Passing on the faith: Longtime faith formation leader to retire July 1


By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

IlaMae Hanisch hesitated 34 years ago when her pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Newton asked her to serve as coordinator of religious education. Al­though Hanisch, then 32, had been teaching religious education since her high school days, she told the late Father Joseph Den­ning, “I’m not sure I know enough, but I’ll give it a try.” She admits it was a “leap of faith for someone whose background was chemistry!”

Barb Arland-Fye
IlaMae Hanisch pauses from work at her desk in the St. Vincent Center in Davenport. Hanisch, coordinator of Adult & Family Formation/Lay Ministry for the Diocese of Davenport, retires July 1 after serving 34 years in faith formation, first in her parish and then throughout the diocese.

That leap of faith, and a commitment to lifelong faith formation, provided the springboard for a journey of ministry in the Diocese of Davenport which has enriched her life and the lives of countless other Catholics. Now she’s ready to pass the baton, retiring July 1 from her position as diocesan coordinator of Adult & Family Formation/Lay Ministry.

Many of the lay leaders in the diocese’s parishes, as well as deacons and deacon candidates, completed the Ministry Formation Pro­gram (MFP) that Hanisch has nurtured, enhanced and coordinated.


“I learned a great deal about my faith by way of the Ministry Formation Program,” said Kent Ferris, diocesan director of Social Action and of Catholic Charities. “In turn, the lessons prepared me to more fully live my faith, which included a career change. I am convinced that I would not be a diocesan director, would not have been as open to the Holy Spirit without MFP, and the strength of that program is a result of IlaMae’s care and development.”

Back in 1980 when Fr. Denning recruited Hanisch, it was uncommon for lay women to serve in leadership roles. Her dad, upon learning she would coordinate religious education in her parish, said: “They know you’re married and have kids, right?”

Hanisch sought out courses, programs, diocesan resources and self-study to continue forming her faith and to guide catechists in forming the faith of students in her Newton parish. The diocese sent her 16 cassette tapes on systematic theology by John Shea. She borrowed a tape recorder and, while her two daughters were napping, began listening to the tapes. “It was like studying a foreign language,” Hanisch recalled. But she stuck with it, working her way through the tapes. That experience shaped how she related to her MFP students years later. “It made me very aware … that my personal experience might be the reality of many adults in our program.”

Hanisch had great mentors along the way and participated in a study group with priests of the Grinnell Deanery who were reading “Catholicism” by Father Richard McBrien. She describes that study group experience as a pivotal time in her ministry formation. “Having the opportunity to study at that depth got me to start looking for courses that would help me in ministry.”

When St. Ambrose University in Davenport introduced a graduate program in pastoral studies, Hanisch enrolled, commuting one weekend a month until she earned her Master of Pastoral Studies degree. Prior to that, she took courses one at a time, beginning when her daughters were still in grade school. “The joke was whether I was going to finish college before they did. With the MPS degree track, I completed the requirements for my master’s before our daughters were in college!

All the while she continued her ministry, first in the Newton parish and then for the Davenport Diocese where she began as coordinator of Faith Formation and Family Life. In 2000, she became MFP coordinator. Through her efforts, MFP has gained several specialization tracks, including catechetical, liturgical, finance administrator, and pastoral associate.

“She is a dedicated and a hard worker,” observed Mary Wieser, diocesan director of Faith Formation. “She wanted to make sure that the MFP was available to as many people who were interested. Therefore, she used different forms to communicate: ICN, video, DVD, University of Dayton online, etc. IlaMae was a team member and worked well to help in the total faith formation of the diocese. She made sure we were using the best process for marriage prep.”
“IlaMae has provided inspiration and motivation by her own dedication, enthusiasm, and appreciation of others. These have been important factors in my continuing with the MFP program,” said Professor Corinne Winter, a theologian at St. Ambrose University in Davenport who also teaches MFP classes. “I see her interacting with individuals and groups within the MFP and appreciate her knowledge of their individual backgrounds and concerns as well as those of the parishes they represent.… She clearly keeps abreast of developments both locally and within the larger theological and ecclesial community.”

“IlaMae’s contribution the diocese through the lay Ministry Formation Program is immeasurable,” says Parish Life Coordinator Deacon Joe Dvorak of Immaculate Conception Parish, Colfax. “Through her direction, guidance and administration, we are blessed with many well trained Lay Ecclesial Ministers who are serving the diocese currently and will continue to be a huge asset for the diocese to tap into long into the future. Through this program, we in the parish have a wonderful opportunity to offer formation to those who are willing to minister.”

As with all of the decisions she’s made in her ministry, Hanisch prayed about when she should retire. In a letter she addressed to Bishop Martin Amos and read to diocesan staff, Hanisch said:

“I have met and worked with so many faith-filled followers of Christ. It has been a privilege to share faith with each one. It has been so inspiring to see their passion for the Catholic Church and their willingness to grow in their faith. I am excited about the upcoming synod on the family and hope that the Church will support families in their struggle to live out the Gospel in today’s world. What a blessing to have witnessed the development and growth of lay ministry in the Church! Never did I imagine the role I would be asked to fulfill. Thank you to all who have prayed for my ministry and supported me. I trust the Lord will continue to guide my journey.”

Q&A with IlaMae
Q: How do you nurture your own faith formation?
A: I attend workshops and seminars sponsored by our diocese and by professional organizations like NALM (National Association for Lay Ministry), NCCL (National Conference for Catechetical Leadership), NACFLM (National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers). I read books, blogs, magazines and journals. I consult web sites. I follow research studies related to family and to parish leadership and ministry.
Q: How and when do you pray?
A: I pray the liturgy of the hours each day. Centering prayer, the rosary, lectio divina, spontaneous, conversational and memorized prayers are among my favorite ways of praying. I have several “prayer books” and other books by spiritual authors that I use frequently. I attend Mass regularly. On my personal calendar I have a list of people I have said I would pray for on a specific date and a list of people that I pray for every day. It is like a personal litany. I have a “prayer corner” in my home office with several small icons. I enjoy discovering all the meaning found in color, symbol and gesture in icons, stained glass windows, statues and paintings.
Q: Where do you see the Catholic Church headed?
A: Until I was invited to the Collegeville National Symposium on Lay Ecclesial Ministry at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., I was concerned that many of the Church leaders were aging and I was concerned for the future Church. At that quite small symposium I saw a very ethnically diverse, highly educated, spirit-filled group of leaders that were young! Under our current Pope Francis I see a more personal and responsive Church where the leadership is called to really participate in the realities of life, to meet people where they are and encourage them in faith. I pray that the Church will truly represent the love of God, promote the dignity of each person, and bring hope to those in despair.
Q: Could you share a couple of memorable stories from your years in faith formation ministry?
A: Here are some anecdotes about people that I didn’t know and how they shaped my ministry in some surprising ways:
When a young girl was diagnosed with leukemia in the parish, my ministry changed significantly from recruiting volunteers, creating lesson plans and ordering supplies to a ministry of pastoral care. I learned from Nicole and her family the importance of caring deeply for each person. My ministry was forever changed. I still pride myself on being organized and getting “jobs” done but caring for each person is most important!
One evening, I was locking the church doors when I saw a woman running with no shoes across the parish drive. I called to her and said, “Do you need help?” I learned that she was running from an abusive ex-husband and had been in a shelter in a nearby town. The security of that facility had been breached and she had fled and was in our town since a grandmother lived there. I learned how many community agencies and services assist those in need. I learned how quickly she was given overnight lodging, clothing for several days and moved to a safe undisclosed facility out of state. They found her a job and long-term housing with food allowances until she could become self-sufficient.
The very first time I led the prayers at the cemetery for a stillborn baby I learned the importance of praying for strength so I could be helpful to those who mourn. When the father of the infant carried the cremains wrapped in a yellow baby blanket to the gravesite, I was so moved I wasn’t sure that I could continue. Strength came, and I was grateful for the rituals with prayers so meaningful.
Q: What will you do in retirement?
A: I have promised a nonprofit group that I would volunteer to help create PowerPoint presentations for them to use. I have been asked by a couple of parishes to lead a staff retreat and to do a marriage enrichment evening. My husband and I plan to visit our daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren … I trust that the Lord will continue with me on the journey.

Vital Statistics
Ila Mae Hanisch
Position: Adult & Family Formation/Lay Ministry Coordinator, Diocese of Davenport
Age: 66
Family: Husband, Dan; two grown daughters, Amy and Mary; two grandchildren
Residence: Newton
Parish: Sacred Heart
Hometown: Webb, Iowa (between Spencer and Storm Lake)
Educational background: Bachelor of Science, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa; certificate in Youth Ministry, Center For Ministry Development; Master of Pastoral Studies, St. Ambrose University, Davenport (First MPS graduate in 1989).
Ministry positions: Diocese of Davenport — Lay Ministry Formation Coordinator, Adult/Family Formation Coordinator, 2001 to present; Adult/Family/Formation Coordinator, 1998-2001; Sacred Heart Parish, Newton — pastoral minister, 1990-1998, director of religious education, 1986-1990, coordinator of religious education, 1980-1986.
Other: Named one of the top 10 young educators in Houston in 1972

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1 thought on “Passing on the faith: Longtime faith formation leader to retire July 1

  1. Ila Mae, I am so proud of you as you have touched countless lives including mine. I am so glad that God made us sisters. ticia

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