Sister Ida Peterfy, SDSH
Foundress of the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart
Ida Peterfy was born on October 7, 1922 of Catholic parents in Kassa, Hungary (now Kosice, Slovakia). Looking back upon her early youth, God prepared her to be a leader, to work for others, and to lay down the foundation of a new religious community. On October 7, 1940, her eighteenth birthday, Sister Ida pronounced her perpetual vows in Kassa.
It was not Sister Ida’s intention to begin a religious community, her one focus was to love God and bring others to know and love Him too. In following His will God called Sister Ida to bring forth a new religious community at the time, when “the universal Church was attacked in her Chief Pastor and in her religious children”. As the future of formal religious education became uncertain, the times called for religious who would dedicate their lives to proclaim the Good News of Our Lord Jesus Christ in an inspiring, interesting and dynamic way. Sister Ida, with her earliest companions lived the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience in community life without, however, wearing the traditional religious garb. This was necessary in order to function in the restrictive situation, and was also helpful in approaching those who were alienated from the Church by Nazism and Communism.
Sister Ida’s ardent faith in God, her deep love for Him and that others would know and love Him, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, helped her to develop an innovative catechetical method, which became the Community’s cherished religious education charism: the Five Step Illustrated Method, to teach faith in a clear understandable way. The small community was instrumental in religious education of children and youth as well as formation of catechists and distributing catechetical material throughout Hungary in spite of the dangers of religious persecution. Following the arrest of József Cardinal Mindszenty, Sister Ida and her companions were advised by Church leaders to leave the country in 1949, continue their apostolate in the free world with the hope of some day returning to Hungary.
A new beginning awaited Sister Ida and the Sisters when they arrived penniless refugees in Toronto, Canada, in 1950. In order to obtain immigrant status, Sister Ida and her companions had to work as domestics for a year, earning room and board and $35 a month; that, and working in tobacco harvests as unskilled laborers for two summers, they earned enough for a down payment for a small house and printing machines. Through their new St. Joseph’s Press they had a modest livelihood, at the same time learning English.
In 1956, James Francis Cardinal McIntyre personally welcomed and warmly supported the young community in Los Angeles. When Sister Ida asked him on the need of adopting a more traditional veil and habit in keeping with the present time, Cardinal McIntyre assured her: “Don’t change . . . the Church will need you as you are.” The last five decades proved the Cardinal’s vision right, the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart was in harmony with the best of religious life tradition with renewal after Vatican II.
The Society was formally erected as a religious institution of diocesan right in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1985.
Later, in 1991, after a private audience and Mass in the chapel of Pope (now Saint) John Paul II in Rome, the Holy Father said to Sister Ida and the Sisters: “You are a blessing for the Pope. You are truly American and truly Catholic!”
The Sacred Heart Sisters of a variety of international backgrounds joyfully serve the universal Church through their community apostolate of religious education in three continents: in the Archdioceses of Los Angeles and St. Louis, in the dioceses of Orange and San Bernardino, and in the Archdiocese of Taipei, Taiwan, where the evangelization apostolate is complemented with significant medical work in the Catholic hospital and in the mission. After the collapse of communism, Sister Ida and the community returned to Hungary and opened a convent in the Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest in Hungary, where the Sisters are engaged in catechist formation in many regions, as well as giving occasional enrichment programs in Slovakia, Romania and the Ukraine.
The religious education charism, given by God to the community through Sister Ida, is treasured by the Sisters and the spirit, in which they express it, is well described by the title of their newsletter, the “JOYFUL APOSTOLATE”; Sister Ida with her Sisters began in the early 1950’s to distribute the “Joyful Apostolate” with the help of their St. Joseph’s Press.
Beginning in the seventies Sister Ida initiated many programs to expand the community charism. Sister Ida valued teamwork as a powerful witness of Christ present through the community. She encouraged the skills, talents, innovative thinking and ideas of her Sisters. Through her leadership and zeal, in addition to the parish apostolate, Sister Ida was instrumental in the purchasing and opening of the Sacred Heart Retreat Camp in San Bernardino and the Heart of Jesus Retreat Center in Santa Ana, both in California. They conduct annual summer Girls’ Camps, Leadership Retreats for young adults, as well as sacramental retreats for children and teens in their Heart of Jesus Retreat Center. Seeing the spiritual needs of families, she developed a unique Family Retreat Camp program offered in the community’s Sacred Heart Retreat Camp, also given in St. Louis, MO; and in Hungary and Taiwan, along with Children’s Camps during the summer.
Sister Ida led her Sisters on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Rome, shrines in Italy and to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. A great camper and hiker herself, she took her Sisters to camping trips to the Grand Canyon and to the Sequoias. In 1976 they made a pilgrimage in a bus with the highlight of attending the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. As much as possible the spiritual trips and travels including the whole community.
By producing a children’s television program for KABC at the request of the Los Angeles Archdiocese Communication Department, Sister Ida’s new teaching method, including the use of puppets, became nationally known by educators and families. “My Friend, Pookie” did so well in the Nielsen rating – on Sunday mornings – that KABC requested two additional series. The 27 shows were broadcast for several years.
The production of the “Sacred Heart Kids’ Club” video program in the late 80’s followed at the request of parents, priests and educators, who saw how effective the Five Step Illustrated Method was. With a team of her Sisters, Sister Ida produced 30 half-hour video tapes with teachers’ guides, a unique religious education program for children in harmony with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The program spread to five continents in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Hungarian, reaching many millions of children. Further language dubbings are continually in progress. “Be a Dynamic and Effective Religion Teacher” is a video course created by Sister Ida in response to the growing need to offer aid for catechist formation. Through it, her unique “The Five Step” catechetical method, helped many catechists and educators everywhere.
With confident openness and receptivity to the Holy Spirit, Sister Ida helped the community, “to move on into the future” with a new generation in leadership; in 1988 Sister Jane Stafford was elected, as the first American Superior General. At the same time Sister Ida continued teaching the novices, giving spiritual retreats and monthly seminars to the Sisters, was actively involved in the community’s spiritual leadership and as a religious education speaker, traveled across the United States and Canada.
Sister Ida passed on to eternal life on February 8, 2000 in the Society’s Motherhouse in Northridge, California, lovingly surrounded by all her Sisters. The church was filled with many friends, bishops, priests, deacons, religious and families at the Mass of the Resurrection offered for Sister Ida. Cardinal Roger Mahony, the main celebrant, remarked that it was “a very unique moment in the life of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a very wonderful grace, because it was the first time, that we had a foundress of a religious community die in our midst.”
“The Joyful Apostolate must go on,” – Archbishop Justin Rigali said in his homily at the funeral – “Sister Ida in her legacy is a hymn of praise and thanksgiving for the love of God manifested in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, reflected in the gentle life and zealous devotion of our Sister Ida.”
The Sisters of the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart continue to grow in the charism of their Foundress, Sister Ida, joyfully serving the universal Church through their community apostolate of evangelization and catechesis in the Archdioceses of Los Angeles, Taipei and Budapest, and in the Dioceses of Orange and San Bernardino. In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, the Sisters were invited to teach Sister Ida’s “Five Step Illustrated Method” in Kenrick-Glennon Seminary and Paul VI Pontifical Institute bringing this dynamic catechetical method to seminarians, religious, and lay catechists in the mid-West. In each place, every year thousands of catechists, children, youth, adults and families encounter the personal love of God through catechist formation classes, unique catechetical retreats, parish religious education programs and summer camps conducted by the Sacred Heart Sisters.
With her God-given talents offered totally to His service, Sister Ida’s outstanding, global and lasting contributions in the field of religious education, and in religious life, are great treasures for generations to come. But what most touched those who spoke with Sister Ida was the eloquent simplicity of her joyful spirituality, that she often expressed in brief words: “God has a Heart for you!”