Story and photos by Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Donna Hummel is such a constant presence at St. Catherine of Siena Church, she is regularly mistaken for a member of the parish staff.
When the 74-year-old is not attending daily Mass, she can be found cleaning the church floors, pews and bathrooms as the hands-on president of St. Catherine’s Rosary Altar Society, or in the adoration chapel, fulfilling her weekly commitment during the hard-to-cover hours of 1 to 4 a.m.
A firm believer in the idea that Catholics should give whatever gifts they have to bring life to the church, Hummel even recently joined St. Catherine’s new Women’s Club Choir, a group created to foster interest in music ministry and give the regular choir an occasional Sunday off from its singing duties.
“I (said to the choir director), ‘I really can’t sing – my children tell me I cackle,’” Hummel said, laughing. “But I’ve always heard the more voices you have, the better. At least you can try. You have to try!”
Made family prayer a habit
Those same qualities of tenacity and servant-leadership also have served Hummel well in her vocation of marriage and family life. The archdiocese’s Council for Catholic Schools Co-Operative Clubs (CCSCC) is honoring her with the 2019 Regina Matrum Award, presented annually to an exemplary model of Catholic motherhood.
“I had a hard time putting my head around it. I just didn’t feel I was worthy,” said Hummel, who with her husband John are the parents of five children: John, 51; Regina (Gina), 50; Vincent, 49; Laura, 46; and Christina, 42.
Hummel – who also has 15 grandchildren ranging in age from 5 to 21 – said family prayer time is one of the keys to raising happy children. In addition to saying grace before every meal, she and John would gather their brood on the staircase at bedtime and ask each child to voice a personal intention. The exercise would also give the Hummel parents daily insight into their kids’ busy lives.
“You ask them, ‘What is going on in your day? What do you need to pray about here, today?’” Hummel said. “Sometimes it would be a silly thing, and then sometimes it might be serious.”
Stayed faithful overseas
Born Donna Schlattmann in St. Louis, Hummel grew up as the middle child in a devoutly Catholic home of eight siblings who attended Catholic elementary and high schools. The family was known for its welcoming embrace, with Hummel’s father serving as a church usher and her mother opening the family home to an assortment of visitors, including youngsters who might need a hot meal, and multiple priest relatives.
“There was always enough room for everyone that was there for dinner,” Hummel recalled, adding that it was “a rite of passage,” after First Communion, for the Schlattmann children and their cousins to be taken to daily Mass and Saturday confession by their grandmother.
“And we all went to Mass, usually together, on Sundays and had the big Sunday breakfast afterwards,” Hummel said.
She met her husband of 52 years at a party co-hosted by their respective all girls’ and all-boys’ high schools. Their union led to many adventures, including a move to the Netherlands with their 1-, 2- and 3-year-old children for John’s job as an engineer with Shell. It was a 45-minute commute to get to an English-language Mass, but she and John did it faithfully, Hummel said.
“If we went on a little vacation or trip someplace, we always made sure we went to Mass on Sunday,” she said. “It was important to us, and I think it’s because of both of our upbringings.”
Felt at home in Metairie
Subsequent job transfers – back to St. Louis and then to Houston – had the growing family moving to the New Orleans area in 1969.
“When people heard (we were relocating to New Orleans) they said, ‘Oh my gosh! It’s so bad there! You know there’s crime. The schools are not good,’” Hummel said.
The Hummels discovered quite the opposite at St. Catherine of Siena, whose elementary school was the subject of glowing newspaper reviews. Hummel joined the Co-op Club, became a room mother and shared her self-described “basic sewing skills” to make costumes for the student-led Way of the Cross. She said school-based volunteer work is a great way for parents to get to know their children’s friends.
“And you get to know their friends’ parents; you get to know the teachers,” Hummel added. “It’s worth it to get involved with what your children are doing.”
Stint in Saudi Arabia
A subsequent transfer back to Houston in 1992 included a two-year residence in Saudi Arabia for John Hummel, with Donna and their remaining high school-age child joining him there whenever they could.
Hummel recalls a country of friendly, easy-to-talk-to locals.
“(Saudi Arabia) was wonderful, (but) I guess the downside to it is that we could not openly go to Mass there,” said Hummel, who found a way around this by joining with three other Catholic families to organize home-based liturgies. The gatherings included an occasional baptism, complete with a cross-emblazoned cake that was surreptitiously provided by a local bakery.
“You couldn’t go to the same house all the time, so we traveled to different houses,” Hummel said. “They said that they didn’t want it known that there was a Catholic Mass at ‘this house’ every week, but we did go every week.”
Cleaning the Lord’s house
By 2000, Hummel said her and John’s happy memories of raising their children in St. Catherine of Siena Parish made it a “no-brainer” to return to Metairie, this time as more settled retirees.
Hummel joined the Rosary Altar Society, moved by a desire to keep the church sparkling clean after it had undergone a renovation. She said far from the ministry’s reputation as a group for “older women,” the group offers something for every age, gender and ability, whether it’s vacuuming floors, dusting pews, replacing candles, caring for the altar cloths, straightening the hymn books or decorating the church.
“If you have a problem walking, we can find something for you to do. There really is no job that is too little for us to do,” said Hummel, noting that the ministry’s core group of about 10 members begins each cleaning session with a prayer and attends an annual day of reflection focused on why the Lord’s home should be kept in immaculate condition.
Teens from St. Catherine’s CYO are recruited to assist in the “deep cleanings” held in the spring and fall. The young people help with washing the kneelers and getting to hard-to-reach-spots underneath pews and between cushions.
“It’s working for our Lord – it’s doing it for him; it’s not for us,” Hummel said of the ministry. “I want to do for him. He has been so good to me, so I just feel I should give back to him.”
Summer ‘camp’ for cousins
Other ministries reflect Hummel’s maternal side, among them, her and John’s monthly deliveries of “Meals on Wheels” for the Jefferson Council on Aging and preparing and delivering a monthly dinner to residents of Boys’ Hope. Since Hurricane Katrina, Hummel, an extraordinary ministry of holy Communion, has volunteered in St. Catherine’s outreach to the homebound, using these one-on-one visits to pray, share stories, read the parish bulletin and study faith-related texts with the sick and elderly.
“You get close to them. Sometimes you’re the only person that they will see in a long time,” Hummel said. “I just feel if I can spend some time and cheer somebody up for a little bit, I should do that.”
With her children and grandchildren scattered across the country, Hummel figured out a way to continue to nurture her own family’s prayer life. During “Nana and Pappy Camp,” Hummel varies the combinations of her children’s five households and hosts two sessions of summer fun for her grandchildren – so the far-flung cousins can make memories together.
Light chores, Mass, parish volunteer work and Bible stories are folded into this recreational time. The prayer leader of the day comes up with his or her own prayer or rolls a wooden cube to select a pre-written one.
As a master of such planning, preparation and hospitality, it comes as no surprise to Hummel’s family that their beloved matriarch feels a special connection to St. Martha.
“But I don’t see myself as the complaining Martha. I see myself as the Martha wanting to do the work,” Hummel said. “I’m not one to really work by myself. I like working with other people.”
Hummel will be honored at a special Mass on May 13 at 7 p.m. at St. Catherine of Siena Church. The principal celebrant will be Archbishop Gregory Aymond.