Sister Anne Doherty (formerly Sister Dennis)
“Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened and I will refresh you. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Matt. 11: 28-3)
This reading from the Gospel of Matthew is often used at wakes and funerals to convey, from the perspective of the deceased, release from the heavy burden of extended illness. Certainly, that interpretation applies to Sister Anne Doherty whose death last Sunday evening released her from living with Alzheimer’s, which robbed her of the vivacious, spirited and always-in-control personality that many of us knew.
In Anne’s case, this short reading also captures her nearly 50 years of ministry as an educator and a clinical psychologist. Her years in education focused on children and her lifelong clinical interests were directed toward families with children, the rural poor and elderly and the treatment of victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. These encounters gave her a strong sense of human suffering and a deep understanding of the real-life situations which burden so many. Staff members who lovingly and devotedly cared for Anne these last months, strongly felt that at times Anne was reliving some of the difficult cases she had been involved in. As honest as Anne always was, staff also felt that 99 per cent of the time they knew what she was thinking! We can only imagine during her many years of ministry how many people left Anne’s presence “refreshed,” having found “rest for their souls.”
Teresa Anne Doherty was born May 6, 1928, to Patrick Doherty and Hannah C. Byrne Doherty. Anne was one of seven children and grew up in what was often described in some circles as a typical Irish-Catholic family. In fact, in 1984, she received the President’s Award from the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Indianapolis, given annually to an individual who exemplifies Irish heritage and Catholicism. And I might note that Anne, who was particularly supportive of women’s issues, must have found special pleasure in the fact that she was the first woman to receive the award. Her sister, Eileen (Munshower), and brother, Jim, survive, while sisters Mary Jo (Matthews) and Sister Catherine Doherty and brothers, John and Paul, are deceased.
She entered the Sisters of Providence Jan. 9, 1946, from St. Philip Neri Parish in Indianapolis. She professed first and perpetual vows Aug. 15, in 1948 and 1953, respectively. Sister Anne graduated from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College with a bachelor’s degree in education. She received a master’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in clinical psychology, both from Catholic University of America.
Sister Anne, known at that time by her religious name Sister Dennis, ministered for 20 years as an educator, teaching at schools in Illinois and in Indiana, as well as a six year assignment as principal. After receiving her doctorate in 1969, she ministered as associate professor of psychology at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and as a staff psychologist at Vigo County Guidance Clinic. She left in 1972 to begin seven years of ministry as chief psychologist and director of clinical services at Hamilton Center in Terre Haute. She was serving as associate professor of pastoral psychology at Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., when she was elected in 1981 as 14th General Superior.
During her five years of leadership, she and her council began the Development Office and established the National Development Council to begin the necessary fund raising for the renovation of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. During her term of office, papal approval of the Congregation’s revised Constitutions was received. She and her council coordinated the building of Karcher Hall, now part of Mother Theodore Hall, our present health care facility and also made the decision to move the general administration offices and departments, located for years in Tile Hall at Providence, to Owens Hall..
After her term in office, she continued to minister for another 18 years, using her expertise and skills as a clinical and school psychologist in several locations, including Martin University in Indianapolis, Community Mental Health Center in Batesville, Ind., and Educational Family Services in West Terre Haute. She also served as a tribunal advocate and consultant in the Diocese of Monterey in California and for the Diocese of Gary in Indiana. Somewhere along the line, she had promised herself that she would retire at age 70 and so she did, in 1998. In her retirement, she served as a driver at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Sister Anne was highly respected among her colleagues. Upon leaving Weston School of Theology, the rector noted, “We shall miss Anne most deeply; she has contributed in an extraordinary manner to Weston by her presence, her ability and her work.” She was often sought as a speaker for workshops and retreats and through the years addressed countless groups of clergy and seminarians, mental health professionals and both women religious and lay women.
(I feel as if I should give everyone a chance to stand up and stretch before I continue, because now that I have given Anne her just due in terms of her ministerial life and contributions in so many areas, I can finally get to the person behind this life of 84 years!)
Sister Mary Mark, her friend of 70 years, from the time they were in the Juniorate (high school) together, best summed up the person Anne: “No matter what, she was a loyal friend and no matter her office or education, she was always the same; it was the same friendship. Last time I saw her I went back to those Juniorate days and she came alive. The nurse even asked me to come back the next day.”
Anne also could be mischievous and had a great sense of humor. Sister Mary Maxine recalls that when they were Tertians, Anne gave each band member the title of a song to describe her. “I was aligned with ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ related Sister Mary Maxine and Sister Marie Alexis was ‘Pistol Packin’ Momma.’” Another band member revealed that Sister Margaret Ann Wilson’s song was “Did you ever see a Dream Walking?” and Sister Lois Ann Stoiber’s was “Sweet and Lovely.”
Anne was definitely an “in charge” person and could be very direct, freely sharing her knowledge and opinions, whether asked for or not. This sharing extended even to her siblings and later her nieces and nephews, about how they should raise their children, although she obviously was not a parent herself. She dearly loved her family and through the years reached out to them, especially in difficult times. Owens Reilly Auditorium was needed to accommodate all her family members and other guests when she celebrated her golden jubilee.
A few more examples of Anne’s directness … A young sister asked to see Anne about a concern that was weighing on her. She proceeded to lay out her “problem” and eventually came to a period and took a breath, allowing Anne finally to say something. The first words out of Anne’s mouth were: “You’re a damn fool.”
In 1977, Anne was a witness at a special Congressional Hearing on Aging held in Terre Haute. The topic was addressing the needs of the nation’s rural elderly. She began her testimony, “Since we have some Indiana legislators here, I am delighted to present a few ‘commercials’ for mental health. In some cases they are very much needed with legislators.” Congressman Myers interjected, “You mean they need them.” Not missing a beat, Anne responded, “Well, if you neglect the mental health of your constituency, I would begin to worry about yours, I think.” And then she continued with her prepared remarks, and was not interrupted again.
During the business portion of the 1981 General Chapter, Ann Margaret was sitting next to Anne. After each issue was dealt with, Anne would tear up the related papers saying “finished with that.” After she was elected they had to get her a whole new set of materials and Anne quickly found out that some issues were far from finished!
At that time, all the general officers lived together at Loretto house. The others quickly caught on that unless you wanted a discussion of world problems at breakfast, you would take your coffee back to your room. And speaking of world problems, as General Superior Anne would have retired sisters read newspapers and news magazines for her and if they found articles she needed to be aware of, to mark them for her to read. Actually, this was probably Anne’s way of valuing the older sister, as much as providing a service to her.
With all her intelligence, Anne could also be a bit “spacy” at times. Sister Jane Iannaccone relates a very funny story about following a band member of hers in to see Anne as general superior, prior to taking final vows. All through the conversation, Anne kept referring to the previous band member as “Sharon,” although that was not her name. Jane was intimidated enough that she just kept nodding whenever reference was made to Sharon, not feeling free to correct a general superior, especially one who always seemed so sure of herself. However, when Jane left the room and joined the sisters waiting for her, she asked, “Who in heaven’s name is Sharon?”
When Sister Nancy Reynolds visited Anne in Mother Theodore Hall last year, Anne asked her what she was doing now. Nancy told her that she was enjoying a sabbatical. Anne looked straight at her and said, “You most certainly are not on a sabbatical; I did not assign you to a sabbatical.” Nancy chuckled a little and said, “Well Anne, you are not the General Superior anymore.” Anne responded with a question, “I’m not? Who is?” Nancy told her Sister Denise Wilkinson was and Anne said that she needed to see her then, because there were a few things she wanted to tell her.”
As God issued that invitation to Anne last Sunday to “Come into God’s presence and be refreshed” all such confusion ceased in that instant. Anne the sister and aunt, the teacher and principal, the clinical psychologist and general superior, the mentor and band member, the friend … was now simply welcomed home as “God’s beloved.” Robbed of so much in her later years, Anne now knows the reality of Saint Mother Theodore’s words: “… nothing can rob you of your joy when you will be reunited to those in heaven from whom you were obliged to be separated on Earth.”
~ Written by Sister Ann Casper, SP
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