Not many people would be expected to follow through on a promise they made in the second grade.
Sister Dorothy Helbling did just that, and she’s never regretted it.
“On my First Communion day, I made the promise that I would become a sister,” Sister Dorothy said. “I felt so high from having first Holy Communion.”
Sister Dorothy became an Ursuline Sister in 1947, making this her 68th year. But it was a circuitous route to Maple Mount, starting out in North Dakota and spending much of her life in Illinois.
Sister Dorothy was born in St. Anthony, N.D., where her grandparents were homesteaders. The family came from Germany, in the Alsace-Lorraine area, and then migrated to Odessa, Russia. From there they came to America so they wouldn’t be conscripted, she said.
“I loved St. Anthony. The town is only three to four blocks long,” she said. It was a farming area, and the farmers would come to St. Anthony for fun.
“North Dakota is a lot of flat land, the skies are beautiful, no obstructions,” Sister Dorothy said. “We get the Northern Lights sometimes. On one hill, you can look 30 miles in every direction. People wave at you whether they know you or not.”
Her parents were Anton, known as Tony, and Mathilda “Tilly” Helbling. “Mother was a housekeeper, my dad ran a furniture store, then he started wind chargers,” Sister Dorothy said. “It’s a device that would charge batteries. He was an electrician.”
In 1945, when Sister Dorothy was a senior in high school, her family moved to Mandan, N.D., where her father’s new business developments proved lucrative for him. Her sister still lives in Mandan.
There were no Ursulines in Mandan, but Sister Dorothy had already made up her mind what she was going to do after high school.
“I knew the sisters from St. Anthony,” she said. “I wanted to be like my first-grade teacher, Sister Ildephonse. She was a loving person. You always felt at home with her.”
She entered after graduating high school. “My parents were great about me entering,” Sister Dorothy said. “My mother had wanted to be a sister when she was growing up. We were very involved in the church. Mother played the organ and we both sang in the choir.”
Joining the Ursulines was a little more complicated than a short trip to the convent. She entered the Ursulines of Mount Calvary, but it was 1,000 miles away in Belleville, Ill., not in North Dakota.
Belleville and Mount Saint Joseph Ursulines follow the same lineage from Brescia, Italy, to Liege, Belgium, but from there the Belleville group moved toward Ahrweiler in the Rhineland, while the Mount Saint Joseph Sisters went to Straubing, Bavaria. In 1910, 10 German sisters left Ahrweiler to teach in North Dakota, and in 1912 Kenmare was designated as the headquarters of the Calvarienberg missions of America.
In 1930, the bishop of Belleville invited the sisters to staff a school in Fairmont City, Ill. From 1930-1945, they accepted Illinois schools in Grand Chain, Millstadt, East St. Louis, Mascoutah and Mounds. Things were becoming strained in North Dakota, as the bishop pushed for a separation from the German motherhouse, and there were no Catholic universities for the sisters to pursue higher education. In 1942, Belleville Bishop Henry Althoff invited the community to transfer its regional headquarters to Illinois. Belleville became the permanent motherhouse in 1945.
“I never was homesick, I knew I was where I was supposed to be,” Sister Dorothy said. “We had such a great novice director, Sister Angela Roos.” Sister Angela would become Sister Dorothy’s trusted confidant in years to come.
Sister Dorothy’s first ministry was at St. James School in nearby Millstadt, Ill. “I had the upper grades (5-8), and was organist and principal,” Sister Dorothy said. She spent a year at Holy Rosary School in Fairmont, Ill., then was able to return to North Dakota to teach at St. Mary High School in Bismarck for the next four years.
She taught math at St. Mary’s until 1958, when Bishop Ryan High School was opened in Minot, N.D., where Sister Dorothy taught for 16 years. Among her students were future Ursuline Sister Mary Ellen Backes and future North Dakota Governor John Hoeven.
In 1975, she was elected as provincial superior for the Ursulines in Belleville, but a rocky relationship with the German motherhouse continued. In 1983, after a six-year process, the Ursulines of Belleville became an autonomous community and Sister Dorothy was elected general superior. It was a position she would hold until 2005, except for the six years (1989-95) served by her former student, Sister Mary Ellen.
With the community dwindling in numbers, and some of the elderly sisters in need of long-term care, the Ursulines of Belleville merged with the Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph in 2005. Sister Dorothy remained in Belleville until 2011 as an Ursuline presence, before retiring to the Motherhouse in Maple Mount in September 2011. These days she remains active in the Powerhouse of Prayer.
She knows she made the right decision becoming an Ursuline Sister.
“I’ve had a lot of support from the sisters,” she said.