By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
HILLS — Faith has been central to the lives of second cousins Veva Jenn and Mary Hurt for more than 100 years.
On April 24, family and friends will help the women celebrate their birthdays with a parade through Hills. Veva turns 105 on April 23, and Mary will turn 104 on May 5. Both are members of St. Joseph Parish in Hills.
“For two ladies of the community to reach that age, how awesome is that?” said Veva’s son, Robert Jenn. He hosted a birthday parade for his mother last year, and more than 100 vehicles and tractors drove by — including antique tractors and classic cars. “She said to me, ‘That’s the best birthday I ever had,’ and I will never forget those words,” Robert said. He decided to give his mother a similar birthday celebration this year, with Mary included.
The women will watch the parade from outside Atrium Village in Hills, where Mary lives.
Robert said the women grew up a few miles from each other in rural Riverside. They attended the same church, St. Mary-Riverside, and spent time playing at each other’s house.
Veva grew up in a “very devout Catholic household,” Robert said. She developed a devotion to the rosary, following the example of her father, who led the family in praying the rosary every night during Lent. “As long as I’ve known her she’s prayed the rosary every day.” She married Leo Jenn in 1938, and together they raised 10 children on the Jenn family farm about three miles southwest of Hills. She still lives on the family farm. Parish life was important to her, Robert said, noting her involvement in the Altar and Rosary Society, funeral luncheons, cleaning and helping out with an annual Thanksgiving potluck. She “never missed a Sunday or holy day.”
Faith has sustained Veva throughout life, including the loss of one of her children to measles, and the loss of her husband. She has always been a true believer in the Lord, her son said. “With her strong faith, I think she’s very positive. Her strength is from her religion. It’s been a structure from day one, starting with her parents. We can be out in public and she’ll make the sign of the cross before a meal. That’s just the way she is. To me, that takes courage.”
Mary also found strength in her faith, said her daughter, Kathy Lafrenz. Mary grew up in rural Riverside and taught at one-room schoolhouses in the area after earning a teaching certificate in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
She met her husband, Joe Hurt, at a dance hall in Hills and, after marrying in 1938, they settled on a farm west of Iowa City and raised seven children. They joined St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City, the home church of Joe’s Czech parents. She was active in Altar and Rosary Society, Catholic Daughters, and enjoyed baking. Kathy remembers the kids “being at mom’s feet” during her parish volunteering endeavors.
Mary also endured the death of a child. When one of Mary’s sons died in a farming accident, “It almost broke her faith,” Kathy said. Seeing his wife in pain, Joe offered to take care of the kids for a weekend so Mary could attend a prayer retreat. Afterward, she developed a daily devotion to the rosary, much like her cousin. Prayer “carried her through,” Kathy said.
Mary lived independently for several years following the death of her husband and eventually moved to Atrium Village. She attended daily Mass at the Hills parish until a back injury sidelined her about two years ago. She leads rosary prayer at Atrium Village and enjoys celebrating Mass there with St. Joseph’s pastor, Father Mike Spiekermeier, Kathy said.
Robert said old age doesn’t seem to be a family trend and Kathy notes just one or two of Mary’s relatives lived beyond 100. Robert, who is a member of the Hills parish, believes God has a plan for the women in their old age. “It’s remarkable to think these two girls who grew up together are now, at their age, able to share in this celebration.”
If you go
Please meet in the Hills ballpark at 1:45 p.m. to line up for the birthday parade. Vehicle decorations are encouraged. Drop off cards or notes for Veva and Mary in a special mailbox at the park. The parade will travel through Hills and pass by Atrium Village, where the women will be seated outdoors.