Twice a nun, forever gratitude-filled

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Deep peace, the kind that transforms the soul and ripples outward into the world, is not guaranteed in this life. Benedictine Sister Dolores Dean knows what it's like to obtain such a gift, to lose it and then - nearly a lifetime later - come home to it for good.

"It hasn't always been easy, but you hang on," said Sister Dolores, 83. "What it comes down to is you just have to find where God wants you to be. For me it took a long time until everything could come to fruition."

Uncharted paths

Cane in hand and clad in a full black-and-white traditional habit, Sister Dolores deftly navigates her way around the St. Benedict Monastery in Bristow, where she's lived for the past two years.

Blind since birth, she grew up decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act and the accommodations it brought with it.

Yet the tough, quick-witted sister is not one to dwell on obstacles. During a recent interview at the monastery, Sister Dolores discussed her life with ample humor and not a trace of sentimentality.

Born in 1931 and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., she attended the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, a boarding school in the Bronx. After high school she enrolled in a small Catholic college run by the Sisters of Divine Compassion in White Plains, N.Y. The sisters there were devout and caring, and they helped confirm what she'd always known: "I wanted to be a sister; that's all I ever wanted," she said.

Under the sisters' instruction, the young Dolores worked hard in college. While a good student, she had difficulty obtaining textbooks in a form that was accessible to her. With the help of government funds, she hired classmates to read books to her while she took notes in braille. A skilled typist, she composed papers on a typewriter.

During senior year, Dolores began to look into different religious communities, seeking out an order that was both active and contemplative.

It was the late 1940s, though, and not a lot of blind women were going to college, let alone joining a religious order. She wrote to many communities, but most were unable to accept a blind applicant.

"There were a lot of disappointments, a lot of rejection letters, a lot of tears," Sister Dolores recalled.

Finally, the Benedictines invited her for a visit.

"I knew nothing about the Benedictines, absolutely nothing," said Sister Dolores.

The more she learned, the more she loved them.

"When I found out what Benedictinism was, the prayer life drew me in - the chanting of the office, the liturgy," she said.

She was accepted, and four months after graduation was on her way to the St. Joseph Monastery in St. Mary's, Pa., the first Benedictine convent in the country.

An unexpected turn

"When I entered, it was wonderful, and I was absolutely happy," said Sister Dolores. "It was what I wanted; it was what I felt God calling me to be."

But because she was paving the way as a blind sister, her novitiate was tough at times. "The community really didn't know what my needs would be, and we had to really work together," she said.

Once her novitiate was completed and she started to teach, life became more difficult.

"It was a different time, and we didn't have the books in braille that I needed; we didn't have the material I needed," she said. "Therefore, I wasn't adequate as a teacher. If I'd had the proper things, I would have been fine, but we didn't."

Unable to teach, she was forced to do medical transcription work instead.

The work was far from what she'd anticipated. "I thought, 'How am I going to fill my life?'" she recalled. "It was very hard."

After 10 years - though her love for the sisters and the faith was as strong as ever - she decided she needed to leave. "I left because I couldn't function," she said.

"It was difficult, and I never wanted to leave, but I just couldn't imagine life as it was forever."

Soon after leaving the convent in 1964, she met and married her husband, who also was blind. They both had successful careers, with Sister Dolores finding a position at Helen Keller Services for the Blind in New York. Working in vocational rehabilitation, she helped blind young adults prepare for the GED, learn computer technology and medical transcription and "whatever they needed to prepare them for a job."

She also worked at the Helen Keller library and completed a rigorous braille transcriber and proofreader certification program through the Library of Congress.

Along with a fulfilling career, she had "a good marriage with a wonderful, wonderful person," she said.

Homecoming

Sister Dolores' husband died in 2002, and soon after she felt a tug toward the Benedictines.

Besides one visit years prior, it had been a half-century since she'd stepped foot inside St. Joseph Monastery.

"I didn't know if I could come back, but I knew I had to visit," she said. "As soon as I walked in the door I thought, 'I can't leave. This is where I need to be.' It was very simple. I just knew."

At 72 years old, she was reaccepted into the novitiate, and the sisters welcomed her with open arms.

It was a homecoming in countless ways.

"You share a special bond when you are young and go through the novitiate together," she said. "So I was going back to friends."

After completing her novitiate for the second time, she settled into the life of a Benedictine.

The order, like the church, had seen many changes since she'd given up her habit. "It felt different and there were changes, but it was still Benedictinism," said Sister Dolores.

When she took her vows again, in 2004, she said it was "like walking on air I was so happy. I just knew this is what I wanted."

But her joy was intermingled with a touch of sadness. "There were good things" in the intervening years, "but I never really wanted to leave in the first place," she said. "I was sad that I couldn't have been where I should have been for such a long time."

Sister Dolores spent about a decade at St. Joseph before coming to Bristow in 2013, when the old convent closed.

She has thrived at St. Benedict Monastery.

"The sisters are kind, they are good to one another, they are Christ-like," she said. "They really, truly witness to Our Lord, to one another."

An energetic octogenarian, Sister Dolores works as a proofreader for the Xavier Society for the Blind, which offers free spiritual and inspirational Catholic reading materials, and as a volunteer for Bookshare, a computer-based organization that provides books for individuals with disabilities.

She also knits and crochets for the poor in Appalachia, teaches English as a second language classes and leads prayers at the convent.

Her most important work, however, is inward.

"The last few years have been more of a contemplative sense of who I am, of who Christ is," said Sister Dolores.

"Whatever I do outwardly, I do with all my heart. But my real feeling is witnessing Christ, and for me that means just being who I am," she said, adding, "and that's nothing special."

Sister Dolores said she thinks a lot about "seeing Christ in everyone and knowing that He's in you, too, and then acting that way. Don't think you'll do it perfectly; sometimes you'll fail miserably."

It's a hard, simple and radical act to see Jesus in people and in oneself, she said. "It's the work of love."

In all she does, Sister Dolores basks in the joy of her vocation.

"God has brought me to where I'm meant to be," she said, smiling broadly. "I am happy, because this is where I'm supposed to find my peace."

Scott can be reached at kscott@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @KScottACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015