By Lorraine Jestel
For The Catholic Messenger
When he was in first and second grade, Dennis Hoffman acted out the Mass. He explained to his mother after church one day, “I think I can do what that priest is doing up there.” His mom gave him a dark navy blue dress with no zipper to use as a cassock and a sheet for a chasuble. The ironing board became his altar. The young boy mimicked pictures in their family Bible. The candles on his altar were real but the flames were made out of paper.
His dad, a mill worker, said, “I like your Mass, son. It’s nice and short!”
Hoffman originally used candy mints for hosts but later recognized these were different than the real thing so he began to use bread — cutting off crust, rolling it flat and using a small cookie cutter. His dad made him a tabernacle, fashioned to look like the one at St. Edward’s, his home parish in Waterloo. “I have fond memories of all that. My parents supported me and when I told dad I wanted to be a priest he replied, ‘I will support you in whatever you do.’”
Hoffman was almost all the way through Loras College as a seminarian when the bishop told the 15 young men studying for the priesthood, “We don’t have enough money to keep this program going.” The men were told to find another diocese to continue their studies. Hoffman came from a small farming community and wanted to stay close to home. That’s when Bishop Gerald O’Keefe contacted him.
“On a snowy day I remember coming to Davenport. My mom had said ‘no’ to that trip because the roads were dangerous. But I told her ‘I can’t not go.’ By the time I reached the Quad Cities there was over 8 inches of snow on the ground.”
During his early college years, Hoffman thought he’d test his decision to enter the seminary. He took a year off and worked for Red Cross Disaster Relief. He was a paramedic and saw pain, fear and anger when he helped those affected by a hurricane in Louisiana. Later he worked for Habitat for Humanity in Pella. Hoffman feels this time was helpful.
“I wanted to be sure the priesthood was what God wanted me to do, not just my idea. During this time, I saw more of the world and could minister to others in concrete ways with food and shelter. I still felt called to offer spiritual comfort.”
The road to the priesthood has not always been easy. “It was not a straight line. I saw doors open and then close,” he said. The late Msgr. Marvin Mottet “was instrumental in helping me stay focused.” One time, while in Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, Fr. Hoffman got so angry with God, that he asked: “What is it you want me to do? I don’t know the way anymore. You’re going to have to show me.’”
And apparently God did! Fr. Hoffman has been the pastor at St. Boniface in Farmington and St. Mary of the Assumption in West Point for the past 10 years. He has been a teacher at Holy Trinity Catholic School in Fort Madison since 2009. He also taught at Cardinal Stritch High School in Keokuk for five years and he continues to volunteer as a project manager and chaplain for Habitat for Humanity and with the West Point Fire and Rescue.
“The priesthood is not a 9-5 job. It’s more like the changing of the seasons. I am outgoing and like to meet people but being a priest can be lonely at times. Praying throughout the day provides strength to move on and move forward even when things aren’t easy.”
Fr. Hoffman says that his sense of humor has been a great asset to his vocation. “You laugh at yourself when mistakes happen and then all those emotions go away. I also try to be a good listener as well.”
Starting out in life by pretending to be a priest paved the way for what has become a fulfilling reality.
(Lorraine Jestel is a member of the Vocations Committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport.)