Sister Gretchen Faerber
Hildegarde (Sister Gretchen) Faerber grew up the seventh out of ten children in New Ulm, Minnesota and she entered the Sylvania Franciscan community in 1956. Before arriving in Sylvania, she stayed in Minnesota long enough to spend a week at the State Fair.
Sister Gretchen took home blue ribbons in the categories of Clothing, Gardening, Food Preservation, Bread and Pies. She was the county champion for all of those categories, including being a Champion of Cherry Pies, Jams, Jellies and Bread. These are talents she’d been honing for years.
Her father, Isidor, suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. As he became progressively crippled, her mother Mary relied on help from neighbors with their family dairy farm. After three years she realized things would not get better and she needed to find a way to feed her family. Mary sold the huge dairy farm and bought, instead, an entire city block in New Ulm.
The Faerbers were able to raise their family there by living off of the land. They planted acres of corn and alfalfa to feed livestock and she cultivated almost four acres of vegetable garden to keep the children fed and to sell. They bought a cow, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and pigeons. When Isodor was well enough to work, neighbors would call on his help and pay him with a suckling pig or sometimes a heifer calf to raise for the year’s meat.
“We really had no idea that we were poor until we were old enough to go out and get jobs,” Sister Gretchen says smiling.
Known as the ‘whiz kids,’ the Faerbers were well-liked in New Ulm. All of the children were able to go to Catholic School at St. Mary’s because the family kept the Priests and Sisters supplied with fresh produce as well as their Sunday floral arrangements.
“I’ve never been afraid of a challenge,” Sister Gretchen says. “My parents helped each of us know who we were and what we could do. They were very supportive of our strengths.”
Hilde was a whiz at all of the domestic arts. She was around 12 years old when she took over the cooking and baking for the family; she liked it and her mother preferred to be outside in the gardens.
At the age of 16 she was invited to start her own 4-H group and she taught her skills to a dozen other girls, some of them older than she was at the time. She expressed such aptitude that her high school offered to pay her tuition to the University of Minnesota to get a teaching degree in exchange for her teaching Phys. Ed. at the school for five years after graduation.
In her Senior year it occurred to her that her true vocation might be Religious life. She liked the idea of expanding her ability to care for her own family to include that of a larger community of Sisters. She revealed her idea to Father Kesel in New Ulm and he was delighted. He told her that he’d been hoping she would come to that idea soon, otherwise he had been planning to talk to her about it.
In her Senior year it occurred to her that her true vocation might be Religious life. She liked caring for her own large family and thought she might become a cook for a community of Sisters. She revealed her idea to Father Kesel in New Ulm and he was delighted. He told her that he’d been hoping she would come to that idea soon, otherwise he had been planning to talk to her about it.
Based on her independent spirit, she was advised to enter the Sylvania Franciscans who had a gentler framework of rules compared to other options at the time. Her mother, it turned out, had strong opinions on the subject as well.
“I found out that my mother had entered a different order and was a postulant once,” Sister Gretchen says. “It was too rigid and she left. When I told her that I was going into the convent she was so happy to hear that I had chosen the Sylvania Franciscans.”
Now, 62 years later, Sister Gretchen is proud of her many ministries as a Sylvania Franciscan. Today she’s famous for Sister Gretchen’s Kitchen and her long line-up of baked goods, jams and jellies. It took a little longer than she’d expected to get back in the kitchen, however.
“I’d wanted to be a cook, but I was told that just about everybody has to spend a few years teaching first, so I went to St. Hedwig’s and taught second grade.” Then she was moved to sixth, seventh and then eighth grade classrooms. For her, this was a great age group, but, she grins as she reveals her secret: “I knew that the way to communicate with the kids was through sports, so I always went to all of their games.”
Sister Gretchen talks of her former students fondly, especially the more challenging ones. She was fortunate enough to stay in contact with several students. She remembers attending a wedding celebration dinner for a former student who toasted her for ‘being a friend first and for taking enough interest to come to their games and get to know them.’
After over 30 years in the ministry of education, she was asked by the Congressional Leadership to try her hand at fundraising.
A natural extrovert, Sister Gretchen became St. Francis Guild moderator and went on to help raise money for hospital beds for Rosary Care Center, new chairs for the dining room, a new bus and a building project.
She began to oversee the Rosary Care Center Gift Shop where everyone could find seasonal greeting cards for under a dollar, and inexpensive gifts that had been donated by friends in the community. Her natural talent for crafts and sewing brought others together and soon the shop was selling arts created by many Sisters in the community.
Around the same time, she started once again sifting flour, sugar, spices and eggs together to create those mouth-watering blue-ribbon baked goods she used to make as a kid.
Now, Sister Gretchen hosts Easter, Halloween and Christmas bake sales that help support the other ministries of the Sylvania Franciscans. She gets Halloween cookies to order and sends baskets of delicious delights to the Annual Sylvania Franciscan Gala and donates to local fundraisers, continuing her role as a champion baker in her ministry in Sylvania, Ohio.