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

She spent only one year there because her degree was for high school teaching. She was able to return to North Dakota to teach at St. Mary High School in Bismarck for the next four years.

“Four of us had to stay in one room for a month because the room wasn’t ready,” she said. “My parents lived five miles away, but we could never go home. That was the way things were.”

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.

“They asked for sisters, and we didn’t want to be split, so we all went,” she said. There were 11 sisters in Minot in 1958. She taught math and physics. “I had to go to college every summer to keep up with the changes,” she said. “After a few years, I just did math.”

One of her students at Bishop Ryan was future Ursuline Sister Mary Ellen Backes, but she had a more famous student — current North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven.

In a statement e-mailed by his assistant, Gov. Hoeven said, “Sister Dorothy taught Advanced Math at Bishop Ryan High School when I attended school there. She was an outstanding teacher, who made a real difference for me and for all her students. She was professional, prepared, clear and considerate. I knew her students really liked and respected her.

Sister Dorothy and her friend Joe Hubbard in 2005.

“She is a wonderful person and I send my very best wishes to Sister Dorothy, a true woman of God.”

A time to serve

In 1974, Sister Dorothy was the head of the math association for North Dakota, when she took a trip to Germany with her parents. While in Europe, she went to Italy and knelt before the tomb of Saint Angela Merici, the Ursuline founder, and a change came over her.

“I felt I should do something for the community,” she said. She applied for a scholarship at St. Louis University and got into a leadership workshop, spending a year as a student of Theology of Religious Life, finishing in May 1975. At Easter she was elected provincial superior of the Belleville Motherhouse, spending the next eight years in that role.

The relationship with the German motherhouse was a rocky one.

“In Germany, they didn’t recognize us,” Sister Dorothy said. “We thought we might as well separate. They took offense that we differed with what they wanted.”

Sister Dorothy has continued corresponding with the German sisters through the years, and maintains a good relationship with them.

On Aug. 13, 1983, a six-year process to separate from the German motherhouse was complete, and the Ursuline Sisters of Belleville became an independent community. “In 1983, I was told by Rome that I should be general superior,” she said, so that year Sister Dorothy was elected the first superior general of the autonomous community. There were 27 members. She served until 1989, replaced by her former student, Sister Mary Ellen Backes.

“It was hard, but I had Sister Angela with me,” her former novice director and close confidant. “I shared everything with the sisters.”

During her tenure she began doing retreat work on the weekends at King’s House Retreat Center in Belleville, led the music for retreats, and helped out with vocations. It was during that time that she began a friendship with Fr. Tom Santa, C.Ss.R.

“Sister Dorothy was on the retreat team when I joined it, and we shared ministerial responsibilities with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who directed the retreat house,” Fr. Santa said.“After my departure from Belleville, when I moved on to another assignment in Wichita, Kan., I brought Dorothy to Wichita in order to help our staff learn something from her experience of retreat work, especially using scripture and directing individual retreatants. The material and the direction that she provided was invaluable to me and to this day I still have and use one of her handouts.”

When he was on the staff of the St. Henry’s Seminary in Belleville, Fr. Santa worked with Sister Dorothy and the other Ursuline Sisters at the motherhouse, and a few years after his departure, he returned to the motherhouse to conduct a retreat.

“Dorothy was always a welcoming and encouraging presence,” Fr. Santa said.