Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Joani Steffen Retires, Remembers, is Embraced

Story and Photos by Daniel Miller

After ten years, 121 tubes of lipstick, hundreds of meals, and untold hugs, Joani Steffen retired from Bon Appetit’s food service at Mount Angel Seminary on Thursday, January 30. As an overseer for the dining room, Steffen gained the friendship of seminarians, staff, faculty, monks, and members of the hilltop community.

“With Joani, she’s so much more than an employee,” seminarian Andres Emmanuelli of the Diocese of Sacramento said. He added, “She makes her ordinary work an extraordinary thing, the way she’s living it—with her whole attitude of loving care and the small things she does for each seminarian.”

Joani Steffen offers a hug to seminarian Romple Emwalu.

The seminarians prepared a scrapbook and several photos filled with messages and good wishes from the hilltop community.

Many that entered the Aquinas Dining Room when Steffen worked found the greeting to be as welcoming as the fare.  Steffen became known for her hugs that helped fill the void of motherly affection for many seminarians.  Abbot Peter Eberle, O.S.B., said Steffen's hugs would be the thing most missed by the seminarians upon her retirement.

“Her sheer goodness is such a delight to bump into at meals every day,” Eberle said.

For seminarians with particular dietary needs, Steffen vigilantly watched over the supply of foods they could eat and made sure they were fed well, Emmanuelli said. Steffen kept track of the many people in the dining room by studying the photo directory each autumn and matching names to faces. Steffen’s co-worker and friend Annette Dettwyler said that through her collection of current and previous directories and her notes in a small notebook, Steffen tracked where past seminarians had relocated through graduation to new institutions, ordination to the priesthood in particular dioceses, or discernment to other vocations. Steffen came to know much of the hilltop community personally. Seminarians often confided in her and felt uplifted by her demeanor, hugs, and advice.

"There is nothing she doesn't do for [seminarians] that she doesn't do for her own kids," Dettwyler said.

With Steffen at the helm, many noticed a distinctive sparkle about the dining area. She constantly picked up crumbs or stray bits of food to make the presentation of meals pristine. Steffen was sure to have the fruit bowls overflowing, with no intermixing of fruits from bowl to bowl but always a variety of colors to appeal visually to diners, Dettwyler said. A bowl of lemons, though functionally not useful, enhanced the display and showcased Steffen’s care for appearance and cleanliness.

Steffen also kept a professional personal appearance. Dettwyler said she went through a tube of lipstick about every month, which would amount to 121 containers over her tenure.

“I have lipstick I have been using for years!” Dettwyler said.

It was Dettwyler that advocated for Steffen to be hired 10 years ago after the two worked together at a special seminary event. Then in need of medical insurance that came with the job, Steffen joined the staff. She and her husband Bill were grateful for the medical insurance in the years following her hiring. In 2007, Steffen was diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemotherapy, and in 2009, Bill needed quintuple bypass surgery for heart trouble. When she was being treated, Steffen took a leave of absence for many months, but she still visited the hilltop and kept her friendly disposition.

“Guys would pat her on her little bald head,” Dettwyler said. “She said she would take cancer any day over depression.”

Though she will not be spending 32 hours a week at work on the hilltop, Steffen will visit. Her connections are too deep to relinquish.

Since Steffen spent much of her childhood in Mount Angel, she has built relationships with many families, community members, and even a couple monks over some 50 years. Eberle has siblings that are Steffen’s age, and he will often ask how their mutual acquaintances from town are faring. Fr. Paschal Cheline, O.S.B., met Steffen when she attended Kennedy High School and he taught there starting in 1964, and they have maintained a friendship since.

“She has been an excellent witness to what the Lord asks from all of us: joyful service!” Cheline said.

As retirement neared, Steffen wondered how she would replace her work routine. Her commute from the Silver Falls area provided time for a rosary and prayer, and as she reached the bottom of the hill, she would intercede for members of the seminary and abbey communities by name. Her trips between the dining room and kitchen helped her walk 3-5 miles per shift. But it was the relationships Steffen said she would miss most.

Still, her retirement to-do list is full: Deep cleaning the house, sewing, beading, scrapbooking, helping Bill with their tree farm, spending time with her twelve grandchildren and four children, all of whom live within an hour.

The fried Twinkies and cupcakes offered by Bon Appetit
during Steffen's retirement celebration.

Steffen ceased full-time employment with a lunchtime celebration on her final day featuring house-made cupcakes, fried Twinkies, punch, and affection from the community she embraced in her decade of service.

“I had to work, but loving my job is an extra benefit,” Steffen said.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful article! Great tribute to a hilltop "angel".