By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Mary Wieser identifies two pivotal experiences that shaped her lifelong commitment to faith formation and social justice. As a seventh-grader assisting nuns with religious education in the mid-1950s at a mission parish, she witnessed for the first time people living in houses with dirt floors. During high school, on a trip to Chicago, she saw signs on apartment buildings that read: “Gentiles only.” The abject poverty and the discrimination convinced her to work for change. In 1959, she joined the Sisters of Charity of Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) who had taught and inspired her in Catholic schools on Des Moines’ east side.
Some 56 years later she is retiring from a career that began with teaching — including a two-year stint in Memphis during the race riots — and concluded with directing faith formation for the Diocese of Davenport.
Then-Bishop William Franklin hired Wieser in 1997 as diocesan Superintendent of Schools and she later assumed director of Faith Formation responsibilities as well. “What a wonderful opportunity, at least at that time, to bring schools and faith formation together and see that we sink or swim together,” observed Wieser. Catholic schools and religious education programs each contribute significantly to lifelong faith formation, she believes. Later, the diocese split the roles of Superintendent of Schools and Director of Faith Formation because of the enormous demands involved. Wieser took charge of Faith Formation and also served as the diocese’s Safe Environment Coordinator.
Now 74, Wieser decided to retire effective June 30. She admits, with tears in her eyes, “It’s terribly hard to leave. The 22 counties of southeast Iowa, I’ve driven practically every road. I can tell people the best ways to get to a parish and the places with great pies. Arnie (her husband and most avid supporter) loves pies. I have been privileged to work with wonderful and dedicated staff people not only in faith formation but in the entire diocese.”
She praises the people of the diocese, the diocesan and local boards of education for Catholic schools, teachers, parents, directors of religious education (DREs) and catechists. Creation of the diocesan board of education happened on her watch.
She’s proud of the 217 adults who have completed the diocese’s basic two-year Ministry Formation Program (MFP) and have been commissioned as lay ecclesial ministers. Of those 217, 133 have been commissioned in specialized areas of ministry.
Wieser says she’s also proud of the work her office has done toward establishing just salaries and benefits for teachers, DREs and youth ministers. “They’re getting there,” she adds, referring to the effort as being work in progress.
“The entire 22-county area of the Diocese of Davenport was Mary’s workspace as she traveled the diocese for 18 years bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to people of all ages through her efforts to enhance Faith Formation programs,” said Lee Morrison, diocesan Superintendent of Schools. Mary Wieser is recognized for her work in the diocese to bring catechesis to God’s very special people, the special needs adults and young people. When I came to the diocese, Mary was an enormous help in my transition to the Catholic schools office as superintendent.
“Mary and her husband Arnie have given over 50+ years of service to the mission of the Catholic Church, including 18 years in the Diocese of Davenport in the areas of faith formation and Catholic school education. They deserve a very blessed retirement.”
Among other accomplishments, “Mary was responsible for leading the diocese and schools in strong development of curriculum. That was a huge piece,” noted Celeste Vincent, principal of Regina Elementary School in Iowa City. Wieser also led diocesan schools in the development of an evaluation process when the state made changes and participated in the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) to keep her administrators up to date. “She always made sure that diocesan schools stayed ahead of the game with the public schools,” Vincent said. Equally important, Wieser had a student-centered focus. “When Iowa City was hit by a very big tornado (in 2006) that destroyed St. Patrick Church, one of the first things she did was drive to Iowa City to check and see how students and staff (at Regina) were doing. She epitomizes servant leadership,” Vincent added.
Wieser also stressed Catholic identity and presence in schools and religious education programs. “Catholic identity is more than crucifixes on the wall and Bibles in the classroom,” Wieser said. “In my mind, it’s where every person on staff realizes they are catechists in the true sense that echoes God’s word.”
That sense of spirituality resonated with Nancy Peart, administrator of Prince of Peace Catholic School in Clinton. “I appreciate her leadership very much. She was just always so very good about taking care of our spiritual formation as principals. She understood how very important that was for a Catholic School,” said Peart, who has worked with Wieser for 15 years.
“She was extremely supportive of all of our schools and if we had any needs she would drop what she was doing and be there to support us. That was always so much appreciated. Sometimes things come up and we have to kick it to a different level. I don’t think there’s a principal around who hasn’t had a sticky situation at some point. To have that diocesan support that means a lot to the principals,” Peart added.
“I am particularly impressed by Mary’s 50 years of unwavering dedication to the promotion of quality faith formation. She has served as such a positive role-model of faithfulness in so many facets of this ministry throughout the years, said Marianne Agnoli, the diocese’s coordinator of Marriage and Family Life.
In her role as Safe Environment Coordinator, Wieser emphasized the importance of a “Circle of Grace,” which teaches children about self-protection, but also that everyone deserves to be treated with respect. She appreciates Pope Francis for declaring a Year of Mercy to begin Dec. 8. “We need to be able to forgive and we need to be able to reconcile, but that doesn’t mean we forget,” she observed.
Another aspect of her work that remains close to her heart: Special Faith Saturdays held at St. Ann Parish in Long Grove for individuals throughout the diocese ages 16 and older with special needs. “We have to realize that people with special needs have wonderful gifts.”
Her career in the diocese wasn’t without challenges, especially when it came to consolidation or closing of schools. “Nothing was done lightly,” she said. “It was done for the greater good.” Still on her wish list: expansion of the School Tuition Organization (STO) program so that more students have the ability to attend a Catholic school.
“Mary has devoted her whole life to church ministry and our diocese has been blessed to have her serve the past 18 years as Superintendent of Schools, Director of Faith Formation and Safe Environment Coordinator,” said Vicar General Msgr. John Hyland. “I have had the privilege to work with Mary since I became Vicar General in 2003. She has tirelessly provided the leadership in her various roles. She will be truly missed but I wish her and Arnie well as they move to West Des Moines to be closer to family, especially grandson Henry. Ad Multos Annos!”
Family: Husband, Arnie, adult sons Sean (Emily) and Paul, and one grandson, Henry.
Hometown: Des Moines.
Faith background: Cradle Catholic.
Education: bachelor’s degree in sociology with minors in theology and education from Mundelein College in Mundelein, Ill.; master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Drake University, Des Moines; specialist in administration from Drake University. She also earned 93 hours of graduate credit from the National Science Foundation.
First teaching assignment: St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School, Davenport.
How Mary and Arnie met: Both taught at a black Catholic high school in Memphis in the early 1960s.
Occupation: Director of Faith Formation and Safe Environment Coordinator (retiring June 30).