Father Edward J. Ruetz, a retired priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, died on Monday, March 15, in South Bend, following a long illness. He was 95, and he lived the 58 years of his priesthood walking with the people he served and speaking out against injustice.
Born in Racine, Wisconsin, on Oct. 14, 1925, one of 11 children of Joseph and Margaret (Meyers) Ruetz, his family moved to South Bend when he was 5 years old. One of his first memories was witnessing the funeral procession of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne in 1931. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Notre Dame in 1947.
After being drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he earned a master’s degree in social work from Loyola University in Chicago. He worked at Catholic Social Services in Detroit and, following a disastrous blind date in Cincinnati, discerned his vocation to the priesthood on the long drive back up I-75.
He entered the seminary in 1958, at the age of 33, attending St. Mary College in Louisville, Kentucky, and Theological College at The Catholic University of America in Washington.
“He was a ‘big brother’ I had never had,” said Earl Kumfer, a retired philosophy and theology professor at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, who studied as a Basselin Scholar at Theological College at the same time. “He cared genuinely about people and taught me about listening to what was in people’s hearts. In any contact or conversation, he was always 100% present.”
At age 37, Ed Ruetz was one of several men ordained at St. Matthew Cathedral in South Bend on Dec. 23, 1962, by Bishop Leo A. Pursley. Another group was ordained the day before in Fort Wayne; the class of 1963 was ordained early because the bishop expected to be back in Rome in the spring for the next session of the Second Vatican Council, an event that shaped Father Ruetz profoundly.
“Before the 1960s, I was a Baltimore Catechism Catholic. I had all my values settled on a latticework with each value related to all the other values,” he later recalled. “I spent the late 1950s and 1960s reconstructing my latticework, rearranging my values in relation to each other, according to my deeper understanding of human life.”
Teaching fourth grade religion in one of his early assignments, he once pinned a $20 bill to the board and challenged the students to name a sin that was not also a failure to love. The prize went unclaimed.
“He was so dynamic a teacher, and was beloved by myself and my fellow students,” recalled Sean Didier, whose family first encountered Father Ruetz at St. Jude, Fort Wayne, and would remain friends with him for over 50 years. “His ability to reach out to people and minister inspired me to become a teacher in our diocese.”
From 1966-1974, he served as an assistant at St. Mary in downtown Fort Wayne, initially under the mentorship of pastor Father Ralph Larson. Father Ruetz later recalled:
“Ralph said to me, ‘Ed, I hope that there is no comfortable pew in this church.’ By this he meant that the message from the liturgies and homilies would bring out Jesus’ authentic message … His way of agape love to the least of our brothers and sisters.”
Applying his expertise as a social worker, Father Ruetz helped grow the parish into one defined by the spirit of the council and a commitment to peace and justice. St. Mary’s ministries, and particularly the soup kitchen he was instrumental in starting, are pillars of social outreach in Fort Wayne to the present day.
“Our parish was involved in marches for civil rights, grape boycott, and we were an anti-war parish from 1969 to the end of the Vietnam conflict,” Father Ruetz later recalled. “And women-friends raised my consciousness about the plight of women.”
“He helped expand my concept of God and deepen my young faith,” said Rosemary Mausser, who joined the parish in 1971 with her then-fiancé.
“What I remember the most was his passion for social justice. His homilies seemed to revolve around that theme, as well as compassion, mercy and acceptance of all peoples,” recalled Joan Luther, who also joined St. Mary Parish with her husband during that era.
“I knew him as the champion of people on life’s fringes and a mentor, friend and prophet to many,” said Steve Sullivan, a retired English professor at the University of Saint Francis, who was teaching at Huntington Catholic High School in the late 1960s. “Our school was entirely Caucasian, and so Ed arranged to have a meeting of senior high school students from Fort Wayne Central High School meet in a daylong retreat at Victory Noll in Huntington. The event was resoundingly successful and a turning point for the students.”
Father Ruetz taught sociology at Holy Cross College at Notre Dame from 1974-79 and served for 15 years as a chaplain at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Mishawaka. He retired in 1994. He was a member of a priest support group (1979-2015), a founding member of Earthworks Community in Plymouth and for over 30 years, he worked as a team member with the Beginning Experience South Bend organization, which sponsored weekend retreats for widowed and divorced persons.
Father Ruetz celebrated Mass at the Monastery of the Handmaids of the Most Holy Trinity in South Bend from 1981 until a year before his death. He also continued to pursue his passion of infusing the 15-billion-year creation story of the universe into theology, recognizing its implications on how people of faith view themselves and their relationship to the rest of creation.
He was an inveterate letter writer, from his Christmas letter to numerous notes to Church officials, elected leaders and various publications. A vocal social justice advocate, he especially took issue with those who used religion to marginalize others.
“These believing Christians seem never to have understood that their beloved Jesus’ basic ministry was to those on the fringes of his Jewish society: the poor, disabled, lepers, taxcollectors, prostitutes and sinners. Jesus served all people without discrimination,” he wrote in a 2015 letter to the editor of the South Bend Tribune.
Father Ruetz was buried March 18 in Cedar Grove Cemetery on the Notre Dame campus, very near where he witnessed the Rockne funeral procession. He is survived by one sister, Marjorie Narducci; a brother, Robert; a sister-in-law, Carolyn Ruetz; many nephews and nieces and many friends who were touched by his life and ministry.
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