sister jean fontbonne sandweg
August 16, 1915 - July 10, 2009
From the time Sister Jean Fontbonne was a small child, she had wanted to be a religious. The day she made her First Holy Communion in 1922 she recalled how her first grade teacher had told her mother that she possibly had a religious vocation. Her mother said that that would be wonderful, but they would wait and see.
S. Jean Fontbonne was born on August 16, 1915, to William H. Sandweg and Mary Agnes Murphy. She was baptized Catherine after her maternal grandmother, Catherine Burke. Catherine (henceforth know as Hortense because her father liked that name) was the second child and first girl. Nine children were born to these loving faithful parents: Gerard (Ken), Catherine, William Jr., Rosemary, Connie, Theresa, Joan, Jerome and Francis. A sadness S. Jean lived with most of her life was the tragedy of the unfortunate death of Joan, who was killed while crossing the street to their home when she was just five years old.
The family lived in a number of homes as the family grew and needs for space became greater. They finally settled in University City. Having the children receive a Catholic education was important to their parents. Most of S. Jean’s elementary education was at St. Rita’s School in Vinita Park. She attended St. Joseph Academy and eventually Fontbonne College, where she received a BA in English in 1937.
S. Jean said that her parents made a wonderful team. Her mother was the heart of the family; her dad was the head who earned the income to sustain them all. “The key to all our days together was prayer,” she said. “Mother was always a woman of prayer, and it was her deep spirituality that brought Dad to becoming a Catholic. I really think there was not a selfish bone in their bodies. All was done for our benefit.”
After graduating from Fontbonne, S. Jean taught history and physical education for the Ursuline Sisters at Ursuline Academy in Arcadia, Mo., from 1937 – 1939. In Sept. 1939, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph. It was about a year before the start of WWII. S. Jean said to her mother, “Mom, the War is breaking out. It’s near. Do you think I ought to stay at home in case I’m needed here?” Her mother replied, “If you are going and you are ready, go.”
After S. Jean pronounced her first vows on March 19, 1942, she was sent to teach fifth grade at St. Louis Cathedral School. In 1944, she was transferred to St. Francis de Sales High School in Denver, where she taught English. She stayed there until 1947 when she returned to St. Louis to begin her tenure at St. Joseph Academy, first as English teacher and then as principal. Her's was the distinction to become the first principal at the, then, new location in Frontenac. For six years, beginning in 1956, S. Jean was principal at St. Francis de Sales in Denver.
From 1962 – 1967, S. Jean served the community as novice mistress. In that role, she helped young women come to greater understanding of themselves and their desire to be Sisters of St. Joseph. Her example of prayer, her care for the novices, and her love for God were palpable and invited the novices to be strong and engaged as religious women. For one year she directed the Junior sisters on the Fontbonne campus until the juniorate program closed in 1968. During these years of community service, S. Jean said it was her vow of obedience that allowed her to give herself totally to this ministry. Her mind and heart, she said, were intent on listening to her superiors and undertaking whatever they asked of her. She said of that time, “If I have assisted the young sisters over the years I am most grateful to God for the opportunity.”
Her creativity and her awareness of the rapidity of change led her to imagine a new way of helping young women become members. She was one of the first to note that women needed programs designed with their aptitudes, education and experience in mind.
In 1968, S. Jean returned to Rosati-Kain High School. There she taught for two years and then assumed administrative duties for an additional four years. In 1974 S. Jean resumed teaching English at the school.
After retiring from teaching full time in 1996, S. Jean continued to reside at Rosati-Kain, where she substituted as needed, worked in the garden, kept the books and shared recipes including her famous cheesecake, mince meat pie, and angel food cake recipes. She prayed for the Sisters of St. Joseph and Rosati-Kain students and never lost interest in the day-to-day activities of the school. As a former PE teacher, she was concerned with healthful living and eating, long before it was fashionable.
Because she fell, S. Jean needed additional care and began to reside at Nazareth Living Center in 2008. Even there, she constantly reminded the sisters and staff by her example of healthy habits. Her greatest joy in living at NLC was her ability to attend daily Mass. She valued her many friends and the sisters who came by to visit her. One of her favorite pastimes was watching the St. Louis Cardinals on TV. In fact, the afternoon before her death, she watched them win a game.
Her abiding love for the community and the church always prompted her to ask thought provoking questions about the church, the congregation and her cherished field of education. Of her life she said, “I have lived a rich and rewarding life with my sisters in religion. The graces I have received in the community have been overwhelming and I thank God daily for my sisters and all that God has given me.”
May Sister Jean Fontbonne rest in peace.
S. Rita Louise Huebner