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Sister Dolores found her calling behind bars

August 14, 1999|By MARLO BARNHART

When the Sisters of St. Joseph first began working in Maryland in 1874, they chose Hagerstown as their first outpost.

Ironically, as the international organization of Catholic nuns is preparing to celebrate its 125th anniversary in the state, there is only one sister still based in Western Maryland.

Sister Dolores has been the Catholic chaplain at the prison complex south of Hagerstown for six years. It was a calling she chose.

"I am responsible for weekly services, retreats and working with the choir at each of the three institutions," she said. "Counseling is also a big part of my work."

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That work includes the inmates who are on segregation status, separated from the rest of the prison population.

She also supervises a Big Brother outreach program and the volunteer programs with the help of seminarians who are training to become priests.

"About six seminarians a year come through here," she said.

When asked why she chose the prison setting, Sister Dolores said it was for a number of reasons.

"The basic tenet of the Sisters of St. Joseph is inclusion," she said. "All are welcome."

Historically, that meant the lowest of low ... slaves and prisoners, she said.

Sister Helen Prejean, the nun whose story was told in the movie "Dead Man Walking" was a Sister of St. Joseph, she said.

"We have a sister at the United Nations," Sister Dolores said. "And we have sisters who lobby in Washington, D.C."

To a certain extent, sisters can choose their callings, Sister Dolores said.

"We look for our work ... where we are called," she said. Then that request is submitted for approval.

A Sister of St. Joseph for 14 years, Sister Dolores spent eight years in Philadelphia, where the branch of her sisterhood is based, and then six years in Washington County.

"For me, it was a call within a call," she said. She chose the prison setting for her counseling work.

Begun in France in 1650, the Sisters of St. Joseph came to America in 1836, settling first in St. Louis, Mo.

In 1874, the Sisters of St. Joseph arrived in the Archdiocese of Baltimore to minister at St. Mary's School in Hagerstown, remaining there until 1885.

School after school then opened around the state as the influence of the sisterhood grew, Sister Dolores said.

Although education is still a top priority, the sisterhood now embraces ministries to combat poverty, violence, abuse and other social ills.

The 125th anniversary will be officially celebrated on Oct. 24 in Baltimore.

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