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Carl Pfeifer, 78; co-wrote series of Catholic textbooks

August 11, 2007|Matt Schudel | Washington Post

Carl Pfeifer, who resigned from the Roman Catholic priesthood to marry his coauthor, with whom he wrote a series of influential textbooks on Catholic education, died of Alzheimer's disease July 12 at Stonehill Care Center in Dubuque, Iowa. He was 78.

In 1968, Pfeifer was a Jesuit priest working at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., when he and a Franciscan nun published the first in a series of textbooks for elementary students on Catholic education and catechism. The series, called "Life, Love, Joy," represented a dramatic change in the way Catholic schoolchildren learned about their faith.

Over the next 30 years, Pfeifer and Janaan Manternach revised their textbooks, wrote widely and traveled across the world to lead seminars on Catholic education. Their books and other classroom materials, published most recently under the title "This Is Our Faith," were used in Catholic schools in all 50 states. They replaced the old Baltimore catechism, a system of learning by rote, with a dynamic storytelling approach drawing on examples from everyday life.

"What Carl and I did, which was seen as a real change, was we introduced life experience to catechetical education," Manternach said last week. "If we're going to find God, we're going to find God in life."

After collaborating for 10 years, Manternach and Pfeifer felt a growing attraction that went beyond their shared work and faith. In their 40s, they went through the formal process of resigning from their religious orders. He had been a member of the Jesuits for 29 years; she had been a nun for 27.

Only then did they go on their first date. They had never so much as held hands before.

"We absolutely were in love with each other, there's no question, before that first date," Manternach said.

They were married Nov. 20, 1976, surrounded by hundreds of supporters, but their decision to marry was not warmly received by all.

One priest wrote a letter branding their actions "evil." Manternach's sister refused to attend the wedding, and a nun who had been a close friend said Manternach was now "dead" to her.

"Before that, I had a community," Manternach said. "Now, I had a community of one."

With little money and uncertain job prospects, the newlyweds settled in Arlington, Va., and returned to their mission of Catholic education. When the archbishop of Baltimore invited Pfeifer to speak at a conference on Catholic liturgy, they knew they had found official acceptance.

Pfeifer and Manternach revised their "Life, Love, Joy" series, wrote for magazines and published books for teachers. They taught courses on Catholic education and doctrine to seminarians and, from 1967 to 1992, appeared as panelists on the weekly "Bauman Bible Telecasts," a nationally televised college religion course based in Washington.

They answered questions from religion teachers in a monthly newsletter from 1987 to 1998 and collected their columns in a book, "How to Be a Better Catechist."

From 1970 to 1979, Pfeifer wrote a weekly syndicated column, "Know Your Faith," for the National Catholic News Service.

Carl Jacob Pfeifer was born June 22, 1929, in St. Louis. He graduated from St. Louis University and received a master's degree in philosophy from the university in 1954.

He taught Latin and Greek at his alma mater's Jesuit high school for several years and became an ordained priest in 1961. He received a doctorate in ministry from St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore in 1985.

While teaching a course on the Psalms at Catholic University in the early 1960s, Pfeifer met Manternach, who had taught in Iowa and Chicago for 11 years.

Invited to work on a new model of religious training, they became assistant directors of the National Center for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine at Catholic University and began their lifelong collaboration.

To commemorate the textbook series that brought them together and formed their life's work, Pfeifer and Manternach had their wedding rings engraved with three words: "Life, Love, Joy."

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