When she was 86, Dorothy Gerson received one of the highest honors the Roman Catholic church can bestow on a lay person.
Pope Benedict granted the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal to Gerson for her 52 years of service to the Church of St. Michael in Stillwater. The medal, first awarded in 1888, is given in recognition of distinguished service to the church and the papacy.
Gerson, of Stillwater, died Sunday of natural causes at Good Samaritan Society in Stillwater. She was 100.
Volunteering was an important part of Gerson’s life, said her sister, Jeannine Hoffbeck of Stillwater. “That’s what you did. You just all pitch in. It was in her blood.”
Gerson joined the Church of St. Michael’s Council of Catholic Women in 1955, serving as the group’s president, newsletter editor, executive secretary and budget auditor. She began doing unpaid part-time secretarial work for St. Michael’s in 1972.
“When she started, the church didn’t have an actual office,” said Teresa Hoffbeck, her niece. “For the first few years, she did secretarial work out of her house.”
Gerson was later added to the church’s payroll – at $50 per month – and worked for 20 years as the Parish Council’s secretary. She later served as financial secretary for all of St. Michael’s special-donation projects. She retired in 2011 after 55 years of service to the church.
“She went to (Mass) for a number of years every morning, whenever work didn’t interfere,” said Jeannine Hoffbeck. “Her faith was a crucial part of her life. In her spare time, she always had either her rosary in her hands or one of her prayer books.”
In addition to her work at St. Michael’s, Gerson volunteered for civic organizations, including Community Volunteer Services, the Stillwater City Charter Commission, the Washington County Historical Society, the Lakeview Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, the Stillwater Reading Club, Stillwater Business and Professional Women, and Relay for Life.
FROM FACTORY WORKER TO CITY CLERK
Born in Nunda, S.D., Dorothy Schnell was the eldest of 10 children. Her family migrated to Minnesota when she was a young child “in search of better land for farming,” Jeannine Hoffbeck said. They moved to the Stillwater area a few years later.
“They had so many hard times, they appreciated everything they got,” she said. “They didn’t have much.”
Gerson went to Stillwater High School and graduated in 1940. After graduation, she worked at the Connolly Shoe Co. in Stillwater, starting as a factory worker before rising to office manager and eventually secretary to the company president.
When Connolly closed, Gerson took a job as city clerk of Stillwater; she worked there for more than 16 years. She also served as an election judge.
“She really enjoyed her work,” Jeannine Hoffbeck said. “She was very precise, very exacting in everything she did. Everything was always in apple-pie order. She would type everything, even her checks at home. She would type them up and then sign her name.”
In 1988, she married Tom Gerson. She was 68. Tom Gerson, a life member of the Washington County Historical Society, helped set up the society’s endowment fund in the early 1980s and served as the fund’s chairman for about 20 years. He died in 2008.
The couple had met years earlier when they both worked at Connolly Shoe Co. “He often joked, ‘I didn’t have to go to a bar to find a new wife,’” Dorothy Gerson told the Pioneer Press in 2008.
In 1999, Tom and Dorothy Gerson were honored as Washington County’s Outstanding Volunteers of the Year. Six years later, she received the Stillwater Area High School Distinguished Alumni Award.
“Hard work and remarkable generosity of spirit are the hallmarks of Dorothy Gerson’s life,” reads the plaque that hangs in the hallway of Stillwater Area High School. “For 50 years she has volunteered her time and talents to the benefit of many organizations.”
Gerson, who would have turned 101 on Nov. 25, lived independently until December 2021.
Even after she moved into Good Samaritan, Gerson continued her love of organization. “Even at the nursing home, she was making out lists,” Hoffbeck said. “Who would get this, who would get that. She was always very precise.”
Gerson’s Mass of Christian Burial will be at 11 a.m. Monday at the Church of St. Michael in Stillwater, with visitation one hour prior to the Mass.
Simonet Funeral Home is handling the arrangements.