“Brothers could do so many things. I wasn’t sure why, but I felt that it was where God was calling me.”
-Br. Ben Humpfer, SCJ: tailor, cook, teacher, superior, vocation director and an SCJ for over 50 years
Br. Ben Humpfer, SCJ, died Sunday, December 31, following a recent diagnosis of brain cancer. He was 73 and had been a member of the Priests of the Sacred Heart (Dehonians) for 51 years.
Born in Hammond, IN, Br. Ben initially pursued a vocation to the priesthood but left the seminary after what he said was “a miserable performance in Latin.”
Soon after, he landed a good job in a department store “but I still thought of the priesthood; I wanted to serve,” he said.
He didn’t recall how, but he was put in contact with an SCJ vocation director who talked to him about being a brother. “I saw the material about the brother’s vocation,” he said. “It seemed so interesting; brothers could do so many things. I wasn’t sure why, but I felt that it was where God was calling me.”
He started at the brothers’ novitiate where he was told that he would not only learn about Dehonian religious life, but would also receive technical training for a specific job as a brother.
“A tailor,” said Br. Ben. “I had never sewn a stitch in my life but Fr. Michael told me that the community needed a tailor to make vestments and chasubles.” Br. Ben enrolled in a correspondence course in sewing.
During the summer break brothers in formation were given jobs at the seminary. Br. Ben was told by his superior to go to town “and find a job where you can learn your trade,” he said.
He sought work as a tailor but when asked about his prior experience he had only his correspondence course to refer to. Doors quickly closed in his face. Eventually he found what he thought would be a sympathetic teacher: a tailor who made cassocks for the Jesuits. But the door closed again when the tailor told him that sewing is an art, something “that one is born with,” said Br. Ben. “He told me that I could never learn.”
Eventually he ended up at the Singer Sewing Center where spent the summer learning to “make cassocks alongside women learning to make dresses,” he remembered.
At the end of the summer the brothers were given their first full-time assignments. Br. Ben expected to put his newly developed sewing skills to work. But instead, he was assigned to the novitiate in Ste. Marie, IL, where he would be a cook.
“I told Fr. Mike that I didn’t know how to cook but he said that was ok, Br. Jim [Willis, SCJ] would teach me,” he said.
He arrived in Ste. Marie and learned that he would be cooking for one of the largest novitiate classes in the history of the province, plus the professed SCJs in the community. Br. Jim was there as promised, but only long enough to show Br. Ben where the pots and pans were before he left on vacation.
“I was so nervous,” said Br. Ben. “I’d get up early to cook breakfast and as soon as that was done, I’d start working on lunch. It took me so long because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
His cooking secret? “If it looks good people will eat it,” he said. “I garnished EVERYTHING!”
After a few weeks Br. Ben settled into his job and grew to enjoy it. Five years later, he was assigned to Divine Heart Seminary, where he managed the kitchen (with a staff from a sisters’ religious community) and took on several other roles, such as teaching freshman religion and ceramics, as well as serving as assistant dean of students.
The minor seminary closed and Fr. Michael Burke, SCJ, then personnel director, suggested that Br. Ben go to Mississippi where there were several teaching opportunities. He agreed and was assigned as a religion teacher at Sacred Heart School (then in Walls).
“That first year was awful!” said Br. Ben. “I had never worked in a coed school; I had never taught children younger than teens and I soon found out that there is a lot about teaching that can only be learned on the job.”
But as with his other assignments, Br. Ben soon came to love his ministry in Mississippi. He taught six to seven classes a day and was also active at nearby parishes, serving as director of religious education at Sacred Heart parish in Walls and at Queen of Peace in Olive Branch. For two years he was on the Diocesan Board for Religious Education (Jackson, MS).
Br. Ben remained in Mississippi until 1995, when he moved to Wisconsin. He was the local superior of Villa Maria (the province retirement community that eventually became a part of Sacred Heart at Monastery Lake) and served in the province vocation office. After a year as chaplain at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, Br. Ben returned to senior ministry, serving as superior of the Sacred Heart Community in Pinellas Park, FL from 2009-15.
For the past three years he has been a member of the Sacred Heart Community at SHML. Approximately two weeks before his death he went into hospice care.