Sister Suzanne Zuercher, nun who specialized in psychology, 1931-2014

Sister Suzanne Zuercher lived for 63 years as a member of a monastic community of Benedictine sisters, but she was fully engaged with the world around her.

"While she was very attuned to spiritual life, she was also in contact with an incredible number of people both nationally and internationally," said Sister Patricia Crowley, prioress of the St. Scholastica Monastery in Rogers Park where Sister Zuercher lived.

"She was a renowned speaker and presenter at workshops, a poetess and author and was known as a spiritual director and counselor," Crowley said.

Sister Zuercher, 82, died of cancer Saturday, June 14, in the infirmary of the monastery, according to Sister Judith Zonsius, subprioress of the monastery.

Sister Zuercher served as a teacher, a psychologist and, from 1994 through 2006, president of St. Scholastica Academy, the all-girls Catholic high school on the grounds of the monastery, which closed in 2013.

In all her varied roles, from teaching to writing, Sister Zuercher had a simple goal, Zonsius said.

"Her whole life, all she wanted to do was to help people deepen their spiritual lives and their relationships with God," Zonsius said.

Sister Zuercher grew up in Park Ridge and began the process of joining the Benedictine order in 1949, just months after graduating from the academy.

She continued her studies after taking her final vows in 1951 and got a bachelor's degree in English from Loyola University Chicago. In 1967 she got a master's degree in clinical psychology from Loyola, and later she became a licensed clinical psychologist.

Sister Zuercher taught at elementary schools in and around Chicago before joining the St. Scholastica faculty in 1960, first as a teacher and later as school psychologist, guidance director and college counselor.

In the early 1970s she became a campus minister at Loyola's Water Tower campus. A few years later she began teaching at what was then the Institute of Spiritual Leadership at Loyola. She was co-director of the program from 1979 to 1985 and remained with the program until 1987.

That program drew participants from around the world, some of whom invited Sister Zuercher to visit their communities to make presentations, lead retreats and facilitate workshops, work that took her all over the U.S. as well as overseas.

Sister Zuercher's writing was also rooted in her work in the Institute of Spiritual Leadership. "That's where all of that kind of flourished for her," Zonsius said.

All but one of her six books reference a system called the enneagram as a tool for spiritual seekers. The enneagram identifies nine personality types on the basis of character traits, motivations and concerns and is intended to help people understand themselves.

The system has drawn some criticism within the Roman Catholic Church. An unpublished draft report of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops written in 2000 noted that the system does not align with either traditional Christian doctrine or modern science.

But Crowley said Sister Zuercher's work did not use the system in a controversial manner.

"She had a depth of understanding of that (enneagram) as an approach to spirituality. It was meant to give one an insight into oneself that will allow (a person) to pray in a way that's meaningful to that person," Crowley said.

Although she never met him, Sister Zuercher felt a strong kinship with the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton, perhaps best known for his autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain."

She wrote two books about him, one a speculative profile of him from the perspective of the enneagram and the latest a reflection on a controversial relationship in which he was involved.

"She saw it as his coming to know himself in that relationship," Crowley said. "It really talks from a human development point of view."

Crowley said Sister Zuercher's use of the enneagram was helpful to many people.

"I see it as a tool that deepens my understanding of the Catholic approach to God and to spirituality," Crowley said.

Sister Zuercher leaves no immediate survivors.

A memorial Mass will be celebrated at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 13, in St. Scholastica Monastery, 7430 N. Ridge Blvd., Chicago.

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