Biographies

Sister M. Magdalen Doelger, MM

Born: March 27, 1890
Entered: May 24, 1916
Died: February 27, 1982

It was love for God and His Kingdom in the hearts of Fathers James Anthony Walsh and Thomas Frederick Price that gave birth to Maryknoll and kindled a vibrant spark in the hearts of the first little band of secretaries who gathered about these two great men. They came from all walks of life. One particularly outstanding member was Marie Doelger of New York who entered Maryknoll on May 24th, 1916, the fifteenth member of the group.

Marie Madeline Doelger was born March 27, 1890, the second girl in a prominent New York Family. Her early education was received, for the most part, in private schools, here and abroad. Though Marie did not enter religious life until she was twenty-five, she explained that she would find it almost impossible to remember a time in her early years when she did not possess the conviction that God was calling her to this vocation. Circumstances did not lend themselves to answering God’s call immediately but the years of delay were evidently years of reflection. When finally the step was taken, one of the strong influences she experienced was the reading of the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Thus almost from the beginning of her response to God in Maryknoll, the concept of the union of the contemplative life with the missionary apostolate was a subject for her of frequent consideration.

Scarcely a year after her arrival, she confided these views that she had acquired to Mother Mary Joseph and was thrilled to find that, far from seeing incompatibility of aspirations in this direction, Mother herself shared similar views as possible goals for the new community. Impractical and unrealizable though such dreams were in that year of 1917, Sister Marie discovered that Mother Mary Joseph desired to possess some day within her missionary congregation a small group who would spend themselves with one heart and one soul for the same end as all other Maryknoll Sisters, but whose specific work would be that of contemplative prayer, sacrifice and worship.

Of course, there had to be years of waiting. After a period as Mistress of Postulants, Sister Marie was assigned in April, 1920, as Local Superior at the Japanese Mission in Los Angeles, the very first mission foundation of the Maryknoll Sisters. In November, 1922, she headed the overseas group of Maryknoll Sisters assigned to the interior of China, Yeungkong, the first mission station of Father Francis Xavier Ford. Then in 1925 Sister Marie was recalled to the Maryknoll Motherhouse to serve for seven years as Novice Mistress.

Never during this period of sixteen years was the idea of the Maryknoll Cloister forgotten. But wisely enough, never during these years was any disproportionate pressure given to the realization of the cloister dream. At this time the Maryknoll Sisters’ Community was growing with extraordinary rapidity. The burdens of erecting the Motherhouse were faced, as well as the opening of missions overseas. But finally on October 4, 1932, the doors of the Cloister, which was called “Regina Coeli,” opened for the pioneers of this contemplative community within Maryknoll with Sister Marie as the first Local Superior.

All her Maryknoll life, and especially in the formative years of the Cloister, Sister showed a deep love, respect, and devotion for Mother Mary Joseph, seeking in every way to have the community imbibe her apostolic spirit, and taking every opportunity to invite Mother to spend as much time as possible in the Cloister where her advice and counsel on the more important aspects of the new life opening up were cherished and considered invaluable. Mother gave the little band St. Therese of Lisieux as their “big Sister.” It was in partnership with her that Sister Marie strove to carry out Mother’s desires for the new foundation: “You must be love in the hidden heart of Maryknoll.” Through the years she and her Sisters have striven to be this, never considering the Cloister to be anything but a small integral part of the greater whole which embraces the entire Maryknoll family – Priests, Brothers, Sisters.

Here, her correspondence was vast. She was the most loyal of friends, singling out in particular her former novices, many of whom were now on the missions encountering a variety of experiences. But they were not the only ones soliciting her encouragement and concern. Her compassion was stirred by every human need: the lonely, those who had fallen on ill fortune, those hungering for a word of spiritual guidance, the sick, the suffering, the aged – all found refuge in the heart of this truly great missioner of prayer who invariably signed herself, “Your faithful old friend.”

After guiding the young community for the first six years of their cloistered life, Sister Marie begged to be relieved of her responsibilities and slipped back into the ranks with a spirit so simple, so unassuming and childlike, that one might never have suspected how long she had borne the burden of authority in days when practically all was vested in the “superior.” She found evident joy in the simplest tasks, but her chief delight was in the Altar Bread work where she cut by hand some two thousand four hundred hosts a week. Attached to her cutting table was a well-worn prayer for priests.

Early in 1975 when she felt her health declining, she said to one of the Sisters, “I’ve given God everything; if He wants this, too, it’s alright with me.” The Lord took her at her word when on March 7, 1976, it was thought best for Sister Marie to go to Bethany, which was at the time our house for sick and retired Sisters and where she could receive the much-needed and devoted care of our Sisters there.

In living out the Paschal Mystery during her long life, she experienced at times deep pain as well as great joy; but towards the end of her life it was chiefly joy that predominated – a joy that expressed itself in a serenity and tranquility that nothing seemed to disturb. When the Sisters from the Cloister visited her each week, they found her room a haven of peace. These visits were very precious to them. Here they prayed together, often closing their prayer with her favorite Psalm, Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” “How true!” she would exclaim, “There is nothing that we want.”

In preparation for the Feast of St. Therese, who was especially dear to her heart, the Sisters read sections together from her own personal copy of The Story of a Soul which she had heavily annotated here and there in the margin of its pages. Written in her firm hand over the years were guidelines for her own spiritual life, such as: “Through love alone can we become pleasing to God. My sole ambition is to acquire it. The only way which leads to love is through self-surrender. It is to have the confidence of a little child who sleeps without fear in her father’s arms. It is love alone that counts.” On a card to one of her Sisters she wrote: “Prayer, trust in God, a willing acceptance of our hidden and obscure role just as it unfolds itself from day to day – these are the eternal things. The others will pass and we with them; so let us be patient.”

Each month when the Sisters shared with her the Maryknoll magazine, in the early days of her illness, she would sit erect in her wheelchair in order “not to miss a word.” Her interest and deep concern indicated her sensitivity to every mission need and problem.

Her ardent love for her family, her two sisters and brother, was marked. After one of her brother’s visits to Bethany, she confided to one of the Sisters: “I was not able to express all that I wanted to say to him, but that makes no difference. We understand one another perfectly and love each other very much.”

In sickness as in health, Sister Marie was always the lady, filled with gratitude for the very least favor performed, ever considerate, kind and thoughtful of others, putting herself always in the last place. She was the essence of refinement, graciousness and Christ-like concern for all.

On one of their visits to her at Bethany, the Sisters from the Cloister wheeled her chair to the chapel door, which was open, and gave her full view of the great crucifix over the altar. She gazed at it for a few minutes with a look of intense love and gratitude. Turning to them she said with much feeling, “It is lovely here. It is so, so lovely.” This was one of the last coherent sentences she spoke, yet what worlds it implied and what a tribute to our Sister-nurses and staff who minister to the suffering Christ so selflessly in our beloved sick. Save for a luminous, beautiful smile, which bespoke her awareness of the indwelling God and her complete surrender to Him, she communicated very little (verbally) after that.

On November 28, 1978, Sister Marie (with our other sick Sisters) was moved from Bethany to the new spacious quarters on the fourth floor at the Center. Here, on February 27, one month to the day before her 92nd birthday, at 7:00 p.m., her life of love and immolation at the “Heart of Maryknoll,” reached its fullness when the Father called her to Himself on the very threshold, we might say, of the Golden Jubilee of the Cloister’s foundation (October, 1982)——the Cloister she cherished and nurtured so dearly.

A decade or so ago, Abbe Combes wrote a book on St. Therese of Lisieux and her labor for the missions. At one point he queries: “Did she, so intently intent on this missionary activity, did she deceive herself about her way to accomplish it? Only those can think so who, judging matters solely by human criteria, or as they show themselves outwardly, make a distinction between the apparent fruitfulness of action and the sterility – which they deplore – of contemplation…We have learned from Saint Therese that in a world created and redeemed by infinite Love, whose characteristic note is an emptying of self, contemplation is the highest principle of the action which God Himself grants to us when we make closer union with Him the only goal of our effort.”

We extend our deepest sympathy to our dear Sister’s immediate family and all her nieces and nephews whom she loved and prayed for so ardently.

While we, her Sisters, mourn her temporal loss, we cannot but rejoice in her newfound happiness and fulfillment in Christ Whom she served so lovingly and faithfully. Our hearts are overflowing with gratitude to Him for the beautiful influence and example of her hidden, yet far-reaching, life of love, surrender and praise.

The Celebrants of the Liturgy are: Maryknoll Fathers Bishop Edward A. McGurkin, Joseph R. Lang. Robert E. Sheridan, Norbert J. Rans, and Joseph A. Hahn.