Wake Service Reflection: Sister Dorothy Marie Willett, OSU
About 9:00 in the evening on February 4, 2009, our Sister Dorothy Marie found the peace she had been seeking throughout a difficult illness. I have most often heard people describe Sister Dorothy Marie as a woman of peace, a woman of service, a woman of prayer, and a woman with a great sense of humor. One of her friends said that the psalm that immediately came to her mind when she thought about Sister Dorothy Marie was Psalm 131, describing the soul’s humble trust in God.
O Lord, my heart is not proud…
I have stilled and quieted my soul
Like a weaned child.
Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap
So is my soul within me.
(Ps. 131: 1,2)
Sister Dorothy Marie was born on October 8, 1921 in Waverly, Kentucky, the fourth child of James Edward and Jane Isabel Perdue Willett. The family would grow to eight, including brothers Thomas Edward and Joseph Vernon, and sisters Theresa Bernadette, Dorothy Jane, Doris Hiltrude, Mary Kathleen, and Rose Marie (known to us as Sister Rosita). This fourth child received a significant name when she was baptized Anna Ursula Willett at Saint Peter’s Church in Waverly. After three years in Waverly, the family moved to Morganfield and later to Henderson.
Ursula’s attraction to a life of prayer was nurtured in her home, where she says her earliest memories were of learning to say the rosary. One of her sisters tried to take the rosary away from her, so she hid it, she said, “where only God could find it—in my mouth!” (She noted that it did not come out the way it went in…) She also listed her first Holy Communion and Confirmation at Holy Name Church in Henderson as very meaningful days in her life.
When she was in the third grade, her mother bought her a life of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, and it was that little book that made her decide to become a Carmelite. She nurtured that desire until her senior year in high school, when she decided that “The Lord knew that I couldn’t do that.” She had begun school with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Henderson, but later attended Corydon Elementary, Weaverton Junior High, and Corydon Junior High. She came to the Mount for high school, where two older sisters were already enrolled. She loved it there, deciding that was where she wanted to spend the rest of her life.
On September 7, 1940 she entered along with 13 other young women, including Sisters Jean Gertrude, Mary Evelyn, Pauletta, Mary Jovita, Consolata, Mary Corda, and Ruth Ann. The community offers its special sympathy to you, Sister Dorothy Marie’s classmates. Though she got homesick a lot, she “dearly loved” the novitiate, especially when she got to make altar breads, work in the sacristy, and help in the priests’ dining room. She did say Mother Martina was hard on her, saying many times “There is a road, take it!” (Maybe she complained about being homesick once too often?) Her class made their first vows on August 15, 1943 and final vows in 1946.
In those days before juniorates were established, Sister Dorothy Marie’s higher education record reads: “Brescia College, 1940-1969” so we can imagine all those summers spent in school, getting her teacher certification and degree in Education. Her first mission was to Saint Paul, Leitchfield, where she taught grades 4-6, though she gradually worked her way down to the level she really loved, first and second grades. Subsequent missions included Vine Grove, Buechel, Earlington, Curdsville, Saint Raphael, Nebraska City, Saint Thomas More in Paducah, and Blessed Mother, Precious Blood, and Saints Joseph and Paul in Owensboro.
Most of her mission experiences were happy ones. Her happiest days with the sisters “were spent doing nice things for them, especially cooking or sewing.” She said that her 42 years of teaching God’s little ones were joyful and exciting, especially when she got to do sacramental preparation. Her favorite missions were Blessed Mother, Lourdes Elementary in Nebraska City, and Saint Thomas More since Father John Vaughn was in her first grade classroom there…she was very proud of Father Vaughn, and of all her other students (especially the ones who became priests)! One of her students sent her a copy of an award he had received later in life, with a note that said “This shows that I got a good start.”
In an opinion piece written for the Southern Nebraska Register (June 28, 1985) Father Edward Tuchek praised the Ursulines, saying that for forty years he had noted their contributions to the growth of the church in southern Nebraska. He described one convent with no running water, in which the sisters had to stoke their own furnace. One sister reported taking a hot water bottle to bed, and finding it frozen after Mass. Father Edward especially praised Sister Dorothy Marie, saying that “she really made a mark on the lives of many children, their parents, and the teaching staff. She taught the gospel by living. She is remembered for her strong faith, her piety, her spirit of sacrifice, and her sense of humor.”
As her teaching career came to a close in 1985, Sister Dorothy Marie continued her life of service at Mount Saint Joseph, where she became the Assistant Local Superior and Liaison with Lay Directors (what we would call Human Resources today). She hired, fired, and supervised the lay staff, and worked alongside them in food service as well. She filled these roles for four years. Sister Dorothy Marie had always said she wanted to come to the Mount before she grew disabled, so that she could help the senior sisters, and in 1989 she became responsible for their personal and pastoral care—visiting them, writing letters, praying with them, and seeing to their needs. She quietly took on a special ministry as caretaker for the sisters’ burial clothes, making sure they were mended, cleaned, and ironed. Just one of the many things she did “behind the scenes” in her life of quiet service…
On behalf of the community, I want to thank the health care staff, our pastoral care sisters, and all the other sisters who sat with her, for your patient and loving care of Sister Dorothy Marie in these difficult final months. You were simply giving back to her what she had so generously given in the years before.
In 2001 she suffered through two painful illnesses, but noted on her Annals form that she had committed herself to a monthly prayer day from 9-3 in the Infirmary Chapel. Once an aspiring Carmelite, she had always been attracted to a life of prayer, saying that “prayer and silence were precious moments” she treasured. As she entered into the community’s Powerhouse of Prayer, she took her duties seriously, reporting in her Annals for 2003-2004 that “I’ve gone to the chapel to pray every chance I get” and listed her ministry as “Pray Always.”
All of us were touched by her loving care for her sister Rosita. As her own health declined, she moved into Saint Joseph Villa where she continued to do what she was able, until Sister Rosita died. Throughout her life, Dorothy Marie’s relations with her family energized and refreshed her. Every archives sheet I took from her folder said something like: “Went to Orlando to stay a week with my sister Bernadette;” “Going to Dayton to visit Kathleen for a week;” “Had a wonderful week with Doris in Mount Carmel;” “…with Dorothy in New Albany” or …”a week with Doris and a week with Kathleen.” She loved her family so much. There was a sad little note in her report for 2006-2007 that said: “With oxygen I can’t travel. Prayer is all I can do.” On behalf of the whole community of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, I extend our sympathy to the family of Sisters Dorothy Marie and Rosita. I know they are both praying for you, right now!
So I think we can confirm those opinions of Sister Dorothy Marie Willett—a woman of service, a woman of peace, a woman of prayer. Dorothy Marie, you have surely found a welcome in the place of mystery where you have gone, because you went with your hands full of your good works of service. You have found a deeper peace than you could have ever experienced in this life. And you are drinking deeply at the very wellspring of prayer. Pray for your community, your family, your students, and for all whom your life touched. We love you, and continue to be grateful for your life of love and service.
Sr. Michele Morek, OSU
February 6, 2009