Sister Jacquelyn Hoffman (formerly Sister Theodata)
As we hear the words of this touching gospel story, we cannot help but think of the hundreds of smiling children who gathered around Sister Jackie Hoffman during her 70 years of ministry.
And the psalmist who wrote: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; make music to the Lord with the harp and the sound of singing, let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy,” could well have been thinking of Jackie. For, all her life, she embraced with exuberance and joy — music, the beauty of nature, and her beloved Sisters of Providence, said Sister Janet Gilligan in her commentary for Sister Jacquelyn Hoffman, formerly Sister Theodata, who passed away on Monday, January 25, 2021, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 89 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 71 years.
Sister Janet continued: Jacquelyn Susanna Hoffman was born on Feb. 3, 1931, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the second child of Mildred Middleton Hoffman and Al Hoffman, and as Jackie claimed, “the apple of my daddy’s eye.” Her older sister Pat lives now in New Jersey. Two brothers, Donald and Steven, preceded her in death. She has five nieces and seven nephews.
Her brother Don was just 14 months younger than Jackie, and they became best friends. Her deep love of nature had its roots in her early years, when she and Don spent time together on their grandparents’ farm, where Jackie loved being close to the earth and to farm animals.
Jackie’s passion for music also had its roots in her childhood. When she was very young, she saw a picture of an instrument she thought was a violin (although she says it was probably a guitar) and begged her parents to buy her one. She began her lifelong romance with the violin in kindergarten, practicing, studying and performing until the end. “Every time I wanted to quit,” she said, “my mother would say ‘You asked for it.”’
And her devotion to the Sisters of Providence also goes back to her early years. As a very young child, Jackie loved being with the Sisters at Saint Jude’s as they sat in the yard doing needlework. She recalls that one dark evening at her grandparents’ farm, a very young Jackie promised God she, too, would be a sister. And in grade school, when she announced to her startled mother that she was going to have 25 children, she quickly explained that she would be teaching them.
Because her father had to leave school during the depression to work on the family farm, he vowed his children would have the best education money could buy. So, Jackie was taught by Sisters of Providence through all her years of schooling, spending her elementary years at Saint Jude and St. John the Baptist in Fort Wayne, and her high school years in Central Catholic in Fort Wayne and Ladywood in Indianapolis, graduating in 1949. She claims she was a bit boy crazy and that was probably why she got sent away to boarding school at Ladywood. Jackie won a scholarship to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She attended the college for only a semester, studying Latin and French. But in her last year at Ladywood, she had felt a strong call to religious life, so she entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Providence on Feb. 2, 1950. She received the religious name of Sister Theodata, made her first profession of vows in 1952, and final profession in 1957.
She received a bachelor’s degree in music from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1962 and a master’s degree in music education from the University of Illinois in 1968. She attended the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago during the summers of 1964, 1965 and 1966.
Jackie taught music in Jasper for five years, at Annunziata and Our Lady of Providence schools in Saint Louis for 10 years, and at St. Francis Xavier in Wilmette, Illinois, for nine years. In 1968, when Jackie taught strings at a junior orchestra camp, the staff was so enchanted by her lively method of teaching that involved clapping and marching, that they nicknamed her “the swinging nun.”
She spent the next eight years at Guerin High School in Illinois. One student remembers her well: “I met her the first time 44 years ago when I was signing up for classes at Guerin High School. She convinced me that I should learn the viola. From that time on, she took me under her wings. She taught me the love of music, walked with me through my degrees in music, introduced me to Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, and modeled for me how to be an Episcopal priest. Her name in religious life was Sister Theodata — Gift from God. And yes, we teased her about this. However, in retrospect, she indeed has been a gift from God in my life.”
During her years at Guerin, Jackie studied under George Perlman, a Chicago violinist and world-famous teacher, and he presented her in a violin recital at Guerin High School in 1975. While she ministered in the Chicago area, she played in several community orchestras. Sister Mary Catherine Keene recalls how she and Jackie learned to improvise together on their violins, and loved to perform for retreats and other events.
In 1982, Jackie moved to Fort Wayne to care for her aging parents. She wrote, “The death of my dad in 1982 was truly a grace-filled moment. I was able to minister to him during the weeks leading up to his death, and then to sit at his side when he took his last breath. For two years, I was blessed to grow in friendship with my mother … What a special gift to get to know, love and cherish Mom during her last couple of years, and what a grace to be at their bedsides at the time of death.” She also recalled how she “lost Don to cancer in 1995 at age 63 — a terrible blow to all who knew and loved him.”
Jackie taught at St. John the Baptist in Fort Wayne for 20 years. Because she taught classroom music in grades kindergarten through eight, she felt she touched the lives of every child in the school. The students and parents at St. John the Baptist loved Sister Jackie and looked forward to her Christmas programs. A former student wrote, “She was the best! She was the most bubbly and loved teaching.” A fellow teacher wrote, “She was an amazing person with an enormous talent! I loved how forward thinking and open minded she was!” For 15 years, Jackie was a member of the Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne Community Orchestra. During the last nine years, under the direction of David Gooke, she was the concertmaster, an experience she described as “truly a challenge, a responsibility, and an awesome privilege.”
In 2000, Jackie celebrated her Golden Jubilee with a wilderness trip — canoeing and camping in the boundary waters of Minnesota and Canada. She wrote, “I love the beauty of nature, the sound of the winged creatures, various four-legged animals, and sharing this beauty with other sisters and friends.”
In 2003, after her many years of classroom music, choir and liturgical work, Jackie applied to a sabbatical program of studies at the School of Applied Theology at Berkeley, California. In her recommendation for Jackie, Sister Denise wrote that “She comes to the sabbatical experience with her usual degree of enthusiasm, dedication, openness to new ideas and a desire to use those ideas in future ministry.” Her pastor at St. John the Baptist described her as “intrinsically joyful, a gifted musician, a dedicated teacher, and a source of spiritual energy to the communities to which she belongs.” He wryly added that she is, “to put it mildly, a champion of women’s place in the church” who will “even add spice to Berkeley, California.
In 2004, Jackie returned to the Woods and began a ministry of sharing her music in health care, at the village church, and in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, where she played for the sisters’ funerals and served as a cantor. Karen Sagraves wrote, “Jackie was always eager to share her music with everyone. Offering her gift of playing or singing for the community fed her spirit and the spirits of all those sisters who valued her musicianship so much. I will never forget that when my husband died in 2009, Sister Jackie and Sister Lisa graciously agreed to play for his funeral and they did so beautifully. It remains a comforting memory for me.”
In addition to her service to the church, Jackie spent her days working with the children at Woods Day Care, where she taught pre-school children music and served as receptionist at the front desk. The director, Sister Judy Cervizzi, was the envy of the local day care pre-school directors in the area, because she was the only one who had her very own music teacher! Whenever Judy thanked Jackie for service to Woods Day Care/Pre-School and told her how she enhanced the program, Jackie would get teary eyed and say, “I am the one who should be thanking you for allowing a retired music teacher to feel worthwhile and to have a purpose.”
And apparently Jackie was still the swinging nun. Judy remembers that “Working with toddlers was a challenge. One day I walked in and Jackie was trying to teach the little ones to march and follow her in a straight line. Each one was marching just fine, but those little sweethearts formed their own places to march, and believe me it was not in a straight line!”
When her sister Pat would come to visit, Jackie would bring Pat to the day care, and their deep love for each other was evident to all.
Friends and students who are asked to describe Jackie always respond, “Music was her life.” But she also loved camping in the wilderness, canoeing, water skiing, white water rafting, and taking long walks. She was an avid Colts fan. Her sister-in-law Jacquiline remembers who Jackie got a kick out of everything — even grocery shopping.
Jackie’s reflection on her vocation reveals the source of her joyous energy: “I ask myself, why does being a Sister of Providence still excite me? It is this God I say I love and live for! I feel God in the loving hugs from the very young and from those whom I have known many years and who continue to love me just as I am — I find God in joys and sorrows, affirmation and misunderstanding, in success and failures, in beauty and chaos, and most of all in the magnificent gift of Creation. This is the God who deeply and passionately loves all of us.”
When asked to reflect on significant moments in her life, Jackie wrote “It seems that all of life is one great, big, wonderful significant moment. To be loved and fashioned by so loving a God is truly significant.” Perhaps this conviction is why a friend wrote of Jackie, “Jackie was the most positive human being I have ever known. No doubt, she knew darkness, but what she always projected was light, grace and God’s love working among us. She could find a silver lining in a tornado cloud. Such a beautiful person.”
When Woods Day Care/Pre-School closed, Jackie continued to play in churches and in health care and served as the coordinator of Ladywood alumnae. She continued to play her violin even as her health declined and she moved into health care. She was already frail when she tested positive for COVID-19 and within 12 hours, she was to meet the God whose love pervaded her life. On a phone call shortly before her death, Sister Jenny Howard assured Jackie “Your family and all of us love you,” and Jackie’s last words were “I love you.”
Although we mourn our loss, we rejoice with you, Jackie, as you enter into eternal life with the God you loved and served so well.
Funeral services for Sister Jacquelyn took place on Thursday, February 25, 2021, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
A virtual wake took place at 10:30 a.m., followed by Liturgy without Eucharist at 11 a.m.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Jacquelyn in the comment section below.
Memorial contributions may be made in honor of Sister Jacquelyn to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Sister Jacquelyn Hoffman (formerly Sister Theodata)
In Indiana: Teacher, Holy Family/St. Joseph, Jasper (1952-57); Teacher, St. John the Baptist, Fort Wayne (1982-2002); Music/Health Care/Receptionist, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2004-13); Music Ministry, Providence Health Care, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2013-18).
In Missouri: Teacher, Annunziata/Our Lady of Providence, St. Louis (1957-63); Teacher, Our Lady of Providence, St. Louis (1963-66).
In Illinois: Teacher, St. Francis Xavier, Wilmette (1966-74); Teacher, Mother Theodore Guerin High School, River Grove (1974-82).
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