Wake Reflection: Sister Mary deChantal Whelan
At 6:35 on the evening of September 3, 2009, Sister DeChantal Whelan did finally “go gentle into that good night,” very peacefully, surrounded by members of her community, and just minutes after receiving the Anointing of the Sick. DC was a woman with a special gift for friendship and a deep love of her family, and we Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph extend our sympathy to her family (especially brother Jim) and friends. Thanks to the health care staff, the sisters in pastoral ministry, and all who loved and cared for DC in her last years.
Mary DeChantal Whelan came into this life on November 10, 1914, on a farm near St. Joseph, Kentucky. She came as the daughter of loving parents – Joseph Leslie and Florence Eugenia Neel Whelan – and as the sister of Ruth and five brothers: Francis, Robert, Tom, Aloysius (called Tim), and Jim. Four days after her birth, she was baptized at the family’s parish church of St. Alphonsus. Her name, DeChantal, was chosen by her mother, who knew someone with that name, and liked it. DeChantal’s father, who didn’t like it, usually called her “Sis.”
Much later, when asked how her family influenced the growth of her faith, Sister DeChantal wrote: “I am surprised when people say they find no joy in religion. Our family looked forward to Sunday, a fun day when we got all dressed up for church. Ours was a family full of fun. We knew that Mom and Dad loved us. My greatest joy in life was my five brothers and my sister. They’re for aggravation to let you grow, you know. The joy of religion was the main motivation in my family. Mom thought that every time there was a celebration in church, a Whelan ought to be there!”
In this home, DeChantal grew in the qualities that made her such a unique and interesting person. One of these was her love of nature. She told of a beautiful walnut tree that had to be cut down to sell the wood to help support the family. “When it was being cut down,” she said, “Mom cried. And I helped her cry.” Toward the end of her life, DeChantal told a friend about a dream she had had … a dream of heaven. “Mom was walking down the fencerow, looking for wildflowers,” she said.
DC’s love of reading also came from early childhood. She and her dad used to go out on the Green River on a boat, dock it in the shade, and read together … books like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, and Treasure Island. “The last one took two days,” she said.
Her uncle Jim – Father Jim Whelan – subscribed to Catholic periodicals for the family. One of these, she remembers, featured continued stories written by “Father Will Whelan” (no relation, unfortunately, she said). Each week when the paper came, all the children were watching for it. They were allowed to read the front page, but they couldn’t open to the new chapter of the story until all were gathered together around their mother, who read the story and explained the parts they didn’t understand. In the pre-television era, reading was welcome entertainment for the young Whelans.
DeChantal went to St. Alphonsus School, where she got to know the Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph. One of these was Sister Generose Ray, who taught her in grades five through eight. “She had reverence for the person,” Sister DeChantal wrote, and “liked to compliment every student when we did something nice. When she came to our house, she liked to go to the barn and talk about the joy of little pigs. She set up a little altar in our classroom and let us arrange the host and paten. ‘Put all your hopes and dreams and needs right here in this host. This is all of us,’ she told us.”
Sister DeChantal credited Sister Generose with awakening her religious vocation. She told of her older brother Francis, who often had to miss classes to work on the farm, and thus fell behind in school. The other children teased him about this. Sister Generose gave extra time after school to tutor Francis so that he could keep up. “The other children didn’t know she was doing this,” Sister DeChantal said. “But I knew, and I was touched by her generosity and caring.” From this story we also learn that there was a lot of hard work on the farm for the whole family … the boys in the fields, and DeChantal and her sister Ruth with their mother in the kitchen.
On September 8, 1933, after four years at Mount Saint Joseph Academy, DeChantal Whelan entered the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph as a postulant. Six months later, she became a novice. She made temporary vows on March 19, 1936 – the feast of St. Joseph. Three years later, she made final profession. Her classmates were Sisters Marie Bernadette Blanford, Aloise Boone, Ethelreda Hayden, Mary Mercy Hayden, Jean Madeline Peake, Charles Borromeo Calhoun, and Joan Marie Lechner. Of these, Sister Jean Madeline is still living. Sister Jean Madeline, we offer you our special love and sympathy.
By the time of her final profession, Sister DeChantal had already begun a teaching ministry that would take her from Affton, Missouri, to St. Columba School in Louisville, to Curdsville, to St. Bartholomew School, Buechel. Then she taught high school in New Haven, Kentucky, and at St. Francis in Marion County. She said that, as a teacher, she wasn’t good with children. But for many years she received loving Christmas cards from a group of men and women who had been her students at St. Columba in the 1940s. She also heard from two of her “boys” from Seven Holy Founders School in Affton, thanking her for the inspiration she had been to them. I think she underestimated her abilities in teaching children. But it was obviously difficult for her.
From her novitiate days and through these years of teaching, DeChantal was truly PURSUING education … taking summer and correspondence courses from Mount Saint Joseph Junior College and several others and finally from Saint Louis University, from which she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. She also completed 30 hours in journalism, in summer school, at Marquette University. This prepared her for a new ministry that began in 1958: teaching journalism, acting as adviser to the school paper, and serving as official photographer at Brescia College – which had been established in Owensboro just eight years earlier. But her journalism career didn’t last long. She discovered she was allergic to the darkroom chemicals. Soon she was teaching English full time at Brescia. But she didn’t stop pursuing education. At age 53, she began work at Indiana University on her doctorate in Modern British and American Literature – which she received in 1973.
DC’s gifts as teacher and innovator exploded at Brescia. She loved and challenged her students, who described her as both tough and fair. (DC never “gave” A’s. If you didn’t earn an A, you didn’t get it!) Her enthusiasm for books, music, and learning inspired generations of young and older Brescia students. And in the ’60s, the growing struggle for social justice in our country resonated with her own passion for justice. If there was a protest march, chances were that DC was in it. One summer, she helped to recruit a group of faculty and students for a journey to work with Father Ralph Beiting, founder of the Christian Appalachia Project. In March 1965 -though she herself was not permitted to go – DeChantal helped to organize a bus trip to Selma, Alabama, where Brescia representatives participated in one of the historic Civil Rights marches with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
DC’s love and ambition for Brescia College and Brescia students sparked her creativity as nothing else did. Her mind was always bursting with new ideas for Brescia and ways to make them work. She would head up a new program during its incubation period, then turn it over to someone else and begin another new project – like the unique Humanities curriculum and a Humanities Learning Center, for which she wrote successful grants; or the first Weekend College program, of which she was the first director. She also applied for and directed what is now called Student Support Services – a government-funded program that continues to nurture the college potential of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And this is only a sampling of the list!
In the ’80s and ’90s, as director of the Grants Office, DeChantal wrote grants to bring nationally-known speakers to campus for public presentations and adult workshops. Other grants funded faculty development, technological upgrading, building renovations, and scholarships. DC saw Brescia as a place to nurture FAITH … an adult, questioning faith . . . and a place to prepare students for leadership in the church and the nation. She never stopped working toward her vision of excellence.
A person who loved people, DC had a special comradeship with the lay faculty, who admired her free spirit. David Bartholomy, her English Department colleague, says that “DC fit no stereotype of a sister, a woman, or a college English teacher. She was an example of unconventionalism that I gladly followed.” A “Brescia Pioneers” story in the college magazine called her “an innovator, scholar, and rebel with many causes.” DeChantal often laughed about her reputation as a gadfly. “I kept the administration busy defending me,” she said.
She also nurtured friendships among the students … and with almost anyone who needed her. She had special devotion to old people and spent much time and energy caring for those who came into her life. Some people said that Sister DeChantal was spoiled by her friends, and that was probably true. But I believe that was because SHE was so good to so many people!
Hospitality was one of DC’s great gifts. She loved to cook, to entertain, to bring people together. Anne Damron, who worked with her in the Development Office, remembers impromptu wine and cheese parties during afternoon breaks. And you could expect any culinary event managed by Sister DeChantal to be a challenge . . . and a masterpiece.
In 1997, after more than 35 years of service, Sister DeChantal retired from Brescia College. During this time, she had two surgeries for nerve problems in her neck. For several months she was practically immobile in a painful “halo” brace. On her yearly report for 1997-98, she describes her ministry as “prayer and suffering.” But the next year, besides prayer, she lists her participation in a monthly discussion group, at Brescia, and leading a book group at the Mount. During that year she also gave a presentation on Saint Angela Merici to the healthcare staff.
Although walking became more and more difficult for her, she continued to push herself until her doctor advised her to stop … a decision that she accepted with great sadness. Her overall mobility decreased from this point on, but not her strong and stubborn spirit. She pushed to do everything she could do and to keep up with what was happening around her and in the larger world. She had always had a deep devotion to the liturgy, and she insisted on being in this chapel for the daily celebration of the Mass. But getting her to Mass in the early morning was more than the healthcare staff could manage, so soon she could come to the chapel only when Mass was celebrated later in the day. Expressing her frustration with her usual wit, DC said to her friends that she had been “half excommunicated” from the church. Before Christmas 2006, she told the healthcare administrator that she wanted only one Christmas gift: to be present for the Christmas Masses. She received this gift. Her deep spiritual life, which had sustained her from childhood, was a strong anchor for her in these difficult days.
Sister DeChantal… we thank you for your strong spirit, your life of conviction, your honesty, your example of faith, your determination, your generosity, your pursuit of education throughout your life, your example of a full and happy life – as a follower of Angela Merici – in the service of God and God’s people.
Now you rejoice in the presence of the God you hungered for, and in the company of those you loved on earth – your Mom and Dad, your sister and your brothers, your Ursuline sisters, your many friends. We rejoice too, because we know you are home . . . receiving, and perhaps serving as well, in the great feast of heaven.
Sister Ruth Gehres, OSU
September 8, 2009