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Sister Alexa Suelzer

Sister Alexa Suelzer1When Sister Alexa told me I could write her commentary, she did not know that it would be like this – given after the homily was finished and during the Eucharistic Liturgy. And I think she is pleased.

Alexa Suelzer was born on June 19, 1918, to Joseph and Sophie Klueppel Suelzer, in Fort Wayne. She was the ninth child and the youngest in the family. Her parents and her siblings (Joe, Leo, Marie, Bob, Monsignor Tony, Sister Mary Josephine, Father Curt and Sister David) all preceded her in death. She lived the longest of any of them. However, she said recently when she was about to celebrate her birthday just two weeks ago that “97 is enough,” said Sister Nancy Reynolds in her commentary for Sister Alexa Suelzer, who died Friday, June 26. She was 97 years and had been a Sister of Providence for 77 years.

By the time Alexa was 8 years old, both her parents had died within a year of one another. The four youngest children (Marcella, Curt, Teresa and Alexa) were then raised by their older siblings with Leo taking the upper hand. According to Alexa, the four youngest were constantly getting into trouble. But their oldest sister, Marie, told Leo to stop being so hard on them. As they got older, one by one, those four younger ones entered either the Sisters of Providence or the seminary.

Alexa entered the Congregation on Feb. 14, 1938, after she had gone to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College for two years. She was received into the novitiate on Aug. 15, 1940, and pronounced her final vows on Aug. 15, 1946.

She obtained a bachelor’s degree in English from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1940, and went on to get a master’s degree in English from Marquette in 1956. She obtained a Doctorate in Theology from the Catholic University of America in 1962. She had actually earned an STD, which is a Doctorate in Sacred Theology, which is a Pontifical Degree, but women were not allowed to obtain Pontifical Degrees in 1962. She was to be awarded a Ph.D. That did not bother Alexa as much as it would other people. When there was a Vincentian canonist as President of Catholic University, I asked Alexa if I could write to him and ask that she be awarded the STD, which was the degree she actually earned. She did not hesitate to tell me I could do that. The answer was in the negative. However, one of the professors she had, Rev. Charles Curran, told me that Alexa was far and above the brightest student he has ever taught.

Alexa taught in high schools from 1940 until 1958 with one year out to study in Rome. Above all, Alexa was a born teacher. Everyone who entered the Congregation between 1960 to our present day canonical novice, Sister Joni Luna, probably had Alexa for class. She loved teaching, especially teaching scripture. Once she had her theology degree, she began teaching at the higher education level. She taught at Catholic University, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Duquesne and St. Michael’s in Vermont.
Alexa was elected to General leadership as General Councilor/Vicar in 1972. When her term in office was completed, she served as Vicar for Religious/Director of Ecumenism in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with Archbishop John R. Quinn. When Archbishop Quinn was selected by Pope John Paul II to study religious life in the United States in 1986, he picked Alexa to be on what became known as the Quinn Commission.

Alexa was interested in everything, not because of what the topic was necessarily, but because she gave every person her full and undivided attention. She could carry on a conversation about a new book, some aspect of theology, the latest political events in the country or any topic one could bring forth. She was genuinely interested. Sister Paula Damiano stated that often, she would walk over to see Alexa with questions about something she was writing or when preparing to give a retreat to be absolutely certain she wasn’t going to say anything that was not correct. She said Alexa was always incredibly patient and always offered sage advice.

Alexa was faithful beyond words to writing notes to our sisters who are in health care. One of our CAN’s in Lourdes, who has worked with us for 30 years, used to see notes in sisters’ rooms with Sister Alexa on them. She was so eager to meet Sister Alexa because she was writing to everyone on the floor. When I was in Alexa’s room the day after she died, I found an envelope all sealed with Sister Marie Alexis’ name on it. I delivered that note to Marie Alexis, and, as you can imagine, it is very precious to her. Also, one of the Jubilarians showed me the card Alexa had written to her for her Jubilee. I am quite sure she wrote to each Jubilarian. She was so thoughtful and so aware of doing the kind thing that meant so much to the person receiving her notes or cards. Sister Ann Margaret recalls the times that the sisters living at Immaculata had the gift of going to spend time at a beach house. Alexa’s thoughtfulness led her to deliver breakfast in bed to Ann Margaret and the other sisters there.

Alexa was a great sounding board for all of us. I think that probably every one of us has a memory of a very “sacred” or “special” time spent with Alexa. She valued each person she encountered and treated all with love and respect. Throughout her time in the Congregation, Alexa was called upon often to write something about topics important to all of us: The theology of the Eucharist and other topics. Archives have many of her writings.

Sister Alexa Suelzer2The recent canonical novices who had class with Alexa were in awe of her knowledge and teaching methods. They were always happy to go to that class. Joni Luna is sad because she does not get to finish her class with Alexa. Dina Bato stopped me in the hall one day as she was returning from her class with Alexa. She said to me with amazement, “Nancy, do you know what a great teacher Alexa is?” It was great to see each canonical novice have a one-on-one class with Alexa and be amazed at the gift that Alexa was. Sister Marilyn Herber spoke of Alexa’s teaching her Spanish at St. Agnes. She had a quiz paper returned to her upon which Sister Alexa had put an “A.” However, the A was crossed off and a B+ put beside it with the comment, “next time, use pen.” Sister Marilyn didn’t argue, she just used pen the next time.

Sister Marian recently attended the Alumnae Reunion weekend at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. Members of the Golden Jubilee class (the class of 1965) visited with Alexa in her room and later told Sister Marian how much they appreciated Alexa’s teaching them how to read sacred scripture. Sister Marian was astounded that these women could give all the details of Alexa’s class 50 years later.

One day, Alexa was at the door of her residence. There was a student there who asked for another sister. Alexa sat the girl in the parlor and rang the sister’s gong. She learned later that when the sister asked the girl who answered the door, her response was, “the one who walks like Abraham Lincoln.”

Permit me, please, a couple of personal stories.

When my name was brought forth for possible election to the council prior to the 2001 General Chapter, I was discerning whether to leave my name in the mix or not. I was still living in California and when I was home for a pre-chapter meeting, I decided to see if Alexa would be open to helping me discern. I asked her if she had some time for me to do some discerning with her. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Well, I will talk with you, but I am not going to vote for you.” Sometime later, when we were living together, she told me that in spite of what she said that day, she did vote for me.

Right after her birthday, Alexa had what I will call a bad “spell” for want of a better word. Her blood pressure dropped very low and her oxygen level was low. Sister Joanne Golding sat with her during the night and by morning, she had come out of whatever it was and was back to her old self. She was, however, very tired and weak after that. So, she took it easy for the next couple of days until she got some strength back. I came home last Tuesday and saw her briefly Tuesday evening and then spent all day Wednesday with her. We had a great visit. She commented that it was a relaxed visit because I was not there for a meeting with a visit to her on the side. I was there just to visit her until we started our meetings on Sunday. When I left, she told me to sleep late the next morning and then come over to her room. Around 9 that morning (Thursday), she sort of slid off her bed when trying to get up and that constituted a fall. I did not get to her room until 10 a.m. She was in bed with oxygen and very weak. I walked over to the side of her bed and her first words to me were “goodbye.” I asked her if that meant she was going to die and she said yes. Then, a little later she exclaimed, “it is funny; it’s so funny.” I asked her what was funny and she responded, “The whole dying process.” Obviously, true to form, her mind was working and analyzing things even as she was dying.

When her death came approximately 12 hours later, it was very peaceful. She took maybe 15-20 “normal” breaths without a struggle and then simply stopped breathing any more. It was the most beautiful and peaceful death I have ever seen. The quote on the Blessed Mother Theodore calendar for June 26, the day she died, was “A good life is the best preparation for a good death.” I believe that was Alexa’s life and death – both were good.

The Sisters of Providence have lost one of our greatest wisdom figures. She will be missed, but she is happy now with her God she served so faithfully and with the whole Suelzer family she missed so much.

Funeral services for Sister Alexa took place Wednesday, July 1, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

The wake took place from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., with Mass of Christian Burial taking place at 4:30 p.m.

We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Alexa in the comment section below.

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19 Comments

  1. Helen Mae Almas on June 26, 2015 at 11:06 am

    Had pleasure of taking 2 classes with Sister in the summer at Maywood in Orange when she taught the Sisters there and when she was there to visit with her sister Sister David. Sister Alexa was a true scholar. I have never forgotten her nor the two classes. May she rest in peace.

  2. Paula Keeton, '86 on June 26, 2015 at 11:42 am

    Sr. Alexa remains one of my most influential instructors. She was brilliant, humble, strong, clear, accepting, grounded, and effective. Her incredibly dry sense of humor and sense of purpose were inspirational.

  3. Anne Lenhard Benington, '63 SMWC on June 26, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    Sister Alexa was not only my teacher at the Woods but my friend. Her brother, Msgr. Curt A. Suelzer was my pastor in Mishawaka for many years while I was growing up, a priest who married me and baptized two of my children. With this relationship, I often shared stories and reminiscences with Sister Alexa. In April, Sister sent me a lovely hand-written note, asking about my grandchildren and my activities. During all of these times, she exemplified her gentleness, sense of humor, kindness and brilliance. My heart aches knowing that this lovely woman and model nun will no longer be part of my life, yet I am thankful knowing she is now rejoicing as she rejoins her brothers and sisters for a well-desered eternal reward. Thank you, Sister, for the example you gave to so many of us about a vocation well-lived and devotion to God’s calling.

  4. Nancy Bourgoin on June 26, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    S. Alexa had a lazer sharp mind coupled with gentleness and tenderness. She also had a down to earth holiness.

  5. Tracy Alig Dowling on June 26, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    Her mind was a marvel…and she taught all who knew her that the true intellectual is one who serves the human community not only in its pursuit of knowledge, but more importantly its understanding. She was truly one of the greatest human beings I have ever known, and it was my privilege to call her my friend. Whenever I sat down with her for a conversation I came away with a deeper undSerstanding of so many things. She was such a great respecter of the human person and its precarious condition before God and man. How much I will miss her!

    • Tracy Alig Dowling on June 26, 2015 at 8:25 pm

      Her mind was a marvel…and she taught all who knew her that the true intellectual is one who serves the human community not only in its pursuit of knowledge, but more importantly its understanding. She was truly one of the greatest human beings I have ever known, and it was my privilege to call her my friend. Whenever I sat down with her for a conversation I came away with a deeper undSerstanding of so many things. She was such a great respecter of the human person and its precarious condition before God and man. How much I will miss her!

  6. Marie Eckler on June 26, 2015 at 10:34 pm

    Although we had never officially met in person, Sister Alexa was my long distance prayer warrior and companion on the journey for over 13 years having struck up acquaintance through a mutual CSJ friend. She shared life’s journey through my dad’s death in my mother’s hospital room while I was on the telephone with her at The Woods; my sister’s 3 month coma that she miraculously woke up from in ICU; my nephew’s stem cell transplant; my mother Frannie’s drawn out hospice death; family births, joys, illness, etc. I can still picture her making her way from Christina to the all night chapel to shower and sustain my family with prayers while she asked us to pray for some of her personal intentions as well. When she could not email or write as often as she would like, she would pick up the phone and call our home in Massachusetts.
    There is a void in my heart with this erudite, scholarly, gentle, humorous, compassionate, caring Sister of Providence’s death. Salexa, rejoice in seeing the Face of Christ! Well done good and faithful servant! Thank you for your presence in my life…Love, “re”

  7. Katie Hogan on June 26, 2015 at 10:57 pm

    My beloved Sr. Alexa graduated from the Woods with my Mom, Sis Hach Martin in 1939. I was sent to the Woods in 1965 as Sr. Mary Richarda where, I lived in the Juniorette with Sr. Alexa as our spiritual director, Scripture scholar, mentor and living model of a profound relationship wth God. One of my last visits with Alexa was for her to meet my husband and two of our grandchildren, and then for the 50th anniversary of a group of her “SP’s”. I am the woman I am today, in part, because of the love and inspiration of this most beautiful, gifted and loving woman. I can only imagine the reunion in heaven with all the Woods women whose lives she touched so richly…I love you dear Sister and support in my life!

  8. Peg Benson on June 27, 2015 at 8:41 am

    To Helen, Paula, Anne, Nancy and Marie, I say, yes, that’s the Sister Alexa I knew, first as a Junior Sister under her care 1967-1968 and then in recent years, the fortunate recipient of her steady, lively correspondence and the occasional visit in her sunny Lourdes room which mirrored her creative soul, scholarly books and little artifacts in their place, not overshadowing her open and giving heart.

  9. Tim Graham on June 27, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    I am an MAPT graduate and was fortunate enough to have had Sr. Alexa as one of my professors. I continue to stand in awe of her. May God grant her a warm embrace in His heavenly kingdom.

  10. Patricia Murphy, SSND on June 27, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    I will always be grateful that I had the privelege of taking 2 courses from Sister Alexis in the MAPT program at SMW. She was the epitome of a great teacher: wise, compassionate and inspirational. She expected much of us and encouraged us until she got it. May she rest in peace.

  11. Regina Pfeiffer, '99 MAPT on June 28, 2015 at 1:13 am

    As with many, her dry wit is what I remember most about her. She always delivered the one-liners with a little twinkle in her eye. Coming from Hawaii for the MAPT weekends, I was greeted sometimes with “did you bring the coffee.” She always enjoyed the Kona Sunrise coffee I would bring for all to share. I will miss her dry wit, her twinkling eyes and her graciousness.

  12. Cathy Cambpell,SP on June 28, 2015 at 8:44 am

    Sr. Alexa instilled in me a love for scripture that I carry to this day. She was my scripture teacher at SMWCollege in the 1960s. Later she became my mentor and partner in more than one theological reflection as our friendship grew during our mutual journeys as Sisters of Providence. Sr. Alexa empowered me in many ways too numerous to recount. As recently as April, she shared with me a paper she had done many years earlier on Julian of Norwich as a gift to assist me in preparing for a workshop that I was creating to offer as a retreat. Her ongoing interest in me and my projects always kept me on my toes and assured that I strove to reach new levels. I will miss her, esp. her encouraging words, her optimism, her honesty and straightforward critiques. May she rest in peace – although I am confident as well that she will keep watching over me and nudging me when I need a bit of divine inspiration.

  13. Ellie Nelson, MAPT graduate on June 29, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    Sr. ALexa was my Hebrew Scriptures professor. I thoroughly enjoyed the class- because she made it come alive! I asked Sr. Alexa to be my advisor for my thesis project, because I knew she would expect a lot from me and I felt honored that she accepted. After graduation, she became my pen-pal, we wrote about anything and everything; she always encouraged me to be my best for Christ. In every letter from her, she wrote, ” keep you in my prayers” . Just recently (April ’15) , she commented that she had some setbacks in her health but all is well- or at least well-ish” Don’t you love it? Her positive attitude and humbleness. Brilliance and humbleness; that’s what she was-I will truly miss her- one of my favorite people in this world. Now, she prays for us from heaven. Thank you , Sr. Alexa- well done- good & faithful servant

  14. Margaret McElroy, SMWC '63 on June 30, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    No one could be in Sister Alexa’s presence and not be impressed with her gifted intellect, caring heart, deep spirituality, and remarkable insight. It was so evident in conversing with Sister Alexa that she was interested in you, the person, always inquiring about your interests and issues. She was an exceptional teacher, noted scholar, and exemplary mentor who put others’ concerns before her own. Sister experienced physical and personal pain through much of her life; however, she did not dwell on herself. Rather she focused her energy on serving the sick through visits and cards, making phone calls/writing notes to those in need of her discerning counsel, and contributing her numerous talents in a variety of other ways. I shall miss our phone chats, email/note exchanges, and our one-on-one visits. Above all, I appreciate having her in my heart and life. She was a steady force in a changing world for religious and made meaningful and lasting contributions to the Sisters of Providence and the study of theology. Indeed she was loved and respected for the manner in which she exemplified God’s work and Christian virtues. May she rest in the peace of God’s heavenly kingdom.

  15. Judy Heiny on July 1, 2015 at 10:06 am

    A FEW FOND MEMORIES OF SR. ALEXA

    Sr. Alexa was a very special person in my life, though I doubt that she realized how special. We were relatives, and she and my mother (Dorothy Callahan Heiny) were classmates at SMWC, class of 1939. I last saw her at the 75th class reunion in 2014. I was touched when she confided: “I think of you often.”

    I grew up in Fort Wayne, IN, where our Suelzer relatives were abundant. Sr. Alexa grew up the youngest of nine children in a late Victorian brick home that was around the corner from my father’s grocery store and next door to the fire station. Much of her large extended family lived nearby, including her Aunt Zini Klueppel (my great grandmother), my grandmother, and her beloved older sister, Marie (Suelzer) Breman. The family was solidly Dutch and German Catholic. Life centered around St. Patrick’s parish. They all went to St. Patrick’s school and were, taught, of course, by the Sisters of Providence.

    Alex’s parents both died in close succession when she was just a young girl and her sister Marie mainly raised her. Marie was as close to a Saint as anyone I’ve known. Marie and her husband Joe were lifelong friends of my parents, and I saw them often at their home or ours. One of my father’s favorite stories was how he stopped to pick up Marie, a registered nurse, on the way to the hospital when Mom’s labor with me was progressing rapidly and he thought he wouldn’t make it.

    The closeness of family was palpable in Marie and Joe’s home. They seemed to be the keeper of the family memories and many of the family pictures. Marie talked often about her family. It was obvious that they stayed in close touch, no matter the years or distance. Indeed, I feel as if I know some of them whom I have never met, as we learned of their youths, moves, successes and struggles, marriages and deaths. Marie was always the protector and designated novena leader for all their needs.

    In high school in the ‘60s, I recall Mom and Dad proudly telling us of Sr. Alexa’s doctorate in sacred theology. That was a revelation to me. I had never heard of, let alone met, a woman who was a “PhD”. Women in my world played the supporting roles. Not long after, I had the occasion to proudly claim my ties to Sr. Alexa. I was clerking after school at a local store, a job I inherited the job from Maggie Still when she left for college at SMWC. My boss had been on a business trip to Terre Haute and decided to visit Maggie. He recounted the “security”. He was met at the door by a nun, who turned out to be Sr. Alexa, who established the legitimacy of his visit. He went on to relate, for some time, about how impressed he was with her – so educated, so gracious, etc, etc. He was so effusive that I had the feeling he may have wanted to date her had their circumstances been otherwise. I owe her the added value she gained me in his eyes.

    It started to seem very “cool” to have her as family. In retrospect, knowing of her success had slowly planted a seed in the recesses of my mind. I discovered science, my current passion, in high school, but was deflected away by an advisor who told me “science is not a field for a woman.” It didn’t help that the good Sisters of Providence who taught me at St. John’s grade school never included science it in the curriculum (May God forgive them! I have). Later, the memory of Sr. Alexa’s pioneering PhD degree provided inspiration as I worked my way back to my calling.

    Over the years I have accompanied Mom and Dad to SMWC for class reunions and other occasions. Our trips always included visits with Sr. Alexa, and her sisters, Srs. Mary Josephine and David, and Sr. Marietta, another of Dad’s cousins. Sr. Alexa was thrilled a few years back when I found and restored a picture of her mother, Sophia Kleuppel Suelzer. She didn’t have any pictures of her mother and fondly placed it in her room. Sr. Alexa joined us when I organized family members to participate in a study by the National Institutes of Health to find genes for depression, from which my father and other family members had suffered, some with tragic consequences. She smiled when I shared a slightly modified version of the Beatitudes posted in my laboratory: “Blessed are the molecular biologists, for they shall bring relief from suffering.” She understood the need to further the understanding of mood disorders as “brain disease”, as real as kidney or heart disease, without adding stigma and ostracism to the suffering of those afflicted. She had a quick and quiet humor. I recall her once joking over dinner about the Spice Girls (How many nuns even knew about the Spice Girls??). And once when Dad was leaving campus for what turned out to be his last visit, she winked at us saying fondly: “Take care of the old man.”

    To me, Sr. Alexa personified all that I hold dear: faith, family, love with commitment, intelligence – all grounded in service to others.

    Sr. Alexa, May God take care of you on your final journey. You had the courage to love greatly, and you were greatly loved.

    Fondly,
    Judy Heiny

    PhD and Professor
    Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology
    University of Cincinnati College of Medicine
    231 Albert Sabin Way
    Cincinnati, OH 45267-0576

  16. Peg Benson on July 3, 2015 at 7:01 am

    Thank you, Judy. Your Comment was beautiful.

  17. Sister Amy Therese Kenealy,SSSF on July 3, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    I was one ofthe first graduates of the MAPT program (1987). I received Sister Alexa as my advisor. I too was English teacher and we comfortably settled in to a wonderful scholarly and friendly relationship. She was a gracious lady and brilliant teacher and advisor. I last spoke to her by phone in May and picked up right where we had left off. We sent cards and notes to each other over the years. She was always interested in what was happening in my life. We shared stories about and met each others dogs. With prayer and gratitude, Alexa, until we meet again!

  18. Norma Honiball Drennan on July 5, 2015 at 10:31 pm

    Judy, I really enjoyed reading your reflections on Sister Alexa… thank you! Please say hello to your Mom, Dorothy, from me… Martha Jane Drennan,s daughter…. and from my friend Kathy Jasinski who spent some time with her at Reunion. We are enjoying a visit at the Woods and feel we just missed S. Alexa. Regards…….

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