Longtime former St. Mary’s principal known for ‘humble service’ dies at 65

Suzanne Fessler, former principal and longtime employee of St. Mary’s High School known for her quiet leadership, died Jan. 6. She was 65 and would have celebrated a birthday Jan. 25.

Suzanne Fessler (1954-2020)

The news came as a shock to students and staff on the first day back from Christmas break, where Fessler ingrained herself in campus life the past 36 years. School was canceled Jan. 10 to allow the student body and faculty to attend the funeral Mass at her home parish of St. Theresa.

“What comes to mind when I think of Suzanne is humble service,” said Fr. Robert Bolding, president-rector of St. Mary’s High School. “I know that’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot but I have never worked with someone who never seeks glory for herself, and who does more.”

Fessler’s long career as a St. Mary’s Knight also includes the titles of assistant principal and mathematics and science department chair. She also headed the school accreditation process for 25 years, and was the first girls’ varsity golf coach.

Her current job was school librarian and sacristan; the latter a position she had for 30 years.

Plans are underway to honor her legacy by naming a hallway within the main office building near the chapel and library, “Fessler Hall.”

“We hoped she had a little bit longer and wanted to have a ceremony to invite her family,” Fr. Bolding said, adding, “It was her domain for so long. She was a very quiet leader and infused it with love.”

Fessler taught several generations of families during her tenure at the Catholic high school.

Christopher Fahrendorf (1995) was in her math class and his wife, Alisha, is also a Knight (1994). Fessler was acting principal when their oldest son attended (2000), and they currently have two other teens enrolled who knew her as their librarian.

“She gave her all to St. Mary’s High School,” Christopher said. “Because Mrs. Fessler did not have children of her own, her students were her children. She attended countless football games, school plays, National Honor Society inductions and graduations.”

Friends and colleagues said her presence on campus will be missed.

“Suzanne Fessler was a very loving and faithful person, especially to Saint Mary’s Catholic School. Not only was she a dedicated teacher, coach and administrator, but she was a devoted caretaker of our school,” said Kevin Muir, principal. “Suzanne took care of Saint Mary’s through her faithful dedication to Our Lady, to the Lord, to her duties and through the love and kindness she showed to every person who stepped on campus. I am honored to continue her work as principal and, although I will miss her dearly, I am confident she is continuing to take care of Saint Mary’s through her intercessory prayers.”

Barbara Walker knew  Fessler for 28 years through her work as the food service director on campus, and refers to her as her family.

“She was a walking angel. She was always supporting others, and she always had the right words to say,” Walker said. “I will miss her smile and her warm words. She taught my daughter and we became a family, very close to her and John.”

Fessler’s  husband of 34 years, John, said he knew he met someone special when he saw a “spark in that body” as she danced dressed as a chicken during a Cursillo retreat for young women.

John, who playfully called them a “dull couple,” said his wife enjoyed photography, camping and “sinfully” owned many dresses and 52 pairs of shoes.

“She was unique, she was fair and a Christian; she attended daily Mass. And quiet, more the St. Thérèse-type personality,” he said. “She was devoted to St. Thérèse and the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially in the Rosary.”

Originally from Detroit, Fessler grew up with three siblings in a strong Catholic household of Polish-German descent and attended Catholic elementary school. Her affinity for  the Blessed Mother developed as a little girl.

Her sister, Barbara Lasinski, who shared a bedroom with Fessler growing up, recalled her favorite story of a May crowning: when Fessler was in second grade, she received a statue of Mary as a gift for her first Holy Communion.

“We practiced processing around and around the bedroom; I held the pillow that held the little handmade crown of flowers she made from a kit for Mary,” Lasinski said. “We would process around and sing a song over and over because it had to be precise so she could crown Mary. After a couple of times we finally got it right.”

Fessler attended a local high school when they moved to Arizona, then earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and administration from Arizona State University with specializations in mathematics and science.

In a bold move, Barbara said when Fessler was going to begin student teaching, she went to the department head at ASU and told them she wanted to work in a Catholic school.

Fessler student taught at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Tempe and received her first teaching job at Most Holy Trinity School, and later taught at St. Theresa School.

“That’s how important Catholicism was to her — she  wanted to be in a Catholic school. She was influential by the way she lived her faith, even as a young girl. She still had her First Communion book, scapular and her Mary statue,” Barbara said, adding she credits her big sister — Fessler was 14 months older — for  influencing her decision to teach at St. Gregory School following her graduation from ASU, where they both pledged Kappa Delta.

Fessler was also treasurer and president of the ASU sorority, then became head of the local Arizona chapter and attended national conventions.

Fessler is preceded in death by her parents Richard and Frieda (Hilsher) Lasinski and nephew Paul Johnson. She is survived by husband John and siblings Richard (Cinda) Lasinski, Barbara Lasinski, Carol (Gregg) Johnson, three nephews and two nieces.

A visitation and Rosary were  held Jan. 9, at Whitney & Murphy Funeral Home, followed the next morning by  the Funeral Mass at St. Theresa Catholic Church. Interment immediately followed at St. Francis Catholic Cemetery.