Sister Dee Long answers the call to serve the poor

Sister Dee Long works one-on-one with a sixth-grade student in the computer lab at Our Lady of the Angels School in Kansas City, Mo.

(Sister Dee Long completed her tenure at Our Lady of the Angels School in 2012, and with Catholic Charities in 2013. She moved to Maple Mount in 2014 and serves as assistant to the archivist, an information receptionist and is active in the Powerhouse of Prayer.)

During her 20s, Ursuline Sister Delores “Dee” Long was busy playing semi-pro tennis on a six-state circuit and working for the phone company in Kansas City, Mo. Despite her busy life, she felt something was lacking.

“I always had a calling of some sort to serve the Lord,” she said.

At the time, she was a member of the Disciples of Christ. By the time she reached 31, she had converted to Catholicism, and four years later, she entered the Ursuline Sisters of Paola, Kan. In 2008, that community merged with the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph.

Sister Dee remains in Kansas, living in a Kansas City suburb and ministering across the Missouri line as a part-time teacher at Our Lady of the Angels School. Six parishes make up the multicultural school of about 165 students, with most of the students Hispanic, although there is a student from Ethiopia, Sister Dee said.

Like most of the schools she has served in during her 37 years as a sister, Our Lady of the Angels serves students from low-income families whose home life is not ideal. It’s where Sister Dee has long felt called.

“I’ve always worked in low-income schools, I think that’s where God wanted me,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed it. So many are latch-key kids, either they are from single-parent homes or their mom was never married. Some have parents with drug or alcohol problems. These kids need love, I try to give them everything they need,” Sister Dee said. “It makes you a better person too.”

She teaches K-8th grade computers on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. “This is my eighth year here, I was teaching math to sixth, seventh and eighth grade, and had eighth-grade home room,” she said. “My knees got so bad, I took an opening for a computer teacher. I’m the first Ursuline at the school.”

She uses SuccessMaker educational software to help her computer students with their reading and math. “Working on computers helps raise the students’ academic scores,” Sister Dee said. “Our fourth-graders are doing fifth-grade work. We have a kindergartener doing fourth-grade work. You can’t do without a computer anymore.”

Sister Dee looks on as computer students at Our Lady of the Angels School in Kansas City, Mo., work on the SuccessMaker software.

Mary Delac, the principal at Our Lady of the Angels for five years, said Sister Dee serves a special role at the school. “She’s an awesome role model for the kids,” Delac said. “A lot of kids, even in Catholic schools, don’t have exposure to a religious.”

The best part about Sister Dee is her open-mindedness, Delac said. “Nothing surprises her. She knows God sends every one of our kids to us for a reason. We are very blessed to have Sister Dee, I hope we have her for many years to come.”

Sister Dee came to Our Lady of Angels when a friend was the principal. She also knew Delac before she came to the school.

“Sister Dee was my mentor when I was a young principal, that’s how God works,” Delac said. “When I came in, she was sitting on the interview board, and I thought, ‘This could be either really good or really bad.’”

Sister Dee also volunteers on Monday afternoons at Catholic Charities in Kansas City, Kan., where her housemate, Sister Jane Falke, ministers full time. Sister Dee works in the emergency assistance department to help people with utilities, rent and food. “I set appointments for case workers,” she said. In the summer, she volunteers three afternoons.

“Nothing much riles Dee or shakes her up,” said Sister Helen Smith, who lived with Sister Dee back in the early 1980s. “She can get along with anybody. She really cares about the poor and those who struggle. She’s really happy serving in those areas. She’s part of the kids’ lives.”

Growing up

Sister Dee was born in tiny Mexico, Mo., not far from St. Louis, but her family moved to Kansas City when she was 6 months old. Her dad got a job with a heating and cooling company, the work he did most of his life.

“Mom called him Cloyd, his friends called him Harold or Curly,” Sister Dee said. Her mom, Wilma, stayed home to raise her four daughters, with Sister Dee the oldest. One of her sisters died three years ago, and her other two live close by in Missouri. She is five and seven years older than her siblings, and because of the age difference, they didn’t run in the same social circles, she said.

Sister Dee poses with some of her students in 2005.

Sister Dee went to Paseo High School in Kansas City, Mo., where she met her lifelong friend Judy Moeder. “We were close in high school, and then went our separate ways, but we stayed in touch,” Moeder said. “When she entered the community, we got closer. Her aunt was in a nursing home here (in Kansas City), so she stayed with us on the weekends when she came to visit her aunt. She’s like a member of our family.”

“She’s a very giving person,” Moeder said. “She loves all those kids (at Our Lady of the Angels), and they so need love. They all love her, I know they know they are loved,” Moeder said. “I can’t believe how many people come back to visit her.”

Sister Dee’s family began in the Congregational Church, but she joined the Disciples of Christ while in high school. “I won a scholarship from the church to Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo. I was going to be a medical missionary,” Sister Dee said. “My roommate was from South Africa, her parents were missionaries. I think she changed my mind.”

Tennis courts and Catholics

Sister Dee was a great athlete in her youth, and played basketball and softball at Culver-Stockton. When she ultimately lost her scholarship, she returned to Kansas City and went to work for the phone company as an information operator for 7 ½ years.

“The phone company sponsored me in tennis tourneys, paying for the fees, hotels and gas,” Sister Dee said. “I played a circuit that included Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Illinois. I won trophies, not money. I never aspired to be a professional. I was in my 30s when I quit, my knees were bothering me quite a bit.”

She left there to work for TWA in Kansas City as a night operator. She did that for 2 ½ years, but in 1970, her dad died and she took six months off and moved to Florida. “I had a friend who was going there to work. I’d never been there,” Sister Dee said. “When I ran out of money, I came back.”

She returned to Kansas City and began working for one of the early cell phone companies. It was that year that she began thinking about becoming a Catholic.

Sister Emerentia Wiesner, left, and Sister Dee stop for a moment in the craft room at the Paola Motherhouse in 2008.

“Both my roommates were Catholics,” Sister Dee said. “I grew up with Catholics, we had Catholics in our family. My mom grew up with Catholics. It just seemed right, so I decided to join the Church.”

Her friends worked at Queen of the Holy Rosary, and Sister Dee volunteered to teach catechism on Saturdays. “Sister Mildred (Katzer) was at the church, she was one of my sponsors,” Sister Dee said.

Sister Mildred, who still ministers in Richmond, Kan., was a teacher at Queen of the Holy Rosary that year. “I knew she was a wonderful woman,” Sister Mildred said. “I was impressed with the way she gave of herself. She helped teach CCD class on Saturday mornings. When she wanted to enter the community, I wrote a letter of recommendation to the superior. She’s a marvelous sister.”

Following her job with the mobile phone company, Sister Dee worked for Hudson Oil Co., and the famous entrepreneur Mary Hudson. By 1975, Sister Dee knew there was an emptiness she needed to fill.

Entering religious life

“One of my roommates put it in my mind,” Sister Dee said. “One was a Benedictine back East. I went to a women’s weekend retreat at Paola. I visited Benedictines, Carmelites and the Ursulines in Springfield, Ill. I thought, ‘That’s crazy, I should just go to Paola.’”

“I think the openness and friendliness appealed to me,” Sister Dee said. “I had my own home, I’d always had a good job, but I wasn’t happy with myself. There was something lacking.”

She wrote to Sister Raymond Dieckman, then the superior, in February. On her birthday in May, she received a birthday card and a letter to come try the Ursuline Sisters. “I was 35 years old,” she said. The three other women she entered with were 19 or early 20s. “I was the old lady. I’m the only one who stayed,” she said.

“The first night I was there, I played softball on Sister Kathleen Dueber’s team. I thought it was great,” Sister Dee said.

Sister Kathleen, who is now a member of the community leadership Council in Maple Mount, remembers that game. “We had a women’s softball league in Paola. Dee showed up and nobody knew what to do with her, so she played on our team,” Sister Kathleen said. “She was good.”

Sister Dee Long signs the Book of the Company on July 8, 2009 with her companion, Sister Suzanne Sims, left, as part of the merger ceremony between the Ursulines of Paola, Kan., and Mount Saint Joseph.

Sister Kathleen said Sister Dee’s love for the community, her dedication to prayer and her commitment to living a life in service to others are some of the attributes that make her stand out.

Sister Dee received support from her family and friends when she announced her decision to join the Ursulines. Being involved in religious life was something Sister Dee longed for, her friend Moeder said. “I gave her my blessing.”

“My mom thought it was great as long as I was happy,” Sister Dee said. “I don’t know if Dad would have been OK with it, but I think he wanted me to be happy.”

Her father was just 59 when he died of cancer, and Sister Dee remembers his gentleness the most. “I could talk to Dad about anything.”

Her mother lived to be 76, dying in 1988. “She was a strong woman and she taught us strength. My dad was an alcoholic in his later years,” Sister Dee said. “Mom taught us never to give up, to always look for the good side of something. In many ways, I feel like I can be on an even level with low-income kids. We were middle class, but we didn’t have a lot. But we had a lot of love.”

This year the Ursuline Sisters are putting an emphasis on women in their 30s for potential new members, which Sister Dee thinks is a good idea. “Women in their 30s are thoughtful about it. I knew exactly what I wanted. So many kids don’t have any roots any more, they jump from one thing to another.”

On a Mission

Sister Dee’s first ministry was the Lakemary Center, a facility for developmentally challenged children that the Ursulines started in Paola. “I was the physical development coordinator at Lakemary,” Sister Dee said. “I did therapy on kids who had cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. I taught some to roller skate, to swim, to do track and field. It was great.”

Moeder said Sister Dee’s work with the Lakemary children “was such a blessing for her and for them. She got me involved with Special Olympics while she was at Lakemary.”

In 1982, with her knees troubling her from an old sports injury, Sister Dee went to Holy Angels School in the farming community of Garnett, Kan., teaching 32 students in the seventh and eighth grades. “It was the first time I ever taught in a classroom. I loved it, the atmosphere,” she said. “The country kids were so honest and they loved sports. I taught PE to all the classes.” She also coached basketball, track and softball.

“We were in an Amish area, they were tough to beat in sports,” Sister Dee said. “The country kids don’t have all the other stuff city kids have, plus they have more responsibilities on the farm.”

In 1986, she went to Holy Name School in Kansas City, Kan., as a teacher the first two years, and principal from 1988-95. “Sister Anna (Landwehr) sent me off to get my master’s in administration, but I got it in elementary education,” Sister Dee said. “So, they sent me back.”

Holy Name served mostly children from low-income households, 90 percent Hispanic. In her second year there, Sister Rita Lavigne came to serve as secretary and bookkeeper.

“Sister Dee is a very fair person and always had the interests of the children in mind,” Sister Rita said. “She recognized the situations of the families, because it was a very poor parish. She has the interests of the poor. I enjoyed working with her, she’s a very understanding person.” Sister Rita now volunteers in the archives in Maple Mount.

Sister Dee has an affinity for wolves and dogs, and while she was at Holy Name, she had a part German shepherd, part golden retriever named Tuffy. “He loved children,” she said. It was during those years that she lived with Sister Helen.

“She’s the kind of person who’s open to new things,” Sister Helen said. “She had a bucket list of five or six items, and her family set out to help her do it. She took a hot air balloon ride, she loved it.”

Sister Dee Long, left, and Sister Ann Diettrich, OSB, of the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, were among those honored Aug. 29, 2010, by the Kansas City (Kan.) Serra Club.

In 1996, Sister Dee became principal of Our Lady of Unity School in Kansas City, Kan. Three parishes combined to form the school of 180 students, slightly bigger than the 140 at Holy Name. The school was built in a business area, where new homes were built, but the school was populated with low-income to middle class students, about 70 percent Hispanic. “I took Spanish in high school, I can speak a little,” Sister Dee said.

By 2004, she was tired of all the administration of the principal’s job that kept her away from the students, so she came to Our Lady of the Angels to teach.

“I have always taught sixth, seventh and eighth grade. I taught kindergarten one day, that was enough,” Sister Dee said. “I could relate more with middle school students. Their problems are different than the little ones. They need a strong hand but a listening heart,” she said. “I have kids who still write me from Garnett.”

Cherokees and the Chiefs

Two of Sister Dee’s passions in her free time are exploring her Cherokee heritage and rooting for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.

“I’m 1/16th Cherokee. My great, great grandmother was Cherokee,” Sister Dee said. “I’m proud of it, there’s a prestige. I have always been interested in Native Americans. I’ve studied the Cherokees. My sister married a Cherokee, his grandparents were chieftains.”

She and her friend Judy Moeder take some weekend trips, and have gone to Hawaii together, but they both share a passion for Native American culture. In spring 2011, the two took an extended weekend trip to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M., for the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, where the Native American tribes in New Mexico gather for dancing and competitions. “It was great,” Moeder said. “There was dancing all day.”

Sister Dee and Sister Kathleen used to watch a lot of Chiefs games on TV when they were both in Kansas. “Sometimes it got a little boisterous, depending on how the game was going,” Sister Kathleen said. “She and Sister Bertrand Hochstatter would have on their Chiefs regalia for games.”

Sister Dee also enjoys reading historical novels, with “The Good Earth” as her favorite. “I just finished reading the Wagons West series of 24 books,” she said. “I like the early part of American history, the 1700s and 1800s.”

Sister Dee would like to stay in Kansas as long as she can, since she’s close to her sisters, nieces and nephews. Just like all her previous moves, she knows the next one is “whatever God sees for me to do.”

By Dan Heckel