Sister Dolores Schuh, CHM (Congregation of the Humility of Mary), who celebrates her 90th birthday on September 23, was an integral part of the Collegeville Institute’s life for thirty-one years (1970-71, 1974-2004), more than half its history so far. She is here interviewed by Patrick Henry (www.IronicChristian.org), who was executive director 1984-2004, and before that, a Resident Scholar (twice) on sabbatical from Swarthmore College.
How did you get connected to the Collegeville Institute?
I came in May 1970, three years after the Collegeville Institute had been founded by Kilian McDonnell, OSB (who celebrates his 101st birthday on September 16!). It was a family connection—Kilian’s brother was married to my sister, Helen. After a little more than a year I was called back to my community in Iowa to oversee our college’s self-study as part of the requirement for re-accreditation.
In 1974 I was invited back to the Collegeville Institute, where I worked for the next thirty years, first as administrative secretary, then as executive associate, with responsibilities ranging from restarting furnaces to mastery of all sorts of financial analysis and reporting routines that became steadily more complex as the Collegeville Institute’s endowment grew. I was pretty good at fundraising by writing letters that were both cajoling and pointed. I got to know scholars, pastors, teachers, and their families, from nearly every state and dozens of foreign countries. I welcomed them when they arrived and kept steadily in touch after they left.
Is there an encounter you remember especially?
In 1985, one of those visitors to the Collegeville Institute helped solve a mystery I had periodically researched, unsuccessfully. I had learned in the mid-1960s that I had been adopted at age three by Urban and Rose Schuh of Lewistown, Montana, whom I always loved and acknowledged as my parents.
I knew that my blood mother, originally from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, was no longer living. I told my story, such as I knew it, to a participant in a Collegeville Institute summer program who was a priest from the Diocese of LaCrosse. Thanks to information Father Bernie gathered, I found a sister and brother who had never known I existed. We became close, and still are.
What prepared you for your work at the Collegeville Institute?
After high school in Lewistown, I attended Marycrest College and the College of Great Falls, Montana. I was then employed by the Montana State Department of Welfare as a caseworker until I entered the Congregation of the Humility of Mary in 1954. After earning my degree at Marycrest in 1958, I taught U.S. History, world history, sophomore English, economics, geography, and civics at Ottumwa Heights Academy and Junior College in Ottumwa, Iowa. This helped get me ready for the immensely wide range of interests people brought with them to Collegeville!
How was 1989 a particularly momentous year?
Colon cancer. It was quite far advanced, and the prognosis was not good. However, the surgery was successful. I wrote about the experience in the Collegeville Institute’s newsletter: “I credit my support groups for my recovery. And, because recovery is an ongoing process and life is a fragile gift, I continue to need everyone. I make no apologies, because we need each other. That is actually what ecumenism is all about.”
The prayers were important, but a case could be made that the biggest aid to my recovery was a baseball.
My devotion to the Minnesota Twins was legendary. I followed them faithfully long before the autumn of 1987, when all of a sudden everybody in Minnesota was a “lifelong fan” as the team moved ahead toward its first World Series championship— which was repeated, astonishingly enough, in 1991, when just the year before they had been dead last in their American League division. Shortly after my cancer surgery, the then chair of the Collegeville Institute’s Board, Bob Piper, arranged for all the Twins players to sign a baseball for me. I still have the baseball in its splendid little case. I can actually visualize the day I received it in the hospital and was told that Bob Piper had gone to general manager Andy MacPhail to get it.
I have never been prouder of anyone than I was of you when, in 1998, the Administrative Association of Saint John’s University honored you with its Outstanding Administrator Award. I’m going to quote from the citation: “She expresses Benedictine values of hospitality, listening, care, humor; is outgoing, good-humored, and generous; deeply and genuinely committed to the monastic and educational values of the Saint John’s community; is a tireless worker, ready, willing, and able to respond to needs twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week; with little fanfare, she has made a huge difference in the lives of many people.” Do you have a memory of that occasion?
Yes. I responded that everyone at Saint John’s is helpful simply by nature, but it didn’t hurt that over the years I had baked a hundred thousand chocolate chip cookies to give as thank yous!
In retirement at the Humility of Mary Center in Davenport, Iowa, how have you continued your ministry?
I served many years as editorial assistant for the Abbey Banner, the magazine of Saint John’s Abbey. I worked closely with my good friend, S. Joann Kuebrich, CHM, who was director at Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat, near Wheatland, Iowa.
Then one issue of the Saint John’s Abbey Oblates newsletter included a small article about “some of the most forgotten people in the world”: prisoners, especially those on death row. This triggered my memory of Sister Helen Prejean (best known through the book and movie Dead Man Walking). I knew I wouldn’t be visiting prisons as she did, but here was another option. The article included twelve names from North Carolina’s death row. I chose one name, Danny, that I was sure I could remember, and on Jan. 12, 2012, I wrote to him. He wrote back within a week.
We have corresponded regularly, though recently it has been mostly phone calls, limited to fifteen minutes, two or three times a month.
Danny has been in a long time. He committed two murders in 1985, when high on drugs and alcohol. He has exhausted his appeals, but North Carolina hasn’t executed anyone since 2006. He keeps hoping to be moved from death row to the general prison population, where he would have a chance to work in the kitchen (he was a cook at Red Lobster). The curse of death row is boredom.
All North Carolina prisoners are listed online (this is probably true of other states as well). From the list I was able to learn the birthdates of all 137 on the state’s death row, and for years I sent birthday cards and Christmas cards to every one of them (now it’s just Christmas).
Jesus said, “I was in prison and you visited me.” I think letters and phone calls and greeting cards count. At least Danny is not forgotten.
Thank you for this chance to visit and remember! You express the CHM mission in your actions, your manner, your prayer, your commitments: “to live the Gospel with simplicity and joy following the example of Mary, striving to be attentive to the call of the spirit in the signs of our times.”
Read more about Sister Dolores here, about her prison ministry here, and about the Dolores Fund, established by Ryan Hagan, who was a student assistant at the Collegeville Institute in the early 1990s, here.