Sister Dorothy Helbling, OSU: Making the light of Christ shine

Sister Dorothy has been spending some time this year with her younger sister, Rose Marie Porsborg, in Mandan, N.D., while she is ill. When she’s back in Belleville, she lives in a small apartment, which she enjoys.

“I wanted to live by myself, it’s been such a blessing,” she said. “It’s like a hermitage. I don’t even feel alone here. I feel the sisters are around me, and God is here.”

A child of the open sky

Sister Dorothy was born in St. Anthony, N.D., where her grandparents were homesteaders. The family came from Germany, in the Alsace-Lorraine area, 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 Erasmus, 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.

Sister Dorothy visits with two of her former co-workers at the Our Lady of the Snows shrine in Belleville. At left is Beth Mertz, and right is Cammy Morse.

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. 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.”

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.”

A religious road trip

She entered the Ursulines of Mount Calvary as a postulant in 1946, 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.

“I’ve been to Ahrweiler four or five times, I know all the sisters there,” Sister Dorothy said. “I was there in 2000 celebrating my jubilee. I had enough frequent flyer miles, it only cost me $48.”

In 1930, the bishop of Belleville invited the sisters to staff a school in Fairmont City, Ill. Between 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.

When she entered in 1946, there were 61 sisters. Her first ministry was at St. James School in nearby Millstadt, Ill., where Sister Marilyn Mueth now teaches. “I had the upper grades (5-8), and was organist and principal,” Sister Dorothy said. “I’m still in contact with some of those students. I never could play the organ right, but nothing fazed me. They didn’t have anyone else to be principal.”

She spent a year at Holy Rosary School in Fairmont, Ill., in 1953-54, where she taught 4th-6th grade. “When I had surgery in 2007, one guy I taught there brought me flowers,” she said.