Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Providence Sister Dorothy Byrne: ‘I’ve been so blessed’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Aug. 3, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Sister Dorothy Byrne entered the Providence novitiate in 1943. (IR photo)
One of the senior women Religious in the Diocese of Spokane, Sister Dorothy was born Nov. 17, 1923, and grew up in Kevin (pronounced “Keevin”), a small northern Montana oil town. Her parents were John Leo and Mary Cecelia Byrne, and she had one brother, Joseph, five years younger, who became a priest and is still active in the Diocese of Helena.
“We said the rosary every night,” Sister Dorothy says; “we had a very Catholic childhood. We had lots of love, but we didn’t have lots of money. Those were Depression days. We lived right across the street from the [Catholic] church,” Sister Dorothy said, “and the priest lived in a small parish ten miles north of Kevin, and our house was practically like the rectory. So the priest would come there on Saturday night, and Mother would always cook him dinner, and we’d go to confession. When I was a little kid, I wondered, ‘Why do we go over to church? Why don’t we just stay right here?’”
The future Providence Sister attended Kevin’s public elementary school, then moved for high school to Ursuline Academy, in Great Falls. “It was a boarding school. But I never thought about being a Sister. I always thought about how wonderful it would be to have a big family, because we were only two.”
During her high school years, she decided that she wanted to become a nurse. Graduating from Ursuline Academy at age 17, however, Dorothy was too young to be accepted by a nursing school. She went to college at the College of Great Falls for one year, living with a local family and working for her board and room. “Then the war came, Pearl Harbor,” on Dec, 7, 1941.”
Dorothy had an aunt in Seattle, whose husband had died. “Her two boys were close friends of mine.” One boy, Bill, convinced her to move to Seattle and work for Boeing. “Boeing sent me to riveting school, but they needed me in another place, so I went to the welding shop, helping to build B-17s. I didn’t actually weld, but I did all kinds of other things. There were two women and 38 men, and the other woman was married, so guess who got all the attention.” Sister Dorothy laughs heartily.
During her senior year in high school. “Father Charles Suver,” she explains, “was a Jesuit who gave retreats and missions in the Northwest, and he gave our senior retreat. He asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about being a nun?’ I said, ‘Yes, I have, but I don’t think that’s what I want to be. I want to have a large family.’ He said, ‘You think about it.’”
Dorothy sent Father Suver a Christmas card. He was in St. Joseph Parish in Seattle, near where she lived, and invited her to visit him. “He made me sit down and go through a kind of discernment. I said, ‘I’ll pray, and if God wants me, I’ll go.’”
After that, Dorothy prayed every night – after being out to a dance or some other evening of fun – asking God what she should do. “A quick prayer,” is how she describes it. “Finally,” she says, “it dawned on me that maybe God was calling me. My boyfriend took me out to Mount Saint Vincent, where our novitiate was.” One of the Sisters questioned her. “I said I was thinking about it, but I wasn’t real sure. She said, ‘Well come and stay for dinner.’ And I said, ‘Well, my friend is waiting in the car.’ She said, ‘Well, bring her in.’ I said, ‘It isn’t a her, it’s a he.’ She said, ‘Oh,’ kind of disapprovingly. I decided that God was calling me.”
Dorothy did not find it easy to break the news to her parents, however. “We were only two children,” she explains. “Joe was in high school in Great Falls, and they were alone. They had sacrificed so much for me to go away to a Catholic high school and college, and then I went off to Seattle but had gone home often. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I had made the decision about entering, so when I returned to Seattle I wrote them. Both of them wrote me beautiful letters telling me that they wanted me to be where I wanted to be but I would always be welcome at home if I didn’t like it! Both of them were people of great faith, and were always proud of me.”
The future Sister of Providence entered Religious life in November, on her 20th birthday, in 1943. Following two years of novitiate, Dorothy took her first vows on Nov. 19, 1945. In those days Sisters took new names, and her new name was Sister Dolores. After Vatican II she, along with many other Sisters, returned to her birth name.
“I wanted to bring Christ to the world as Mary did,” she said. “But then my language changed. Not that that isn’t good, but theologically speaking we don’t use those terms quite the way we used to. Later, we worked very hard on our charism (gift) and mission. What has God called the Sisters of Providence to be? Our mission statement says that it is ‘to proclaim the mysteries of the Providence of God and Our Mother of Sorrows in compassionate love and prophetic, creative solidarity with the poor.’ So my whole focus has been to try to get people to understand that God loves them. We have a God that loves us, loves our world and our people. So how do we respond?”
It wasn’t possible for a Sister of Providence to become a nurse until she had taken her final vows, so Sister Dorothy had postponed that particular dream. She first taught in Sprague, Wash., and after earning her Montana teaching certificate, moved to Missoula to teach seventh grade. Then she became involved in the new St. Raphael school in Glasgow, Mont.
“In mileage, it was half way to Chicago. None of our Sisters had ever been out there. It was a new school. I had two years of teaching, and I went there, and I had 56 kids in my seventh and eighth grade combined class. There were four girls, and the rest were boys. In the eighth grade there were three boys who were supposed to go to the reform school, but the judge said that if they came to the Catholic school they wouldn’t have to go to the reform school in Miles City. I remember the number, 56, because on Dec. 8 we had a special reception for the sodality, after Mass, and it was 56 below zero that morning in Glasgow. It was on the radio as the coldest place in the nation. That wasn’t the wind chill, it was 56 below zero.”
Sister Dorothy and the other Sisters at St. Raphael School lived in a convent that had been converted from the old parish club house. “In those days we prayed with arms outstretched. I couldn’t do that, my room was so small. It was very small and very cold.”
For the first week of school, the classrooms had no desks. “Can you imagine?” Sister Dorothy asks. “Fifty-six kids and no desks! They sat in chairs around tables in what later on became the lunch room. I renewed my vows every morning at Mass.
“But I was young, and I prayed, and I worked hard. For my 50th Jubilee I heard from 15 former students from that class.”
Once she took her final vows as a Sister of Providence, in 1948, Sister Dorothy was eligible for nursing school. But something happened.
“When I was in Glasgow,” Sister Dorothy recalls, “I started a home and school association, and the president of the home and school was a dentist. A younger Sister than I had trouble with her teeth. I mentioned this to the dentist when we were meeting to prepare for the meeting, and he said, ‘Bring her down.’ In those days you went two-by-two, so I took her down, and he said, ‘Come on back and watch me.’ Well, he took a scalpel and he cut her gums. I passed out. I thought, ‘I think God wants me to teach.’”
Sister Dorothy declares that her years as a Sister of Providence “have been blessed ones. They’ve been challenging, but I never, never questioned my vocation. I knew God called me to be a Sister of Providence. My life has been very happy, and I’ve had some wonderful opportunities.”
One opportunity that Sister Dorothy believes had a profound impact on her, following Vatican II, was the master’s degree in religious education summer program at Seattle University. “It was a wonderful experience,” she says, “for four summers. Eight weeks each summer. We had marvelous teachers. The students were all directors of religious education throughout this country and England. Wonderful people! That turned my life, that changed me.”
Relative to Religious life today, Sister Dorothy says that the biggest disappointment for her is that “you don’t see young people coming; we have very few vocations, and those that we get are from our missions. We have them more in the Philippines, and El Salvador, and the Cameroons, and Haiti. Our missions are giving us the vocations. Isn’t that interesting?”
Is there anything that Sister Dorothy misses about the pre-Vatican II form of Religious life as a Sister of Providence? Yes.
“We all live in a local community, but we all live in different places. We meet only every two weeks to pray and socialize. We have a wonderful group, there are eleven of us. In the old days, we were all together, we could get together, we had more fun together every day. We don’t now. In some ways I still live the old ways. I still get up at five o’clock every morning to pray,” she says, “because I love that quiet time in the morning.”
Sister Dorothy has some words for any woman, of any age, who may be thinking of becoming a Sister of Providence today. “I would tell her,” she says, “that as far as I’m concerned, my life has been very rich. I think it has drawn me closer to God, and I’ve understood in a deeper way what it really means to have God living in me. We all know that, but there’s something about solitude and a prayer life that keeps you focused in a different way. We have a ministry where we’re trying to let people know who God is in their lives. The ordinary is where God is found.”
Sister Dorothy was on the Governing Board of Sacred Heart Medical Center for 15 years, as well as several other diocesan boards and committees of her community along the way. For six years she worked in the diocese’s Religious Education Office.
She was on the pastoral staff of Spokane’s Sacred Heart Parish for 20 years, until her retirement in 2000. “I’m still a volunteer in the parish,” she says. “I’m a Eucharistic minister, and a lector, and a greeter in the parish. And I was a facilitator for a parish Scripture group for 15 years.”
Currently, Sister Dorothy is fulltime caregiver for Sister Michelle Holland, with whom she shares a house. She is also on the committee for the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Sisters of Providence in the Pacific Northwest.
“I have never been bored,” Sister Dorothy said. “Another part of my ministry is that I write letters all the time to the congress people on social justice issues.”
Does Sister Dorothy ever have any fun? “Sure,” she replies. “I play games on the computer.” The 83-year-old Sister of Providence also walks two miles every day after Mass.
Her concluding words: “I have worked in the Diocese of Spokane, for God and God’s people, for 43 years. And then I was 18 years in Montana. We have a wonderful Religious community, we really do. We have always said that God is never outdone in generosity, and I can say that with all my heart. It’s true. I’ve been so blessed.”