for religious education.)
- Hofweber, S. (1982). [Review of the book Enabling the disabled: A guide for religious education ] and [Review of the book Catechesis for persons with disabilities: A blueprint for action ]. Living Light , 19 (3), 281.
- Hofweber, S. (n.d.). Book endorsement: Fashion me a people by Maria Harris.
- Hofweber, S. Book endorsement: Sourcebook for modern catechetics by Michael Warren (Ed.).
- During her time at NCDD Susanne was responsible for two publications annually on topics that were needed by Diocesan Directors of Religious Education and that were not on the market. The actual writing was done by experts in the field.
- From 1982-1988 Susanne prepared the materials for the annual celebration of Catechetical Sunday.
Presentations by Susanne
- Summer Program at Oblate College, Washington, D.C. "The Development of the Spiritual Life Relationship through the Catholic School, the Religious Education Program and the Adult Education Program." June, 1987
- Served on Summer Faculty at Catholic University of America 1984.
- WTU October 13-15, 1986 Mission awareness and animation in the American church - respondent to Bishop Fiorenza.
Publications about Susanne Hofweber
- Dorr-Clement, C. (2000). Catholic foremothers in American catechesis. Living Light , 37 (2), 55-68.
Excerpts from Publications
The following quotes reveal Susanne's own spirituality and her convictions that catechists must cultivate a holiness of life. Excerpts from her presentation to a group of catechists upon their completion of requirements for certification as catechists (no date given).
"Your vocation as a catechist is not just a new job. You will never be a real catechist unless the love of Him about whom you teach is so apparent in your life, in your lesson, in You that it shines through. Now you have the background, the preparation and the diploma to certify to all that you are ready for the task. However, you will only be successful if your love for God and your excitement for the Good News you share is just as strong and overpowering."
Regarding the awesome responsibility of catechists Susanne affirms
"You are entrusted not only by their parents but by the church with their [the children's] formation in the faith. Yours is the power to shape a world in which faith is or is not a reality. You are the 'living catechism' ?more readable than any textbook".
Informed by the words of the Bishops and major catechetical documents Susanne affirms the need for a new way of thinking of religious education.
From an interview by the author (2004):
"The recognition of the primacy of adult education has had very little successful practical application on the local parish level. We are so accustomed, perhaps, to a classroom concept of learning, we do not have a vision of what adult learning should look like. . . . We need to rethink ways and means. We need a vision."
Despite her retirement from the more involved parochial scene and responsible positions Susanne is very much aware of the multicultural challenges of our parishes today. In the same interview she notes:
"A recognition of just who we are as a church requires that we look at the multiple ethnic and national groups with their cultural practices, the origins, and customs, with an understanding of the kind of catechesis they may have had or the nature of the church to which they are accustomed."
Dorr-Clement, C. (2000). Catholic foremothers in American catechesis. Living Light , 37 (2), 55-68.
Mary Lou Putrow
Mary Lou Putrow, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Catechetics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan where she teaches courses on catechesis, the RCIA and mission and ministry. Her particular research interest is in women's contributions to catechesis in the Roman Catholic tradition.