Alice Huisenfeldt M'35 (left), and Genevive Huisenfeldt M'36 (right).
Alumnae who led simple, service-filled lives left a living legacy for St. Catherine students.
By Elizabeth Child
Anyone who thinks a person has to be rich to be a philanthropist never met Alice M'35 and Genevive Huisenfeldt M'36.
The sisters, proud St. Catherine graduates who had long careers as a nurse and a teacher, respectively, did not inherit wealth, yet in their last years they made a startling gift to the University. In 1997, the pair began funding a scholarship designed to help pay the tuition of St. Catherine nursing students. The scholarship is now in excess of $150,000.
In 1935, Alice Huisenfeldt graduated from St. Mary's School of Nursing, now the Minneapolis campus of St. Catherine University. Alice's younger sister, Genevieve, graduated from St. Catherine a year later, having received a scholarship to attend St. Kate's after being named "Top Girl" in her high school class.
Senior Director of Gift Planning Pamela McNulty likens the sisters to "the millionaire next door" from the famous book of that name. They came from humble roots in the Belgian farming community of Ghent, Minnesota, and the donations they made throughout their lives stemmed from purposeful saving. They felt that giving back was their duty as citizens of their community and the world, McNulty says.
St. Catherine gift officers would visit Genevieve and Alice in Marshall, Minnesota, where they shared a home during the last two decades of their lives. Genevieve died in 2005 and Alice in 2011. Neither sister married. They were the only children in their family, and they took care of each other.
McNulty joined St. Catherine in 2004. She met Alice but says Genevieve was too ill to receive visitors in that year before her death. "Alice was very bright and well spoken with a dry sense of humor," recalls McNulty. "She loved to laugh and had an incredible enjoyment of life."
Lessons from the CSJs
The Huisenfeldts' interest in St. Catherine was kindled at a young age. They were taught in elementary school by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet — the same order that founded the University in 1905. Those teachers planted an aspiration for higher education and a commitment to social justice. In describing her passion to help others, Genevieve wrote that she was moved by the poverty and health challenges she witnessed in rural areas.
St. Catherine also laid the foundation for the Huisenfeldts' career success and their engagement with the world. After serving in France in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during World War II, Alice became one of the first women to earn a master's degree in public health from the University of Minnesota. She was a public health nurse in rural and inner-city areas in Iowa and Ohio, and then a nurse and health educator in the Duluth schools for 30 years.
A history and business double major at St. Kate's, Genevieve taught business-related courses (then called "commerce" classes) in North Dakota and Minnesota schools for 41 years.
"These were two highly unusual women for their era," McNulty says. "They made remarkable strides in their fields at times when other women were not doing that."
The Huisenfeldt sisters dedicated their lives to helping others. Alice ministered to the sick and impoverished, working with patients who had typhoid fever, small pox, diphtheria, tuberculosis and polio.
Meanwhile, Genevieve worked to improve standards in education — with a focus on classroom size and teacher welfare — and served on the Minnesota Professional Practices Commission. A political activist in the DFL party, she met and worked with U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and President Harry Truman.
Alice shared Genevieve's political activism. "The sisters were passionate about politics as much as Catholic education, education for women and health for women," McNulty says.
A living gift
On October 21, 2012, St. Catherine honored the Huisenfeldt sisters at the annual Ireland Society Mass and luncheon for those who have provided planned gifts for the University. A plaque was installed with their names in Our Lady of Victory Chapel.
The Huisenfeldts' legacy gift to St. Catherine helps many students with financial need follow in their footsteps, including Allysa Buchner SP'15, who received a scholarship from the Huisenfeldt fund.
"I would not have been able to come here if it weren't for my scholarship," says Buchner. "Because of the scholarship, I am going to be able to live my dream of becoming a physical therapist."
She hopes to have an impact in pediatric oncology. Her sister had cancer as a child, and she wants to help others facing the same disease.
Hearing the stories of St. Catherine students like Buchner inspire giving, says Evening/Weekend/Online nursing graduate Sharon Lehmann SP'86. Lehmann is a clinical nurse specialist with a master's degree. She works for the University of Minnesota physicians group. A mirror image of the Huisenfeldt sisters, she is a single, career-focused woman who plans to leave a scholarship for St. Kate's students in her name. She says she will make a bequest of her retirement account to fund a lasting legacy.
Lehmann identifies with the Huisenfeldts' goal of supporting St. Catherine students. "Every December, a student from the Annual Fund's TeleFund program calls me to talk about giving to St. Kate's," she says. "They always inspire you when you've had a bad day. They make you feel good about who you are and what you do, and that makes me want to give."
Lehmann wants future generations to have the same opportunity to go to college that she did: "If it hadn't been for my education," she says, "I wouldn't have succeeded."