She was one of Ventura County’s leading philanthropists of the 20th century, a member of a pioneering family in the county (and city), and the mother of two children who shared not only her birthday but an equal passion for civic involvement.
But Edith Hobson Hoffman is also remembered (at least by some) as the woman who, in the early 1950s, was the first major supporter — in principle and through pocketbook — of the canonization cause for Father Junipero Serra, a cause that came to fruition six decades later, on Sept. 23, 2015.
A remarkable legacy for anyone — and certainly, for someone who converted to Catholicism rather late in life.
“My grandmother, as a little girl, was fascinated by California history,” says Katherine Enright, director of the archdiocesan Office of Pastoral Life, and daughter of Edith’s son Walter W. Hoffman. “And she regarded Serra as a hero.”
The daughter of Ventura businessman William Arthur Hobson, Edith May Hobson was raised Christian, sang in church choirs, and was married in the Episcopal Church to Walter H. Hoffman, a chemist for the American Beet Sugar Company and later a major breeder of race horses (as was their daughter, Katherine Hoffman Haley).
“My grandfather was raised Baptist in New Orleans, and for years he was strongly anti-Catholic,” says Enright. “But my grandmother, with her love of California history and her appreciation for the Catholic role in that history, supported Catholic education because she didn’t think the public schools of the area were adequate.”
Edith worked with Archbishop John Cantwell (and, later, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre) to help establish St. Catherine of Siena and Holy Cross Schools in Ventura, run by the Holy Cross Sisters, and attended by their children.
And years later, when their son Walter startled his parents by saying he wanted to become Catholic, like his fiance Sheila, “a seed was planted,” says Enright, smiling.
Eventually, the parents followed suit, baptized in Cardinal McIntyre’s residence in the early 1950s. “My parents were their sponsors,” Enright says proudly.
In the meantime, Edith had maintained her love of California history, and a connection to the sisters at Mission Santa Barbara, who approached her about helping defray the cost of compiling documents to support the canonization process for Father Serra. She became an eager and active supporter of the canonization effort, working closely with Franciscan Father Maynard Geiger, a Serra biographer, in the early “cause” efforts.
Edith also commissioned Ojai artist Ruth Newman to paint the California missions; those works now hang in a church in Petra, Mallorca, across the street from Serra’s birthplace, which Edith visited in 1963 at the invitation of Petra’s townspeople. “They wanted to thank her for all the work she’d done on behalf of Father Serra,” says Enright.
“In fact,” she adds with a chuckle, “she was later invited to a private Mass with Pope John XXIII about the same time, but she declined because she’d made the commitment to Petra, and she was thrilled to honor it. And until her death in 1970, she supported the Franciscans in gathering information about Serra. She remained devoted to him throughout her life.”
Seven years after her grandmother’s death in 1970, Enright visited Petra herself with her first husband, the late John Russell. “We were treated like royalty,” she recalls, still amazed at the reception. “And, among other things, we saw Grandma’s picture displayed in a home. They really appreciated all she did.”
Both her grandmother and her father, she adds, “were very self-effacing, modest people and didn’t talk a whole lot about what they did,” though their impact is felt to this day. Enright’s father Walter, who died in 2008, was a parishioner and major supporter of San Buenaventura Mission, the last of nine personally founded by Serra.
Today, Enright keeps a small framed painting of Serra on her office desk that says, “Always go forward and never turn back,” which her grandmother had given her father.
More than the artwork, though, “I received from my grandmother an appreciation of this extraordinary man. She really was instrumental in making this canonization happen. And it all stemmed from her childhood fascination with Serra. I think there were a lot of friends in heaven enjoying a great celebration on Sept. 23