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Ida Peterfy survived Nazis and Communists to catechize children in California

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Sister Ida was a visionary leader who sought to teach the faith in a clear and understandable way.

Born on October 7, 1922, in Kassa, Hungary, Ida Peterfy was raised in a devout Catholic family and was devoted to her faith at an early age. She was a member of the Sacred Heart League as well as the Hungarian Girl Scouts. Peterfy desired above all things to serve God and her neighbor.

As the horrors of World War II began to unfold, Peterfy and her family helped many Jews escape Nazi detection. She even had to break up with her boyfriend who revealed his anti-Semitic beliefs.

Then as she prepared for college Peterfy went on a three-day retreat. There she was overwhelmed by God’s grace and love for her. She wrote about the experience, “I clearly realized that God does not know me as [if I were] a cabbage in a cabbage field. Rather, He knows and loves me very personally and uniquely – as Ida.”

After the experience she further felt called to catechize children in a culture dominated by Nazism and Communism. At age 18 she professed religious vows before the bishop and engaged in the task of instructing the little ones.

Some of her fellow girl scouts were attracted to Peterfy’s new vision and together they formed the “Fraternal Community of the Sacred Heart.” However, to protect the community from the war and the possibility of being arrested, she moved her band of sisters to Budapest.

The situation didn’t improve after the war as the Communist Party rose to power and further suppressed religious expression. Peterfy was able to avoid detection by cloaking her activities with children as “puppet shows.” She wrote, “We have to teach children the essential truths of our faith in a very short time and bring them to the Heart of Christ so that they can live their faith in every circumstance.”

Persecution of Catholics only escalated from there and she was advised to flee the country. At first that brought her to Canada, but she was soon invited to establish her ministry in Los Angeles. She restarted her religious organization as the “Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart.”

Her little congregation started to blossom in the United States, though the confusion surrounding the role of religious life after Vatican II proved to be a heavy cross for her to bear. She desired to be faithful to the Church’s teachings on religious life, but was viewed by many as “old fashioned.”

Peterfy was a visionary leader and she “was instrumental in the purchasing and opening of the Sacred Heart Retreat Camp in San Bernardino and the Heart of Jesus Retreat Center in Santa Ana, both in California. They conduct annual summer Girls’ Camps, Leadership Retreats for young adults, as well as sacramental retreats for children and teens in their Heart of Jesus Retreat Center.”

One of the hallmarks of her charism was the “Five Step Illustrated Method, to teach faith in a clear understandable way.” She had great success with it and taught catechists around the country how to adapt it to their needs.

She worked for many years teaching the faith to children and died on February 8, 2000. Her life has inspired countless people over the years, and on November 10, 2014, Dr. Waldery Hilgeman was approved by Archbishop José H. Gomez as Postulator for the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God Sister Ida Peterfy. Currently they are gathering information about Sister Ida to then forward on to Rome.

See more in our series on the Saints of the United States.

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