Sister Dorothea Underhill, MM

Born: October 13, 1904
Entered: October 15, 1929
Died: March 11, 1997

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” With these words of the Gospel of the day, we begin our Liturgy of Resurrection for Sister Dorothea Underhill. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me,” are words that guided Sister during her 68 years of religious life as a Maryknoll Missioner. These past years we have all come to know her in many different circumstances, and she is known to all of us as “Dottie,” more than Dorothea, so that is how I will speak of her throughout this letter. If we were to look for words to describe “Dottie,” some that surface are prayerful, zealous for the mission of Jesus, persistent and very caring with her friends. Her almost 93 years of life were full of activity.  She always responded to others when they prayed with her, and especially loved music. The nurses in Residential Care would oftentimes sing her favorite song, “El Pescador” (The Fisherman) while giving her care, and would be rewarded by a warm smile. Her life came quietly to an end on March 11, 1997 while Mass was being celebrated in the chapel down the hall.

Dorothea Underhill was born on October 13, 1904, in Framingham, MA, the only child of Helen Teresa Kelley and Frank Connor Underhill. She graduated from Framingham High School in 1922 and received a Teacher’s Certificate from Framingham State Teachers College in 1924. Dorothea then taught in the Boston City Schools for three years and during this time attended night classes at Boston Teachers College. Her interest in Maryknoll and the missions was fostered by her parish priest, Father Thomas C. Garrahan and she hoped always to serve God through her missionary vocation. The year before she entered Maryknoll, Dottie worked as a clerk to earn sufficient money for her dowry.

So on October 15, 1929, Dorothea entered Maryknoll at the age of 25 and at Reception received the name Sister Marie Jean Vianney. Her first profession was on January 6, 1932, and soon after she was assigned to Hawaii where she made her Final Profession in 1935. In Hawaii she taught at St. Anthony’s, Kalihi Kai, and also gave piano and violin lessons to the students. The stipends that she received from these lessons were a great means of support for the other Sisters in the Region who were beginning primary education for students in the Parochial Schools. One of Dottie’s gifts was her good secretarial skills and in 1935 she began her long career of office work, first in Hawaii and later at the Center and then with the Maryknoll Society. All in all she was to work here at Maryknoll for the next 25 years as secretary to the Motherhouse Superior and several Maryknoll Fathers, the longest time being with Father J. R. O’Donnell. During these twenty-five years she took various courses, and then in 1966 and 1967 studied full time at Mary Rogers College, obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Education. When asked where she would like to go after finishing her studies, she promptly replied, “Chile,” and was assigned there that same year.

Despite her sixty some years, Dottie entered into life in Chile with a great deal of enthusiasm, studying Spanish in Santiago and later being assigned to Assumption Parish in Talcahuano. Here she was to spend some of the happiest years of her life, visiting the people and searching for ways to meet their needs, both material and spiritual. She never missed her Christian Community meetings as well as any other parish meeting. It was never too far for her to walk, or too late for her to come home at night, if it meant she would be able to help the people in some way. Later she was to move to Copiapo, a desert area in the north of Chile, to continue her catechetical and home visiting activities. When the mission closed there Dottie was determined to stay on alone, but then slowly realized the rest of the community wanted her to go to the Center House in Santiago, and so she finally was able to say goodbye to the people and take up a new life in Santiago. After taking a course in Pastoral Care of the Sick, she began to visit the patients in some of the government hospitals as part of a team organized by Caritas Chile. Many patients, far away from their homes and only in Santiago for specialized treatment, received her visits, shared their joy and sorrows with her and accepted her offers to pray with them.

Dottie loved to travel and always stopped to visit Maryknoll Sisters in their missions on her way to and from renewal. Probably the trip of her lifetime was when she hitchhiked with two other Sisters all the way to Brazil and back, enjoying most of all the rides with truck drivers as they traveled across Chile, Bolivia and into Brazil. Fortunately she had friends all along the way to stop and see and rest a bit.

In the late eighties, as her physical condition diminished she began to plan for her future years, and wrote a mission vision to articulate her heart’s desire for being in mission in Chile. It reads:

My Mission Vision

I hope to still be in Chile: living or dead
I see myself as being in service, according to my ability:
service to my Maryknoll Sisters and Brothers
and to my Brother and Sister Chileans.

I entered Maryknoll and mission religious life
to be a missioner in total giving until the end-
actively, if possible, spiritually in a more passive state, otherwise.

Then in 1989, she was able to make the decision to return to the Center. Here she continued visiting the residents on the fourth floor to pray with them, and was often seen in chapel leading the afternoon rosary. She always had a friend who accompanied her in these visits, and Sisters Anna Anderson and Margaret McCoy are two that come instantly to our minds. She was most solicitous for their spiritual life and would stop by to take them to 11:30 Mass, whether that was what they had planned or not.

No appreciation letter would be complete without remembering Dottie’s presence at as many Liturgies as possible every day of her life. She diligently prepared her prayers of the faithful and each time read them to us. “Let us pray for Sister… on her birthday. I pray for all the sick and those who take care of them.” These words continue to ring in our ears, though these past months she was unable to attend more than the 11:30 Liturgy on the Fourth Floor.

Today we gather to celebrate the Liturgy of the Resurrection for Dottie, we celebrate her life and her death and give thanks to God for the gift she was to all of Maryknoll. We welcome our Maryknoll brother and Dottie’s long time friend, Father Tom Henehan, as presider of our Resurrection Liturgy.