Interviewed by Sister Maria Vincent Brocato, SCN
(The remarks of the interviewer are in italics.)
“I don’t have much time,” she said with emphasis. Sister Margaret Hohman was not talking about her ninety-three plus years but about all she had to do – checking to be sure all absentee ballots were distributed, getting together the magazines she takes to the jail, checking funds related to her ministry and preparing her bi-monthly prayer service for women she visits in the jail.” As you read Margaret’s story, it becomes apparent that the social justice fire that burns within her, had its beginning early in her life.
Margaret was born on Nov. 12, 1922, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Henry Conrad Hohman and Anna Mae Torpey Hohman. The example of her parents has shaped so much of who Margaret has become. Her father felt he had a good elementary education from the Brothers at St. Martin of Tours School where he learned both German and English. Henry’s family needed support from his job so he was not able to attend high school. He became a journeyman plumber and was on his way to becoming a master plumber. The 1930’s Depression came and Henry lost his business. That meant the family lost their home. Gratefully, Father Francis Timoney gave Henry a maintenance job and the family moved to Holy Name Parish on Fourth Street. Margaret remembers her hardworking father who found time to join various parish organizations that offered outreach to others.
There is a painful happening at Holy Name School that Margaret kept in her heart for many years. Her father told her to ask her teacher if she could bring her dime the next day for the milk she had for her lunch. The staff person in the kitchen shamed her that day and also the next when she was able to bring the money. Margaret decided not to tell her parents or the Sister/teacher about it. Years later at a retreat where all were invited to tell life stories did this memory come back. An overflow of tears came in abundance, and finally the hurt was washed away. Margaret reflects,” I know this memory helped me understand the problems and shame that poor people must experience.”
She attended Holy Name School with her older sister Mary Virginia and her younger brother Pat. She recalls other experiences at Holy Name School, not painful but memorable. She was sent to make her first confession even though she was” too young for First Communion.” (The priest only smiled and spoke kindly.) A Sister teacher asked her to take home the message that her brother” was not being good.” Margaret decided against doing that.
When the time did come for her to make her First Communion, the Sister offered her mother a plastic veil for Margaret.” My daughter will not wear a plastic veil”. Creatively Anna Mae got real flowers and Margaret wore a crown, beautiful and unique.
Margaret’s mother, Anna Mae Torpey, was born in County Clare, Ireland where she had been a shepherdess. She came to the United States on a ticket her sister, Bridget Torpey, decided not to use. Anna Mae was fifteen years old and somehow made her way to Louisville where she became a milliner and an accomplished seamstress. Anne Mae was shy by nature and Margaret had difficulty in getting her to attend mother/daughter functions or school activities. But courage she did have!
Because Anna Mae believed that a good education was essential she approached the SCNs at Presentation Academy. She asked if they would consider accepting her daughters if the Hohmans could pay half of the tuition required. Both daughters attended and finished at Presentation where Margaret enjoyed sports and was a president of her class.
(A memory she has is typical of the Margaret we now know. When a Sister teacher at Pres had an entire group write a punishment because one of the class had talked, Margaret felt it was unjust to require it of all so she wrote hers in two inch letters. The Sister was only mildly aggravated with her.)
Both she and Mary Virginia were awarded scholarships to Nazareth College. Margaret still has high regard for the SCN women who served at Nazareth College. “I wish I could write their story, “she says with a sigh.
Margaret was involved with the Sodality Federation in Louisville and was encouraged by Father Raymond Treece to be its president.” I didn’t want to do it, but he had more confidence in me that I had in myself. We worked especially hard to extend hospitality and courtesy to the Sodality members of the African American parishes of the city. Already I was becoming aware of the effects of racism.” Margaret graduated from Nazareth College summa cum laude in June 1944, with an AB degree in Math and Chemistry.
(It is easy to see that the beliefs of her parents and her girlhood experiences were moving Margaret toward the life values she would embrace.)
After graduating, Margaret decided to work as a shift chemist for the Louisville Goodrich Company. She had an amazing job for a young woman. She supervised the testing of butadiene, a substance involved in the production of rubber. She sometimes climbed the railroad tank cars to make sure the workers had completely emptied them of the butadiene.
Margaret remained at this job for six months. During this time she took extra classes at Nazareth College in order to continue playing the field hockey she so enjoyed. These months gave Margaret the time she needed to question where God was directing her life. Was it marriage, family, religious life? On a Gaudete Sunday she came to the decision that she would enter the convent. She told God,” I will try it out and if it is not for me I’ll get sick and come home. I’m afraid if I don’t, I’ll miss Your blessings.” Her father supported her decision but her mother was not happy and would have liked for Margaret to stay at home and give support for her brother, Pat’s education. She would soon realize that the path she had chosen was blessed for her and she prayed against getting sick.
In the Novitiate Sister Mary Aquinas Kelleher, who had been Margaret’s principal at Presentation, was the novice director. She had asked Margaret while a student there if she had ever thought of being a Sister. Margaret’s answer was a definite “no” at that time. Their relationship and interaction would not always be smooth but it was vastly different with Sister Mary Rosine Callahan, Margaret’s postulant director. This relationship with Sister Mary Rosine Callahan became a great blessing in Margaret’s life. The two shared on matters spiritual with Margaret’s being given books like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.
(Many SCNs have found Sister Mary Rosine’s spirituality overly pious but not Margaret! Mary Rosine became a lifelong friend and spiritual guide.)
Her novitiate classmates – Sisters Mary Martha Wiss (later Dr. Wiss), Kathleen Mary Bohan, Marie Catherine Ritter and Lucy Marie Freibert – all had come to the novitiate with some college experience. Margaret’s name, after receiving the habit, was Sister Benedict. After her class made vows in July 1947, Margaret was missioned to St. Frances Academy in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was a challenging year for Margaret who was a new science teacher and had almost all boys in her class. Although the boys were not pleased to be in Catholic school, a prescription for each child demanded by Owensboro Bishop Francis Cotton, Margaret had no trouble in the classroom.
The next year Margaret was changed to St. Catherine Academy in Lexington, Kentucky. There Margaret set up a chemistry/science lab which she would do again in other missions. St. Catherine was preparing for Southern Association accreditation and Margaret was asked to be a Math teacher.
(As we visited, two memories about St. Catherine came to Margaret: One was the insistence of the Superior that the Sisters should go to Holy Communion before Mass as busy lay workers had to do. Having done some liturgical reading, Margaret knew this was not the preferred way to receive Eucharist. She objected but to no avail.
The second memory was a situation where the Superior/Principal would not allow the monies collected for a fund raiser to be used because the children had mistakenly gone to the wrong school to seek donations. Margaret objected, used the money which she still held for a bus and took the class to the1948 Gethsemane Centennial celebration.)
Margaret has other significant memories from her days at St. Catherine’s. A priest gave the young Sister Benedict direction and a sense of proportion about the challenges of community life and minister. She made occasional trips to Nazareth to visit with Sister Mary Anastasia Coady, First Assistant to Mother Bertrand. Her wisdom and humor were helpful and very welcomed. Also to be remembered at Lexington are visits to the drug rehab prison where the Sisters gave catechetical instruction to those who wished to come.
Margaret’s next assignment, in August, 1951, was to Roanoke Catholic High School in Roanoke, Virginia. She has so many happy memories here. There were other young Sisters there to make community life joyous and fun. Margaret had Seniors for class and the directing of plays.” Our plays would never withstand the critic’s pen but the parents and friends were pleased,” Margaret says with a smile. “I also especially appreciated Sister Catherine Alma Reilly who had the gift of treating us young Sisters – Sisters Florence Louise (Theresa) Giardino and Maria Jude Portinaro, myself- like adults.”
(A belief of her mother’s that Margaret has inherited is involvement in the political process. Anna Mae believed that your rights came through the political process and was excited when Al Smith was the Democratic nominee for President in 1928. Margaret showed the same interest even from her high school days.)
Margaret continues.” When I went to Roanoke, one of the first things I wanted to do was to register to vote. Because there was the requirement of a poll tax in Virginia, I was given the money and surprised them at City Hall since no Sister had ever registered to vote. Another thing -I gave my students articles to read regarding social justice issues because of my strong interest in this call of the Gospel. Young Father Walter Sullivan in the parish in Roanoke would later be Bishop Sullivan in the Diocese of Richmond. He listened and was most interested in what I was teaching the boys of the school. Later he became head of Pax Christi.” ”
In 1956 Sister Benedict/Margaret was missioned to Nazareth College in Louisville. There she taught nursing and other students in the Chemistry Department for two years. Because of the influence and support of Sister Laurita Gibson, Margaret was sent in 1958 to St. Louis University to study for her Master’s and Doctor’s degrees. For each of the four years she was there, Margaret was able to apply and receive a grant for study from the National Science Foundation. She received her PH.D. in Math and Chemistry in June, 1968.
Sister Margaret Hohman (then Sister Benedict) at St. Louis University, 1963
Back she went to Catherine Spalding College, previously named Nazareth College. Again Margaret taught in the Chemistry Department, working many times with students who were poor and struggling to make ends meet. In 1968 Margaret was appointed Assistant Dean. The President of the College at this time was Sister Eileen Egan, SCN. Although Margaret’s philosophy of ministry definitely differed from Eileen’s, she stayed in the Assistant Dean position for three years. One of the requests Margaret made was that the monies saved from her not receiving a professional salary would be used for financial assistance for needy students. The answer was clear, “No.”
By this time Margaret had assumed her baptismal name. Always a learner, she applied and received grants for summer study in Florida. These were the 60’s and Margaret found opportunities for involvement in social justice concerns. Bravely she asked permission from Mother Lucille for Sisters to take part in a prayer vigil in front of City Hall to highlight the open housing situation in Louisville. “I called many Sisters in town and we had quite a delegation,” she says with gratitude.
Before she left Spalding Margaret and others formed a lay/Sister group to discuss social justice issues. Among the SCNs was Kathleen Flaherty. Kathleen would later be a member of the SCN- led persons that tore down a dilapidated house in the West End to raise awareness about the terrible housing problems there.
(Many SCNs remember the trial of these Sisters. Supportive Mother Lucille Russell had paid the fines and then sat in the courtroom along with many other members of the Congregation.
Margaret acknowledges shyness about changing from habit to contemporary dress but the March 3, 1971 picture in The Record, Louisville Catholic paper, shows Margaret in simple contemporary garb. )
Margaret was featured in the Catholic paper because she had just returned from a week at the Paris, France peace talks. She was the only Kentuckian among one hundred seventy one Americans at the Citizens Conference on ending the War in Indochina. This conference had been sponsored by the American friends Service Committee, Clergy and Laymen Concerned and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The SCN Community underwrote the cost of Margaret’s trip and she is grateful for that support. As would be expected, she came back convinced that the war was “ tearing the small country apart” and the United States needed to end the conflict. The singer Judy Collins was in the delegation and Margaret remembers the group singing, with Judy playing the guitar,” All we are asking is to give peace a chance.” Margaret pledged to do her part in speaking out.
In discernment with her Provincial, supportive Sister Margaret Maria Coon, Margaret made the decision to leave the College. For two years she was Staff Assistant to Mayor Charles Evers of Fayette, Mississippi in his unsuccessful bid for Governor of the State. While there Margaret had the special task of assisting African Americans in their effort to vote.
Fr. Knight, S.J., from whom she had received spiritual direction while in Florida, suggested that she make a thirty day retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. Even though a retreatant, Margaret was given a ministry – the challenge of bringing together the African American and white churches in the area. During this retreat time of prayer and discernment Margaret searched how she would follow her desire to live the Gospel call to social justice.
(We remember that the US bishops at their 1971 Synod challenged the Catholic faithful to remember,” Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of preaching the Gospel.” Margaret certainly embraced this mandate.)
God answered her prayer in this way, Sister Kathleen Flaherty, SCN, formerly Sister Bridget Maria, contacted Margaret to encourage her to attend a meeting in Kansas City of persons interested in corporate responsibility, which is an organization’s commitment to ensure that its funds are used for the social and environmental wellbeing of others. The result of this input was that Kathleen and Margaret persuaded the SCN Executive Committee to form a committee that would become informed about corporate responsibility. Sister Thekla Keller, SCN, General Treasurer of the Congregation, became active in the Corporate Responsibility movement of many religious organizations and eventually served a term as Chair of the National Committee on Corporate Responsibility. She gave leadership to various regional groups of Sisters who remain active until the present.
A special remembrance is the occasion when executives of the Coca Cola Company flew to Bardstown to meet in Sister Thekla’s office and talk with us about our complaint against their personnel practices for African Americans. Since the executives did not want a shareholder resolution against their company, they agreed to what we asked.
Kathleen figured in her future again when she suggested that Margaret apply for a position being offered by Fr. Geno Barone in Washington, D.C.
At the same time Margaret was discerning a social justice position in the Diocese of Richmond. In the Washington, D.C. ministry she would work on justice issues for religious women and would join Director Carol Coston, O.P. Sister Margaret Maria helped her discern accepting the latter position and so Margaret became a founding staff member of NETWORK. There were monthly trips to Congress to lobby and raise awareness of the important issues affecting the poor and marginalized.
(We can be grateful that the SCN Community supported Margaret in this position which has become such a voice for justice and the poor of the world.)
After three years in the Network ministry, Margaret answered her next call. It was to be in collaboration with the Foundation for Arab- Israeli Reconciliation She would assist two gentlemen -an Israeli and a Palestinian – to advocate and lobby Congress on behalf of the needs of the people living in that difficult situation.
For three years, 1976-1979, Margaret then served as the Executive Secretary of the Senate of Religious in the Archdiocese of Louisville. For two of those years Margaret was a member of the House of Prayer at Nazareth.
Margaret next year was for study at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Here she earned a Master’s degree in Theological Studies, followed by a year’s paid internship for CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) at the University of Chicago Hospital.
In 1981 Margaret’s ministry took her to Dayton, Ohio as the Parish Coordinator of Parish Community affairs. She would serve there for eight years. In 1989 she was appointed to form small faith communities in Middletown, Ohio. This was rewarding in that the laity of the parish were learning their responsibility regarding the social justice issues championed by the Church.
Sister Margaret and her nephew Patrick on the way to a dinner in honor of First Lady Hillary Clinton, at Humana Tower, Louisville, Kentucky, April 24, 1997
From this ministry Margaret became Co-Director of the Marianist Volunteer Service Corps in the Middletown/Franklin area of Ohio. This was an inspiring ministry which lasted for five years. Margaret says,” It was amazing to me how wonderful the young people were who gave a year of their lives to volunteer working with the poor. They lived in community and by pooling their salaries were able to pay their rent and buy necessities. We had retreats for them four times a year and a Marianist coordinator who came to their house for support. “
During the next two years Margaret served the SCN Community as Assistant Coordinator at the Motherhouse, then three years as Director of Pastoral Care, also at the Motherhouse. In 1999 until 2004 Sister Shalini D’Souza, SCN Vice President asked Margaret to be involved in the Office of Global Concerns for the SCN Congregation.
In 2004 until the present Margaret is listed in Community Service since she is still finding ways to serve those in need, most notably the women now in the Louisville jail. (One can still see zeal in Margaret’s heart and somehow she has the energy to keep it burning despite her years.)
(My visits with Sister Margaret were inspiring. Very simply and without fanfare she shared with me the path where God has led her. One last memory of hers is influential in understanding her ability to hold on tenaciously to her beliefs about the rights of others.
Margaret recalls.” My mother and dad disagreed about some things but were always united when it came to faith. It affected me a lot that they disagreed and so I came to know that conflict is a difficult thing. I had to really work on my ability to speak up on what I believed was important. Strangely enough, I didn’t feel that same kind of hesitation when it came to speaking out on social justice issues. I believe we are called to follow the words of St.Vincent, ‘Do what is put before you’.”
The SCN Community can testify to Margaret commitment and dedication to this Gospel call to address social justice issues and the needs of the poor. Margaret has faithfully raised her voice. Especially remembered are her challenges and urgings at the General Chapters after Vatican II.
For anyone who might desire to read more regarding Margaret’s journey there is a more detailed 2005 interview available in the Archives.)
To God be the glory for the gifts Margaret has received and shared!