Oral history: the adventures and challenges of Sister Dorothy Ellen Wolsiffer, SP
“When I look back over the years of the variety of ministries, I see them as challenging but adventuresome. My last ministry of being a pastoral associate was involved with serving older adults: food pantry, ministry of care and visiting the sick, communion services, etc. These were all things I enjoyed tremendously. God’s love throughout the years has sparked my life and made it more interesting. Life flows like a river: smooth, bumps, twirls, spinning on rocks and falling.”
With those words Sister Dorothy Ellen Wolsiffer summed up her experiences as a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Although she expressed reticence to talk about herself, her missions and lifework when we visited in July, she was a delight and as interesting a Sister of Providence anyone could hope to spend time with.
Growing up and the Great Depression
Sister Dorothy Wolsiffer is a member of the ‘Silent Generation,’ as are many of the Sisters of Providence, who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. She knew the struggles and hardships experienced by her own family as well as families just like hers around the world. That Silent Generation appreciates hard work, they exhibit perseverance, determination, resilience, self-sacrifice, fairness. This is an apt description for Sister Dorothy, who was born on North LaSalle Street in Indianapolis in a house her father John Valentine Wolsiffer built. He was a carpenter, one of the original owners of Victory Dry Cleaning in Indianapolis, and an inventor.
But the Great Depression changed the lives of many men and women and families. Sister Dorothy’s family was no exception. They had to briefly move to New Castle, Indiana, and lived on a farm but soon returned to Indianapolis to St. Philip Neri Parish. Like many families across the country at that time, Sister Dorothy recalls standing in a breadline with her mother, accepting government assistance, what little there was.
Struggling for work
Sister Dorothy’s father was creative, and she attributes her own creative savvy to him. He invented a clothes bagger, a cigarette roller, a furnace saver, among other inventions. He even received patents for his clothes bagger and furnace saver. When the depression was most harsh and work was difficult to find, he joined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a carpenter. He worked on building the Hoover Dam on the border of Nevada and Arizona, and then moved on to the Alaska Highway. It meant he was gone for periods of Dorothy’s young life. Sister Dorothy’s mother, Lena, who had helped her husband in the dry-cleaning business, went to work at the Bemis Bag Company in Indianapolis and stayed there for the rest of her working life.
Sister Dorothy Ellen, born Helen, is the fourth of five children, three sets, and the last surviving sibling. Her oldest sibling Rosemary was 10 years older and until she graduated from high school was responsible for watching the younger children. Two brothers, Johnny and James, five years and three years older, were the second set of children in the family. The final set was Dorothy and her sister Rita, who was 15 months younger.
Fourth in a family of five children with three sets of children? That makes you the oldest in your set. And those oldest traits stand out with vigor when coupled with being a fourth born: the ability to deal reasonably with others due to having dealt with so many personalities growing up, hardworking, intelligent, independent, analytical. Just as she credits her creativity to her father, Sister Dorothy attributes her quiet nature in her early years to her mother, who was quiet and loving and devoted to her children.
Sister Dorothy’s father was raised Catholic, her mother a convert to Catholicism. Her mother had been a strong, devoted Protestant who became a strong, devoted Catholic. As a child, young Helen attended Catholic mass regularly, and when living with her maternal uncle’s family for a year also attended the Unity Church on Wednesday nights. Her paternal grandmother was a devout Catholic and a strong influence on Sister Dorothy’s faith. Grandma visited with the family each Sunday, often having to take two buses to get across town to see them. There was a sense of closeness to extended family, especially to this grandmother and to her mother’s family.
In fifth grade, after her sister Rosemary graduated from high school, the future Sister Dorothy and her younger sister Rita stayed with her maternal uncle’s family while her mother worked and her father was still working out west. They attended St. Patrick’s school that year. Her father returned home soon after. Helen completed elementary school at St. Pat’s and then was on to St. John’s High School in Indianapolis.
“I wasn’t very involved with what other kids were doing. My mother was a very private person and that’s how we grew up, we were private people. I had a friend, Phyllis, who talked about going to the convent all the time. She kind of instilled that in me. I think it was my first inclination of becoming a nun. But it was Sister Helene in my senior year of high school who really instigated the whole thing.”
Sister Dorothy’s teachers were Sisters of Providence. It was Sister Helene, her senior high teacher at St. John’s, a personable, likeable, and wonderful person, who talked to Dorothy openly about becoming a Sister of Providence. It was Sister Helene who worked with her to enter the community right after high school. Dorothy entered the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in February 1950 and professed final vows in 1957.
When asked her family’s response to entering the Sisters of Providence, Sister Dorothy said that her mother was the most supportive of the decision to enter the convent. It was her mother’s family who were rather against the idea, thinking she was too young to make that choice. The year after Sister Dorothy entered the convent her cousin entered nursing school right out of high school and that seemed okay with her aunts. So she believed it may have been due to her cousin not ‘leaving the family’ as they perceived Dorothy was. Even though her aunts were not as supportive initially, they were the ones who brought Dorothy’s mother to visit her all the time since her mother didn’t drive, and they became supportive once she was at the Woods.
“We were on our own. Mother didn’t know what we were doing. She was the bread earner. She did a great job. She was a wonderful mother! She worked all day.”
Dorothy had been the leader, or ‘instigator,’ with her younger sister. They were always together. They attended school together, played together, did chores together. The passing of her younger sister Rita within the last year has been a difficult challenge for Sister Dorothy, as has the recent passing of her good friend Sister Marceline Mattingly. Sister Dorothy is the only child of her parents living. She communicates often with her many nieces and nephews and visits with them whenever possible.
Asked if the first couple years when she entered the Woods were difficult without family contact Dorothy, replied that it was not. Her father had been away with the WPA, her mother worked full-time, and by the time she was in junior high she and her younger sister were responsible for many things — starting meals, cleaning, laundry, most household chores. Her brothers and sister before them had done the same thing. Sister Dorothy was full of praise for her mother Lena. And she acknowledged that having chores and obligatory independence at a young age created a responsible attitude in herself and her brothers and sisters.
“It never entered my mind I would be sent home.”
Sister Dorothy found out that many of her peers at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods had worried they would be sent home from the convent for infractions. It was a thought she had never considered. Prior to entering the Sisters of Providence, Sister Dorothy didn’t date, didn’t go to school dances, didn’t socialize a lot. She had her mother’s quiet, shy, private nature. But she blossomed as she grew older into a more confident, engaging individual.
She described teaching as a challenge in the beginning, a profession she worked hard at to achieve proficiency. Her first mission was in New Hampshire, followed by Massachusetts. The requirement was to stay in the East for two years before returning home. One memorable summer in Boston was described as a “wonderful experience, especially the side trips like Cardinal Cushing’s home for a meal … We also went to Provincetown on a ship. We had to get special permission; we still had the habit. We had wonderful experiences.”
Resilience and hard work
Missions in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Indiana, Illinois, and back and forth for 60 years before returning to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods tell the story of resilience, ingenuity and hard work. Missions of teaching children, teaching teachers, learning new things, and sharing what she had learned speaks to her flexibility, her drive to learn and meet challenges head-on, and dedication to mission. She taught second grade through intermediate grades. Her first classroom was the size of a small sitting room and then moved from that small room into a brand-new building.
One mission in Chicago helped Sister Dorothy elevate her teaching ability to a higher standard. She became involved with a reading program for students and returned to Indianapolis as an in-service instructor for two years. Her master’s degree is in remedial reading from Indiana University. She received her bachelor’s degree in education from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.
Teaching has gone through many changes over the years. It is a demanding, constantly changing profession that tries and rejects methods regularly, leaving teachers to adjust continually. Sister Dorothy acknowledges that she did not mind the hard work but experimenting with individualized teaching was grounds for burnout. She sought guidance and took a break from the classroom.
“Profit by the experience of the past for the future.”Mother Theodore Guerin
Before Dorothy entered the convent, she worked for six months at City Hospital in Indianapolis in an office.
“When I entered the Sisters of Providence I didn’t really think about teaching. That surprised me. I don’t know what I thought. Maybe I was oblivious of that fact. I guess I knew they were teachers, so I guess I knew I was going to be teaching. It’s funny, I wasn’t aware of all this. I knew it intuitively. But I had always wanted to work in an office. I worked in an office for six months before I entered. That was always what I was going to do with my life. That’s what I was preparing for in school, to be an office worker, a homemaker. I got my wish!”
When she left teaching she eventually went to the Ministry Resource Center in Chicago, where she was secretary, bookkeeper and was able to combine her love of life-long learning with her teaching skills and her creative talent. The Ministry Resource Center was composed of different religious communities working together as a collaborative group. She developed booklets, learned computer programs to create work products for the Resource Center, and taught others what she herself had learned. It was a rewarding time.
Volunteer and study
Having more free time with no homework, Sister Dorothy became a hospice volunteer for six years. She also received a second master’s degree in theology from Mundelein Seminary and then went on to serve two parishes in Illinois as a pastoral minister before returning to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 2012. The parish she served last was her favorite mission.
In our combats, our labors and our tribulations, let us raise our eyes to Heaven, our true country.Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
In response to Vatican II, Sister Dorothy said that she was not one of the first ones to change. Those in the convent endeavored to adjust to the changes. It felt to her like they were no longer doing things together. Those who had overseen schools and convents were also challenged with the changes in Vatican II. Sister Dorothy kept the habit for a while, even though she had struggled with the fact that she could scarcely stand to have anything around her neck, another of her mother’s traits. It was a difficult time in the community. Then…
“Sister Bernice [Kuper] came to our convent, and we had regular meetings with her on the transition. She was a very spiritual person, and I became more spiritually alive. I never doubted my vocation, but I had quit praying and doing spiritual things.”
Sister Dorothy described her sabbatical in Cincinnati at Mt. St. Joseph College as a time when her spiritual side was renewed. She also participated in directed retreats after Vatican II. Sister Dorothy related with amusement that one time she and Sister Theresa Clare Carr were on a directed retreat and had been so quiet in their meetings with only themselves and the director that they became quite loud on a walk, gaining the attention of Sister Bernice.
“I am the way. I am the truth, and I am the life.” John 14:6
This was what Sister Dorothy meditated on during her retreats. It was a familiar theme running through retreats she attended, and it has become the theme of her own life. It is courageous to acknowledge that at times our spiritual life lags, and the courage developed early in life in this religious woman has carried her through. Beyond the courage of recognition is the courage to confront and overcome such an ebb. Mission accomplished.
“I have changed a lot. In older years, sometimes you change. I think I did.”
How is the church different now than during her childhood? Sister Dorothy remarked that when she was a child everything was a sin, and you were going to hell if you did anything wrong. That changed with Vatican II. And with that change came the difficulty trying to teach religious classes to students. What was a mortal sin? What was a venial sin? It was a challenging time.
“Reflect seriously on what you desire to do. Above all pray much that our dear Lord may make known to you what He wishes you to do.”Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
What advice would she offer to someone considering a becoming a Catholic Sister? “They must want to live in community, to want to be with other people. Be justice-oriented, be aware of what is going on in the world, want to work with people. They have to have a real love of God and some spiritual feelings. They have to know they are giving up ownership of many things, including money. It’s community funds.”
Sister Dorothy is a firm believer that people come spiritually alive in their own time and awaken to their spirituality when they are ready. She sees that the new entrants to the Sisters of Providence are sometimes older than the 18-year-old who entered the community 72 years ago. And they want the life. They are searching for God and she believes the community will help them develop that spirituality.
“We have been awakened very much. We have become aware of the needs of the world. I wasn’t aware of things in the world like what is going on these days — justice, recycling, the war in Ukraine and what they are going through there.”
Hunger for knowledge
It is one of the biggest changes since Sister Dorothy entered the convent. She spoke of a time when sisters couldn’t read books or newspapers or watch TV, other than spiritual materials. She said that sisters did find materials to keep them informed, at times reading newspapers spread on bathroom floors — a testament to their thirst for knowledge of the world they served. Now all of that access is available.
Sister Dorothy went to Rome for Congregation Foundress’ Mother Theodore Guerin’s beatification in 1998. “That was a wonderful experience. We went to Rome and France, saw all the places Mother Theodore grew up in the community there.” Sisters Dorothy and Theresa Clare traveled together to Germany, Austria, Ireland and all over much of Europe. They also traveled in the United States especially during summers when school was out. They had trips where they stayed with nuns on their journeys and that added to their adventures. She speaks with such pleasure of the trips with her friends.
And now? “It’s a wonderful experience now to be living and not have worries. It is wonderful not to have anything to do, not to be in charge. It is a peaceful time now.” Sister Dorothy acknowledges that it is not easy to be 90 years old. Walking can be a struggle, a fall that fractures ribs can be a struggle. “I don’t let that get me down. I keep going.”
The beauty of the forests in Indiana in the rich and lovely month of May surpasses all description.Mother Theodore Guerin,Third Journal of Travel (1844-1845)
Words of wisdom? “’I am the way and the truth and the life.’ I base my life on that. It is my spiritual mantra.”
Sister Dorothy’s most important daily spiritual practice is her quiet time for prayer and meditation in the mornings. She keeps to a routine with her friends: walking on the grounds in the mornings, coffee, checking in on the computer, community activities in the afternoons. She’s a card player.
“So many things bring me wonder! Just living! It’s a carefree life right now. I have no real responsibilities, which I’ve never had before.”
Sister Dorothy Wolsiffer has devoted her life to following God and serving missions in four states. She has let the river of life flow around and past her, tackling and riding out the bumps and whirls, the falls and the eddies, and is still standing. Her courageous examples of tackling and learning new things and developing her spiritual life are inspiration for all of us to continue seeking the way and the truth and the life.